Growing up with Hammer Films and Poe a la Roger Corman makes me appreciate economy in gothic terror, a quality sorely missing from A Cure for Wellness. Alleged "visionary" director Gore Verbinski — earning that title in ads after The Lone Ranger — ignores their lessons at double feature running time.
A Cure for Wellness is a repellent curiosity, rich in atmosphere yet starved for dramatic morsels a sound plot might nourish. Two hours is a long time spent going nowhere until Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe drag out an unpleasant conclusion. Everything about this movie trudges until springing wildly over-the-top, too late and/or too disturbing to matter.
Verbinski's opening scenes portend a better movie. A harried businessman dies of a heart attack in the office, knocking over a water cooler. Water is a central motif in A Cure for Wellness, for healing, bathing and human pickling. It may be why the dead businessman's successor (Dane DeHaan) will go insane.
DeHaan plays Lockhart, a wolf cub of Wall Street who'll go Shutter Island before movie's end. That's appropriate since DeHaan even before acting insane resembles Leonardo DiCaprio with malaria. Lockhart doesn't project the killer instinct of someone so ambitious or any reason for empathy. When a character so weakly written and portrayed is your hero, that's a problem.
Lockhart's mission is to recover an executive gone rogue named Pembroke, who visited a Swiss resort and refuses to return, like some corporate Col. Kurtz. He's needed in New York to sign off on a merger. Shouldn't take long. Lockhart breezes to the Alpine spa, tells the cabbie to leave the meter running and doesn't return.
So far, so sinister. The resort proves to be an inscrutable place where questions are asked but no answers are given. Any attempt to find Pembroke (Harry Groener) is denied or alibied. Just take in the healing waters, Lockhart is urged, relax with the other terry cloth zombies. His escape attempt results in a car accident, broken leg and spa recovery. Don't worry, his bosses will be informed. Yeah, right.
The resort is managed by Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) a self-help snake oil salesman, except his specialty is eels. Seriously, a lot of eels. Bathtubs are filled with them, dunk tanks prowled by them and an orifice violated by them. Volmer is as slippery as one. His prime patient in a skeevy fashion is Hannah (Mia Goth) a hollow-eyed wisp with whom Lockhart will flirt.
Volmer's staff and patients are strong, silent types whose vigor in keeping Lockhart in line gets rough. Lockhart begins to understand why villagers down the mountain don't trust the resort, like Frankenstein's neighbors. Verbinski crams classic horror touchstones into A Cure for Wellness, expecting to improve upon them with sheer luridness.
All the elements of a Hammer/Corman bloodletting adventure are here and none of their brisk restraint. Those old thrillers were as erotically exploitative as their era allowed, not much more than bosoms and swoons. A Cure for Wellness wanders a more depraved corridor that isn't sexy, only a tasteless payoff after too long of a wait.
If Verbinski used only an hour to get to his final 30 minutes, it might not seem so lousy. He's too enraptured with Eve Stewart's production design of the resort, a plush dungeon that's sterile on the surface. Bojan Bazelli's camera prowls the grounds, aimed in provocative angles. A Cure for Wellness is simply too bloated for impact. The only fear it stirs is that of falling asleep.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.