A room full of studio executives sit around a table. Each of them has a small pile of paper scraps and a pen. They jot down dozens of things that they believe fit the definition of universally creepy: “Old, European Art Deco health spas”; “lank-haired girls with Vitamin E deficiencies”; “stern-faced people speaking German”; “iron lungs”; “eels.” They then proceed to take round-robin turns pulling these concepts out of a hat, depositing a random handful picks into a manila envelope. When the package’s recipients – let’s call them screenwriter Justin Haythe and director Gore Verbinski – open it up, they find, amidst the snippets, instructions that they are to make a film featuring all of these items. It doesn’t have to make sense necessarily, the letter says. Just make it look good. And be very, very creepy.
We’re not saying that’s actually how A Cure for Wellness came into existence and managed to slouch towards a theater near you; given the end result, however, it’s as likely a potential origin story as anything else. A tale of a young corporate goon (Dane DeHaan) dispatched to bring back his company’s CEO from a recuperative resort in the Swiss Alps and who risks losing his sanity in the process, this exercise in style over substance (and coherence, and character, and … ) feels like it’s been crowd-sourced from a host of different fever dreams and phobias. This is not so much a horror movie as a lookbook for one – an assemblage of scary-flick odds and ends slotted next to each other with the thinnest of connective tissue.
Granted, Cure looks gorgeous as it grinds through its checklist. When DeHaan’s stay at this time-stands-still facility is extended thanks to a car accident and a broken leg, we get compellingly eerie images of the “relaxing” getaway’s mysteriously exit-less steam rooms, archaic steampunk-ish medical get-ups and patients who’ve apparently been cast from Joel-Peter Witkin portfolios. Once the head doctor (The OA‘s Jason Isaacs, officially cornering the handsome evil-physician market) suggests a “treatment,” we’re treated to the nightmarish sight of DeHaan submerged in a giant metal isolation tank filled with eels. (These snake-like creatures show up in bathtubs, toilets, pools, vats, you name it – this movie is a virtual unagipalooza.) A trip past the castle walls means seeing the wane, wide-eyed Hannah (Mia Goth), a young woman with deep connections to this place, impeccably framed as she perches precariously on ledges. A trip into town with her will result in impromptu seduction dances in taverns and graphically gutted cows. Every chance for cinematographer Bojan Bozelli to shoot something in rancid grays and rotting greens is utilized. You remember the visual panache even as you immediately forget the part those perversely pretty pictures play in the story.
And while Gore Verbinski has always been one of the more gifted journeymen you could nab for a studio project, the idea of simply letting him indulge in Gothic and/or Grand Guignol art-project collages doesn’t make him a “visionary director,” no matter what those trailers try to sell you. He’s the guy you get to inject 10ccs of gonzo into work-for-hire projects; having set up shop on the corner of Spielberg Ave. and Gilliam St., he’s perfect for enlivening a franchise based on a Disney ride (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies), an Americanized J-horror remake (The Ring), an animated anthropomorphic Spaghetti Western (Rango) or a high-concept Man v. Mouse slapstick farce (Mouse Hunt). But there’s precious little spine for Verbinski to hang his extravagant homages to The Shining, Shutter Island and Hammer films on here, much less make you care about the people wandering around in them. Or, for that matter, offer any contradictions to the notion that this whole thing has been reverse-engineered merely as an excuse to pump those aforementioned sea-slitherers into someone’s stomach. Never mind the narrative logic and the technically proficient emptiness. The means justify the ends, it keeps telling us. How about those camera angles? Aren’t those eels super-scary?!?
So as A Cure for Wellness slowly shudders over its two-and-half-hour running time to a questionable conclusion, having taken detours into sanitarium dread, subterranean chase scenes and scenes of white-robed cult gatherings before deciding that what this film really needs is intimations of immortality and incest, you may find yourself wondering: What was the point of all this spookiness-by-numbers? Genre fans blessed with bylines will happily criticsplain to you that horror doesn’t need to mean something necessarily or have a deeper resonance. (Though the best examples always do.) A wonderfully constructed thrill ride can just be a wonderfully constructed thrill ride. But there’s a big difference between tapping into our collective fears and tapping into our collective memory banks about other movies that have so you can make an expensive highlight reel. If this is what the cure is, we’ll happily take the sickness, thank you.