Dumped into the February wastes in 2017 to a largely apathetic public, A Cure for Wellness came and went with nary a trace. Those who saw it seemed to find it baffling, or disgusting, or over-long, or all three. For me, however, it was one of the best movies of 2017, no mean feat in a year that saw an absolute wealth of excellent films.
A Cure for Wellness can accurately be described as a Gothic horror film. It certainly has all the features of the genre, from ominous letters to a spooky location (in this case a spa) to mad science to crimes against God. But it also has just a touch of cosmic horror about it, notably in its repeated use of eel imagery. We’ll get into all of that later, but for now the easiest thing to bear in mind is that, in the 1950’s, this movie would have been 70 minutes long and starred Vincent Price as the antagonist.
Long on Plot (LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD)
But what is the film actually about? Dane DeHaan plays Mr. Lockhart. I don’t know if his first name is ever given, which is perfect, because Lockhart is a soulless, impersonal corporate stooge. DeHaan was horrifically miscast in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and perfectly cast here because he is a weaselly little dude who simultaneously looks fourteen and like a used up forty-year-old while simultaneously. Lockhart has risen to prominence in his vaguely Wall Street corporation through a bunch of vague, shady business tactics and the sudden death by heart attack of another executive, depicted in detail in the film’s opening. The executives know all about Lockhart’s crimes, and present him with a choice: go retrieve another executive, Pembroke, from his spa retreat in Europe so they can pin their federal crimes on him, or be the fall guy in his place.
It’s a nasty little inciting incident. It’s all very Hollywood Corporate, short on detail but long on amorality and chilly detachment. It’s complicated by the fact that Pembroke has sent a letter–a physical letter–full of insane ramblings about why he won’t be returning to the company. He has found the cure for modern life in his retreat, and sees no reason to return to the sickness of society.
Needless to say, there is some shit going down at the spa. Lockhart heads out on his mission, and finds an idyllic, if old-fashioned, spa nestled in the Swiss Alps. Everyone at the spa is a rich executive from a major corporation, and they all seem happy and enthusiastic about their stay. So enthusiastic, in fact, that nobody ever seems to leave. After a grisly car accident with a deer, Lockhart finds his leg broken and himself a guest in the facility. And so begins his quest to find Pembroke, which gets derailed by his curiosity in unraveling the mystery of the spa and its miraculous healing water.
Horror in Beauty
We’ll get back to the plot and its themes in a bit. Let’s talk about how this film looks first. Directed by Gore Verbinski–The Ring, Rango, Pirates of the Caribbean–directs the film with precision and an eye for details. Virtually any frame could be pulled from the film and hung on a wall for its composition. The audio is also perfect and matches the visuals exactly. The whole aesthetic is sumptuous. I don’t know if I can explain it, but it’s one of those movies where you notice every creak of a leather chair, every rustle of a paper, every click of a shoe on linoleum. Coupled with the languid pace of the film, and the whole experience becomes one which the audience inhabits.
I want to make special note of Verbinski’s skill at filming water. There is a lot of water in this film: it’s critical to the plot, as it is the secret of the spa’s healing abilities. Verbinski finds a lot of different ways to use it, from an ominous isolation tank to a placid pond to swimming pools to…other things, and it all looks great. It helps to lend the film a certain quality that you don’t see very often (I suspect that The Shape of Water might also channel it).
Return to the Plot (MAJOR SPOILERS)
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the specifics of the film’s plot. It’s structured as a mystery, and while it won’t be too hard for you to figure out exactly what’s going on before the explanation is provided, I’d still urge you to watch the film yourself, as I think it offers a certain novelistic pleasure in the machinery of the plot unfolding.
SPOILER The spa was built atop the ruins of a castle. The local baron had been conducting experiments on the peasants and tried to marry his sister, and now a couple of hundred years later it has been turned into a medical facility. Except the baron never left: he survived the fire, thanks to the healing properties of the water in the local aquifer.
Unfortunately, the water is also toxic, and in order for it to be safe, he had to devise a way to extract the essence of the local, seemingly immortal eels, hence the experiments. The baron realized that he could use human bodies as water filters: water (and eels) go in, and the humans sweat out the immortality elixir. Unfortunately, he suffers from monster-ism, presumably from surviving a fire and using early, imperfect versions of the cure. Oh well, that’s the price we sometimes have to pay for science!
The baron’s end goal is to wait for his daughter–his daughter/niece–to reach maturity. When the peasants burned down the castle, they cut the incestuous offspring out of the baron’s wife/sister and tossed her in the aquifer. Somehow, the baby survived and grew up drinking daddy’s immortality elixir, making her a child for seemingly a hundred or two hundred years.
Lockhart, of course, befriends the daughter, and saves her from being raped by the baron in an extremely graphic and upsetting scene, and the two escape as the deranged patients watch the spa burn down once again. END SPOILER
What does it all mean? (MORE SPOILERS)
When you spell it all out you can see why people found it to be a bit tedious. One hundred and forty-six minutes for a B-movie about SPOILER an incestuous monster man? END SPOILER Yeah, I can see how people didn’t respond, especially considering the addition of a few ghastly, graphic scenes involving teeth, eels, and sexual assault.
But what if the film was also Lovecraftian? And critical of the modern economy? What’s that? You want me to explain? *locks door as readers begin to get nervous*
SPOILER First, the eels are clearly supernatural. The film says that the water has hallucinogenic properties, but the eels are most definitely real and behave in ways that eels quite simply wouldn’t and even couldn’t. They devour people who fall into the aquifer, but not, notably, the baron’s daughter, who they have an unexplained connection with. She is curious about Lockhart, and in turn the eels are curious about him as well, swarming over him and creeping into his toilet. When the daughter finally has her first period, the eels swarm in and circle around her in…celebration? Sympathy? I don’t pretend to know, but they are clearly aware of what’s going on.
The Lovecraftian nature of the film is largely incidental to the plot, which I find interesting. It doesn’t matter one whit that the eels are…whatever they are. It just adds a touch of surreal qualities to the proceedings, rather like how the existence of ghosts doesn’t change the fact that the Overlook is, for most of the year, a normal hotel.
Second, the film seems to have a very Lovecraftian approach to economics. Modern society is indeed an illness, according to the film. What we see of the city is a rain-drenched, miserable place, where hard-working executives die trying to drink water from plastic jugs–water as death is a recurring image–and young men grow up fatherless, alienated from others, and driven to unhealthy habits by nothing more than an all-consuming drive for profit. But the spa offers a cure for being consumed in the depravity of modern life: mindless bliss in which your body is healed even as you are consumed for the benefit of the few. It’s capitalism every which way you look, slowly drowning every insignificant person. “Drink deep,” says A Cure for Wellness, “and die of poison, or give in and drown instead.”
That’s an insanely dark message, and I don’t know what to make of the film’s final shot, with Lockhart, having escaped with the baron’s daughter, maniacally riding a bicycle from the burning ruins of the spa with an evil grin upon his face. END SPOILER
So that’s A Cure for Wellness. Is it a good film? I don’t know. I liked it a lot. But it’s grim and slow and strange and gruesome. If you like Gothic horror, you should definitely give it a shot. If you want to see what a Lovecraftian film might look like if Lovecraft was interested in economic despair more than racism, you might also like it.
A Note on Gruesomeness
I’ve mentioned it a few times, but the film does have a couple of pretty shockingly graphic scenes. I am a squeamish person and made it through the film, but these scenes are there. They are pretty well telegraphed, however, so if you need to look away, you definitely will have time. Just, uh, remember what I said about the film having good sound quality if the sounds are likely to get to you.