The healing power of horror
I like old-fashioned horror films, with clifftop castles enshrouded in bad weather, creaking doors, hidden passageways and sinister figures who pad the corridors by night. And there's plenty of that in A Cure for Wellness, Gore Verbinski's stylish new horror that's so opulently gothic you half expect Boris Karloff to turn up.
While set in the present, A Cure for Wellness harks back to the great Universal horror pictures of the 1930s, but also to the gory traditions of British horror classics like The Wicker Man. Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, a ruthless and obnoxious financial executive who arrives in Switzerland to track down his company's CEO, who was sent to an Alpine clinic after suffering some sort of breakdown.
Lockhart is to bring his boss back to New York to avert an impending crisis, but instead gets sucked into the febrile world of the sinister 'wellness centre' which is run by a smiling and dead-eyed doctor. And when Lockhart meets an ethereal young woman called Hannah (Mia Goth), she leads him to the terrible secret that lurks in the castle's bowels.
For Verbinski, who's used to working on huge-scale productions like Pirates of the Caribbean, A Cure for Wellness felt like a back-to-basics exercise.
He started out making music videos, and experimented with horror earlier in his career, scoring a big hit with his 2002 remake of Japanese shocker, The Ring. Made on a comparatively modest budget - $40m as opposed to his usual $200m - Wellness allowed the director to work with more freedom than usual.
"With a film like this," he tells me, "you're not stuck in a giant set - you can keep your crew small and move around, and get a lot of value from going to different places, shooting on location."
His direction, especially early on, is compellingly creepy, a disconcerting mix of the eerie and the ultramodern. "I kind of think of it as a contemporary gothic tale," he explains. "I mean, you have this haunting lullaby running through the film, and even though you're in Manhattan at the start, this theme has drifted across the Atlantic, and there's that wax seal on the envelope that Lockhart opens.
"So it's gothic, but it's contemporary, too, because we sense that something is deeply wrong, and not just with Lockhart, and that we as a society are driving a car into a wall and can't quite seem to turn the wheel.
"I mean, there are the Hammer films influences and all, but we tried to blend it with something else so that it's contemporary, because things aren't scary if they don't stick with you."
Verbinski and his writer, Justin Haythe, were also influenced by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, the classic 1924 novel that plumbed the moral malaise of European bourgeois culture. "Justin and I are big fans of Magic Mountain," Verbinski says, "and we were really playing with the idea of sickness being in everything, like a black spot on your X-ray or some sort of cancer, and we've a lead character who's in denial, but he's ripe for diagnosis. And there's something in Mann, this idea that they were hanging on to their illness before the outbreak of the war, and so we tried to contemporise that, because I think we live in an increasingly irrational world."
A Cure for Wellness holds off on the guignol until quite late on, and spends much of its time cleverly building an atmosphere of dread and making you think you might have seen something horrible out of the corner of your eye.
"I think, for me, there are two ways to tell a story in movies: sometimes your hand is on the back of the people in the dark and you're leading them, and sometimes it's breadcrumbs, and this genre allows for more of a dream logic, where you don't require as much exposition."
Verbinski's film is packed with affectionate references to other movies, directors and genres. And one gets the sense that making it was an invigorating release for a man who's spent the last decade or so engaged in mass-appeal epics with giant budgets and a staff of thousands. Born in Tennessee in 1964, Verbinski grew up with a love of music and was already active on the LA rock scene when he enrolled in film school at UCLA. "I've joked that I'm a failed musician at heart," he laughs, "and that movies were sort of plan b, because who doesn't want to be a rock star!" Instead, he began directing music videos and commercials before drifting towards Hollywood.
His first film, Mouse Hunt (1997), would be untypical of his subsequent output: a knockabout farce, it starred Nathan Lane and Lee Evans as idiot brothers who battle with a tiny mouse for possession of a house bequeathed to them by their father. It was a surprise hit, and he followed in less convincing style with The Mexican (2001), a strangely stilted action/comedy starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. The Ring (2002) was much more assured: then came Pirates of the Caribbean.
The Curse of the Black Pearl was a mighty gamble by Disney, a $140m action/fantasy based on a theme-park ride. Making it, Verbinski recalls, was sometimes overwhelming.
"I mean, you try to always keep everything small, you try to say this is small and not spend your time shouting at 400 people in the background swinging from ships. They're all in and out of wardrobe and you're trying to get the boats lined up and all of that, but once the actors arrive, and they step into the foreground, you have to say we're very small now, you almost have to trick yourself because (a) they're the most important part of the film and (b) I think it just keeps it from drifting into a bunch of stuff that doesn't really mean anything."
The huge success of Pirates shocked him. "Certainly people thought we were crazy making a pirate movie back then. I think the trick is to try to get back to that feeling on everything you do, you know, get to a place where everyone's saying 'this shouldn't work', if you know what I mean, and the feeling that every movie is your last, and so you try to put everything you can into it.
"By the time we were doing the second one, nobody's nervous, and that scared the crap out of me - if I don't have executives really worried then I'm not doing my job in some way. So you try to get to that place yourself, where you're tinkering with something and you hope it blows up in your face. You have to be on the boundary of the unknown."
Verbinski has certainly flirted with disaster over the last five or six years, joining forces with Johnny Depp in 2011 to make the hilarious and underrated comic animation Rango - "it was like, let's go and make an animated movie, don't know how to do it" - then persuading Depp to play Tonto in his epic re-imagining of The Lone Ranger. Beset by delays and production disasters, it failed to recoup its massive budget and was generally dismissed as a disaster. But it had interesting undercurrents that critics seemed to miss, and offered a scathing critique of the settlement of the American west.
"I get a little bit more of that kind of feedback now," he says, "from people who haven't just looked at Rotten Tomatoes but have actually watched the movie, and they see things in it. The only version of that story I wanted to do was to retell it from Tonto's perspective, and when I signed on, I said I'll do it but I want to do it this way. I don't think a lot of people got that, but it's in there."
One senses that working on his new film has helped heal those wounds.
"Going off to shoot in Germany," he says. "I know nobody, I've never worked with any of the crew, don't even speak German, you know, I just show up with my camera and start scouting locations. It was all new, and it felt like a reboot, you're testing yourself, and that's a really great place to be."
A Cure for Wellness is in cinemas now