Gore Verbinski’s superlative 2002 J-horror remake The Ring unexpectedly revealed that the director of forgotten drivel like MouseHunt was capable of crafting chilling and sinfully stylish cinema, at least when paired with the right screenplay and the right cinematographer. The latter being Montenegran lensman Bojan Bazelli, who created The Ring’s distinctive, melancholy look—a water-logged aesthetic that seems to consist entirely of teals and deep gray shadows. Verbinksi’s subsequent helming of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films established that he could also successfully captain a colossal franchise into preposterously profitable waters, diminishing critical returns notwithstanding. (Not in this writer’s eyes, however. The Pirates series is a personal guilty pleasure because of, rather than despite, its manic, bloated outlandishness.) Between those films and the mind-numbing belly flop of The Lone Ranger, however, Verbinski seems to have been constrained by commercial expectations, finding few opportunities to showcase the cinematic verve expressed, however modestly, in The Ring. Even Rango, arguably the strangest film ever to amble off with a Best Animated Feature Oscar, is still a kid-friendly cartoon populated by funny animals with celebrity voices—the very definition of safe, middle-of-the-road multiplex product.
No such charge can be leveled at A Cure for Wellness, Verbinski’s auspicious return to the horror genre after 14 years, and the most unlikely major studio release in years. The film seems to have been crafted for a ridiculously narrow category of viewer. Namely, cinephiles who adore the campy gothic horror pictures of the middle 20th century and who long to see the R-rated 2010s incarnation of such a film, complete with tits, gore, and an absurdly hefty budget (given the genre). How exactly Verbinski convinced Regency to bankroll his gloriously mad $40 million picture about a spa of the damned is one of those Hollywood mysteries for the ages. No matter: Aficionados of pulp horror should simply savor the fact that a work of cinema as nutty and extravagant as A Cure for Wellness exists at all. It is unlikely that the world will see anything like it for some time, given the film’s dead-in-the-water commercial performance.
The plot is a loose reimagining of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in the style of a Roger Corman chiller. Both Mann’s enigmatic novel and Verbinski’s film follow a prosperous young man to a sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps. Although this visitor initially intends to meet with one of the spa’s patients, the institution seems to possess its own strange gravity, and through an unfortunate turn of events the man himself is soon admitted. The malevolent twist that Verbinski and writer Justin Haythe add to this scenario is that the spa in question conceals a Terrible Secret of the mad science stripe, in the fine tradition of all horror settings ostensibly dedicated to healing. Although A Cure for Wellness necessarily shares some of its DNA with other genre pictures set in hospitals and asylums—the film has notable affinities with Shock Corridor, The Ninth Configuration, and Shutter Island—its closer spiritual kin are the pulpy horror pictures produced by American International Pictures from the mid-1950s to early 1970s. Had it been one AIP’s low-budget gothic creepfests from this era, A Cure for Wellness would have unquestionably starred Vincent Price. Indeed, the film shares some features, plot-wise, with the Price vehicles House of Usher (1960) and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), which roughly bookend the most fecund period for AIP-branded gothic horror. None of the performers in Verbinski’s film replicates Price’s inimitably luscious flavor of hammy B-movie acting, but, in its favor, Wellness does conclude with the villain’s lair burning to the ground, in fine AIP fashion.
In contrast, the film opens with a comparatively mundane (if ominous) calamity: While working through the wee hours, the star trader (Craig Wroe) at a white shoe financial firm suffers a fatal heart attack. Although presented with sinister shading, the man’s death is a bit of a red herring, merely serving as the catalyst that allows the story to ensnare its protagonist. “Hero” seems inapt, given that Wellness’ corollary to The Magic Mountain’s Hans Castorp is Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a slick junior trader whose face is affixed with a perpetual and eminently punchable expression of unearned smugness. (Straightaway, Verbinski distinguishes his film from past B-grade horror pictures, even as he honors them. Lockhart would have been a secondary character in a cheapo 1960s gothic, perhaps a slimy barrister or a lovelorn creep who is predictably bumped off by the second act.) Presented with evidence of his recent sub-legal financial chicanery, Lockhart is effectively blackmailed by the board of directors into subbing for the recently deceased trader on a secret endeavor. Namely, he is ordered to journey to the remote Alpine spa where the firm’s CEO has permanently entrenched himself, if the man's bizarre, rambling letters are to be taken at face value. Lockhart is tasked with force-marching the CEO back to civilization, so that the man can be relieved of his position in above-the-board fashion.
