Christian Critics vs. ‘A Cure for Wellness’

By  · Published on February 23rd, 2017

What can we learn about conservative publications through their film criticism?

Christianity and horror films are inextricably linked in my family. For many years, my mother was the Director of Religious Education at our neighborhood’s parish, helping shape the curriculum for the next generation of practicing Catholics. At the same time, she’s also always been one of the biggest horror movie nerds I’ve ever met. Her appreciation of lowbrow horror films – an appreciation born out of countless years spent at her local drive-in movie theater as a child – rivals those of the most dedicated horror fans I’ve met as an adult. If a film promised fake blood and a few unintentional laughs, my mother was there, and to this day, I consider my own love of the genre to be one of the best gifts she ever gave me.

So maybe it was the explicit content of Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness or the frequent references to Christian violence, but after leaving the theater this past week, I found myself immediately seeking out reviews on Christian websites. I‘ll be the first to admit that I adored A Cure for Wellness and all of its excessive and gratuitous Gothic horror sequences, but how would some of its graphic imagery and, ah, adult content translate to the Christian crowd? And since every major newspaper has recently run an article suggesting that the more liberal among us try and understand the conservative perspective, I figured, if we can find common ground with a Verbinski horror film, then maybe there’s hope for us anyways. Be thee warned, spoilers abound.

Let’s start with Plugged In, a culture site run by Christian non-profit Focus on the Family. With a mission statement centered on positive family messages, it was always unlikely that A Cure for Wellness’s emphasis on immortality as a gateway to incest would really resonate with the publication, but to his credit, film critic Adam Holz seemed to enjoy the first half of the film, describing it as a “taut, suspenseful thriller” before things got all offensive on the back nine. Holz’s review breaks the movie out into various important categories, including Positive Elements, Spiritual Content, Sexual Content, and Violent Content, and wouldn’t you know it, A Cure for Wellness is found lacking in almost every single one. Holz’s review flags a number of images in the film as unfit for religious audience members; there’s almost something endearing about watching Holz throw a violent rape sequence and a scene where “Lockhart obviously lusts after a pretty nurse” into the same bucket of morally questionable imagery.

The film was also reviewed by Christian Spotlight, an entertainment website that falls within the broader ministry of Christian film distributor Eden Communications. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Christian Spotlight review is the positive nature of its overall review; critic Pamela Gardner actually gives A Cure for Wellness 3.5 out of 5 stars for its “moviemaking quality,” despite ending her review by noting that “nothing can salvage this film for Christian viewing.” Much like Plugged In, Christian Spotlight does its best to break the film down into the various offensive elements – including a profanity counter – but the publication also recognizes an opportunity to preach when it sees one. As Gardner notes, the only real cure for the evils of modern society is “the bloodshed of Christ Jesus, a free, undeserved gift, paying the penalty for our evil.” Talk about turning your incestuous menstruation eel lemons into incestuous menstruation eel lemonade.

Last up is Nell Minow at Beliefnet, otherwise known to that site’s readers as the Movie Mom. Minow may write a faith-focused site – as evidenced by her comments directed at parents and the review’s in-depth look at questionable content – but her review shows that she’s writing about the movie first and to the audience second, highlighting the excellent production design of A Cure to Wellness and recommending movies like The Shining and Suspira as subsequent movies to rent once you’ve left the theater. She also ends her review with a handful of discussion questions meant to drive conversations once the movie is over. I must admit, I’m a fan of any review element that engages critical thinking and discussion; I’ve tried my hand at teaching primary school students a few things about film criticism, and those discussion questions – as basic as they may seem for frequent moviegoers – can really help tease out some critical thinking about the film you just watched.

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So there you have it, three different reviews with a Christian focus that praised A Cure for Wellness’s vision while condemning its profane content. Did we learn anything new? Sort of! It’s important to realize that a Christian publication doesn’t automatically mean a half-baked film review. One need look no further than than former Christianity Today critic Alissa Wilkinson to see the breadth of talented writers who make themselves available for these publications. Even though I may disagree with some of the value judgments placed upon Verbinski’s film, there were segments of each review that I genuinely enjoyed reading, and times where each critic suggested the impressive set design and emphasis on implicit dread made A Cure for Wellness one of the more unique horror films of the past few years.

That being said, it is somewhat disheartening to see film criticism used as little more than a robust MPAA rating system. While most mainstream film critics do their best to provide you with an overall impression of a film while encouraging you to fill in the specifics on your own, Plugged In, Christian Spotlight, and Beliefnet are all more interested in highlighting the most offensive parts and using those sequences to plant a big red flag in the center of the film. If there’s any lesson to be gleaned from this exercise, it is the following: any conversation that focuses more on the things to be avoided than the overall value of a service or work of art should be viewed with a healthy bit of skepticism.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)