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A Cure for Wellness     2017     20th Century Fox Blu ray / DVD

                                              High in the Swiss Alps, the Volmer Institute broods over the small town below it like Castle Dracula in an old Hammer

                                     film. The sanitarium-turned-health-resort for the ridiculously affluent is beautiful and serene, but surrounded by whispered

                                     legends. Guests check in to detox from the stress and pressure of life but strangely enough no one ever leaves… Or perhaps it

                                     isn’t so strange if you’ve seen a classic Universal horror movie, or one of Hammer’s Dracula or Frankenstein flicks.

                                               A Cure for Wellness follows Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan; Chronicle, 2012; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,

                                     2017), a ghastly-looking Wall Street shark dispatched to the exclusive resort to retrieve company CEO Mr. Pembroke (Harry

                                     Groener; The Atticus Institute, 2015). Lockhart meets institute director Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs; Event Horizon, 1997; the “Harry Potter” franchise) and demands Pembroke’s release. Volmer hems and haws, claiming that the patient isn’t well enough to make the trip back to New York. But before Lockhart can bully Pembroke out of the spa, the young man breaks his leg in an accident. He awakens to find that he’s now a patient as well.

          Lockhart slowly notices that things aren’t quite what they seem: patients quaff down the medicinal water from the natural aquifer inside the mountain, and use it for many of their treatments, yet no one gets better. In fact, they grow worse. A peculiar young girl named Hannah (Mia Goth; “Sara” in the forthcoming Suspiria remake), Volmer’s “special case,” roams listlessly around the grounds. At night Lockhart sees an orderly trundling bodies into the basement. One of the elderly patients, Victoria Watkins (Celia Imrie; Highlander, 1986; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1994), creates her own crossword puzzles with clues from the history of the institute. Patients and staff are on a regime of liquid vitamins that are kept in cobalt blue vials. And Lockhart discovers a tiny microbe-like organism in his water glass.

          Growing progressively more pale and sickly, Lockhart tries to piece everything together. But all the red herrings and blind alleys offered by the script (and there are plenty) only lead to more questions and mysteries. Volmer and his staff decide that Lockhart needs to be cured of his maladies and they subject him to the various treatments (including a bit of dental torture that serves no purpose). Lockhart eventually discovers the horrific truth behind the spa’s water, and the demented plans that Volmer has for Hannah.

          A Cure for Wellness is a sumptuous film thanks to the exquisite cinematography of Bojan Bazelli (Pumpkinhead, 1998; Boxing Helena, 1993; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 2010). An early scene of a train reflected back upon itself as it enters a tunnel is breathtaking, as are the scenes of Lockhart and Hannah beside a pool. The institute is often shown at sunset, creating beautiful shadows and dazzling colors. Bazelli’s camera glides languidly through rooms and hallways, across the manicured grounds, and around the different patients with whom Lockhart interacts. Visually, it’s on par with Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) for its engulfing scenery and use of location as a character.

          The production design highlights the damp austerity of the institutional setting. The staff is attired in white trousers and shirts or dresses; patients roam around in plush white robes. Everything looks, sounds and moves like a Swiss clockwork display. One keeps waiting for The Stepford Wives (1975) to show up in all their plastic perfection.

          The story, however, simply isn’t the equal of the setting and design. Written by Justin Haythe (The Lone Ranger, 2013) and director Gore Verbinski (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise; The Ring, 2002; The Lone Ranger, 2013), it’s overpopulated with ideas and becomes unwieldy as it tries to find a good stopping point. Haythe and Verbinski reveal their obvious love of AIP films (especially those of Roger Corman’s “Poe” cycle) and Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925). There’s no doubting their sincerity. But they simply can’t wrap things up in a timely manner. The film stalls under the weight of too many mysteries and false climaxes. It’s overlong by at least forty-five minutes, offering opportunities to watch the clock instead of the movie. Some scenes (notably the opener) could’ve been condensed into a line or two of dialogue and would’ve made the whole thing smoother and more suspenseful.

          Verbinski’s pacing is deliberately slow, a technique that works well in the first half as a mounting sense of instability and creepiness is established. But during the second half the same pacing becomes tiresome. Viewers will have already made some obvious connections but have to sit around waiting for Lockhart to catch up.

          DeHaan is a good choice to play the greedy corporate shill but he’s an unlikable protagonist. His affluent arrogance and impatience don’t endear him to viewers. As he is drawn deeper into the story, we find ourselves detached from his plight and not overly enthusiastic about his survival. It’s a case of “If he makes it, okay,” but if he doesn’t, “Oh well.” All the actors put forth their best work and it’s heartfelt.

          Twentieth Century Fox offers A Cure for Wellness in a combo pack with Blu ray, DVD and digital copy. Audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 with options of English Descriptive Audio, Spanish, French and Portuguese (all Dolby Digital 5.1). Subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish, French and Portuguese.

          The special features include “It’s Wonderful Here,” a deleted sequence full of heady images, water tanks, and oh yes, bathtubs full of eels. It adds a dash of pathos to Lockhart, something that would’ve helped make him a little easier to root for. “The Score” is a 4-minute overview of the outstanding orchestral music. “Hannah’s Theme” contains a lilting, ghostly “la la la” tune that is reminiscent of the same singsong motifs used in a few 1970s Italian giallos. Most unusual (and unnecessary) are three “Meditations”: Water is the Cure, Air is the Cure, and Earth is the Cure. Set against an image from the film, each two-and-a-half minute guided meditation offers a relaxing escape but little else. Theatrical, Redband and international trailers round out the set.

