Most people probably know Gore Verbinski as the director of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. As successful as those films were, it’s easy to forget just how bizarre they were, as well as being easily the darkest and most violent films Disney had ever produced. Verbinski delivered another bizarre blockbuster with The Lone Ranger in 2013, but this one wasn’t nearly as successful, instead becoming one of the most expensive flops of all time.
Verbinski’s latest effort, A Cure for Wellness, was released this last February, and is one of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen. It also underperformed at the box office, grossing $26 million against a $40 million budget. Be warned, I’m going to spoil the heck out of this movie. Also, there will be a high Ick Factor, since this movie is genuinely messed up. I’ll avoid getting too graphic, but some of the subject matter in this film is disturbing and gross. You have been warned. Here we go.
Image: 20th Century Fox
The film’s protagonist is a young man named Lockhart, played by Dane DeHaan, who looks a bit like a more pallid version of Leonardo DiCaprio. Lockhart is a real jerk. He’s obsessed with his work as a stockbroker, constantly chews nicotine gum, and is rude and abrasive to others. He is soon summoned to meet with his superiors at his office, who have him read a letter written to the board of directors by the company’s CEO, a man named Roland Pembroke.
Pembroke was at a wellness retreat in Switzerland for a few weeks and has not returned. The bizarre contents of the letter seem to indicate that Pembroke has had a nervous breakdown. His bosses tell Lockhart that they are aware of some of his (Lockhart’s) illegal activities, and that he is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. He is ordered to go to Switzerland and bring Pembroke back, since the company is on the verge of a large merger and they need Pembroke’s authorization. There is also the implication that they will use Pembroke as a scapegoat for any corporate malfeasance.
On the way to the wellness center, which sits atop a hill, Lockhart’s driver Enrico explains to him that there is bad blood between the villagers and the people on the hill. This is because 200 years ago, the baron of the castle became obsessed with keeping his bloodline pure. As a result, he married his sister. But the story goes that she had a mysterious illness, and in his search for a cure, the baron began experimenting on the villagers. After finding the mummified corpses of the baron’s test subjects, the villagers revolted, burning the baron’s castle down and killing his pregnant wife/sister, but not before removing the fetus from her womb and throwing it in the lake.
Yuck. I told you there would be gross stuff. Upon arriving at the spa, which is built atop the ruins of the baron’s burned-down castle, Lockhart’s attempts to meet with Pembroke are met with resistance from the spa’s staff. He’s eventually able to secure a meeting with Pembroke later in the day, and tells Enrico to drive him back down the hill to a hotel. On the way, a deer runs in front of the car, causing it to crash.
Lockhart wakes up at the spa, with his right leg encased in a thick plaster cast. He meets the spa’s director, Dr. Heinreich Volmer, played by Jason Isaacs. Volmer tells Lockhart that he’s been unconscious for three days, and that his office has been informed of the accident and agreed that Lockhart should stay at the spa until further notice. Volmer tells Lockhart to try out the spa’s treatments, and to drink plenty of water. Lockhart drinks a glass of the spa’s water, and discovers a tiny creature wriggling inside a drop of water clinging to the inside of the glass.
That, of course, is a big warning sign that all is not well. Verbinski does an excellent job of establishing a creepy and ominous mood, and the entire film is soaked in dread and menace. It’s also gorgeous to look at. Some of it was filmed at Hohenzollern Castle in Germany, which reminded me a lot of Hogwarts with its sharp-looking towers pointing towards the sky. An abandoned hospital in Germany was also used for the interior locations of the spa. There are some stunning shots in this film, and Verbinski has a hell of an eye for striking compositions.
Image: 20th Century Fox
The rest of the film follows Lockhart as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of the so-called wellness center. Along the way, he meets a young woman named Hannah, played by an actress appropriately named Mia Goth who is 23 but looks about 13. It’s unclear if Hannah is a patient, but she tells Lockhart that Dr. Volmer considers her to be a “special case.” It is also unclear how old she is, she appears to be in her early-to-mid-teens but has a quality of childlike innocence. She also drinks a strange fluid from a small blue bottle on a chain around her neck, which she says are vitamins. Lockhart has seen other people at the spa doing the same thing, including Dr. Volmer himself. She lets Lockhart try some, and he says it tastes like sweaty seafood.
