REVIEW: ‘A Cure for Wellness,’ nightmare factory

Image: Twentieth Century Fox

The whole reboot craze could, arguably, be traced back to a movie that wasn’t even a reboot. Pirates of the Caribbean took a familiar piece of intellectual property and built a juggernaut blockbuster out of its spare parts. And like all fads, there’s always something to the original that explains the allure. Sure, Pirates (and, to an even greater extent, its immediate sequel) were bloated beyond all standards of good taste, narratively impenetrable, and irritatingly enamored of Johnny Depp’s mugging, but they’re also deliriously kinetic and inventive—blockbuster filmmaking as a Tex Avery short.

But those movies weren’t at all short, and that kind of juvenile excess isn’t sustainable. By the time The Lone Ranger came along, the whole thing became a bad joke; the bubble burst. That movie remains Disney’s worst financial failure to date, and it single-handedly ruined Verbinski’s name.

While audience primed for a Great Recession reboot of the Heaven’s Gate debacle primed to pounce, The Lone Ranger flew right over everyone’s heads. Channeling every Western trope from Buster Keaton’s The General to John Ford’s American visions to Sergio Leone’s Italian revisions, The Lone Ranger is a pastiche monument—a century’s worth of cinematic myth told in pantomime.

That’s not to say it’s an intellectual feast; that movie’s pleasures were strictly visual. But Westerns have always worked best as silents anyway. The same goes for horror movies, and so it’s no wonder Verbinski would mount his comeback with A Cure for Wellness, a for-the-ages exercise in baroque pastiche.

Turning away from Western signposts and toward midcentury European horror, Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe (co-writer on The Lone Ranger) take the basic outline of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and filter it through the gothic dread of Mario Bava and the schlocky jolts of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle, amplifying those movies’ sexually charged Victoriana and bonkers Freudianism to outrageously grotesque heights.

Verbinski has always been equally skilled with excess and synthesis; he first hit it big with his Hollywood adaptation of J-horror centerpiece The Ring. Here, he seems aware of the narrative similarity to Martin Scorsese’s underappreciated Shutter Island. Scorsese filtered his movie through the lean, psychocentric freakouts of postwar Hollywood like Shock Corridor. Next to it, A Cure for Wellness is even more lurid—a lowbrow take on already lowbrow junk. But it’s beautiful junk. It constructs a nightmare of turn-of-the-century sanitarium ephemera, lining ornate hallways and sterile operating theaters with Industrial Age contraptions that suggest Gilded Age torture chambers.

Verbinki’s vision of mechanized excess ultimately metastasizes into the movie itself, and like the Pirates series and The Lone Ranger, it runs out of steam long before long before its appropriately bonkers finale. But any mainstream also-ran that invokes both Thomas Mann and Mario Bava has it heart in the right place. It may be snake-oil art, but that doesn’t dull its psychosomatic effects, and this is one potent concoction.

A Cure for Wellness. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Justin Haythe. Starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, and Mia Goth. Opens in Kansas City February 17, 2017.

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