                                                Boris Karloff.  Christopher Lee.  Barbara Steele.
                                                A trifecta of genre talent in a tale drawn from an H.P. Lovecraft story, and created by Tigon British Film Productions,

                                      responsible for Witchfinder General (1968) and the superb The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). Add in Michael Gough, Peter

                                      Knight’s music and orchestration, the Gothic interiors of Grim’s Dyke House (used in British TV series “Doctor Who,” “The

                                      Avengers,” “The Saint”), some nudity, and you’ve got all the elements for an incredible movie.
                                                Ehhh, sort of…
           Antique dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden, “Coronation Street”) journeys to Craxted Lodge at Greymarsh to locate his missing brother, Peter. Upon arriving, he encounters Eve (Virginia Wetherell in her film debut) and some of her swinging friends at a trippy party before meeting Eve’s uncle, Morley (Christopher Lee). Morley claims to have no idea who Peter is or where he might be, but offers Robert the hospitality of his home. As Robert investigates his brother’s disappearance, he is plagued by kaleidoscopic dreams of a kinky satanic ritual, presided over by Lavinia Morley, Queen of the Dark Secret (played by a green-skinned Barbara Steele). Robert receives whispered warnings from Elder (Michael Gough) about the graveyard, and local witchcraft expert Dr. Marsh (Boris Karloff) notes the influence Lavinia still holds over the village. As the film moves to its conclusion, the truth about Morley and Dr. Marsh is unveiled, although no one will be genuinely surprised by the revelations.
          Curse of the Crimson Altar (US: The Crimson Cult) is a tepid, stiff film, designed to compete with the Hammer and Amicus products of the day. Given the elements of its pedigree, it should’ve been outstanding. However, the story is disjointed and unclear. Plot threads are left unresolved (is Robert’s brother alive or dead? Is Lavinia back from the dead or does she exist in some dream world? And how in the hell does the hypnotism angle fit in?). H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” served as the (uncredited) inspiration, but the only real link to that story is the witchy dream sequences. Screenwriters Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, working from Jerry Sohl’s story, try to make the connection stronger by appropriating character names from other Lovecraft tales (Lavinia from “The Dunwich Horror,” Marsh from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”).
The cast isn’t given anything of substance to do in order to capitalize on their talent, resulting in uniformly bland performances.  Mark Eden is the typically rigid Brit. Michael Gough is wasted in a nearly mute performance. Virginia Wetherell’s role amounts to little more than hip eye candy. Christopher Lee comes across flat and uninspired. He only took the role in order to work with Karloff again--their first pairing came in 1958’s Corridors of Blood (released, 1962). Barbara Steele has nothing to do other than wear a ram’s horn headdress and look menacing. Confined to a wheelchair, Karloff does the best acting job of the lot, relying solely on expressions and his distinctive voice.
          This was the only time Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele appeared in the same film, although they do not share a single scene together. It was also the only time Lee and Steele were paired together. And herein lies the great tragedy of the film: due to the uneven writing, there is nothing that allows Lee, Karloff, Steele, or Gough, to interact in any significant way. Director Vernon Sewell (The Blood Beast Terror, 1968; Burke & Hare, 1972) even wastes the potential of the library scene featuring Lee and Karloff, with terrible framing and barely any sense of contact between the two men. Nor do scenes with Lee and Gough amount to anything.
          The Region 2 Blu-ray is crisp and clean. The deeply saturated Eastmancolor benefits tremendously from the digital upgrade, especially the dream sequences. The use of rich, thick colors is reminiscent of what Mario Bava and Roger Corman did during this period. However, some of the outdoor night scenes are completely black with no detail whatsoever (a fault of the original cinematography more so than the BD upgrade).
An audio commentary featuring Barbara Steele, mediated by David Del Valle, sheds little light onto the production itself. Instead, the two discuss a variety of philosophical topics such as dreams vs. reality, life and death, and the differences between 1960s culture in England and Italy. Steele shares her love of living and working in Italy, and reflects on how she never really got a chance to use her voice to its fullest during her career. By the end of the commentary, she sounds a bit exhausted, despite the fact that Del Valle does the majority of talking throughout.
          Other special features include “Creating Curse of the Crimson Altar,” 25-minutes of interviews and remembrances with Mark Eden, Virginia Wetherell, and film editor Howard Lanning. The highlight of the package, however, is the Christopher Lee episode from the TV series “British Legends of Stage and Screen.” Running 46 minutes, this is an absolute must-see.  Lee is self-effacing, erudite, warm, and humorous as he discusses his acting career. The genre icon praises his wife, shows off his singing voice, and reflects on being knighted as well. He is so relaxed and personal that it feels as if he is sitting in the room, talking directly to you.
          A stills gallery and trailer round out the extras.
          Curse of the Crimson Altar is a movie that fans will find frustrating and disappointing. With a criminally underused cast and fragmented story, there is more wasted potential to lament than true creativity to praise.

 

Curse of the Crimson Altar     1968     Odeon Entertainment Blu ray