Grade: D-

If one needs proof of the difficult straits in which even the best actresses find themselves in Hollywood these days, “Gothika” certainly provides it. Not long ago ago Halle Berry was celebrating winning the Oscar for a challenging role in “Monster Ball.” Now she’s reduced to screaming a lot and running around in skimpy garb in a piece of moronic tripe like this. In their apparent quest to make junky movie after junky movie in the cheap, silly spirit of William Castle’s potboilers of the fifties and sixties, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis follow up “House on Haunted Hill,” “Thir13en Ghosts” and “Ghost Ship” with a numbskull pseudo-thriller that, with its lame ending, would have barely passed muster as a thirty-minute episode on the old “Twilight Zone” series. At more than three times that length, it’s so brutally protracted and padded with chintzy shocks that you’ll find it hard to stick it out to the bitter end. When, at a point about thirty minutes in, poor Berry is shouting “Why are you doing this to me?” you have to presume she’s addressing the filmmakers. And the audience might well join in her refrain.

The premise of “Gothika”–a title that’s supposed to conjure up the eighteenth-century literary form, not today’s Goth style–is that Miranda Gray (Berry), a highly skilled therapist working in a prison hospital and married to its chief physician Douglas (Charles S. Dutton), encounters a ghostly apparition while driving home one dark and stormy night. Quick as a blink she faints and wakes up to find herself in one of the hospital’s gloomy cells, and learns from another doctor who’s been lusting after her, young Pete Graham (Robert Downey, Jr.), that she’s accused of brutally killing her husband. What follows is Miranda’s desperate effort to find out what actually happened–something that also involves not only her erstwhile patient Chloe (Penelope Cruz), who claims to have been visited by Satan, but also Sheriff Ryan (John Carroll Lynch), Douglas’s closest pal, and Phil Parsons (Bernard Hill), the hospital administrator, whose daughter Rachel (Kathleen Mackey) committed suicide some time before. It turns out that everybody is related to the key to the mystery–though in a fashion that makes little sense and strains credibility past the breaking point. Imagine a mixture of “Cell Block Girls” with “The Sixth Sense,” all done up in the style of “Ghost Ship” but the spirit of “Macabre,” and you’ll have some notion to what to expect.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz, a French actor-director who makes his American debut here, tries to cover the gaping holes in Sebastian Gutierrez’s script with a carnival of glitzy scare effects and a dark, forbidding mood (Graham “Grace” Walker’s production design and Matthew Libatque’s cinematography do what they can to assist). But after a while the nonsensical goings-on make all the brooding atmosphere seem a waste of space: as things progress, the narrative grows increasingly incoherent and disjointed, and when the ludicrous (and ugly) final revelation emerges, leading to an even grosser, sillier confrontation, the picture collapses completely in a welter of foolishness and phony thrills. Even John Ottman’s score has to be cited for being misleading, roaring with promises of fright when there’s absolutely no payoff. (At one point toward the close, when Berry is raising a trap door in a deserted barn, the music swells to a paroxysm of anticipation–and absolutely nothing follows.) As to the cast, one can only commiserate. Berry keeps a straight face through her thankless role, which is all one could ask, but if she keeps up along these lines, the Academy might ask for her gold statuette back. (Of course, so long as Cuba Gooding, Jr. Is allowed to retain his, there’s probably no chance of that happening.) Downey, meanwhile, vacillates between being comic relief and red herring. Dutton has virtually nothing to do, and Cruz comes off much too strong. But the palm for rottenness certainly goes to Lynch, whose turn is about as amateurish and overdrawn as a performance can get.

“Gothika” is being released several weeks after the Halloween holiday, which would have seemed a more suitable venue for its brand of nutty creepiness. But even back on October 31, it would have been much more of a gruesome trick on the audience than a cinematic treat.