The history of cinema is replete with examples of re-examined artifacts; films that were ahead of their time or conversely out of step with modern techniques and values. Blade Runner is perhaps the preeminent example of the former, and the growing consensus that American Beauty is overrated is a great example of the latter. There is no way to predict how these things turn out, but it is the hope of every proselyte that their chosen critically maligned movie will be reevaluated in time. A Cure for Wellness is a great candidate for reappraisal, and in my view one of the most interesting horror films of the decade. This is less an apologetic work– (how boring are those mind-numbingly earnest exculpatory essays, anyway?)– and more of a celebration of one of 2017’s most inventive films.
Gore Verbinski’s gothic horror was released in January 2017 to a crescendo of negative criticism and disdain. It currently sports a 42% on the Tomatometer and an audience score of 41%. While both audiences and critics panned it, A Cure for Wellness combines some of the most alluring components of horror movies: genuinely unsettling and disturbing content, original thinking and narrative ambition.
The film stars Dane Dehaan, Jason Isaacs, and Mia Goth as corporate hotshot Lockhart, Hannah the ingenue and creepy Doctor Volmer, respectively. Goth is the standout but Vollmer and Dehaan both play well off her character. The story of Cure is deceptively simple: a young man is tasked with retrieving a superior before an impending business move, but closer examination reveals complex layers of meaning that are meant to be unfolded in repeat viewings. This attention to narrative depth does not lessen Verbinski’s overall dedication to scares, especially considering that there are delightful jump scares and longer developing moments of sheer horror littered throughout the film. The scene in the deprivation tank is particularly fantastic, especially for those of us not overly fond of snakes. The tension creeps slowly at first, punctuated by moments of rising revelation and shock until an ending straight out “Dracula” or “Frankenstein” concludes the proceedings.
Verbinski’s major accomplishment is to update the Gothic horror and invest it with a sense of history, renewed menace, and meaning. The prevailing elements of Gothic horror are still there– outsiders, creepy castles, underground dungeons, village secrets, body horror, monsters and young maidens in distress- but updated to meet new standards and expectations. And he expands the universe of what horror movies are capable of with A Cure for Wellness.
Perhaps it is this– the melding of gothic ideas and modern sensibilities that sparks both audience and critical dismissal. This melding leads to moments of real genius in “Cure,” typified by the madcap dash from the prosaic to the demonic within the last 20 minutes of the ending. Many critics did not seem to appreciate Verbinski’s flirtation with genre-bending, labeling this ending slapdash or unfocused when a more generous reading would appreciate the moments of mastery that Verbinski extends on his jaunt through the genres. Beyond mastery of both prosaic and supernatural elements, Verbinski offers a movie that is truly beautiful, and it is fascinating to see the juxtaposition of horror amidst great beauty. In a way, the film gets at something counterintuitive– fear in the face of beauty– illustrating the horrors that can belie even the most bucolic settings.
A Cure for Wellness presages 2017’s Annihilation in its nearly ethereal presentation of beauty and violence. There are shots in the film that almost look as if they were painted on canvas. A testament to how Verbinski recognizes that horror is not antithetical to beauty but is wrapped within it. It’s a stunning rebuttal to the brutalist cinematography of contemporary horror movies. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli cannot be commended highly enough for producing beauty without showing off.
Verbinski shows a great command of body horror without descending completely into mindless depravity as well. And even with this restraint, there were several scenes that made me want to look away. Benjamin Wallfisch’s haunting score adds heft to the emotional and scary scenes.
The main achievement of A Cure for Wellness is the thematic content. Verbinski endeavors and succeeds in crafting a story that speaks to human sexuality, feminine empowerment, and sexual awakening in times of male danger, apocalypse and inherited psychological brokenness among other themes. It is certainly not the first horror movie to deal with heavier themes in the modern area, but it is one of a blessed few that has merged horror themes with gothic settings. This simple move adds a layer of complexity and meaning – everything and nearly everyone in Cure seems elderly and ancient, youth seems to be an impediment or an affront,and the issues that it explores seem as timeless as the story that is told.
Two themes that deserve special attention in Cure are blossoming female sexuality under patriarchy and conscious/unconscious self-harm. Verbinski seeds the world of the film from commencement to denouement with frank depictions of what it means to be female in a world predicated on traditional male domination and control. In a direct allusion to Tarantino’s Death Proof, there is a scene in a Gasthaus that emulates Vanessa Ferlito’s dance under the gaze of a male predator (a stand-in for rapacious patriarchy), and female sexuality is portrayed as a function of male need.
Second, Verbinski comments on the human capacity for self-harm. This self- harm takes many forms (e.g. self-delusion, physical harm), but each form has dangerous outcomes that Cure takes great lengths to show have empirical effects. Self-destruction as a theme is another thing that Cure shares with Annihilation. Cure links it to the exterior pressures of the outside world and generational traumas. For example, the menace of conformity and self-delusion Lockhart uncovers “out there” turns out not to be some problem with them, but something he must uncover and confront within himself.
Ultimately, A Cure for Wellness is a movie that demands to be re-watched and appreciated, even though critical culture has dismissed it with no regard for its intricacies or appreciation for its ambition. A Cure for Wellness is not the best of the great horror films of the 2010s, but it is among the most interesting and that is to its credit and our lack of appreciation is a detriment to ours.