Just when you thought it was safe to schedule a relaxing deep tissue massage, ‘A Cure for Wellness’ comes along and ruins spas forever. Dank and filled with an unshakable sense of dread, this stupendously icky horror film creates an unusually imaginative immersive universe. We’re in an alpine Swiss retreat hidden behind an elaborate gate of metallic snakes and staffed by scowling goons in white. It doesn’t seem like a place where health gets restored.
Before we get there, though, there’s a deceptive launching-off point in Manhattan’s cutthroat business world, where rising young exec Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a Patrick Bateman-style asshole in the making, squirms his way out of the blame for some corporate cock-up. To atone, he must head to Europe to meet the company’s twitchy CEO, who’s lost to the spa’s waters. A quick visit in and out, right? Nope. After Lockhart suffers an accident that puts him in a leg cast, he becomes an inmate of the ominous Volmer Institute (an ‘enforced vacation’, its chief doctor, played by Jason Isaacs, puts it, not winning any points for bedside manner).
Leisurely and hypnotically, ‘A Cure for Wellness’ spins out its series of unsettling scenes. It’s been a full 15 years and three ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films since director Gore Verbinski has made something this gorgeous and clever. He builds suspense from the creak of Lockhart’s crutches, his painful slowness hobbling down corridors, and the creepy surprises that lurk around every corner.
Visually ripe and located just around the bend from melodrama, ‘A Cure for Wellness’ is a cousin to Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Crimson Peak’. Verbinski seems indebted to classic silent movies like ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, early examples of body horror laced with deep psychological damage. For some people, that will work like catnip. For others, it may be a little much. Find out for yourself. This is a lullaby waltzing to its own creepy lurch. Take a twirl.