Atmosphere is an important element of horror movies. If the atmosphere isn’t consistently creepy, then it isn’t good horror. But atmosphere isn’t the most important element — that honor, of course, still belongs to character and story. Gore Verbinski might have done well to remember that before directing “A Cure for Wellness,” a horror picture that aims to be “The Shining,” only to drown under the weight of its unwieldy twists and turns.
The film takes place at a creepy Swiss sanatorium that was once the castle of a sinister baron whose wife was murdered by the local villagers. Wealthy elderly folk arrive at the sanatorium and live out their days within its sterile white walls, apparently too happy to leave.
One of them is the CEO of an important financial company, and a young executive, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), is sent to retrieve him. Lockhart sets out on his journey thinking his visit would be brief, but after he breaks his leg in a car accident, he is forced to stay at the sanatorium under the care of the eerie Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Volmer encourages Lockhart to become acquainted with the sanatorium more intimately, and reminds him to drink plenty of its natural spring water.
However, the longer Lockhart stays, the less benign this wellness center appears. Patients receive treatments against their will, Lockhart’s physical condition begins to worsen and the sanatorium’s youngest patient, Hannah (Mia Goth), seems to be Volmer’s prized prisoner.
Verbinski does a good job building the mystery of what the sanatorium really is. The creepy architecture and lifeless nurses set an uncomfortable mood that never quite budges; even when things seem fine, we can feel they are not. He makes use of ominous motifs, such as black eels and Hannah’s foreboding humming. In the film’s greatest stroke of genius, the life-giving substance that is water suddenly induces dread. Verbinski associates it with death when a man suffers a heart attack immediately after drinking of cup of water.
Having DeHaan at the center of it all proves a smart choice – his youthful looks make him appear more vulnerable in the clutches of the sanatorium’s dark forces. As the movie progresses, his performance highlights the growing insanity of his character. Goth works well as DeHaan’s onscreen companion, and her similarly unique appearance lends Hannah a childish innocence, even though the character is an adult.
But “A Cure for Wellness” stumbles halfway when it fails to sustain the opening’s tension. Verbinski and writer Justin Haythe pad out the running time with multiple moments of body horror as Volmer punishes Lockhart repeatedly for snooping about, but each plays with diminishing returns. Much of the film is composed of scenes that do not contribute in any way to driving the plot forward and only serve as retreads of events that happened just ten minutes before. A lot of things happen, but rarely do they matter.
The answer to the sanatorium’s mystery, though, is not worth the wait. One would think “A Cure for Wellness,” with its commentary on the human desire for longevity, would come up with something smarter than the disappointingly rote twist it offers. It’s not a grand finale — it’s a whimper with a poorly-realized CGI monster whose machinations in the sanatorium have the most boring of motivations.
“A Cure for Wellness” is like procrastination. It seems like a good idea at first, but the longer it takes to get to the point, the worse it becomes. This movie needed a doctor, all right — a script doctor.
“A Cure for Wellness”
Running Time: 146 minutes
Score: 2/5 stars