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Review – ‘A Cure For Wellness’ Revels In The Grotesque

By  · Published on February 8th, 2017

‘A Cure For Wellness’ Revels In The Grotesque

This hodgepodge horror takes its time to reveal its pulpy roots.

For the first half, maybe even two-thirds, A Cure For Wellness appears to be a film born to be chopped into an exhilarating sixty-second television spot. It’s a movie swimming with classic horror tropes that tap into our primordial fears…well, if we hadn’t already suffered through a half dozen Paranormal Activity sequels caught in a loop of genre regurgitation. We have preternaturally expressive children, lullabies, busted music boxes, naked old people, skeletal x-rays, jars of teeth, pickled punks, masturbating nurses, road kill, the slimy, the slithery, and the liberal plastering of the word “Verboten.” It’s a hodgepodge of creepy perfectly suited for YouTube, but is nearly impossible to sustain over its two and a half hour runtime. Or at least until that final third reveals itself, and what genre fans are left with is a beautifully orchestrated carnival of the grotesque that firmly plants itself in cinematic pulp history. A Cure For Wellness straps you to the operating table, waits for you to adjust to its kinks, and eventually jolts you with its outlandish revelations and throwback sense of spooky movie style.

Having supposedly spent fifteen years away from horror, director Gore Verbinski has never ceased to relish in revulsion. From the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy to Rango, Verbinski has always slathered his films with ugly and often wretched detail. He’s a provocateur and delights in disgusting his audience with The Lone Ranger’s cannibal rabbits, or The Weather Man’s Abe Lincoln cosplay sexcapades. A Cure For Wellness gives him more room and time to prod his audience like never before. Those in the quest for a good squirm will be rewarded for their efforts, even when they’re baffled by how catastrophically strange the final act erupts around them.

In an effort to rescue his company from white collar prison, Dane DeHaan is sent by a round table of corporate masters to the Swiss Alps to retrieve their CEO from an infamous “wellness center” that seemingly only caters to the old and obscenely rich. They should have known he was doomed from the start considering that their last letter of contact was filled with pseudo-science, self-improvement claptrap, and sealed with a black wax stamp. Only Dracula uses such flourishes these days.

For most of the film, DeHaan asserts himself with sociopathic greed. His singular passion to climb the corporate ladder establishes him as a heartless prick not worthy of our sympathy. It’s a brutal place to trap your protagonist, and A Cure For Wellness never really frees him from our disdain. As seemingly arranged circumstances imprison him within the hospital, DeHaan’s investigation consists mostly of bullying and browbeating the staff and patients. Witnessing him guzzle down gallons of water, and foolishly partaking in the house specialty vitamins that taste like “sweaty seafood” will certainly challenge your gag reflex, but film really doesn’t care if you root for this jerk’s recovery or his bodily corruption.

The incessant “La La La” of Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, the endless stream of horror movie hallucinations, and the simple presence of Jason Isaacs as the good doctor keeping our “hero” on a liquid diet, acts as a doomsday clock ticking down to an inevitable display of carnage. It’s a series of scares that fit neatly into the puzzle you’ve already framed inside your mind. Each new torture seems to appropriately build on the next, but as DeHaan starts peering into historical documents, and interacting with the townspeople who live and die in the shadow of the Wellness Center, Gore Verbinski slyly lifts you from one sub-genre into another.

While you’ve been distracted by Verbinski’s indulgences with reflective surfaces, cryptic light sources, and manicured mise en scène, the director has been slowly tugging you into a dungeon of pulp sensibilities. The mystery of the missing CEO could have been solved by Jessica Fletcher on an off-week of Murder She Wrote; it’s all a ruse to plumb the darker, more absurd depths of classic double-bill schlock. The unavoidable showdown between doctor and patient will certainly throw most in the crowd for a loop, but imagine Vincent Price in place of Jason Isaacs, and it may make the pageantry more palatable.

A Cure For Wellness is not interested in The Boo. It’s a long, good sit that languishes in dread, and does not worry if your mind wanders for a bit. Gore Verbinski looks back at a time when horror was allowed to build without bashing on violin strings for shock. Sometimes goosebumps and squinted eyes behind fingers are more rewarding than frightful elevation.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)