A big part of the horror genre’s appeal to studios is that it’s highly profitable, which is typically a result of the small budgets associated with horror.  A great horror film can stretch its meager budget into something wonderful, never indicating that it was made on a paltry sum. Even less than great films can still turn a profit simply because of how it was made on the cheap. Unless, of course, you’re Gore Verbinski, a director known for visually stunning big-budget spectacles that tend to run a bit overlong.  Not since 2002’s The Ring has Verbinski stepped foot within the horror genre, and for such a bizarre film with a hard R-rating, it’s surprising that not only was this greenlit but that he was granted the large budget to see his vision through.

 The striking gothic aesthetic combined with the haunting, ear-worm score enthralls before slowly giving way to unnerving dread.

The film’s set up is simple; an ambitious young executive is sent to the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company’s CEO from a remote sanitarium in order to set a merger back on track. Of course, things are not what they seem at the sanitarium and the young executive soon finds himself a patient there as his sanity is tested.  He must uncover the truth behind the center’s treatments if he has any hope of leaving.

Both the setting and the psychological element embedded at the core of the film will draw inevitable comparisons to Shutter Island, though the narrative really holds more in common with a classic Hammer or Universal horror film. Albeit with far more strange, otherworldly, and often graphic imagery. Between Verbinski’s strength in world-building and DP Bojan Bazelli’s stunning cinematography, this movie is utterly gorgeous. The striking gothic aesthetic combined with the haunting, ear-worm score enthralls before slowly giving way to unnerving dread.

As previously mentioned, however, Verbinski is not known for brevity and the narrative tends to meander along in the middle.  He’s meticulously pacing out his plot points to crescendo toward an insane climax, but the sense of mystery dissipates too soon as a result. Clues that hint toward the sanitarium’s sinister underpinnings tend to repeat multiple times throughout the two and a half hour run time, so it’s too easy to solve the mystery well ahead of the reveal. The film ends exactly how you’d expect, save for the character arch for the film’s lead, young executive Lockhart played effectively by Dane DeHaan.

 With an overlong run-time that gives way to predictability, there’s still a lot here worth celebrating. 

The film really seems to hone in on the negative aspect of ambition, played up in full by Lockhart’s character journey.  Just what it is the film wants to say about ambition, however, gets lost during the bold finale and Lockhart’s journey concludes in almost hollow fashion. DeHaan carries the film well, though despite this. For his part, Jason Isaacs balances charm and treachery in a role that we’ve seen him nail multiple times before, so no surprises there.

With an overlong run-time that gives way to predictability, there’s still a lot here worth celebrating. Big-budget horror is an extremely rare treat, and Verbinski makes full use of that budget.  An absolutely gorgeous film with an almost dreamy gothic narrative at its core that completely leans into its hard R-rating.  Sure, you might know where the plot threads will connect, but the ride to get there is not quite as predictable.  Violence, nudity, scenes guaranteed to make you squirm, extremely off-putting usage of eels, and an audacious finale that all juxtaposes well with the near elegant fairy tale beneath the veneer. For all that Verbinski wants to say on ambition, there’s no denying that he himself harbors a lot of it. It doesn’t quite reach the heights that he intended, but it’s still an impressive attempt.

A Cure for Wellness will be released in theaters on February 17, 2017.

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