Bless this digusting, bloated and atmospheric mess.
Let’s be upfront: this movie does not fully work. For a horror movie centered on existential dread and psychosis, it has a few too many moving parts. Now, it’s definitely a beautiful and haunting mess. Bojan Bazelli creates indelible images just by using the movie’s limited palettes of bone white, blue, green, red and yellow. Plus in an age full of cheap jump scares, it’s refreshing as hell to see director Gore Verbinski and company respect the audience’s intelligence, bringing forth the atmosphere to get under your skin, and then piling on the disturbing things as time goes on, using many stock elements of gothic horror to do so. Body decay playing out in real-time with the protagonist? Distrubing! Long hallways full of medical devices that are more akin to tools of the Spanish Inquisition? Spooky! A fable repeated by the townsfolk that may or may not be true and which also underlines some heavy themes? Interesting! But there is a bit too much bloat before we get to these good things, and by the time we get to them one almost regrets being so impatient towards seeing all of it get realized. Which is a good thing…provided one can stand it.
The movie is from the outset everything a jaded, aged horror movie fan would want in this age. Rather than futz around with the complicated mythology and only show us bits and pieces like, say, the “Paranormal Activity” series or, “The Blair Witch Project”, this is a movie that intends to be a full course meal. Meaning that it has a proper introduction with some expository dialogue, followed by scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a classic Roger Corman production, and then a huge mystery while clues are teased out to the viewer one by one. After a chilling sequence underlining the movies themes of the struggle between modernity and, “simpler times”, the movie centers on Dane DeHaan as a broker named Lockhart, who is sent by his company board to retrieve a CEO from a sanitarium in order to approve of a company merger. As he goes into the sanitarium, things get…weird, and he finds that not only does he have to retrieve the CEO, he also has to figure out what is going on at the sanitarium, run by a very creepy Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer, possibly at the expense of his sanity.
So, yeah, it’s basically an early 21st-Century answer to the gory movies of Roger Corman. Except while Roger Corman had Vincent Price to spice up the gory proceedings with a dynamite performance, this movie chooses to have Dane DeHaan be the straight man thrust into all of the madness. And he’s actually pretty good in this. He communicates the right kind of perplexed emotions and righteous anger one would have in a situation where they are gaslit by people who are supposed to help you, and there are a few moments where his character has some interesting backstory that intertwines with the goings-on in the movie’s central location. The problem is that while it racks the atmosphere and the depravity (don’t eat while watching this movie. Trust me), there are some narrative missteps. Namely, that the movie bangs on about the central mystery of the sanitarium a little too much. There are excellent sequences throughout where Lockhart, and by extension the audience, understands the movie’s central location through simple exploration, in a way not unlike that of an art house movie. But these parts are intercut by a few too many run-ins with a few characters where Lockhart outright asks for people to give encyclopedia-sized explanations for what the hell is going on, despite the movie establishing that few, if any, of the sanitariums residents and staff can be trusted.
The movie walks a very thin tightrope between delirium and formalism that is jarring the more one reflects on it. There are key moments in the movie that would typically be called, “continuity errors” in moviemaking terms, except the movie also plays around with its own plot structure at key moments. Sometimes we see Lockhart interact with his parents, then it cuts to the mystery at the sanitarium. An incident in the movie is intercut with memories of his father, which then gets replayed with alterations at different moments, followed by other cuts that may or may not be in the main character’s future. So, congrats to editors Pete Beaudreaiu and Lance Pereia for making the viewer feel like someone slipped something into their drink while watching this. But with a screenplay by Justin Haythe that outright feels like an repeat of the bloated moviemaking he and Gore Verbinski struggled with in 2013’s, “Lone Ranger” movie, it’s hard to tell if this was all done with intent or as a last-ditch effort to salvage an already overburdened and drawn-out story.
The movie has a certain kind of narrative framing that makes the movie’s length and protracted story almost forgivable. Throughout the movie, there are constant references not just to Lockhart’s past but also to his profession as a broker for a major financial corporation by Dr. Volmer himself. Volmer does this as a way of propping himself and his institution up as a solution, citing the stress and pains of a modern, high-pressure, capitalist world as anathema to his more laid-back, regimented and traditional (key word) philosophy. This theme gets more elaborate and disturbing as the sanitarium and it’s relics history are spelled out, touching upon the history of royalty in Europe along with feminine maturation/sexual awakening through its damsel character Hannah (played in an adorable yet offputting way by Mia Goth) and even eugenics. Granted, this movie’s ways of dealing with those things are less Tim Wise and more, say, “The Pit and The Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe. But in these times of ours where there is a guy in the Oval Office and his cronies who seriously believe themselves to be gods by virtue of birth, it’s quite gutsy to have a horror movie pit two antagonistic forces of civilization, modernity and tradition, using a set of characters who have, with a few exceptions from each, been wounded in different ways.
Except there are also times when those elements get thrown around like balls on a pool table, thanks to the aforementioned story structure and editing. Like Stanley Kubrick’s, “The Shining” the movie has such strong moviemaking chops that one is tempted to treat some of its mistakes as signs of something more going on behind the scenes. But whereas, Kubrick’s, “The Shining” has economy, dizzying Steadicam shots and even a bit of levity, Verbinski and company gives these proceedings such a heavy and sometimes cold feel that even when it goes batshit, it still feels oddly dead. The skyscrapers and computer screens displaying stock market tickers in the movie’s opening are filmed in a similar way as the contrasting sanitarium, as something like elaborate graveyards, housing human ambition in different ways, containing husks of human beings who try (or once tried to) to get something more from life. By the movie’s ending, one is left with the impression that there is no escape, that whether one searches for money under globalization/capitalism or peace under tradition and purity, at the end of the day you are just another host for someone else to take advantage of. If one yearns for a horror movie that leads one into the black hole in the heart of endless yearning and struggling for something better in life…well, it’s certainly one of those. Weak stomachs and fidgety temperaments need not apply.
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