*Mild spoilers for A Cure for Wellness*
Some horror movies are simply transcendent. Such films function on multiple planes and deliver on every level of filmmaking—acting, writing, editing, cinematography, and direction. They are frightening and entertaining stories that craft pointed arguments about the human condition and, well, scary shit. Those films add to our understanding of the dark places where we dare not tread.
Other films aspire to those same heights, and while this group of films strives to execute on every filmmaking aspect, they fall short. It might be that the acting or editing was merely “good” instead of great.” It might be that the cinematography was astonishing, but something else was poorly done and the film couldn’t recover. I think it’s kind of tragic when a promising movie fails to coalesce into a truly great film.
I’m sorry to say that a Cure for wellness falls into that latter category. Although it was an entertaining movie with a lot to offer, I cannot call this movie a success. An original effort with stunning visuals and a great cast, A Cure for Wellness lacked firm story foundations. Had it the script been better, A Cure for Wellness could have been a real stunner of a movie.
It is not for lack of trying. A Cure for Wellness tried really hard to be great. I really wanted it to be great.
As a film buff, I appreciate filmmaking risks. It’s brave to experiment and that should be supported, even if the end result isn’t what it could have been. Where would we be without risky filmmakers like John Carpenter or George A. Romero? They don’t always deliver great movies, but when they do, holy crap they’re good!
But as a horror fan, I am frustrated that this. Same. Thing. Keeps. Happening. An ominous yet sexy trailer, a great cast, and a kickass premise lead to…nothing substantial.
The Neon Demon is the most recent example of such a film—it had a lot going for it, though not enough to overcome some pretty serious flaws. Others that come to mind are Crimson Peak and Prometheus.
And despite my love for certain elements of A Cure for Wellness, of which there were many, I can’t quite bring myself to loudly sing this film’s praises. This hurts me, because I wanted so badly to like this movie. I really, really did. Cross my heart and hope to die.
A Cure for Wellness is the latest feature film from director Gore Verbinski, director of the 2002 English language remake of The Ring. Lockhart, a scheming young stockbroker, is sent to retrieve the CEO of his company after the CEO has taken an indefinite leave of absence. What started as a quick trip to Switzerland to collect the CEO from a tranquil but strange “sanatorium” quickly devolves into a waking nightmare. Something is very wrong at the wellness center, where guests “take the cure”, unwind from the stresses of modern life, and never ever leave.
A Cure for Wellness was unlike any thriller I’ve seen in recent memory. It was lush, creepy, and unnerving. It built a world full of beautiful yet sinister people in beautiful yet sinister locales. Despite its faults, I will not soon forget this movie or its originality. For that alone, I won’t tell you not to see this movie. I’m glad I saw it, especially in a theater, because this movie is beautiful.
The gorgeous visuals were the major strength of and most compelling argument to see A Cure for Wellness. I expected as such and was not disappointed here. Director Gore Verbinski once again partnered with accomplished cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who lent his talent for producing striking images to The Ring. Here to, Bazelli created a wonderful, unified aesthetic for the movie. The images are crisp. The colors are expertly calibrated. Great care was taken to compose the frames, light scenes, and manipulate images in post-production (though there is one scene where bad CGI steals the show). It paid off. From sullen grays of anonymous skyscrapers to brilliant whites against a lush green lawn to consistent algae-green visual motifs to more lurid pops of red and blue, the film is very, very pretty. I was especially struck by how good Bazelli is at rendering visual texture—a smooth glass, a coarse stone path, a small wrinkle on a bed sheet. The attention to detail was remarkable. The result is a stunning, moody visual experience that, on its own, produces dread and unease.
The acting was good. Dane DeHaan, playing protagonist Lockhart, did an excellent job of preserving the douche-y-ness of his character while still creating a compelling character. It’s not easy to accomplish an unlikable yet relatable character, yet DeHaan was able to give his character an internal emotional consistency (even if the script failed to).
I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs as the insidious Dr. Vollmer, who oozes creepiness despite his handsome British face. Isaacs’s casting is near-perfect. He walks a fine line between concerned and intimidating. And he has to do some heavy lifting in order to compensate for the scripts shortcomings in plot and character development, though even he couldn’t save it. And Mia Goth as mysterious patient Hannah does her best, though her role is a fairly shallow, stereotypical character. I was most disappointed in her character, since she wasn’t given much to do but float around the set all childlike and ethereal, in desperate need of being rescued. Much of her time onscreen was devoted to enticing Lockhart further into the mystery and giving both male characters an object to obsess over.
In this way, A Cure for Wellness takes a lot of its inspiration from gothic literature and old Hollywood horror films. This is not a bad idea by itself. My favorite thing about this movie was how it was a modern spin on classic gothic tropes, something of which I personally want Hollywood to revisit. Gothic literature is built on growing tension and expanding dread. This is something that has been and should again become a staple of contemporary horror. The gothic elements worked to create atmosphere—the lovely but overbearing scenery, the isolated and castle-like setting, the mysterious and virginal damsel in distress, the evil aristocratic patriarch. And in true gothic fashion, things veered from merely foreboding to straight f*cked up in the third act with several reveals, including the terrible secret at the heart of a family’s past.
Unfortunately, this is also where the film struggled.
First off, the script should have been tighter and more focused. It was long and convoluted and bloated and dragged in parts and did I mention it was long? It needed at least one more round of rewrites. I mean, seriously, I like slow burn horror movies. I live for them. But even I thought this film had a glacial pace.
There were whole scenes that were either redundant or unnecessary. Scenes could have been combined and certain languid developments could have been streamlined. There were certain scenes were I definitely knew what the point was, but it was obvious that the same effect and narrative weight could have been accomplished without bogging down the story. Because while the film spent more and more time teasing the mystery and the bad shit at the sanitarium, it forgot where it was headed.
Opportunities to underscore themes—fathers and fatherhood, trauma, the struggle for meaning, the unavoidable nihilism of trying to stave off death—were overlooked. The “sickness” and the mechanics of “The Cure” should have been better fleshed out or not explained at all. The film gave several hasty, wishy-washy explanations that succeeded only in distracting me as I tried to figure out my way around the plot holes. Because after spending ninety damn minutes building up to “The Cure”, it better be solid.
And then that was that hard shift in tone during the third act, which made the ending feel completely off. The film went from shaping an abstract existential horror film to a full blown melodramatic gothic romance, morbid and unnecessary sexual assault scene and all. This isn’t a bad choice in theory. Gothic literature has always been crazy and unhinged and macabre. But it definitely could have been executed in a more consistent way.
Atmosphere is not the same as story, and a story has to be developed from beginning to end.
Like those pretty horror films that preceded it, A Cure for Wellness feel into the trap of prioritizing style over substance. And it turned into something more gothic than horror. It just wasn’t very scary. Sure, it delivered more scares and was generally more f*cked up than Crimson Peak, but it wasn’t enough to push the film into horror.
Though, no lie, that dentist scene was not a joke. I was not prepared for it.
Or for the eels.
I guess I should be encouraged by the existence of A Cure for Wellness. It’s exciting to see visionary projects secure funding, land big directors and talent, and make it to the screen. And it’s important to note that the filmmakers behind these projects tried to bring their true visions to audiences. We don’t know what happened, and making movies is hard.
I am pleased that films like this are being made. I’m optimistic about the improving quality of horror films. Problems aside, I’ll take A Cure for Wellness over the Poltergeist remake or the 19th Saw movie any day.