Movies: A Cure for Wellness (2016)

I can’t remember exactly where I first heard of A Cure for Wellness; I didn’t see it back in 2016 when it hit theaters, and for whatever reason it flew under my radar for several years afterward. But then, over the past eighteen months or so, it seems like I kept spotting discussions of it turning up on different horror channels, and on lists of films that maybe didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time of their release. So I popped on over to Tubi and gave it a look.

The movie was directed by Gore Verbinski, who most people probably know from the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films and Rango, but who I’m mostly familiar with because of his work on the excellent 2002 American version of The Ring. A Cure for Wellness has all of the unsettlingly beautiful and grotesque visuals you would expect from Verbinski, and though it was a box office bomb and received very mixed reviews, mainly because of its excessive length (two hours and twenty-six minutes) and a plot that some critics and audiences felt was too convoluted, ridiculous, and/or overcooked, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, as I understood it as a modern-day Gothic horror that features an eerie mystery, some squirmy body horror, and a pretty bonkers third act. Though it’s not adapted from a book per se, the Justin Haythe-penned screenplay was partly inspired by the 1924 German novel The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

Almost every review of A Cure for Wellness I’ve read points out the film’s similarity to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and that’s a fair comparison; there are also shades of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But, I mean, any film mentioned in the same breath as those three is bound to perk my ears up, so I’m not complaining at all.

I will also note that flavors of Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera, Hammer horror, and Cronenbergian weirdness are peppered throughout, for extra spice. You have to give props to Verbinski: it’s pretty damn ballsy to make a big-budget Hollywood horror movie this long and this bloody odd, and it’s really a shame that its box-office failure meant that we got fewer of these types of original, expensive, and bizarro films going forward. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but I will always applaud the audacity of filmmakers who are handed forty million bucks and say to the world at large, “Know what I’m going to make? A completely batshit scifi horror with mad scientists, dental torture, absolutely nutty incest-based plot twists, and just…so, so many eels.”

So, we begin with something of a prologue, showing us an unnamed man working late and alone in a massive, darkened office, who notices a hand-addressed envelope with a snazzy, black wax seal in his pile of mail. Shortly before opening said envelope, the man suddenly clutches his chest and then drops dead, presumably from a heart attack.

We’re then introduced to our main protagonist, a young, somewhat soulless executive named Lockhart (I don’t think his first name is ever mentioned, which I’m sure was deliberate), played by Dane DeHaan. Lockhart has just received a promotion at the huge New York City financial firm where he works, complete with a corner office, but no sooner has he shared a celebratory tipple with his coworkers than he’s called up to the boardroom in a way that seems slightly ominous.

It turns out that the rest of the board members, while they admire his…um…”creative” way with numbers, point out to him that his shenanigans with one client’s accounts weren’t as well hidden as he probably thought, and he’d be in deep doo-doo once the SEC took a microscope to their finances in front of a huge, pending merger. Using this as collateral, they essentially blackmail Lockhart into running a bothersome errand: flying to Switzerland to retrieve the company’s errant CEO, Roland Pembroke, whose signature they need for the aforementioned merger. The problem, they inform him, is that Pembroke scuttled off to a fancy spa for some R&R, and has now apparently decided that the corporate life was killing him, and he isn’t coming back.

Lockhart, pretty pissy at having to play gofer, grudgingly jets off, thinking that it will just be a matter of a day or so. He is driven up to his destination through a town full of surly locals, and the driver informs him that there’s a dark history between the town residents and the wealthy folk at the spa up on the hill.

Lockhart arrives at the spa, a sprawling, breathtaking Gothic estate at the foot of the Swiss Alps, and demands to see Pembroke so he can drag the dude back to New York with him before the company falls apart. Visiting hours are over, though, and the spa’s staff, while not hostile, are apparently sticklers for the rules. He pulls a Karen, and gets in to see the director of the spa, Dr. Volmer (played by Jason Isaacs), who seems pleasant enough, and tells Lockhart that most of the patients at the spa are high-powered executive types like himself, and that none of them are all that well, having come here to get away from the rat race that was destroying them physically and mentally. Evidently, the spa uses old-timey techniques of hydrotherapy, utilizing the supposedly miraculous waters from the natural aquifer beneath the castle. And it does seem that the patients Lockhart sees—playing croquet or painting landscapes on the front lawn, dressed in identical white robes—all appear pretty relaxed.

Since Dr. Volmer won’t allow Lockhart to see Pembroke until later in the evening, Lockhart asks the driver to take him back to town so he can get a hotel. However, on the way back down the hill, they are involved in a terrifying car crash, and Lockhart wakes up three days later in a room at the spa, bedridden with a badly broken leg. Uh oh.

From there, the mystery about the spa begins to deepen, and Lockhart becomes more and more convinced that something sinister is going on, even though most of the patients he talks to seem serene and happy there, and don’t want to leave. The one exception is a strange young woman named Hannah (played by Mia Goth, who was also in Ti West’s X), who is one of the only people at the spa who isn’t old, and also the only one not actively receiving “treatments.” She says she’s a special case, and tells Lockhart that she doesn’t remember how long she’s been at the spa; the only thing she knows is that her father will come to get her when she’s well again.

As the plot unfolds—slowly, but I didn’t really mind it—the viewer as well as Lockhart are pretty sure that whatever is going on at the spa has something to do with the water, as well as the creepy history of the place, which involved a Baron who married his sister and was trying to “cure” her, but fell afoul of the scandalized townspeople instead, who burned the place to the ground a couple centuries back.

There are also lots of eels, which wriggle around in a very eel-like fashion during multiple scenes, though for a time we’re not entirely sure if they’re really there or if Lockhart is actually losing his mind and hallucinating them as a side effect of the treatment. In fact, for a while, the movie teases us with the possibility that Lockhart may have been sent to the spa as a patient all along, as he might be experiencing a nervous breakdown engendered by some unresolved childhood trauma regarding the suicide of his father.

This isn’t a gory film by any means, but if you’re squeamish about eels, you’re going to have a bad time. There’s also one pretty wince-inducing dental sequence, so if you’re sensitive to violence involving teeth, you might want to cover your eyes, because it’s kinda nasty.

The main character of Lockhart is fairly unlikable, but he’s supposed to be, and as the tale goes on, you begin to feel more and more sympathy for him as he becomes increasingly trapped by his circumstances. He also evolves as a character, losing his cold, selfish arrogance as his predicament gets more dire, and as he realizes that he must get Hannah and himself as far away from this place as possible.

Though this film is quite long, I never felt like it dragged, because I was really into the mystery and just the whole disquieting vibe of the visuals, though of course your mileage may vary. Sure, the ending pulls out all the stops and goes full-on apeshit, but if you approach this as a heaving Gothic horror that is completely embracing all of the excess that genre entails, then you may find much to appreciate, as I did. It’s a gorgeous film to look at, and though the plot is a bit complicated and maybe even slightly nonsensical, I was invested all the way through, and just rolled with the whole crazy thing. It really is a fascinating film that deserves more consideration as the peculiar work of art that it is.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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