The reports of body horror and gross-out sequences in A Cure for Wellness have been grossly exaggerated.
This is a problem when you’re sold on a movie as a shockfest of Cronenbergs and good ol’ Lovecraftian horror. Normally I’m not one for goreporn—I’ll never go anywhere near a Saw movie—but I already wanted to see this flick and I figured if the trailers were tame, then the seriously messed-up parts had to be something truly special.
They are not. There are also very few of them.
The plot for A Cure for Wellness is a fairly standard Shadow over Insmouth clone dressed up in a modern setting: Stock-broker Lockhart is blackmailed into going to a Swedish hospital to retrieve Pembroke, the owner of said stock-broking company. It’s shady money stuff. Lockhart then breaks his leg and winds up stuck in the hospital, which is, of course, not what it seems.
While there, he learns about the mysterious past of the place, finds out some nasty stuff, and bad things happen to him.
I’ll admit to attending A Cure for Wellness in the wrong mindset. When you’re upsold on a specific thing, you go in wanting to get to that thing right away and damn the rest. However, it’s not my fault the rest is a two and a half hour slog of basic horror. When I say this is a Shadow over Insmouth clone, I’m not lying.
From the moment Lockhart arrives at the hospital, you know there’s something wrong. Everyone has that Insmouth feel.
You also know that it’s a horror movie.
Let’s take a quick step back and look at The Shining. You know going into that novel that you’re in for Stephen King horror, that the Overlook Hotel is a bad place, and that by the end, people are going to be dead. And then you start reading and forget you’re reading a book. The Torrance family are too interesting, their characters so fleshed out that you just want to learn more. When bad things start happening, you fear for them. When the supernatural elements hit, they’re compelling, and you dive deeper into the narrative.
The book owns you.
A Cure for Wellness doesn’t do that. It’s a problem of character, because at the end of the day, no one is interesting or sympathetic enough to get you to really care. Lockhart’s a complete douche, and Hanna isn’t really around enough to serve more than her plot purpose. The only reason you feel anything for either is because they don’t deserve the crap that happens to them.
Lockhart is also plot-stuck in the hospital. I can’t tell if he’s simply narrow-minded or just stupid, but there are so many red flags about the hospital that it’s intellectually offensive when he doesn’t use any of his chances (plural) to escape without Pembroke. It never even occurs to him!
The movie tries to play at psychological horror and unreliability, that maybe Lockhart’s bad experiences are all hallucinations. It’s a good idea in theory, but it’s never executed well. Does he hallucinate? Yeah. But you can always tell which ones are hallucinations and which aren’t. You also never forget that he’s in a horror movie which takes place in a creepy hospital.
I could never suspend my disbelief, is what I’m saying.
I will, however, give the film its due. The hospital is pretty great. The place is stark white and clean, and of course everyone is drinking the water like it’ll make them live forever if they believe hard enough. It’s creepy. Once you dive a floor down to the hydrotherapy machines, you’re greeted to browns and bronzes and steampunk nightmare contraptions. It’s a hidden evil, but it’s so poorly hidden that it actually becomes interesting for it.
It gets worse the further down Lockhart goes, too.
The movie is also shot really well. I like the color pallet, and I like how creepy and suffocating many of the shots are. It’s also a movie that, when it finally gets around to playing at body horror, doesn’t pull the camera away. At all.
Sadly, there are only three of these scenes. One could argue for a few more, but they never made me uncomfortable. Two at the end are shocking for the sake of it, and neither are executed well enough to warrant anything more than some eye rolls.
The score too is very interesting. There’s a ballerina doll introduced early on and a simple melody to go with her, and this melody appears over and over throughout the flick. It’s used it in all kinds of situations, from the good to the bad, and it always comes off as just a little unhinged. It certainly works.
A Cure for Wellness isn’t what I’d call a good movie, but at the end of the day, I’m not unhappy I saw it. It’s shot well, it makes the creepy hospital work, and the score is fun. There are also some nice body horror elements near the end, even if it takes two goddamned hours to get to them.
The thing is, it’s straight Lovecraftian and I want more Lovecraftian horror in my movies. This one missed the mark, but I’m happy I supported it. The hope is that one day, instead of Hollywood milking A Shadow over Insmouth, they’ll release A Color out of Space or A Shadow out of Time. That would be wonderful.