Lockhart meets Pembroke and convinces him to return to New York with him. But later, Lockhart can’t find Pembroke and none of the spa’s staff will tell him where he is. He steals Pembroke’s patient files, but since they’re in German he can’t read them. He discovers x-rays of Pembroke’s mouth, which appears to show his teeth falling out. Lockhart takes the files to a veterinarian in the village, who tells him that one possible cause of Pembroke’s teeth falling out is chronic dehydration. Dehydration? Lockhart is confused by this. The people at the spa drink water all the time. How could they be dehydrated?
Lockhart undergoes some of the spa’s treatments, including being submerged inside a large water tank in what I assume to be a sensory deprivation chamber. The orderly tending to Lockhart gets distracted by a nurse, and the tank begins to fill with slithery, writhing eels. One of them disconnects Lockhart’s breathing tube and he nearly drowns until the orderly and the nurse rescue him. But when he tells them something was in the tank with him, there’s nothing there.
Other strange things start happening. The handle on the toilet in Lockhart’s room rattles periodically on its own. He catches glimpses of what look like bodies being wheeled on gurneys into the ruins of the baron’s old castle late at night. A patient he befriended tells him that the baron’s child, the one removed from his wife/sister and thrown into the lake, somehow survived. Lockhart calls his bosses in New York, only to discover that they had no idea about the accident.
That night, one of Lockhart’s front teeth comes loose and he pulls it out himself. He takes it to one of the nurses, and while she is distracted, he sneaks into some of the secure parts of the hospital and makes some horrifying discoveries. He finds a room full of what appear to be dead bodies floating in tanks of water. One of them is Pembroke. He also finds a large underground chamber next to a pool of water, into which desiccated corpses are dumped and subsequently consumed by eels. He assumes that Dr. Volmer is continuing the baron’s twisted experiments. He finds an underground lair full of jars of nasty-looking things and what look like human faces floating in containers of water. On the wall, there is a painting of a woman who strongly resembles Hannah.
Lockhart, when we first meet him, is a deeply unlikable character. He’s an arrogant jerk. But his tenacity serves him well in his pursuit of the dark secret that lies at the heart of the mysterious wellness center deep in the Swiss Alps. He’s still a jerk, but he becomes a more sympathetic jerk as the film progresses. He goes through some traumatic experiences, and it’s hard not to sympathize with someone who experiences the horrors that he does. Dane DeHaan gives a compelling performance as the lead character, and Jason Isaacs, aka Lucius Malfoy, is chilling as Dr. Volmer.
Isaacs deserves credit for his restrained performance. Volmer could easily have been a mustache-twirling villain, but Isaacs underplays him, which makes him much more frightening. The movie is tense as hell, and the consistently ominous atmosphere coupled with the film’s gorgeous scenery and quality performances makes it compelling, despite the high gross-out factor. It was also a clever move to put Lockhart in a clunky leg cast for much of the movie, so his attempts to escape are hampered by his impaired mobility.
If you thought there was gross stuff earlier, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Upon being discovered, Lockhart is subjected to a horrifying dental procedure that will give anyone with a phobia of dentists or drills nightmares. He manages to escape and flees to the police in the village. The sympathetic police chief promises to help and leaves Lockhart alone to make a phone call. Looking around the chief’s office, Lockhart notices one of the small blue bottles the people from the spa use to take their so-called “vitamins.” The police chief is one of them. There is no escape for Lockhart, or for anyone at the wellness center. He is recaptured by Volmer and subjected to more “treatments.”
Image: 20th Century Fox
He starts to give in and believe that he is not well. But he has a moment of clarity and cuts open the cast on his leg, revealing that it was never broken at all. While this is happening, Hannah is in the swimming pool and has her first period. She runs to Volmer, not knowing what is happening to her. Lockhart arrives, and attempts to convince the patients that Volmer is responsible for making them sick with the tainted spa water.
