Directed by Gore Verbinski
When an unscrupulous, ladder-climbing young executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan, from “In Treatment” and Chronicle) is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO from an idyllic but mysterious wellness center at a foggy, remote location in the Swiss Alps, he jumps at the chance to take charge. But, being driven along a super-steep mountain road, he’s involved in a car wreck that results in him being entombed in a full leg-cast and checked in as a patient at the healing spa.
After a series of odd and unsettling events, Lockhart comes to suspect that the sanatorium’s miraculous remedies are not what they seem. When he begins to unravel its startling secrets, his sanity is tested as he finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all the guests there, longing for the lifesaving cure.
The doctor in charge of the slack-jawed, glassy-eyed guests is Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs from the Harry Potter movies, and “Brotherhood” – channeling vintage Vincent Price), and while he holds all of them dear, his dearest charge is the nubile and ethereal teen, Hannah (Mia Goth, from Nymphomaniac and the upcoming Suspiria reboot). When Lockhart and Hannah start to get friendly, Volmer becomes decidedly unfriendly, and the wounded Wall Street warrior is subjected to a series of shocking “treatments” that are squirm-inducing to say the least.
Between the undulating eels and dentist’s drills, there’s a mystery unfolding, little by little, ot the least of which involves the streams of water flowing through the spa: From bottled to bathtub, and from tanks to caves, the evil elixir is not what it seems.
This is a large-scale Gothic mystery along the lines of Shutter Island, Stoneheart Asylum, and Crimson Peak. And, taking it back a few decades, there are tonal similarities to Dario Argento’s Deep Red, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, and even Michael Crichton’s Coma. There’s a touch of early-era body horror here, taking cues from the classic Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but A Cure for Wellness is unabashedly R-rated. It’s interesting to note that the studio’s description for A Cure for Wellness does not even mention director Gore Verbinski’s biggest blockbusters (The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), but rather name-checks his oddly unsettling horror remake from 2002, The Ring. Verbinski, a former punk rock guitarist turned filmmaker, has an affinity for striking, idiosyncratic visuals in all of his films (even going back to his first feature, the largely misunderstood dark comedy Mouse Hunt), and he holds nothing back here.
A Cure for Wellness is a gorgeously Goth opus, complete with melodrama, a mysterious castle, a mustache-twirling villain, a wide-eyed innocent beauty, and the beleaguered beau who risks it all to rescue her from a frightening fate. The sets and locations are truly magnificent, and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli takes artistic advantage of everything from the hard, green-tiled floors to the soft, pink quivering lips of the heroine. It’s a lush, deliberately-paced film which rewards patient viewers and gives them something pretty to look at along the way.
Having said that, there are a few things that don’t add up when all is said and done. Rational viewers might finish the film shaking their heads, wondering exactly what the whole point was. I did, too, at first. Then I decided to surrender to the macabre insanity and take a dive into those deep waters, and I’m glad I did.