Written by Rob Vaux
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Ivo Mandi and Celia Imrie
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Written by: Justin Hayth
Original Year of Release: 2017
Run Time: 146 Minutes
Few filmmakers working in Hollywood these days are as intriguing and frustrating as Gore Verbinski. He’s never mentioned in the pantheon of greats and often dismissed as the hackish wonk of studio-driven event pictures. That’s not entirely fair. Verbinski rarely delivers masterpieces, but he possesses a unique visual sensibility, as well as a penchant for blending absurdist humor with unbearable tension to create movies that brim with imagination and energy. Even his failures display more verve than most mainstream successes, and if his material remains studio product, the way he approaches it always elevates the experience.
A Cure for Wellness benefits immensely from his weird-yet-inimitable style, and from the kind of Grand Guignol material that suits his sensibilities. It’s a return to the old-fashioned Gothic horror movies that Guillermo Del Toro attempted – and failed spectacularly – with Crimson Peak. Set up a dark house with secrets, throw an arrogant outsider through the front door, then sit back and watch the zany mayhem ensure.
In this case, the house on the hill is a Swiss spa, frequented by wealthy elites from all over the world and touted as an escape from the unique pressures of the 21st century. When the CEO of a major company announces that he won’t be returning from a seemingly normal two-week stay, the board dispatches their most promising young weasel (Dane DeHaan) to bring him back. One you-signed-it-without-bothering-to-read-it document later, and our upwardly mobile skeeze finds himself a permanent resident. Things go downhill from there.
Verbinski embraces the melodramatic nature of the scenario rather than trying to hide it. Characters sport names like “Lockhart” and “Pembroke,” and the spa itself lies in an older estate with plenty of long shadows and spooky corners. Naturally, there’s a dark secret lying in the rumbling bowels of the place, and naturally, no one’s inclined to believe the protagonist when he stumbles upon it.
Early critics have cited the film’s excessive running time as an issue, nominally attached to the predictability of the plot. I confess that the length needs tightening – 150 minutes is awfully indulgent for a horror movie – but that misses the point. Verbinski wants us to enjoy the journey rather that fixating on the destination. Yes, a production this sumptuous and carefully crafted will feel artificial, and with the predictable twists in place, it can come across as all sizzle and no steak.
Again, that loses the film’s real beauty: its growing sense of anxiety over everything from cell-phone use to the encroachment of old age. DeHaan’s protagonist slowly morphs from a smug douchebag who richly deserves the tortures inflicted on him to a genuine innocent hoping desperately to turn away from the descent into nightmare.
Verbinski centers on that powerlessness – the horror it can engender – then populates it with images intended to strike at the fundaments of our fears. In that realm, the director utterly owns his audience, touching on every inexplicable nightmare from losing your teeth to swallowing something alive and malevolent.
He further connects it to the spa’s ostensible status as a haven, suggesting that the modern world holds torments that can naturally drive new victims into the spa owners’ waiting arms. That takes skill to pull off, but Verbinski’s firm concepts help immeasurably, and as things go from bad to worse to scream-all-you-like-no-one-will-hear-you, we feel the more modern disconnect linking inextricably to the more old-fashioned scares of the setting.
Add to that Verbinski’s gorgeous visuals and the film itself becomes a slow, relentless tightening of the screws. That demands a certain amount of indulgence, and patience is a must (the running time really causes problems), but for those interested in a more meditative experience than most horror movies can provide, A Cure for Wellness proves surprisingly effective. The director further marries his unique sense of absurdity to the chills, giving it the right flourish to bind it to his previous films.
It’s rarely a perfect experience, but for the right sort, it remains an engrossing one, and as horror movies move forward along more modern principles, it’s relieving to see a place maintained for older schools of scares. A Cure for Wellness proves surprising on that front, and if you’re looking for reliable chills off the beaten path, there’s no better director for the job.