Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A young man goes to a sanitarium for a visit and ends up staying for longer than he intended.
Or this one: A very important person goes missing and a naive detective is blackmailed into taking the job of finding him.
I imagine the elevator pitch for Gore Verbinski’s fantastic contribution to the cannon of weird fiction, A Cure for Wellness, was something along the lines of “Lovecraft meets The Magic Mountain.” (At the Magic Mountains of Madness?)
Dane Dehann stars in the film as Douglas Lockhart, a douchey, competitive, corporate bro, who engages in some shady practices that could either be easily covered up, or exposed to the SEC. The corporation he works for needs him, not to land another big client, but to track down their CEO, who has gone to a sanitarium in Switzerland. They need the CEO, played by Harry Groener (Buffy fans will recognize him as the big bad from season 3) to come back and sign some documents that will move a lucrative merger forward.
Lockhart gets to the sanitarium. It’s located in a castle in the alps. There’s something in the water that operates like a cure to the ills of the world. Nearly all of the patients are elderly. He overhears a story about the old castle. It used to belong to a baron who was obsessed with keeping his bloodline pure. He married his sister. They conceived a child. The sister was burnt, but the infant survived. The castle burned to the ground. But this was ages ago and the Doctor who runs the facility is definitely not the old Baron who has discovered an immortality treatment.
Things are going well for Lockhart until the attending nurse won’t allow him to see the CEO. Visiting hours are over. Lockhart acting like an extraordinary asshole does not impress the nurse. So he takes a car back down the mountain and is involved in a terrible accident. The nearest medical facilities are the sanitarium, so he’s forced to stay until his injuries heal.
He bops around, searching for the CEO and meets a young girl, played by Mia Goth. She’s odd and wears a blue dress. She seems as if she’s from another time. She experiences a sort of awakening after meeting Lockhart. He takes her to have a beer in the town. She dances like a ghost. Lockhart gets his teeth drilled by the head of the sanitarium as a punishment.
Later he gets giant eels pumped into his belly. Lockhart has a bad time at the sanitarium.
The marketing of the movie focused a lot on imagery that would lead the public to believe that they were walking into a Gothic Horror story. Maybe the marketing team was trying to recreate the middling success of Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak.
And sure, A Cure for Wellness does include many elements of Gothic Horror: the Alps are in the background of 40% of the shots in the movie, there is a twisted family tree upon which hangs a 300 year old Baron obsessed with purity. There's a quest for immortality and crunchy aestethic questions like “is there such a thing as beauty and love without the ticking clock of time?” Not to mention thematic parallels between the heartless machinations of a ruthless corporation and the abuses of aristocratic power.
But this movies real influences belong to the world of pulp and weird fiction. We’re given a pseudo-scientific process that leads to immortality, squiggly eels, toxic poison, a brain controlled cult, and a detective who suffers badly for uncovering the truth. It’s unimaginable to me, given the success of True Detective Season 1, that this movie's weirder elements wouldn’t be more heavily advertised.
I have seen very few movies that pull off what this movie pulls off in regard to its genre. A Cure for Wellness’s cinematography is absolutely stunning. It is crisp, clean, and modern feeling. The movie expertly transitions Lockhart and the viewer from a contemporary setting to the 1850s so smoothly that its only after viewing that you realize what the film-makers have accomplished. Mia Goth does incredible work aging her character up in the ghostly-dance scene in the bar, which makes the movie’s climax not entirely unbearable.
All said, there is only one story line I would cut in the movie. There is a sub-plot involving Lockhart and his father. In my opinion the movie would lose nothing by getting rid of the storyline.
So, should you see this movie? Absolutely. Especially if you’re a fan of what has been happening in horror movies for the past decade or so. A Cure for Wellness is a stand-out example of the weird fiction movement that has had a difficult time capturing an audience on the big screen. Take some time this fall. Rent or buy A Cure for Wellness.