In short order, Lockhart is being chauffeured up the winding mountain road to the massive sanatorium, which looms like Frankenstein’s castle through brief, periodic gaps in the evergreens. First it's here on the right, then there on the left, as Lockhart cranes his neck and presses his face to the window. In this, Verbinski foreshadows the inscrutable, puzzle-like character of the plot that subsequently unfolds. Lockhart will catch repeated glimpses of the spa’s monstrous secret as he explores the grounds, but they are mere fragments of a whole. He can discern the trunk, tusks, ears, legs, and tail, but can’t assemble those impressions into the proverbial elephant until his fate has already been sealed. Such an analytical failure is understandable, given that the film is relatively frugal about doling out genuine revelations, as opposed to pure atmospherics. However, Lockhart’s slow-motion entrapment within the spa is primarily attributable to failures of intuition and imagination rather than logic. (A Cure for Wellness is practically a public service announcement for heeding the inexplicable prickle that Something Isn’t Quite Right.) It’s an ironic flaw for an alpha male twerp who has made an illicit fortune by means of opportunistic manipulation of figures. Lockhart snakes between the lines rather than rigidly adhering to them, which is perhaps why, despite his defects, he ultimately manages to bring down the spa even after being imprisoned within it.
Overseeing the facility is Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), whose unflappable satin manner can’t conceal that fact that he is played by Jason Isaacs, and is therefore not to be trusted. Volmer gives lip service to the notion that Lockhart’s wayward CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), can leave the spa at any time if he so wishes. However, the staff throw up subtle roadblocks as Lockhart attempts to track the man down within the sprawling institution. The patients are perpetually being hustled to and from various hydrotherapies per an esoteric schedule, and the young trader repeatedly "just misses" the executive. Eventually, Lockhart corners Pembroke in the steam baths, whereupon the older man flatly refuses to return to his old life. Lockhart is not deterred: He resolves to forcibly remove the CEO from the institution, heading back to the nearby village to arrange for the return trip to the U.S., this time for two passengers. However, misfortune intervenes. During the ride back down the mountain, a darting deer results in a spectacular, end-over-end car crash into the trees. A battered Lockhart awakens days later back at the spa, his right leg encased in a plaster cast. Leaving is no longer an option in the short term, but Dr. Volmer assures him that the facility’s therapies will do wonders for him during his recuperation. (Cue evil chuckle.)
Now wearing the white bathrobe and slippers of a patient—the lines marking him as an outsider already alarmingly blurred—Lockhart awkwardly explores the facility on crutches in the days that follow. He has several strange encounters with the blissed-out patients, almost all of whom are wealthy and elderly, as they contentedly wile away the days playing bridge and croquet, in between physician-mandated therapies. (The crutches are a brilliant touch, hobbling Lockhart so that his mobility is more in line with the spa's geriatric guests.) Most significantly, Lockhart meets Mrs. Watkins (Cerlia Imrie), who has an amateur historian’s fascination with the spa’s colorful, centuries-old history. “Colorful” being the tactful adjective used to denote perversity and bloodshed, of course. The spa, it turns out, was built on top of the ruined fortress of a notorious early 19th century baron, whose unwholesome medical tests and even more unwholesome relationship with his sister eventually earned him the wrath of a village mob, complete with pitchforks and torches. These and other details regarding the site’s storied past are of course quite germane to Lockhart’s present circumstances, although he is slow to comprehend as much.
Not all the spa’s residents are in their autumn years: Roaming the grounds is Hannah (the odd-looking but lovely Mia Goth), a young woman who appears to be perpetually in a semi-fugue. Childlike in demeanor, she always seems to be humming eerie doggerel and padding around barefooted, her steps betraying both nimble familiarity and bruised fearfulness. Exactly why Hannah resides at the spa is a mystery, although Dr. Volmer speaks of her with a mixture of affection and pity, as though she were the facility’s most unfortunate soul. Lockhart is drawn to her, and she to him, but their hesitant friendship has an unmistakable aura of peril and transgression. When he coaxes the girl to slip out for a beer at the village tavern, Hannah’s tremulous wonder at banal marvels (Jukebox! Lipstick!) can’t conceal the smothering sensation that something Very Bad is going to occur as a result of the couple’s foray.
