A Cure for Wellness

| June 9, 2017

Gore Verbinski has had a fairly odd career trajectory for a major studio director. His feature debut was Mousehunt, a family film with a dark bent reminiscent of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family films, followed up by the Brad Pitt/Julia Roberts vehicle The Mexican. Verbinski’s first major hit was The Ring, an exemplary American remake of Hideo Nakata’s J-horror sensation Ringu that kicked off a long series of mostly dire stateside remakes of Asian horror films. He will probably always be best known now as the director of the first three films in the massively successful Pirates of the Caribbean series, and the huge financial returns on those films guaranteed Verbinski a certain amount of leeway moving forward. Although some of that capitol was no doubt spent on The Lone Ranger, a box-office fiasco largely considered a major misstep for Disney. It seems Verbinski may have been willing to bet all the Hollywood good will he had banked on his latest film, the lavishly-mounted horror film A Cure for Wellness.

Young, ambitious executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) has been selected to retrieve Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), CEO of the company for whom Lockhart works. Pembroke has sent the board of the company a letter outlining his intentions to indefinitely remain at the remote mountain spa in the Swiss Alps where he has retreated from the world. The board has enough dirt on Lockhart to easily persuade him to undertake this task or risk repercussions far beyond potential loss of employment. Lockhart arrives at the spa just after visiting hours have ended, but he soon becomes more than just a visitor after a car accident results in his becoming a “patient” there. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), head of the institute, encourages Lockhart to relax and take advantage of his forced “vacation.” Lockhart meets several patients, but one of them stands out from all the others: Hannah (Mia Goth), a woman who looks to be at least a few decades younger than anyone else at the spa other than Lockhart himself. As Lockhart continues to pursue Pembroke, he uncovers strange secrets about the spa and its ominous history. Before long, it becomes clear that not only might Lockhart not be able to find and extract Pembroke, but he may become a permanent resident of the spa himself whether he likes it or not.

A Cure for Wellness is one of the weirdest major Hollywood studio films in recent memory. At its heart, it’s a fairly standard “B”-horror movie blown up to ludicrously extravagant proportions: a gruesome, absolutely gorgeous 2.5-hour horror show that looks every penny of its reported $40 million budget and then some. It’s a miracle that this film exists at all. It’s all but impossible to imagine Verbinski pitching this to a room full of executives–its commercial prospects could never have possibly justified its budget, which was likely exponentially higher than even most studio horror pictures. Any reticence on the part of studio executives would have been warranted, as the film failed to make back its budget during its theatrical run. Apparently Verbinski’s name and the cold technical precision evident even in the film’s trailers were not quite enough to draw in mass audiences for a horror film with the running time of a Transformers movie but without any robots blowing stuff up.

Still, for horror fans looking for something out of the ordinary A Cure for Wellness was quite the experience on the big screen. Verbinksi and screenwriter Justin Haythe built a captivating world, and there are shades of Stanley Kubrick, Val Lewton, and Hammer horror as well as Davids Cronenberg, Fincher, and Lynch. The spa itself is incredible to look at, its maze of hallways leading constantly to unexpected new horrors. The performances are fine, but the real stars of the show here are the production design and the nightmarish imagery. The film’s length allows it time to play out at its own pace, and odd detours like a visit to the village bar give it even more of a feeling of a long dream. Anyone catching up with A Cure for Wellness at home is advised to do so on the largest screen possible. It’s doubtful that we’ll see this many resources devoted to a straight horror film ever again, but if Verbinski could knock one of these out every so often between massive blockbusters it would be fascinating to see what else he might do.

20th Century Fox released A Cure for Wellness on Blu-ray and DVD on 6 June 2017. Special features include a deleted sequence, a featurette on the film’s score, trailers, and the “meditations” videos from the film’s web site.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom

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