The fact that this was an outrageous flop [$9 million worldwide on a $40 million budget] and would soon be out of theaters, coupled with the idea that it’s a bit of an intriguing novelty, visually-intriguing and best seen on the big screen, set against the fact that I could not possibly spend another night at home, conspired to get me to the theater for this. I had pretty much written off Gore Verbinski after the trauma induced by the godawful first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and enjoyed schadenfreude at his Lone Ranger failure, but I was willing to give him a chance on this, which was said to be at least visually stunning and unusual.
For the first 45 minutes, I thought I had found a hidden gem. The movie begins in a New York office where Dane DeHaan [in his first leading role] as Lockhart is dispatched to retrieve an executive from a spa in the Swiss Alps so he can sign a crucial merger for the ailing firm. He also has apparently personally committed some sort of financial scandal, a rather big plot point dumped in that is never mentioned again. Nevertheless, the first 15 minutes are gorgeous, the sterile black buildings in a gray haze, the board members absolutely still and staring at Lockhart, an incredible shot of a mirrored train entering a mountain, and the absolutely gorgeous shot over which the title appears. This turns out to be far and away the best part of the movie, however, and one wishes the story would have just stayed in the city. Still, at this point, I was excited and eager to see the rest of the awesome movie to come!
You know the deal; Lockhart is going to end up staying at the hospital, will get ensnared in the evil nature of their “cures,” will eventually uncover horrifying secrets. I guess we’ve had to accept that what we now call “original” movies [i.e. not a sequel or adaptation] are often mash-ups of pre-existing properties, and this one takes the idea of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and throws on a little bit of Dracula, a touch of Eyes Without a Face, a sprinkling of Hammer Films atmosphere… AO Scott in the New York Times accurately says it’s more a collection of allusions than a film in its own right, and brilliantly says: “Verbinski has not laid bare the contents of his mind so much as that of his DVD collection.”
Still, we can enjoy a good pastiche, if it’s smart and it works. This one has a lot of nice elements, and one enjoys them… until it becomes apparent that they aren’t heading anywhere interesting, or anywhere at all. And then there’s the major, major problem of the disastrous running time. This movie is 2 ½ hours. At first I was like “Okay, I can get into that this film is going to take it’s time, and I’m really into that it’s into creating lush horror-movie atmosphere.” By the last hour, I was just angry. There’s a stretch where we have the cycle of: “Escape the asylum, find out one more tidbit of ominous information, be found and taken back to the hospital, be tortured” that repeats innumerable times, until I was getting angry at every new turn, and [this is absolutely true] had to keep telling myself: “This movie is simply never going to end. Just accept that.” That said, it is among the longest 2 ½ hours I have ever experienced, and I had to consciously keep myself from looking at my watch so as not to get furious. Other people had left the theater by then. The tragedy is that this movie’s failure is Verbinski’s own stupid fault: if it had been 90 minutes, we would have a solid success here.
The evil afoot at the spa, which you will easily guess the outlines of, has to do with extending youth. The problem is that it’s all a vague process somehow involving eels, which provide some great visuals, but ultimately just doesn’t make any sense—even fake movie “sense,” as their use isn’t consistent. Toss us some mumbo-jumbo about how eels exude some precious fluid or whatever, and we’ll buy it, but just make it something and make it consistent. The mythology gets really murky by the end when they’re both distilling eels and humans, and none of it makes the slightest sense. An example of how the movie is wasting your time during the nightmare final hour is when we see Lockhart’s toilet lever jiggling—and we know it’s because there’s eels inside—but it takes him a half hour to finally lift the lid, where the expected sight is treated like a gasp-inducing shock. Oh, and Lockhart goes crazy, then he isn’t, falls under the mind-control of the treatment, then suddenly recovers. Not to mention the lost front tooth that grows back by film’s end.
Adding to the general distaste is that this film is the latest—and the latest in a month after Split—to feature a disgusting sexual molestation of girls subplot. Here the plan involves a father intending to breed children with his daughter. After all the eels / sperm imagery, in one case showing [in quick flashes, but still] four-foot eels having congress of some kind with said young girl’s vagina, we have a father tying his child to the bed for breeding, ripping her shirt open and groping her exposed breasts, and then—and this is way beyond the fucking pale—inserting his fingers into his daughter’s vagina and then smelling her pussy juice. It’s the sort of thing I think the actor should have refused to enact. I remember in 1992, upon the release of Fire Walk With Me, a critic shocked that we even see an incestuous father in bed with his daughter. Look how far we’ve come!
The ending is wildly over-the-top, which buys the film back some credit, but by then it’s not enough. The final moment is just a wordless gesture, but could also be read as an adult man claiming a teenage sex victim as his own. There you go, folks. That’s entertainment.