Any further summary of Lockhart’s experiences at the spa would diminish the potency not just of the film’s narrative revelations—which, in the end, are mad science boilerplate with a twist of R-rated ickiness—but also the whole work's uncanny, nightmarish character. Verbinski and Haythe have created a startlingly novel species of horror cinema, in which the design components and overarching story are hoary genre artifacts, but the film nonetheless manages to feel sickeningly, magnificently volatile. The viewer might have a strong suspicion as to where the plot is ultimately headed, but, moment-to-moment, A Cure for Wellness pulses with an elixir that is exceedingly rare in contemporary horror: a genuine sense of danger.
This aura stems in large part from the film’s willingness to sacrifice almost anything—coherence, brevity, momentum—in the name of unnerving imagery, blood-curdling set pieces, and the limitless darkling potentiality of a waking nightmare. Consider a scene where Lockhart investigates a bothersome toilet flush, whose persistent midnight rattling has previously been shown to have no apparent cause. On this occasion, however, he removes the toilet tank’s lid and finds the interior squirming with a solid mass of eels. (Eels are a recurring motif in Wellness, almost to the point of absurdity.) When he recovers from his shock and looks again, however, the fish have vanished. This perplexing discovery does nothing to advance the plot, but it is exactly the sort of bizarre detail that one might recall from an awful dream. Indeed, the purpose of this scene (and countless others like it) is one of mood, not narrative. For Lockhart, such moments undermine his already shaky grasp on sanity, hissing that he cannot trust in the reality of anything he has experienced within the spa’s walls. For the viewer, they elicit the heightened fight-or-flight response that is a constant feature of the worst nightmares. By illustrating that horrific (if often inconsequential) events can happen at any moment and without rational explanation, Verbinski suffuses every corner of his setting with dreadful possibility. In this way, A Cure for Wellness places the viewer’s reptile brain on high alert, and doesn’t let up for 143 harrowing minutes.
Indeed, the film’s story and setting are custom tailored for such purposes. Verbinksi laces his tale with myriad fears plucked from the collective unconsciousness, assembling a sort of greatest hits compilation of common nightmare scenarios. Drowning is unsurprisingly prominent, given the prevalence of water in the spa’s therapies, but the film touches on numerous elemental terrors: confinement in small spaces; bodily invasion by alien substances and vermin; the consumption of tainted food or drink; ghastly, involuntary medical procedures; and the Cronenbergian phenomenon of loose, disintegrating teeth (an oddly widespread motif in human dreams). Occasionally, the film shades into surrealism and outright malicious mindfuckery. When Lockhart loses his way in a labyrinth of steam baths, doorways seem to vanish and every room begins to look the same—and that’s before the elk appears, wandering through the white vapors. (One senses a bit of Cube’s matrix of inscrutable death traps in this scene, particularly when Lockhart discovers to his icy panic that a chamber he just entered has, paradoxically, no exit.)
Occasionally, Wellness tosses aside any pretense of common sense to put some particularly ghastly sight on display, like a pickled horror in a sideshow’s cabinet of curiosities. Indeed, Lockhart at one point stumbles onto a chamber where comatose patients are exhibited in just such a manner, floating like prized specimens in a sea-green liquid—and without any apparent source of breathable air. Later, Lockhart himself is glimpsed within this monstrous museum, similarly submerged behind glass. What is the point of this room? How are the victims kept alive? Does it matter? The point, Verbinski might assert, is that it looks fucking creepy. And, in truth, it does look fucking creepy.
The director keeps both Lockhart and the viewer off balance by periodically tweaking chronology and causality, letting “all a dream” suspicions simmer without educing them directly. In one utterly horrifying scene reminiscent of Marathon Man and Jacob’s Ladder, Lockhart is strapped into a cruel set of metal restraints and subjected to a tooth drilling that seems to have no point besides the infliction of pain and disfigurement. Later, a pulverized incisor is clearly missing from Lockhart’s mouth, but, later still, it appears again. Did the dental torture ever occur, or was the nightmarish incident in fact a genuine nightmare? Wellness never smirks from behind its sleeve to signify one or the other, for to do so would rob the film of its peculiar black magic.
The film’s storytelling methods could be described as scene-centric, or less charitably as rambling and confused. Verbinski is manifestly preoccupied with transforming each sequence into its own little skin-crawling horror short, and trifling matters like pacing and parsimony wind up unceremoniously smothered with a pillow. The film is almost defiantly arrhythmic: Individual scenes carry on as long as necessary to achieve whatever disturbing psychological effect that Verbinski has in mind, even as the dramatic stakes often recede into the background haze. This sort of indulgence makes for a plot that’s wobbly as hell, not due to implausibility—this is pulp horror, after all; of course it's implausible—but due to the hiccuping, digressive way the film moves from one scene to the next. It’s not exactly wheel-spinning, as the film is simply too goddamn unsettling to ever feel sluggish, its running time notwithstanding. Rather, it’s a function of Verbinksi being so absorbed with the stylish scares unfolding at any given moment, he doesn’t seem to spare much thought for how (or whether) it’s all adding up. This, of course, simply underlines Wellness’ kinship to the pulp gothics of old, which also routinely tossed out pacing and narrative clarity for anything that seemed appropriately eerie and shocking. Verbinski’s methods are equal parts William Castle funhouse mischief and Mario Bava unapologetic luridness, with a dose of sub-Lynch nightmare logic stirred in for good measure.
