What happens when the impresario behind two manic Pirates of the Caribbean flicks and Rango sets out to emulate The Shining? Not a masterpiece, but nothing easily forgettable, either. Longer and more ambitious than director Gore Verbinski's previous horror effort The Ring, A Cure for Wellness earns its place in the small pantheon of stylish scare flicks that reach for profundity but mainly achieve a toothsome pulpiness.
This is a film in which visual motifs are far more lovingly developed than characters. That's clear from the opening scene, in which a New York finance executive (Craig Wroe) reads a handwritten, seemingly deranged letter from a colleague, then succumbs to a heart attack.
While the man's death has negligible bearing on the plot, all the scene's accoutrements — a sinister burping water cooler, glittering reflections on a ceiling, skyscrapers looming like sea monsters through the murk — tell us what the film is actually about, or wants to be. Water, the basis of life. Reflective surfaces. (Humanity is the only species capable of self-reflection, one of those portentous letters helpfully informs us.) And the monstrous nature of modern corporate life.
That last theme is embodied by our protagonist, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a scheming up-and-comer who takes the dead man's place at the firm. To save his career from the fallout of his own misdeeds, he must go to Switzerland and retrieve the author of the letters: Pembroke (Harry Groener), who checked into a utopian "wellness center" in the Alps and never checked out.
Anyone familiar with the history of horror, from Dracula to Hostel, knows where this is going. The spa is the dark castle of our hoariest nightmares, complete with unsettling backstory, steampunk plumbing, underground passages and a forlorn maiden in a white dress (Mia Goth). Once Lockhart arrives, circumstances naturally conspire to trap him there. And the spa director (Jason Isaacs) seems all too disturbingly insistent on the power of the local water to cleanse those corporate toxins.
The plot is a cat-and-mouse game in which the fresh-faced ugly American does his best to outwit the forces of old-world decadence, with diminishing success. Boyishly handsome with a heartless gleam in his eye, DeHaan gives the character a fun, nasty zing. But hints that the film will delve into the protagonist's troubled psyche, Shutter Island-style, don't pay off. Lockhart doesn't reveal new sides so much as simply undergo a series of increasingly invasive "treatments" that will have squeamish moviegoers hiding their eyes. (Bothered by dental drills? Or eels? Stay away.)
Anyone expecting a meaningful payoff from the script's lofty talk of spiritual health and disease will be disappointed; for all its length and visual artistry, A Cure for Wellness is no more profound than Hostel. Both films are about callow egotists finding their strength through ghastly punishment — and, more than anything, both cater to the audience's desire to see such arrogance brought low.
It's not much of a goal — a sadistic one, perhaps. Yet Verbinski achieves it with such impeccable atmospherics and pictorial flair, drawing on the whole history of movies about creepy hotels and institutions, that fans of this gothic subgenre should have a look. More outré than actually scary, Wellness is no The Shining. But it does suggest a Hammer horror flick filtered through the self-awareness of The Grand Budapest Hotel, every image designed to reflect our expectations back at us with a knowing, malevolent wink.