When you're sitting through a bland attempt to remake a decades-old radio series, or a spate of diminishing sequels in an average-at-best franchise, you can forget that filmmakers don't just make movies — they also watch them and love them. With The Lone Ranger and the first three Pirates of the Caribbean flicks on his resume, it's rather easy to do just that where Gore Verbinski is concerned, but every now and then he does something to remind you. Back in 2011, the Oscar-winning animated western Rango did the trick, ensuring every viewer knew just how fond Verbinski is of the genre. Likewise, with A Cure for Wellness, his first horror film since The Ring, Verbinski wears his inspirations on his sleeve. And while it mightn't stand out as a landmark scary effort, it still makes for intriguingly creepy viewing.
For the record, the veteran filmmaker appears to have seen and adored Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, Shutter Island and Crimson Peak, as well as countless '30s gothic fright fests, '70s Italian giallo films, '80s body horror flicks and everything Alfred Hitchcock ever made. Over the course of 146 minutes, A Cure for Wellness plays like the kind of feverish dream you might have after marathoning all of your favourite spooky movies, with your brain trying to mash everything into one over-the-top package.
A labyrinthian sanitarium filled with complacent patients, eerie lullaby-like singing, ravenous eels no one else seems to see, and a history of unrest and incest: you can already spot how some of those filmic influences come into play, can't you? Along with a mysterious young woman (Mia Goth), this is what Wall Street up-and-comer Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) finds when he makes the trip to a wellness centre in the Swiss Alps looking for his company's CEO (Harry Groener). Lockhart thinks that he'll be in and out within 20 minutes, but after an accident he's stuck in plaster and unable to head home, which seems to suit the water therapy-loving doctor-in-charge (Jason Isaacs) quite nicely.
There's no missing the fact that all of the folks seeking some rest and relaxation are high-flying business executives. Verbinski, who came up with the story with his Lone Ranger screenwriter Justin Haythe, isn't particularly subtle with some of the movie's ideas — and that's without even getting into a subplot involving pure bloodlines. But he's also largely unconcerned with splashing around in anything other than H20 galore, a mood of dread and tension, and gorgeously unsettling visuals in pale, icy shades. Diving deep into all three results in the cinematic equivalent of a gloriously macabre synchronised swimming routine; an intricately choreographed sight to behold that keeps the most interesting parts on the surface.
And what a surface it is. Mastering a tone of unease, serving up a sleek, sinister feast for the eyes, and throwing in a wealth of affectionate nods to genre greats mostly keeps the feature afloat. Mostly. Unsurprisingly, A Cure for Wellness struggles with thin characterisations, and even more so when the predictable yet twist-heavy plot tries to wrap up its stretched-out antics. Still, if you've fallen down its well of unhinged delights you'll probably find them part and parcel of the fun.