Posted in Film, Writing

How to Be Ambitious in Your Horror Writing

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — A Cure for Wellness (2017)

Movies like A Cure for Wellness quite simply don’t get made anymore, and for good reason: the film, budgeted at 40 million (which doesn’t include the millions in marketing costs), made about 10 million at the US box office. This early 2017 mega-flop is further proof for studios not to take chances on daring, exciting, original projects, ones not based on any novels or video games or old TV shows, nothing to guarantee a prospective audience member’s interest. It has an awkward title, it’s rated R, it features no movie stars, and it’s rotten on Rotten Tomatoes.

But you know what? This movie is amazing. I’ll say it again, and I’ll put it in caps: AMAZING. A few of the reviews have pointed out that A Cure for Wellness marks the increasingly rare instance of a filmmaker getting loads and loads of money to create a unique, divisive, at times extremely bizarre motion picture, and I would go further to say that it’s a goddamned miracle this movie even exists. I sat through almost the entire thing completely and utterly bewildered as to how it got made. As to who the hell funded this thing. As to what needed to happen to get this project on the screen. A Cure for Wellness is certainly flawed, and at 146 minutes, it’s about twenty minutes too long. But I’m not joking when I say this gothic horror film is something special.

Of course director Gore Verbinski has some clout in the industry, and his participation in the project is probably the biggest reason why the movie got made. His Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy was a huge moneymaker, and his animated film Rango was a hit both with audiences and with critics (although his previous film, The Lone Ranger, was a big flop). Nothing he’s done since 2002’s The Ring has really stood out to me though, so watching him get the chance to play in a weird original property like A Cure for Wellness was a great pleasure from beginning to end. He gives the film a dynamic visual style that grabs you and never lets go. As long and as occasionally talky the film is, the pacing is super effective, the stakes always rising, the suspense never dissipating even in the quiet moments.

The film stars the perfectly cast Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) as Lockhart, a young executive who travels to a remote wellness center in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company’s missing CEO, but after suffering a minor accident he wakes up to find himself the center’s newest patient. It’s a struggle for Lockhart to find his way out, but even worse, there are secrets to the wellness center that might cost him his life. Screenwriter Justin Haythe, who wrote the script to Verbinski’s messy The Lone Ranger but also penned the underrated surburban drama Revolutionary Road, does a great job slowly revealing the sordid, creepy mysteries of the place that’s supposed to be curing Lockhart of his ailments.

I’ve always had a fascination with mental hospitals, with large idyllic institutions that behind the scenes offer sickness and madness. Therefore I was immediately roped in by this narrative, showing a place that seems to be perfect, with well-qualified doctors and nurses, but then proves to be anything but. Jason Isaacs plays Dr. Volmer, the wellness center’s director, who is attentive to Lockhart at first but of course isn’t who he seems to be. And then there’s a mysterious girl named Hannah (Mia Goth), a patient who has been there much longer than Lockhart could ever imagine.

This movie is fantastic because it never sets out do only one thing. Every scene builds, offering great tension at times, other times offering emotionally resonant backstory (particularly in the case of Lockhart and the tragedy concerning his father). And the entire time we are treated to tremendous art direction — the scenes that take Lockhart underneath the center are especially lovely and terrifying to behold — as well as terrific performances, a haunting musical score, and an endless fascinating narrative.

I know I’m in the minority on this one, and for many, A Cure for Wellness will be a film quickly forgotten by the time the next superhero movie hits the nation’s theater screens. These days most mainstream movies are all about delivering the expected, giving audience members something they’ve had for dinner a hundred nights in a row but just different enough so that they won’t go home feeling cheated. There can be comfort in watching something like the live-action Beauty and the Beast, there can be comfort watching the latest sequel to something we like. But there’s also a necessity to seek out the unusual, the misfits, the films that don’t open at number one and get quickly lost in the sea of content.

A Cure for Wellness is a tremendous surprise, a genre film that delivers on scares and the gross-out but also on ideas, on substance, on the eeriest of atmospheres. And that last shot. That last shot. I haven’t stopped thinking about this movie in the week since I saw it, and I can’t wait to check it out it again.

Watching Like a Writer

I’ve written four horror novels, all of which play it it kind of safe, offering plots that are fun and scary and entertaining, but not much more than that. Watching A Cure for Wellness gave me the inspiration to someday soon write another horror novel that is much more ambitious, in its ideas, in its scale, in its unwillingness to go the safe route. If I have one takeaway as a writer from this movie, it’s to go big or go home.

Exercise!

What kind of ambitious horror story could you see yourself telling? Pitch me your one-sentence log-line.

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