While many works of fiction strive for the label of Lovecraftian, very few live up to the title. Trust me, I’ve seen more than my fair share. I love cosmic horror and the term Lovecraftian is irresistible to me and I am almost always disappointed. Then I saw the movie, A Cure for Wellness. It has that eerie, alien feel that proves so elusive to so many other contenders. It doesn’t quite embody cosmic horror, there’s no sense of a terror so large that it encompasses the planet or some god-like entity from outer space, but certainly a feeling that something is just…off. The sense that reality is not as solid as we thought and that there are corners of the world where man is not the only form of sentient life.
The movie follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan of The Amazing Spiderman 2 and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), an employee who is tasked with retrieving the absent CEO of a large company. The CEO went off to an exclusive spa in the Swiss Alps and has not been seen or heard from since, except for a cryptic letter, in which he sounds bat-shit insane. Just as Lockhart is arriving at the spa, he is involved in a major car accident and regains consciousness, in the spa, to find his leg in a cast. That’s when he meets Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs from Star Trek Discovery and the Harry Potter films), the enigmatic proprietor of the spa and, shortly after, Hannah (Mia Goth of Nymphomaniac and Suspiria), a patient at the spa. I would describe her as a manic pixie girl, if she weren’t so damn creepy, almost inhuman. And while Dr. Volmer is quite personable, he will still give viewers the willies, though they won’t quite know why. Or maybe that’s just Isaacs. Through out the film, Lockhart never quite seems to find the CEO, and then, when he tries to leave, he finds that impossible, as well. In his explorations, Lockhart sees plenty of weirdness, but nothing compared to when he starts to get treatments himself. Let’s just say that there’s a lot of worms involved. I can’t say much more without giving anything away, but, while the movie does start a little slow, it gets to edge of your seat territory soon enough.
I am not very familiar with the works of DeHaan or Goth, but I have loved Jason Isaac’s work for years. I loved him in Case Histories, was very happy to see him in Star Trek: Discovery and was so, so disappointed when Awake was canceled. Regardless of his role, I’ve always felt that he’s given his all to to the part. There’s a certain weightiness to his acting, a gravitas that makes me think he performed nothing but Shakespeare, before making the leap to film, but what the hell do I know. I would love to tell you to go see the series Awake, since some have described Isaac’s acting in it Emmy worthy, but I can’t, in good conscience, recommend a one-season show to anyone. In it, Isaac’s plays a police detective, who is in a serious car crash with his family, in which, he loses his wife or his son. That “or” isn’t a typo. For the extent of the show, Isaac’s character lives in two realities; one in which his wife survived, but when he goes to sleep, his reality changes into one in which his son survived. These fluctuating realities, and the confusion behind which one is “real” is a central theme of the show. Writers for Awake had to keep track of two separate realities and timelines to avoid continuity errors. It was a phenomenal show and I have no idea why on Earth it was canceled. As to the other two actors, all I can say is that I’m glad I saw DeHaan in A Cure for Wellness first, because Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets totally sucked balls.
I wish I could talk about how this movie is genre bending, because the mystery behind the spa is key to the plot and there is a bit of romance between Lockhart and Hannah, but the oppressive unease that it fills one with places it squarely in the realm of horror. The way many of the characters act, one could be convinced that they aren’t really human at all and could take off their skins at any moment, revealing their true, horrifying nature. The conspiracy to manipulate and control Lockhart had me paranoid the entire time, like I was trapped, with the walls closing in. We never quite feel that his life at risk, there is no ax wielding manic hunting him down to dismember him or inhuman monster hungry for his flesh, but he is slowly tortured, in a variety of ways, and through watching this, we experience this torture as well. In fact, if I were to level one bit of criticism at this movie, it’s that it’s so damn long. While I was entertained by the non-stop anxiety the film induces, at almost two and a half hours, the run time may be more than most audiences can bear.
For all the negative emotions that I rattled off, this is a gorgeous film. Beautifully filmed, this may be one of the prettiest horror films I’ve seen. Filmed in the Swiss Alps, at a sanitarium that hosted Adolf Hitler and where political prisoners were lobotomized, the movies walks a line between horrific and ethereal. Like a fever dream that one wakes from, covered in sweat, plagued by vague fears that fade from the mind as consciousness takes hold, but remain in the pit of one’s gut, this film is psychological torture porn. I’ll be the first to admit that A Cure for Wellness may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it strikes a chord in me that few other movies do. Perhaps that’s why no one ever wants to go to the theater with me?