Gore Verbinski may go down in history as the guy who turned a joke concept for a film into the financially lucrative catalyst for a successful franchise. While he has dabbled in other, non-Pirates of the Caribbean work (including The Lone Ranger and the animated Rango), the project that sealed his position as a sought-after Hollywood stylist was his visually stunning remake of The Ring in 2002. With A Cure for Wellness, Verbinski goes all out in an epic-length exploration of madness and the macabre. It’s a big-budget vanity project with a decidedly dark slant that few commercial filmmakers are given permission to create, and carries an icy tone that will alienate most viewers. However, those who embrace its unusual pace and disturbing imagery will find a genre pastiche worthy of consideration (and multiple viewings). Below are some of the influences I noted within the Mesozoic DNA of A Cure for Wellness. SPOILERS for all films abound.
Much ink has been spilled on the incalculable influence of Canada’s David Cronenberg, and while Cure reverently quotes from his body-horror career, it shares more in common with Brandon’s (son of David) feature debut, Antiviral. In that film, Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is a merchant of celebrity diseases who winds up embroiled in a venereal conspiracy plot. In Cure, unscrupulous Wall Street prodigy Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is tasked with the retrieval of a broker who hops to the Swiss Alps to detox from his decadent lifestyle, only to find himself on the receiving end of a dubious “treatment.” It also bears noting that Verbinski’s fetishism of oral trauma is on par with the younger Cronenberg’s.
Shutter Island (2010)
Scorsese is another director whose box office success has allowed him to explore a pulpier genre side on occasion (his remake of Cape Fear being another example). From the setting (a mental hospital on the isolated titular isle) to the protagonist’s investigation of a missing person, to the fact that DeHaan looks like Leonardo DiCaprio’s kid brother, Cure presents a mystery that’s akin to the logic of dreams, rather than the real-world grounding of Shutter Island.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Herk Harvey’s film predates the onset of the modern zombie, but conjures some imagery that the greats of the subgenre (George Romero in particular) would utilize in their own eventual classics. In Carnival, the ominous creatures hanging out at an abandoned pavilion aren’t zombies, but ghosts – in one of many iconic scenes, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) finds herself encircled by the specters, hands and faces bearing down on her in a blur. In Cure, when Lockhart announces the horrors of the facility to a crowded dining room, he’s shocked when they gang up (in zombied fashion) and pin him to the floor. Both films echo the sense of their protagonists being pawns in worlds they don’t completely understand, and seem incapable of escaping.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Cure begins with haunting female vocalizations, a theme that recurs throughout the movie, aligning largely with “special case” Hannah (Mia Goth) and Lockhart’s recollections of his aging mother and death-by-suicide father. Rosemary’s Baby starts with similar, lullaby-esque sounds that immediately establish an ominous tone.
The dance academy in Dario Argento’s lauded horror is located in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and carries with it the same surreal sense of isolation as the facility in Cure. Argento converts the setting into its own waking nightmare, and the dreamlike quality carries over into Verbinski’s film. As a purely visual homage, the painted ballerina figurine Lockhart’s mother gives him – which becomes very symbolic as the plot progresses – links both films together nicely.
The Ring Two (2005)
Hideo Nakata’s U.S. sequel to Verbinski’s remake is a forgettable follow-up. So it seems likely that Verbinski is digging at The Ring Two by using a CG deer as the catalyst for the car accident that sends Lockhart back to the facility. Given the age difference between the two films, it’s not surprising that Verbinski’s use of CGI fares better than Nakata’s, and establishes early on the level of suffering and the grotesque that will distinguish Cure from other mainstream genre fare. (As an aside: CG technology has made great strides, but apes and deer are two animals that always – always – look like elastic cartoon characters when rendered in that manner.)
The Game (1997)
David Fincher’s thriller depicts Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) as a businessman who’s grown hardened against everything from his family (including his brother and ex-wife) to the cold, cutthroat nature of maintaining millionaire status in modern America. Lockhart is like a Van Orton in training, looking for his place at the table through any means necessary; Cure cements the link between these characters with dreary, rain-streaked flashbacks to Lockhart’s father’s suicide by diving off a bridge (in the Fincher film, it’s from the roof of the family estate…during a birthday party, no less).
Marathon Man (1976)
In John Schlesinger’s adaptation of William Goldman’s novel, a Nazi-in-exile returns to the States to confirm the security of a cache of diamonds. The most-quoted (and parodied) scene has Dustin Hoffman’s grad student pinned to a chair and forced to undergo an impromptu dental exam at the hands of Szell (Laurence Olivier), the Nazi in question. Schlesinger alternates the approaching drill with Hoffman’s terrified POV, and the image blurs as the drill penetrates bone (Hoffman’s subsequent screams are a testament to the powers of implication). In Cure, when Lockhart finds himself in a similar predicament (outfitted with ornate, stainless-steel headgear), we think Verbinski will cut away before impact, but he doesn’t – the surprise of this is, both renditions of the same act carry their own unique visceral impact and horror, proving that showing everything can be just as effective as what we conjure in our imaginations.
In nods that are perhaps surface-level or fleeting (or maybe I just don’t remember the context within their sources all that well), a submersion tank is used in a manner that recalls Ken Russell’s Altered States. Late in the film, Lockhart is confined to an iron lung in a purely visual homage to Augusti Villaronga’s In a Glass Cage. And the notion of a literal obfuscated facade for Jason Isaacs’ clinic overlord recalls everything from Phantom of the Opera (take your pick) to Hellraiser (the Mr. Cotton skin-mask) to The Silence of the Lambs (security guard skin-mask) to the Cthulhu-esque grotesques of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.