From the initial previews, A Cure for Wellness could be interpreted as an atypical, horror asylum movie where the protagonist falls through a cliché storyline that the majority of horror fans have seen numerous times over.
So, needless to say, as I entered the theater I did not have high expectations for A Cure for Wellness. I either half expected it to be one-dimensional or a Shutter Island-type film where you are not sure what is real and what is not. However, although, admittedly, I could not have been more wrong, the marketing does not do this film justice.
Throughout the promotional cycle, the idea is put forth that A Cure for Wellness is a psychological horror movie, which, again, is in keeping with previously-held assumptions that it’s simply another, stereotypical asylum film. However, A Cure for Wellness is a gothic mystery that has strong horror elements that make it into an instant classic.
Recently, there have been several movies like A Cure for Wellness, which are marketed and sold as horror films, but fall into a different category that is slightly more complicated (and harder to sell). Crimson Peak shares this similarity with A Cure for Wellness, in that while there are intense scenes of horror, they are on the backburner compared to the greater aspect of the story.
Both of these movies also have overarching characters more reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe work or even Lovecraftian literature. While Crimson Peak focuses on a twisted love triangle, A Cure for Wellness dwindles between the blurred lines of science and belief.
In A Cure for Wellness the main character, Mr. Lockhart (played by Dane DeHaan, of Chronicle and The Amazing Spider-Man 2) has to retrieve a board member of his financial company so the remaining members can pin financial irregularities to him in the face of an upcoming audit. Lockhart travels to Sweden to retrieve said board member from a spa at the foot of the Alps where he learns that all the patients are there for “the cure.”
Upon his arrival, Lockhart is treated to a fairytale-like journey where beautiful cinematography is juxtaposed with unsettling scenes and stories. While he is being driven to the sanatorium, the viewer is treated to breathtaking shots of the Alps while Lockhart is being told the horrific story of the castle’s origins.
During another sequence, Lockhart is glancing at a piece of the old castle in the courtyard and one of the patients thrusts a book in his lap to show him that that was the spot where a priest was hanged not so long ago. These scenes are just two of the many that keep the viewer in a mystery-style suspicion, not in horror-esque suspense.
A Cure for Wellness’ other main claim to gothic mystery has a lot to do with the characters within the film. Lockhart himself is a flawed, borderline unlikable character, but while you start off hating him, the film soon reveals why he is cynical and cold-blooded. His childhood is filled with tragedy and unanswered questions while as an adult he replaced wonder and joy with calculating ambition.
In this way Lockhart himself is a caricature of an Edgar Allen Poe character, someone who is defined and transformed by grief and pain. On the other hand, his female counterpart in the movie, Hannah, (played by The Survivalist and Nymphomaniac: Vol. II’s Mia Goth) is a whimsical young woman who, despite suspecting wrongdoing at the sanatorium, does not question the head doctor who takes care of her.
She sees the world through sheltered eyes in a childlike innocence despite her age and she is the perfect opposite of Lockhart, showing an opposite reaction to what is happening throughout the story.
Also, as we get further into the story, and the meat of the movie, the grandeur delusions of the sanatorium such as pleasantries, healing, and compassion fade and the sinister inner workings begin to arise. As Lockhart dives deeper into what is really happening at the sanitarium his horrific discoveries provide more questions than answers.
It is here that the viewer is treated to more traditional horror elements, such as a remarkable dentist scene and force-feeding. Up until this point, there were creepy moments, but mostly just a piqued curiosity as to why.
The third act of the movie quickens the pace that the first two set the stage for, and it mortifies the audience as we all become privy to what exactly is happening and what is “the cure”. The bolder elements of the argument that this is a gothic mystery also rear their head and the mix of horror and dread make the ending gripping and satisfying.
While A Cure for Wellness has breathtaking horror scenes, with practical effects, horror is just the icing on top of a movie that makes you question reality, sanity, and if we are all afflicted with the bile that plagues humanity. It’s a gothic mystery with horror credentials that belie its deeper questions.