Of course, no one’s nightmares have ever benefitted from Bojan Bazelli’s sumptuous cinematography or the jaw-dropping production design overseen by Eve Stewart. They make superb use of Wellness’ dazzling German locations, which include Hohenzollern Castle and a former sanatorium and military hospital complex in Beelitz-Heilstätten. Dovetailing with the story’s preoccupation with not-so-buried history, Stewart’s approach to the film’s design is markedly retro. She populates the spa with vintage furniture, decorations, and equipment: the patients play badminton with wooden rackets and sweat out “toxins” in personal sauna boxes; the nurses prep glass syringes, pill vials, and IV bottles; and the technicians fidget with the controls on iron lungs and an EKG machine the size of an Eisenhower era computer. The textures of the facility signal modernity, but it is the modernity of five to ten decades in the past. Other than rubber tubing, there is very little plastic observable at the spa, and nothing that possesses miniaturized electronic circuitry. When Dr. Golan wishes to communicate with a patient locked in a “therapy” chamber that resembles a two-story Victorian diving bell, he speaks into a huge microphone fit for crooning jazz standards. The spa’s nurses swoop about in starched white uniforms, recalling the imperious Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, while the hidden wings and deepest sub-levels of the facility resemble environments that Dracula’s Dr. Seward would find familiar.
Despite the film’s surreal qualities, the overall fussiness that is apparent in its evocative design is a telltale sign that A Cure for Wellness is more beholden to midcentury pulp horror cinema than to the character of real-world dreams. While components of the visuals and story seem plucked from a nightmare, the film is far too classical and straightforward in its style to be called dreamy. There’s no room for Malickean collages of sight and sound in Verbinski’s aesthetic. His approach is one of music video polish and precision, in the manner of David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Tarsem Singh, with the latter’s outlandish dreamscapes and fantasies a close cousin to Wellness’ gothic tableaus. (In fact, the spinning Sufi dervishes who appear at a wedding in Tarsem’s masterpiece The Fall are echoed unnervingly in Verbinski’s film, albeit at a much more blasphemous celebration.)
For all its deliberately unsettling weirdness, A Cure for Wellness is still deeply embedded in a well-worn gothic horror vernacular. One could practically author a completist’s checklist of tropes from its screenplay: a mad doctor in a (sort of) castle; profane experiments that subvert God’s creation; secrets hidden inside conspicuously locked rooms; cadavers being smuggled under cover of darkness; a mob of vengeful peasants; a guileless youth held captive. (Speaking of Dracula, few critics seem to have noticed that Lockhart’s pursuit of Pembroke mirrors the novel’s theatrical and cinematic adaptations, in which Jonathan Harker’s journey follows in the footsteps of the Count’s previous solicitor, Renfield.) It is a film that unabashedly savors horror clichés; or, more specifically, savors the fulsome realization of horror clichés with all the resources that contemporary big-budget filmmaking can muster.
While nothing in a human nightmare ever looked as gorgeous as Verbinski’s film, neither did any of the pulp gothics of the 1950s to 70s. Directors working under the AIP system, for example, were constrained by ruthless schedules and budgets, but they always seemed to find ways to counterbalance chintzy sets or visual effects. Roger Corman was quite adept at this, capable of successfully redirecting filmgoers’ attention with galvanic flourishes, such as the proto-psychedelic costumes and lighting in The Masque of the Red Death. A Cure for Wellness is essentially an entire film built from such demented gestures, because why not? The only feature in recent decades that comes close to matching Wellness’ opulence is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, the gallows humor and operatic eccentricities of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film seem almost charming when laid alongside the macabre sights administered in A Cure for Wellness. Verbinski’s feature is B-grade pulp gothic distillate sans camp. That might sound like a recipe for exasperating gloom, but in truth the result is a triple dose of the kind of hallucinatory lavishness that only comes along once or twice a generation in the horror genre.