Many horror films have a “kitchen sink” approach to their influences. The recent big horror film Rings is a remake of a remake. Others are more subtle in their influences, incorporating many sources as opportunities for homage or parody. Directed by Gore Verbinski, A Cure for Wellness takes an approach that is bigger than a mere kitchen sink – it’s more like an oversized sensory deprivation tank. Verbinski and his screenwriter Justin Haythe clearly love horror thrillers from the sixties and seventies. The problem is they get too overzealous in their attempt to honor all of them. Plagued by meandering scenes and one too many false endings, A Cure for Wellness finally unspools when its climax veers from shock into overwrought cruelty.
In films like The Ring and The Weather Man, Verbinski opts for a opulent, slick blue-green palette. Those colors serve the prologue well, in which an anonymous office drone dies from an apparent heart attack. The scene is wordless, and the lonely anonymity of the death casts a pall over what’s to follow. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is the replacement for the dead office drone – a cog in a successful financial services company – and the board offers Lockhart an opportunity: he must travel to Swiss sanitarium and collect Pembroke (Harry Groener), the company’s CEO who voluntary committed himself there. When Lockhart arrives, he’s met with icy hospital staff who explain that bizarre, antiquated-looking water treatment is an answer to the strains of modern life. A bizarre car accident ultimately stops Lockhart from leaving the sanitarium, and so he transitions to living as a patient – along with all the same treatments as Pembroke and the others.
Verbinski can be a natural filmmaker, with evocative, unconventional instincts. Along with his longtime cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, the sanitarium leaves an impression with atmosphere and off-kilter beauty. A simple image, like a sun-soaked young woman standing on an edge, are more than just gorgeous compositions. They suggest that anything can happen, and that surprises can come from anywhere. Verbinski turns the screws slowly – Lockhart broke his leg, so the clicking of his crutch serves as an informal, escalating pulse – and there’s a provocative middle act in A Cure for Wellness where he teeters between anger and madness. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) the sanitarium director has Lockhart spend time in the aforementioned sensory deprivation tank, and the nightmarish editing has just enough realism and frustration that the cumulative effect is chilling. Lockhart interrogates his fellow patients, discovering an unsettling history about a mad Baron and his human experiments. This only adds to the unease, and Verbinski delights in his play with the audience.
Some of the references in A Cure for Wellness are more obvious than others, and Verbinski offers them all with affection. Aside from The Shining, Verbinski’s main influence are Roman Polanski thrillers like Rosemary’s Baby. The score by Benjamin Wallfisch references the sickly lullaby refrain from Rosemary’s Baby, and the screenplay similarly toys with the idea of who is truly sane. At just under two and a half hours, the film’s languid pace allows Verbinski to riff on seminal thriller after another. There’s an unpleasant rehash of Marathon Man, with all the oral discomfort that requires, and the procedural elements of Lockhart’s investigation mirrors Jake Gittes in Chinatown. It turns out that Chinatown is the key frame of reference, since Mia Goth plays Hannah, a wide-eyed innocent ingénue who carries more secrets than it initially seems.
The film’s narrative clockwork practically negates the need for strong performances, so the actors distinguish themselves by being good sports about what the script requires of them. Isaacs is no stranger to bone-chilling characters, and Volmer veers past camp into a strident, wholly unpleasant villain. DeHaan is a strange actor, capable of menace or sympathy without trying too hard, and he’s a good dependable everyman insofar that he starts a snob, and ends up a changed man. Still, the most valuable player is Goth’s turn as Hannah. Unfortunately for her and us, that is a dubious honor. Verbinski and Haythe require so much of her – including scenes that go well beyond any semblance of entertainment or good taste – to the point where I was ultimately taken out of the movie. I was not worried about Hannah, or what might befall her, and instead I felt bad for the ringer that Goth was put through.
A Cure for Wellness delights in primal, intense fears, adding new ones along the way. There are classic moments, like secrets lurking in dark basements, and if anything, Verbinski makes sure that no one will think about eels in the same way again. After the sumptuous setting gives way toward a logical endpoint of body horror, Verbinski and Haythe finally tack on their climax. It’s yet another reminder of “less is more”: Verbinski relishes the opportunity to depict sadomasochism, incest, and ritualized sexual assault. Already overlong, it is these scenes where A Cure for Wellness devolves to outright trash (and not the fun Pauline Kael variety). A little restraint might have gone a long way, since the suggestion of depravity would create in our imaginations something way worse than Verbinski could ever show. True to its name, A Cure for Wellness ends as a queasy, uninspired geek show. This does not represent a triumph of unique, provocative style, and ultimately is a lowlight reel for Verbinski’s lack of imagination.