The Critic’s Corner

February 27 - March 5, 2017

Without a disease, there can be no cure

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Paris, a little theater called Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol specialized in graphic entertainment.

Grand Guignol plays were little more than an excuse to shock audiences with gory special effects. In one, an insane patient hammered a chisel through his doctor’s skull; in another, two hags from an insane asylum used scissors to blind a pretty, young fellow inmate.

Often, the effects would be so realistic, audience members would faint or vomit during the performances.

“A Cure for Wellness,” a new film directed by Gore Verbinksi (“The Ring,” the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies), is a Grand Guignol production, a movie replete with grotesque imagery designed to make viewers recoil. Like those plays, it also offers little of substance beyond its shock value.

The movie wants to be more. It tries very hard to be more. But in the end, “A Cure for Wellness” is just a very slickly produced freak show.

The film opens with a young man named Morris, played by the talented Dane DeHann, traveling to an idyllic but mysterious wellness center housed in an old castle in the Swiss Alps. The financial services firm for which he works has sent him there to retrieve the company’s CEO, whom they need to sign off on a merger.

Once there, Lockhart begins to suspect that the treatments at the spa are not what they appear to be. However, after convincing the CEO to leave, a car crash forces Lockhart to recover at the spa with a broken leg. During his convalescence, the director of the spa, Dr. Volmer, recommends Lockhart undergo some of the spa’s therapies. These result in nightmarish visions that make Lockhart question his sanity as he tries to solve the mystery of the resort.

Complicating Lockhart’s investigation is an enigmatic young woman named Hannah, who swallows drops of liquid from a cobalt vial hung around her neck. Suffice to say Hannah is not what she appears to be, either, and the fluid she’s consuming is anything but a vitamin concoction, as Dr. Vogel initially claims.

If “A Cure for Wellness” sounds like harmless fun, it sometimes is. Although I quickly surmised what was going on (a story about events that took place at the castle 200 years ago make it disappointingly obvious), the movie’s tilted perspective, bizarre characters and weird insane asylum aesthetic generally held my interest.

So did the visuals. “A Cure for Wellness” might be B-movie fodder, but Verbinski saturated it with wildly imaginative imagery.

He sets the stage beautifully with a shot of a train appearing to split as it enters a mountain tunnel (He captured this footage by filming the reflection of the train in its exterior windows.) From there, Verbinski serves up a naked woman in a bathtub filled with squirming eels, bodies floating eerily in isolation tanks and a candlelit wedding ceremony with guests lined up along the stone curves of the castle.

If you told me you enjoyed “A Cure for Wellness” for its visuals, I would nod in understanding.

But then I would ask you what you thought about the story, which has pacing issues, is often confusing and at two-and-a-half hours goes on for too long.

“A Cure for Wellness” puts on airs about exploring the sickness of blind material ambition, and the film is laden with visual metaphors that suggest deeper levels of meaning (water is everywhere and images of penetration recur throughout the movie), but once Verbinski drops these pretenses, “A Cure for Wellness” becomes simply the story of a mad scientist and the horrors he concocts.

There’s value in the kind of cinematic pulp “A Cure for Wellness” offers. But unlike the Grand Guignol productions of old, Verbinski seems reluctant to embrace the heart of the genre, or at least wants to dress it up until it’s nearly unrecognizable.

However, like the pulpy mess behind a pretty face that gets peeled off in a climactic scene, there’s no mistaking what lies beneath the surface of “A Cure for Wellness.”

Two-and-a-half stars out of four. Rated R for violent content, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.