Before his heady days guiding Johnny Depp through four Disney movies, Gore Verbinski made a name for himself with a particularly effective horror film: the 2002 American remake of The Ring. Back before the days of jump scare-dependent PG-13 offerings, or R-rated torture porn, Verbinski created an atmospheric tale of dread and fear that remembered to make its horror out of actual materials, and not just turning up the volume on a slamming door. Now he's returned to the genre with the brilliant A Cure For Wellness, and frankly, it's a film that proves he belongs in this genre, as Gore Verbinski has delivered the best horror throwback we've seen since Crimson Peak.
Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is working for a shady financial outfit that's going through some woes borne out of an impending merger. To prove himself to the board, and in the name of successfully closing the merger, he's sent to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company's errant CEO. However, a car crash and a helpful but mysterious physician (Jason Isaacs) keep preventing him from going home, drawing him deeper into a mystery surrounding this idyllic spa that no one seems to ever want to leave.
Part of the fun of watching A Cure For Wellness is the fact that the film is constantly a gorgeous treat to look at. From the costume design to the backdrops of the Swiss Alps and Hohenzollern Castle (where Verbinski filmed), everything on the screen has a pleasing aesthetic that offsets the horrors that eventually overtake the film. But using such visuals helps the film build a slow stream of dread and enclosure. Rather than give the viewers a jump cut-laden, door-slamming tale of a boogeyman, Verbinski allows his film to play out in front of your eyes, and doesn't force the scares. If anything, you'll scare yourself expecting the traditional sting of music or elements of surprise.
A Cure For Wellness is what happens when you mix the noir-ish shades of Shutter Island with the Hammer Horror overtones of Crimson Peak, and mix in a dash of Bioshock for good measure. Yet the film never feels too derivative of any of those sources, as the story stands on its own two feet. If anything, with the right mindset, the film also doubles as a political satire, as a spa of eager patrons shut out the modern world in favor of a simpler time. Quite possibly the best compliment that can be paid to the story, a product of the imaginations of Gore Verbinski and co-writer Justin Haythe, is that it's not totally spoiled by the commercials. In fact, it's dense and twisted enough that the best parts aren't even shown in the marketing. How often can one say that?
As far as the performances are concerned, the starring trio of A Cure For Wellness more than carries this gothic noir horror tale. Dane DeHaan shows off his imitation of Jack Nicholson to great effect, as Lockhart starts off as a cocky ladder climber and slowly unravels into a man who can't help but question his surroundings. Jason Isaacs, on the other hand, portrays the head of the institute, Dr. Volmer, with control and confidence to spare. For a while, you really do question if he's the villain of the piece, as the film plays its mysteries with such conviction that it causes us, the viewer, to question our perception of what's going on. And finally, but assuredly not least important, is Mia Goth's Hannah. A resident of the spa, and a "special case" for Dr. Volmer's research, her fairy tale innocence is matched only by her curiosity for the world, which gives the film a couple of great lighter moments that break up the terrifying nature of the film.
Films like A Cure For Wellness don't come around that often, and that's a real shame. Methodically paced, beautifully orchestrated, and deliciously creepy, Gore Verbinski's return to horror really made me sad he never got to make his Bioshock film at Universal. You can tell that Fox is concerned that people are going to reject this film, as its release was moved from last August to this February, usually a slower period at the multiplex. Don't let that happen. I urge you, the audience, to engage in this beautifully dark trip into the sinister corners of cinema, and take A Cure For Wellness as it's directed: in a comfortable theater, with eyes open and popcorn in hand, ready to be impressed by the first true horror film in years.