Next Cult Classic: A Cure for Wellness should be cherished

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Sep 15, 2017, 12:30 PM EDT

Movie studios don't like taking risks. Why should they? They're investing large amounts of money in a product, and they want the maximum amount of return on that product. Something risky is not as likely to rake in the dough as much as something safe and familiar. Something easily digestible.

That's why most big studio films are all so achingly familiar: they follow a tried and true formula, and more often than not it pays off in box office intake. Even if the movie in question is truly terrible. That's how we end up with so many sequels, so many superhero films, and so many superhero sequels.

So it's something of a miracle that a film like A Cure For Wellness exists at all. Somehow, Gore Verbinski talked 20th Century Fox into distributing a work of topsy-turvy madness; a big, bold, confusing, nearly three-hour gothic horror movie with a large budget and no bankable stars. There's something to be cherished about an enormous, unapologetically weird movie that doesn't seem to even care if it loses its audience half-way through.

In Cure, Dane DeHaan is Lockhart, a young executive at a brooding, monolithic financial services firm nestled in the heart of a New York City where it's always raining. The CEO of the company has mysteriously absconded off to a wellness center somewhere in the Swiss Alps, and the firm's partners want Lockhart to go retrieve him.

Up until this point, A Cure for Wellness seems like just another moody thriller, somewhat similar to Verbinski's rainy aqua-blue-tinted remake of The Ring. It's when Lockhart gets to the wellness center that the film reveals itself as something completely off-kilter. The center is a gorgeous, gothic castle, sprawling across a mountainside. It looks idyllic at first, but there's something clearly off about the elderly patients who wander the grounds in bathrobes and the not-so-helpful staff who deflect Lockhart's questions about the location of the missing CEO.

After a car accident strands Lockhart at the castle indefinitely, A Cure For Wellness descends into glorious, icky confusion. A sickly pallor blankets everything and everyone, to the point that you feel like if you get too close to the screen you might catch something. The film is set in the present day, yet the interior of the castle is trapped in a sort of time-warp where the medical staff uses antiquated equipment and nothing looks like it's been sanitized.

And then there are the eels. There are eels all over A Cure for Wellness, slithering in the water supply; infesting the sensory deprivation tank Lockhart finds himself floating in; later forced down Lockhart's throat. The eels are representative of both sickness and a cure; phallic monstrosities that feed on blood and dart back and forth through the deep, damp crevices of this film.

Does any of this make sense? No, it doesn't. Almost nothing in A Cure for Wellness really makes much sense. The overarching plot involves a mysterious doctor (Jason Isaacs) with a deep, dark secret, and a waifish, pale girl (Mia Goth) who wanders the castle grounds, enchanting Lockhart with every mysterious step. Verbinski eventually pulls all this together in a conclusion that involves characters ripping their own faces off, incest, and a great, all-consuming fire.

If you're trying to figure any of it out, you're approaching the film wrong. A Cure for Wellness is impervious to your attempts at deconstruction. It simply wants to exist in all its glorious, gothic, production design glory. You're meant to waltz through its hallowed halls, enchanted and bewildered by all on display.

What of the cure, though? The cure that the title of the film promises. The cure that the doctors at the castle keep pushing on Lockhart. Verbinski was interested in exploring "sickness as form of absolution." "If you have a note from doctor, then you're not responsible," the director explained. "You know, it's the great con, right? You know, you're not well, but there's a cure. So you're going to be caught in that loop. Saying, I'm here, but there's hope, right? So you're bleeding out with an internal sense of, I'm getting better, I'm getting better, just a few more weeks, just a few more weeks. It's lotus-eaters. Or it's an opiate drip."

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A Cure for Wellness tanked at the box office. In its third week of release, it was pulled from almost 98 percent of theaters. Anyone could've seen this coming. Audiences don't really rush out to see Dane DeHaan movies, and with nothing recognizable to the public -- no superheroes, no previous film in a franchise -- something this big and strange was doomed.

But from such failures, cult classics are born. A Cure for Wellness is too beautiful, too bold, too damned strange to be forgotten forever. It exists wholly on its own terms, unconcerned with mass market appeal and easily digestible moments. Weirdness radiates off this film. One moment, Lockhart is finding a room full of comatose people floating in water tanks; the next, he's strapped to a chair and having orderlies drill right into his front teeth. None of this seems to connect, yet it exists within a haunting dream logic. Each scene from A Cure for Wellness flows together the way a vivid nightmare does, where location and scenery might change on a whim but the overwhelming anxiety remains ever-present.

A Cure For Wellness is the type of movie ripe for rediscovery. The type of film a new audience finds and watches, jaw agape, wondering just how this lunacy got made. The type of film that inspires new devotees to turn their friends onto, breathlessly saying, "You have got to see this, it's crazy."

Verbinski, a filmmaker who apparently has a wealth of clout from making Pirates of the Caribbean, was able to get this strange beast made, even after the failure that was The Lone Ranger. There's something to be said for Verbinski's commitment to the weird. After The Lone Ranger fiasco, he could've easily made a nice, safe film to get back on top. But he didn't. He made a $40 million gothic epic about incest, eels and unorthodox dentistry.

The day will come when more and more people discover this bizarre gem and appreciate it for all its beautiful peculiarity. Perhaps that person will even be you. You have nothing to lose. It's time to get the cure.