There’s a benefit of watching a movie months after it comes out. You get to sit back and judge everybody who lunged to bin the film or to set it on a pedestal. It happened with all the great cult films, Psycho, Fight Club, The Shining, Alien, ridiculously often with films that dealt with dark themes and things that made people feel uncomfortable.
But watching a film on Netflix or with a stream is the equivalent of looking out through the lace curtains instead of staring inside trying to see the ghosts. If you know the ghosts are there, it’s a little easier to see how beautifully the wallpaper shows through their gloaming, and the way they warp reality, like looking up from deep water. And that’s what happened with A Cure For Wellness, which I caught in the deep of night and don’t regret a jot. That’s right. I drank deep of the poisoned aquifer and I freaking loved it.
It’s very important to regard A Cure for Wellness as what is: a contemporary take on the classic gothic story. A young man, Lockhart, played by the always unsettling Dane DeHaan is compelled by a personal sin to retrieve his boss from a remote spa in the Swiss Alps, ostensibly to restore order to his workplace, but really so his boss can take the fall for all the devious financial dicks who work there. Lockhart is under the pressure of time and the threat of prison to bring back the man quickly, and it would have been poetry itself to run into some obstruction due to his impatience. But instead, Lockhart’s driver runs into a crazed buck, trapping him with a broken leg as a patient of the spa. As Lockhart hobbles around, the placid retreat stuffed with the creme de la creme of wealthy big shots who for some reason can’t stop drinking the water slowly reveals its terrible secret: something is terribly wrong, and unless Lockhart figures out what it is, he may never leave this beautiful place. “But who would want to leave?” He echoes hauntingly somewhere in the third act.
Oh, there’s a creepy prepubescent girl played by the aptly named Mia Goth. That might be my favorite part. Can you tell? Huh? Huh? Bwahahaha.
So the gothic recipe is complete: past sins, the thin veneer of a superficially perfect paradise, and a creeping evil foreshadowed not only by the pristine, inviting carafes and gorgeous set design. The glass of the train, the reflections of Lockhart, even the color palette is chosen with exacting precision, almost as if somebody took a level to every tile in the set and aligned it to the camera for every shot. This creepy fucked up spa is perfectly rendered down to the gigantic steel therapy tanks and the bathtub filled with snakes. It plays tremendously well as an environment that is billed by its director as a place that removes the temptation of the outside world, like a zen temple done in clinical blues and booty fabrics. Juxtaposed against the sterile environment are side characters who are steeped in their sensuality, from the aggressively German orderlies to the coldly sensual nurses. The ingenue is Hannah, a woman-child who is perfectly cast for the role, a girl perpetually frozen on the edge of puberty. She doesn’t piss you off enough with her ignorance of the real world for you not to care about her, either, which is rare.
Of course, the film descends rather rapidly into mind-bending fuckery, and that’s welcome as all heck. There are all the classic notes: body horror, institutional evil, water terror, and punishments for natural desires. There are shades of Clockwork Orange, quite a bit of camerawork borrowed from the Shining, and one great scene where Lockhart gets horribly swarmed with geriatric farts, like they’re trying to suck the youth from his lost teeth.
A coworker who’s into horror magazine writing put the problem of this film very succinctly: the connective tissue is a bit tough. That is, the film holds at the part where the messed up fuckery happens and… keeps holding just a bit too long. It’s definitely worth it for some of the scenes, like part where we’re treated to an all out teenage punk attack to some wicked German death metal. There’s nothing like listening to rage in a language most Americans associate with ovens and the banality of evil while watching a reject from West Side Story threaten someone with a meat hook. I’m into that sort of thing, I don’t know about you. The cow. Oh hell the cow.
It’s almost a letdown when you get the big bad of the whole film, who’s like the story boss to the sidequest bosses Lockhart has been surviving the whole time. You know, those optional enemies that are a couple dozen levels over the end boss. But I didn’t find myself becoming fatigued, which is an homage to the beautiful set design as well as the fantastic actors in this film. The director of the spa, Volger, is played by Jason Isaacs, better known as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies. He also does a lot of voice acting on the side, and boy, has he got his insidious German mad science down to a… well, a science.
And once you get over the awkward pacing, the ending makes a lot of sense. Its thought provoking, makes you think about what exactly Volger wanted to cure versus what Lockhart is smiling about so creepily at the end of the movie. I mean, sure, there’s a suitably immoral plot device involving a baron and his sister that gets increasingly convoluted as you go, but the convolutions are kind of the point. It’s a slowly building skein of desire that parallels the mess of desires outside the spa. And when Volger’s mask slips at the end, its an obvious but cathartic place for everyone. I heartily invite horror fans to give A Cure for Wellness another go. Pour some vodka into a clear carafe for a viewing party, and halfway through, slip some gummy worms in them. Draw thin wiggly lines on the drunkest person. Everyone will have a laugh! (Evil laugh)