Friday, 3 March 2017

A Cure for Wellness review

I decided to check out Gore Verbinski's surprisingly hard to find mountainous horror movie. Read my thoughts after the jump...

'A Cure for Wellness' is surprisingly hard to find. Despite excessive advertising (Odeon has featured it in its brochures and advertisements since October/November last year), it's only playing in one single vicinity near me (I live smack bang in the center of London); and in only one Odeon throughout the whole city. Although that may have something to do with the lukewarm reviews; I think it probably owes more to the strange content within. Make no mistake: 'ACFW' is just about as weird as a film can get whilst still remaining 'mainstream'.

Strange.... very strange
Playing like an unholy mix of 'Shutter Island' and 'Crimson Peak', the plot finds Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) leaving the green-tinged and sinisterly impersonal world of stockbroker NYC for an idyllic hideout in the Swiss alps. Of course, as to whether this trip is for business or pleasure, 'what do you fucking think?' (he angrily replies to a train staff member). He's been sent to receive a holidaying, mentally ill senior board member from the center - with the aim of pinning leagues of financial corruption to his name, and allowing his company to progress to the next level of  business. He's ambitious, deeply scarred (let's just say he experienced some traumatic things in childhood), and unequivocally lonely - having only his mother left in the world. And, even she, as we soon learn, is gone.

After arriving at the beautiful, yet more than slightly sinister establishment in question; a series of increasingly bizarre coincidences (the time regularly passing visiting hours, sickness, and a car crash) prevent Lockhart from leaving the grounds or retrieving his staff member. There's something up, and we can't quite place our finger on it. You might not believe it, but this trend continues for some 90 or so minutes until we can start to piece the film together. There are stories about the chequered past of the hospital: with a horrific series of events occurring hundreds of years ago. And, constantly, there are reminders of foul play. A steam room that Lockhart walks through quickly becomes a never ending maze of corridors that shut him in; and a floatarium experience leads him to hallucinate(?) being surrounded by a writhing mass of eels.

Of course, as you can imagine, things quickly go south. So far south, in fact, that one really has to wonder whether Mr Verbinski needs to check into an institution such as this himself.

Disturbing images...
There's really everything contained within here to make a disturbing psychological thriller: horrific violence and torture, disturbing images, and so much unsettling sexuality that perhaps audiences will not be prepared for the visual onslaught ('ACFW' was awarded an 18 certificate here in the UK). A characters teeth are drilled out in a single long cut that refuses to flinch from the infliction of sadistic torture until blood is sprayed pretty much in all directions. A thick plastic tube is jammed down the throat of a character until it reaches their stomach, as they convulse and scream silently in agony. A deer writhes on the road, broken and destroyed, after a vicious and realistic car crash which leaves Lockhart with a broken leg. And the main plot, when finally revealed, is so twisted in every single way imaginable that it may force you to reconsider the burger you just ate for dinner. But there's a sort of voyeuristic, thrilling pleasure in watching these things occur on a multiplex film. It's a grown-up, erotic, and disturbing psychological thriller. Sure, it'll stick in your mind for a long time to come - but that's the point of the movie! If it didn't do so, then I'd be happy to wager that Gore Verbinski would be none too pleased.

As for the horror factor, fans of modern fare will be sorely disappointed here: there was maybe one time at most where the audience could feel genuinely scared at the material. Yet for lovers of more original material, and for fans of vintage horror classics such as 'The Shining', this film should fit the bill. For the entire 2.5 hour runtime, there's a creeping menace that fills the screen with dread. It's not so much intensity or suspense, but a cautious curosity that dares to peek round corners and through closed doors.

Beautiful cinematography
Surely the main selling point of the movie comes in the form of a series of iconic and impressive images that will linger for an eternity. Verbinski shoots the entire enterprise with a green-ish tint; which proves especially unsettling and effective in NYC - appearing so devoid of life that one wonders what Lockhart is doing there in the first place. Indeed, the Kubrickian symmetry and idiosyncratic presentation of the various 'treatments' at the hospital provides no end of iconic scenes. A woman sits in a metal bath,  covered in writhing eels; the flotation chambers extend about 20 meters into the air (unnecessary, but cool); and the ruins of a church stick out of the ground like shards of glass. In fact, Verbinski seems permanently lodged in a Dario Argento state of mind: distinctive images, and sporadic bursts of really gross-out gore. This much should be clear from the trailers and promotional materials. In fact, even the title itself feels like a masterpiece of aesthetic.

So yeah, it looks beautiful - but does it sound beautiful? As it happens, it does. It's conventionally creepy - like young girls creepily humming creepy. It fits beautifully with the retro stylings of the picture, without ever diverting down the neon electronic route of 'It Follows'. And, at one especially surreal moment, a Bilderbuch song plays (think post-punk art-rock dance - and decidedly modern). It stands out, because with the setting dating back hundreds of years, such a 2017 song feels almost like a 'Great Gatsby' moment. Surrounded by sinister goth-punks in a traditional bar, it's no less than magical.

A beautiful setting.
Acting wise, it's hard to tell if its a little over-egged or whether Mr Verbinski was looking for excess comparable to 70s and 80s horror flicks. For instance, Jason Isaacs's Volmer seems far too mad- scientist, and far too shifty to be taken seriously by Lockhart. But then again, the whole hospital is shifty; and the parallel New York that we see in the exposition of the story is stranger than our own world - so who knows? Mia Goth is exceedingly weird - but she's an exceedingly weird actress, and she's playing an exceedingly weird character. Dane DeHaan is playing full-on crazy; but with the amount of character transformation that goes on throughout the action, it's naturally hard to tell whether he is crazy or not (a characteristic the movie shares with 'Shutter Island'). In short, what you should take from all this is that 'ACFW' is totally off the chain...

Are there issues? Yes. For a start, it's way too derivative of two movies. In particular, the plot smacks of 'Crimson Peak'. And whilst Verbinski takes his effort a lot deeper, darker, and more affecting than Guillermo De Toro's effort; the essential plot beats are there. If 'A Cure for Wellness' hasn't been influenced by it, then I'll be incredibly surprised. The second is 'Shutter Island'. There's the setting, the unease, the central mystery to uncover, and the jutting in and out of insanity. Again, an incredibly accurate match. I'm willing to concede that with this movie, we get something a lot more extreme than either of these two influences; but there's just too much in common to dismiss the resemblance. Secondly, for some it may drag on for too long. This movie is two and a half hours in length - a colossal time for a horror flick to run to. If you're not the sort of person who enjoys a slow-burn, technical piece of work - and favors something more fast-paced then this isn't one for you. And, finally, I think there's a lot of unnecessary exposition that could be trimmed from the start of the film (what's that opening scene, anyway).

A unique blockbuster horror experience.
So there you have it - what an enigma of a film. It's very long, very creepy, and very beautiful to look at. It moves slowly, without recourse to jumpscares or any particular conventional horror whatsoever, yet will definitely leave a lasting impact on you as a viewer. It's disgusting, perverse, and just about as weird as Hollywood can get before turning off the funding tap. In fact, I'm surprised we even made it this far. It's a perfect fit for a cult audience, and I'm sure we'll be enjoying it's sick pleasures in many years to come.
'A Cure for Wellness' gets 4 stars!

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