He is rendered unconscious and when he wakes up, the film’s most disturbing scene commences and we finally learn the secret of what is in the blue bottles of “vitamins.” This is seriously nasty, so prepare yourself. Lockhart awakens to find himself locked in a large metal pod, in a room full of people in similar devices. Volmer appears and tells him that the water from the local aquifer has unique qualities which are toxic to humans but allow the eels living in the water to live hundreds of years. Centuries ago, the baron devised a way to filter the water through the bodies of humans, which is what Volmer now uses the patients for. The process results in the life-prolonging liquid but turns the patients into shriveled corpses, which are then fed to the eels. In a profoundly horrifying scene that is one of the grossest and most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood movie, Volmer forces a tube down Lockhart’s throat and pumps him full of eel-filled water, which is then distilled and collected in the blue bottles.
Disgusting. But that’s not the end. The film has one more big twist up its sleeve. Have you guessed it yet? Here it is: Volmer is the baron and Hannah is his daughter/niece, and they are both hundreds of years old, aging incredibly slowly due to the effects of the eel-water. But here’s the worst part: Volmer has been waiting for Hannah to come of age, so he can impregnate her.
ICK!!! That’s just vile. Gore Verbinski co-wrote the story with Justin Haythe, who also co-wrote The Lone Ranger, and it is one of the most twisted movies I’ve ever seen from a major Hollywood studio (the movie was released by 20th Century Fox). It’s hard to imagine how this film got greenlit in the first place, I would love to have been a fly on the wall during that pitch meeting. If I had to describe the film to someone who had never heard of it, I would call it a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining.
In the film’s climax, Volmer takes Hannah to his underground lair, which reminds me a lot of the Phantom of the Opera’s hideout in various movies. Before he can rape Hannah, Lockhart appears and sets the place on fire. In the ensuing struggle, Volmer tears his face off to reveal his hideously burned and scarred true face. He claims that everything he’s done has been for Hannah, and is about to kill Lockhart when Hannah plants a shovel in his head. He falls into the eel-filled water, and is consumed.
Lockhart and Hannah flee the burning castle on Hannah’s bicycle and literally run smack-dab into a car carrying Lockhart’s bosses, who have gotten fed up with waiting and come to Switzerland to find out what the hell is going on. They ask him about Pembroke. Lockhart tells them Pembroke is gone. They tell him to get in the car. He refuses. They ask what’s wrong with him. “Nothing,” he tells them. “I’m feeling much better now.” He gets back on the bike and rides away with Hannah, as an unhinged grin appears on Lockhart’s face. The film then cuts to black, and that’s the end.
Whew. A Cure for Wellness is a harrowing journey. It’s a twisted carnival ride full of increasingly nightmarish imagery. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t get made very often nowadays. It’s an R-rated extravaganza of depraved monstrosities. It’s also two and a half hours long. I’m not surprised the movie didn’t do well in theaters, it doesn’t have much mainstream appeal. Still, Fox didn’t skimp on the marketing, since the movie had an ad during the most recent Super Bowl. Someone at Fox clearly believed in Gore Verbinski and Justin Haythe’s disturbing vision.
If reading the lurid details about the film makes you want to never ever see it, I completely understand. But I still like it. It’s encouraging to see filmmakers who aren’t afraid to let their imaginations run wild, and encouraging that there are people who support them. I’m not trying to say that A Cure for Wellness is a perfect film. Its flaws are numerous. Its intimidating 146-minute running time could have been shortened by a good twenty minutes, and some scenes drag on longer than they need to. There are plot holes and unexplained images that are thrown in seemingly for the sole purpose of messing with people. The film’s content pushes the limits of good taste more than once, and sometimes it feels like Verbinski and Haythe pile on the grotesqueries and bodily fluids simply because they can, so there is that element of artistic self-indulgence.
Still, some part of me really likes this messed-up movie, and even admires it a little bit. It’s something completely original. It’s not a prequel or a sequel or a remake. It’s not an adaptation of anything. It’s well-made, well-acted, and beautifully filmed. It also just so happens to me profoundly twisted and disturbing. It’s the kind of movie where you’re not sure what is real and what is a product of the protagonist’s increasingly unstable mind. Obviously, it’s not a movie that will appeal to everyone, but if you think you can stomach it (and don’t mind the fact that I’ve thoroughly spoiled the plot) then check it out. It’s the kind of movie where you notice things about it that you didn’t catch the first time. It’s an elaborate puzzle box of a movie that I think time will be kind to.
Coming up next, we all float down here! It’s the long-awaited new version of Stephen King’s terrifying masterpiece, IT. See you next week for scary clowns and ancient evils!