It took me a while to get the measure of A Cure for Wellness, until it struck me, this film has the Crimson Peak problem. It’s been advertised as a horror film, and sure, there’s some scary moments in there, but it’s not striving for horror. In the same way that Crimson Peak was actually a gothic romance, this is actually a pretty straightforward investigative thriller, one with a some spooks, but one which is far more interested in solving the mystery at the story’s core than contriving the characters into spooky situations.
The moment I made this connection though, more started springing up. Plot similarities, thematic connections, the structure of both the events and the locations that these characters inhabit. Both these films fascination with their own immaculate production design, here helmed by the amazing Eve Stewart (seriously, check her portfolio) to support their otherwise quite thin characterisation and stories. These keep building and building until the realisation:
Oh my God, A Cure for Wellness is Crimson Peak for boys. Like, you ignore the main characters genders and a few other specificities and you’re looking at the same movie, it’s uncanny. Now does being for boys make it inherently less interesting? No, but you change a battle by two women over a man’s soul into a battle by two men over a woman’s; there’s gonna be a bit of uncomfortable weirdness that springs up as a result. The film sees this and tries to play with it, but it just doesn’t scan, comes across real misjudged especially as we move closer to the climax. When your plot relates to a woman’s virtue, we all know what that means, and a late game attempted rape scene is simply gratuitous compared to all other action in the film.
The film sure starts moody though, it has this great opening title sequence almost ruined by that abysmal font and the plot kicks off in high gear. Lockhart (the adorably pie-faced Dane DeHaan) is some Wall Street banking type, the firm, worried about the fallout from a dodgy, but profitable, deal he put in place, send him to an Alpine Spa while the heat dies down. They ask him to find Pembroke, the head of the board, who went there a while back and never returned, though did send a letter denouncing the moral corruption of their business dealings. If he can drag Pembroke back to New York, they say, it’ll be the boss to get the blame, sparing all their necks.
So the young innocent ingénue goes up to the big spooky house, which may be hiding some dreadful secrets in the basement and an unfortunate twist of fate leaves them stuck there for a while, hosted by this possibly malevolent wealthy doctor (Jason Isaacs, high camp). Sound familiar? It just feels unfamiliar with a dude doing all these things, like the film ain’t quite familiar with the gothic fantasy tropes it’s clearly playing upon. Of course it turns out there may be greater mystery hiding under the surface of this health spa, and so out hero goes on a quest to find the truth.
Which is where the film starts to fall down a bit, because the mystery itself isn’t all that compelling. It unfolds satisfyingly enough in a purely procedural manner but there’s no moments of true upsetting revelation which is such a shame because visually the film is putting us into this incredibly unstable environment. Collaborating again with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli he drops down to a flat aspect ratio for the first time since the pirates flicks, the repeated use of the wide lens and compositional eye clearly referencing Kubrick, it’s obvious but certainly gets the job done.
On a directorial level at least Gore Verbinski seems to have been freed by conjuring a universe without the presence of a Johnny Depp. It’s harsh, and I’m sure he and Depp get on very well, and even sometimes they produce good material together. Verbinski has greater range, and by unshackling from the reliance on star actors and the presence they bring, he can start to let his wilder ideas into play.
Is it cool to say that this is a film that is terrified of the human body? There’s someone’s film school dissertation alone in an exploration of how older people and disabled people are used as filmic props. Here, devoid of humanity, the elderly are relegated into the background, visual symbols of fate and time’s inexorable march. Often pictured naked because ain’t that terrifying, their non-normative bodies representing the horror that awaits us all.
Also sex, there’s no good outcome of any sexual impulse in this joint, the only good sexual impulse is one denied. All that evil phallic imagery coming down in droves here, which again, makes sense when the lead is a woman, but a dude being preyed upon by the evil phallus, trying to protect this young woman from the dick that is also a part of his anatomy. It’s creepy but again just feels a bit off.
It’s a shame, it’s not a bad movie by any means, it just doesn’t feel like it fits together as it should, and sure, that could be said to be a result of this monumentally stupid and rushed climax that feels like it was tacked onto the end of the script in a very, very late draft, and that is a major disservice. But the rot goes deeper, I think, despite its surface beauty there’s very little going on under that immaculate surface. Like, I saw it yesterday and already so much of it is just gone, because so little of it is new.
It’s fine: don’t go in expecting more and you won’t leave feeling less.