R 146 mins. Gore Verbinski USA 2016
I think you need to start with the eels. The eels are everything in A Cure for Wellness. They are what I am going to remember from this oddly forgettable movie, and they are a metaphor for the film’s promise and failure to live up to that promise. If this movie were a character in The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015) and had to turn into an animal because it couldn’t find a mate (and I can’t imagine there are a whole lot of potential suitors lining up), it’d chose to turn into an eel and slip out of our grasp and our memories as soon as it could. And it’s not even an electric eel! There is exactly one scene that works in this movie, but the movie couldn’t let it last and so it moves to the next scene incoherently, but we’ll get to that. For now, just picture some eels looking kinda weird but not actually doing anything (perhaps they’re supposed to be phallic? The movie almost does something interesting with this, but then it definitely doesn’t) for a whole minute and it’ll be like you watched A Cure for Wellness, but instead you’ll have 145 minutes left to do anything else with your life. Maybe get yourself an eel and play with it?
One front from which you can’t attack A Cure for Wellness is its scope. Thanks to its extended length, it takes its time to develop a world which at once exists within our own and about 200 years in the past. A man named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) must travel to the Swiss Alps to retrieve a fall guy for some shady business dealings. He discovers that the sanatorium his prey resides in might not be on the up and up, but before he is able to finish his task he suffers an accident and breaks his leg, forcing him to become a patient at the weird mountaintop resort where the water just might kill you. There’s a lot, and I mean a lot, between that set-up and the overblown climax, but recounting it will not help you understand the film any more, nor will it be very meaningful. This movie is too busy trying to do everything that it ends up doing nothing other than test the viewer’s patience.
The horror film is notoriously white, which is why I’m writing this in great anticipation of the release on Friday February 24 of Jordan Peele’s Get Out–a serious horror film that directly confronts racial difference and division. Peele has said that the idea for his film initially came to him during the 2008 Democratic primary and that, over the years, he became more and more convinced that “especially after Obama’s election . . . the U.S. was ‘living in this postracial lie.’” Peele’s target in Get Out, he says, is “the liberal elite,” who tend to believe they are above—past—racism.[i]
The release of Peele’s film, which takes aim at the idea that we are “postracial,” joins the recent publication of Michael Tesler’s book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial?, about the increasing racialization of the US during the course of Barack Obama’s presidency. Tesler points out that before Obama’s election in 2008, “race-based and race-evoking issues” were “largely receding from the national political scene.” Obama’s two terms as president, however, have ushered in what Tesler calls “a ‘most-racial’ political era” in which Americans are more divided “over a whole host of political positions than they had been in modern times.”[ii]
If America has become still more profoundly divided by race over the course of the last nine years, it’s worth asking, where is the evidence of that divide in the horror film, a genre that has long been (rightly) declared to be adept at representing the social and cultural conflicts of its historical moment?
XX, from XYZ Films and Magnet Releasing, features four short films all directed and written by women: indeed, it is the first ever all-female horror anthology. “The Box” is written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic (“The Captured Bird”) and based on the enigmatic short story by Jack Ketchum. “The Birthday Party” is co-written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark and directed by Clark (in her directorial debut). “Don’t Fall” is written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound, V/H/S, and V/H/S/2). And “Her Only Living Son” is written and directed by Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation).
Since the quality of the films in anthologies are typically uneven, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of all four of the short films in XX: they are all well-directed, well-written, well-acted, and all four of them offer something—some enigma—to think about after the film ends. In fact, that’s how I’d sum up what ties the films together, which is perhaps indicated in the title: each film introduces a mystery that remains a mystery—a kind of gap or hole in the story that doesn’t get filled in. X, as it were, marks the spot. X marks this central and provocative absence.
The two best entries, the two richest and most thought-provoking, are those that frame the anthology—Vuckovic’s “The Box” and Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son.”
The tortured artist, in which an artist or performer seems willing to sacrifice almost anything to achieve perfection, is a common trope in film. Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, and The Neon Demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, are two films of the past decade that capture the horrors of attempting to achieve perfection in a culture obsessed with beauty.
Check out the trailer for The Neon Demon.
The Neon Demon (2016) brings the viewer into the modeling world of LA through our fish-out-of-water character, Jesse, played by Elle Fanning. She harnesses true, natural beauty and allure—the “it factor”—which could rocket her to modelling stardom. Upon her arrival in this new world, Jesse is confronted by three women who embody different types of beauty: Ruby, a make-up artist who bestows beauty; Gigi, the manufactured beauty who flaunts her plastic surgeries as accomplishments; and Sarah, the aging beauty who recognizes her time in the spotlight will soon end. Almost inevitably, Jesse falls down the rabbit hole of modeling and becomes the titular neon demon, the self-obsessed model: she embraces her own allure in a striking scene that echoes Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection.
The Interstate Highways Act of 1956 may not automatically sound like the most fascinating topic in the world, but the unprecedented act of road building that followed its passage actually had a much bigger impact upon the American horror film than one might think. What I’ve called the “Highway Horror” tradition encompasses a range of films that critique the ostensibly positive benefits of the culture of mass automobility that the Interstate Highway System helped inaugurate. In the Highway Horror film, journeys made via the highway inevitably lead to uncanny, murderous, and horribly transformative experiences. The American landscape, though supposedly “tamed” by the highway, is by dint of its very accessibility, rendered hostile, and encounters with other travellers (and with individuals whose roadside businesses depend upon highway traffic) almost always have sinister outcomes.