There are few films that scare me as much as The Ring scared me the first time I saw it ... and the second time ... and the third time. Director Gore Verbinski has knack for crafting menacing atmosphere with stylish visuals; after The Ring I was afraid to look at TV screens and was disturbed by the mere appearance of Brian Cox in a movie (and once when I saw him in real life). Verbinski brings a similarly eerie palette to A Cure for Wellness. This horror thriller may not be as sharp or as terrifying as The Ring, but it’s still one of the nuttiest and most original horror movies a major studio has produced in years.

Co-written by Verbinski and Justin Haythe (The Lone Ranger, Revolutionary Road), A Cure for Wellness opens with the death of a stock broker after his receipt of a mysterious letter. The letter is from his company’s CEO, Mr. Pembroke, who’s taken a spa vacation in the Swiss Alps and writes to inform his colleagues he won’t be returning. That’s a problem for the money-hungry company, so they send the young and eager Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan doing his best douchebag Wall Street bro), to scoop Pembroke up and bring him back to New York.

When Lockhart arrives at the Volmer Institute, a place known for the healing powers of its local mountain water, he finds hostile employees, a “special case” (Mia Goth) who hums a ghostly lullaby, and zombie-like patients. Former CEOs of major corporations have all left their jobs to rejuvenate with hydrotherapy, croquet, and water aerobics run by Jason Isaacs’ Dr. Heinreich Volmer.

There are traces of The Matrix in A Cure for Wellness and the idea that the modern world as we know it is a cancerous and deceptive facade. In Pembroke’s letter he writes about the “sickness inside of us” put there by corporate structures and greed, mirroring the language of Agent Smith’s speech to Morpheus. Early on Verbinski and his Ring cinematographer Bojan Bazelli even mimic the grey and green hues and reflective windows of the Wachowskis’ film. But A Cure for Wellness soon veers away from Matrix-like concepts and starts to resemble Shutter Island, as Lockhart begins to uncover the lunacy at the institute’s center. While everyone may come to the spa to escape the prison of the real world, it’s clear the institute is their new prison, and the water may be what’s making them sick.

A Cure for Wellness seems poised to offer a sharp commentary on modern society, but it doesn’t quite deliver. The film has a lot of ideas but says very little, along with a twist you’ll guess 15 minutes in and an arduous runtime of 146 minutes. It feels like the rough draft of what could’ve been a horror classic.

And yet for all of its flaws, I couldn’t help but admire how completely nuts and audacious it is. This movie doesn’t just go off the rails, it launches off a cliff, sets itself on fire, then keeps driving forward as a pile of flaming wreckage. This movie has incest, violent animal birth, rooms full of floating naked bodies, a character who literally rips their own face off, and a naked Mia Goth casually bathing with giant eels. A Cure for Wellness loses its damn mind and doesn’t care what you think. We rarely see a major studio give a director this much free rein, and it’s a relief to see something this wacky that’s not a remake, reboot, or adaptation.

It’s Verbinski’s eye that makes A Cure for Wellness such a wild, nightmarish treat. The film is overflowing with disturbing imagery evocative of The Ring – there’s even a boy hypnotically drawing black circles with a crayon. While few of the visuals are subtle – after 15 closeups of water, we get it, there’s something up with the water – Verbinski eventually gets into a frightful groove. By the last hour and a half, a stifling and uncomfortable atmosphere hangs over A Cure for Wellness. There’s one scene that freaked me out so deeply I shut my eyes and considered stepping out of the theater for air (anyone with irrational fear of dentists or teeth-related nightmares, you are hereby warned). It’s a welcome return to the horror genre for Verbinski following the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and The Lone Ranger, proving that he still knows how to leave an audience with a heavy bout of anxiety.

With 40 minutes shaved off the runtime and a tighter narrative, A Cure for Wellness would be a much more solid film. But even at this length, part of its charm is sitting in anticipation wondering what Verbinski will do next. Watching it is like listening to a friend frantically recount a nightmare. Parts of it drag, parts make absolutely no sense. And the freakiest parts make you consider sleeping with the lights on, and staying away from spas for the foreseeable future.


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