A Cure for Wellness, Gore Verbinski's eerie and atmospheric new horror film, looks like something supreme schlockmeister Roger Corman might have produced back in the day -- if he'd been handed a boatload of cash and was given a green light to spend it on just one picture, that is. And that's meant as a compliment: This movie is a demented riff on notable psychological thrillers like The Shining, Shutter Island, and The Phantom of the Opera, and it tosses in the most disturbing dental-work scene since Laurence Olivier did squirm-inducing things to Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. It's certainly the most deliriously deranged picture you're likely to see this year.
Dane DeHaan stars as a would-be wolf of Wall Street named Lockhart, who is sent by his company's board of directors to bring back Pembroke (Harry Groener), their CEO, from a remote Swiss spa that he refuses to leave. Lockhart fancies that he'll pack up Pembroke in a jiffy and the two of them will be back in New York the next day. But when he arrives at the Volmer Institute -- set high atop a majestic Alpine peak -- he's told that he's missed visiting hours by just 10 minutes, and is forced to leave and come back the next day to see Pembroke. On his way down the mountain, his chauffeured car is involved in a horrific accident and he is knocked unconscious. When he awakes, he has a massive cast on his leg and is now a patient at the sanitarium. He eventually meets Pembroke (who, indeed, has no plans to depart), as well as several other patients, mostly elderly, who spend the majority of their time playing croquet, doing crossword puzzles, or undergoing daily wellness treatments. They also seem to exist in a sort of mental fog that makes it easy for their caretakers to manipulate them.
In addition, Lockhart encounters fellow guest Hannah (Mia Goth), a naïve young woman anxiously awaiting the return of her father when she gets better, and Volmer (Jason Isaacs) the institute's charismatic founder, who convinces him to undergo treatment himself while he recuperates. But the so-called wellness treatments, which include being submerged in a sensory-deprivation chamber, cause Lockhart to slowly become unhinged and lose his grip on reality. Soon, he realizes that Volmer is hiding sinister secrets, and that no one who enters the hilltop sanctuary is ever allowed to leave.
A Cure for Wellness unfolds at a pace that's deliberate but never dull, and it pulls viewers in mostly through its hypnotic setting. Verbinski (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, The Ring) filmed the exteriors at Germany's Hohenzollern Castle and the interiors at the abandoned Beelitz-Heilstätten military hospital near Berlin. His curious camera prowls the latter's endless sterile corridors and dank, menacing spaces, creating a smothering, claustrophobic effect that makes viewers feel as trapped as the spa's zombified residents. Kudos should also go to Bojan Bazelli's moody cinematography, Eve Stewart's unsettling production design, and Justin Haythe's carefully calibrated script, all of which amplify the dread considerably. As for the actors, DeHaan, Isaacs, and Goth deliver the requisite goods, but special props to DeHaan (who is in virtually every scene) for giving an intense performance while wearing an immense cast and hobbling around on creaky crutches.
Wellness isn't a surefire cure for what ails the current spate of mostly dismal horror flicks -- unfortunately, it devolves into ludicrous camp in its final reel and is at least a half hour too long -- but it's still a refreshing throwback to the brooding, slow-churning scarefests that American International and Hammer routinely cranked out back in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, albeit on budgets that likely wouldn't have covered the catering costs on Verbinski's film. A Cure for Wellness is nothing more than silly cinematic hokum, but it's fun, high-end hokum that crackles with demented delight -- which, in these wintry dog days of movies, is something worth celebrating.