20th Century Fox Used Fake News to Publicize ‘A Cure for Wellness’

Making the most of the fractured political and media landscape, 20th Century Fox created a group of fake news sites as part of a viral marketing campaign for its new film “A Cure for Wellness.” The sites displayed ads for the movie and slipped references to its plot alongside made-up stories about divisive topics like abortion, vaccines and President Trump.

Fox used at least five fake news sites designed to look like local news media — The Sacramento Dispatch, Salt Lake City Guardian, Houston Leader, NY Morning Post and Indianapolis Gazette — to stir online outrage and drum up interest in the movie, which was produced by New Regency Productions and is to come out this week.

It used other fake sites to promote the film as well, including one designed to resemble HealthCare.Gov and another for a fake bottled water company. Regency Enterprises and 20th Century Fox acknowledged their role in the fake news operation in a statement on Tuesday.

“A Cure for Wellness is a movie about a ‘fake’ cure that makes people sicker,” the statement said. “As part of this campaign, a ‘fake’ wellness site, healthandwellness.co, was created and we partnered with a fake news creator to publish fake news.”

A Fox spokeswoman, Daria Vogel, declined to answer follow-up questions on Tuesday, including whether the companies were using any other fake news sites to promote their film or whether they had used similar methods to promote movies in the past. The company is owned by Fox Entertainment Group, which also owns Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network.

“A Cure for Wellness” was directed by Gore Verbinski and stars Dane DeHaan and Jason Isaacs, who in the past have both made jokes online about the phenomenon of fake news. The film opens on Friday and has received mostly negative reviews. One critic, Joe Dziemianowicz of The Daily News, described its plot as “preposterous gothic nonsense.”

The five sites known to be part of the fake news campaign were taken down after the story was reported by BuzzFeed News on Tuesday. Users who entered their URLs were redirected to the film’s official website, but archived versions of some of their articles remained available online.

The stories they published hit the viral sweet spot that has made fake news such an online force, even though most of them were not related to the movie. Some were shared thousands of times on social media by users who appeared to believe that they were factual news stories, and others were reposted by partisan websites like Red State Watcher.

A partial list of headlines published by the movie studio’s campaign:

• “Utah Senator Introduces Bill to Jail, Publicly Shame Women Who Receive Abortions”

• “BOMBSHELL: Trump and Putin Spotted at Swiss Resort Prior to Election”

• “LEAKED: Lady Gaga Halftime Performance to Feature Muslim Tribute”

• “Trump Refuses to Provide California Federal Support in Midst of Natural Disaster, Cites Sanctuary Cities”

• “California Legislature to Consider Tax Rebates for Women Who Get Abortions”

Lynn Walsh, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said in an email that corporations had a responsibility to engage in “the ethical and responsible sharing of information no matter the intent or purpose.”

“In this country, we have the right to speak and publish information freely, and that’s a good thing,” Ms. Walsh said. “But if someone or a company is publishing incorrect information and trying to make it pass as actual news, we think that content should be properly labeled and very explicit that it is not true and does not contain actual facts.”

Those are guidelines that 20th Century Fox and New Regency Productions did not follow.

“This absolutely crosses the line,” added Bonnie Patten, the executive director of the consumer watchdog TruthinAdvertising.org. “Using a fake news site to lure consumers into buying movie tickets is basically a form of deceptive marketing.”

One story published as part of their campaign claimed that Mr. Trump had issued a 90-day ban on the vaccine for the measles, mumps and rubella. The report was published on The Houston Leader and debunked by the fact-checking website Snopes, which called the site “one of a series of fake news sites that masquerade as real news sites by emulating the appearance of big-city newspapers.”

Another story falsely reported that the American Medical Association had recognized a form of Trump-related anxiety or depression, “Trump Depression Disorder,” that it claimed affected one third of the country. It urged readers “to tweet #cureforwellness to raise awareness of the growing epidemic.”

Some of the film’s fake marketing websites remained active on Tuesday night, including the health and wellness website and the website for the fake bottled water company, which claimed to source its product from a Swiss village (that does not exist). The website designed to resemble HealthCare.gov (it is called HealthCureGov.com) also remained active.

Ms. Vogel, the Fox spokeswoman, declined to explain why those websites had not been disabled. A phone call to the purported office of healthandwellness.co went unanswered, and emails to six people listed as its “managing editors” bounced back as undeliverable.

Mia Goth as Hannah in “A Cure for Wellness.” The film opens on Friday and has received mostly negative reviews. Credit Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation


The subject of Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure for Wellness” is the toxic effect of having too much money, and it’s a fitting sign of the movie’s obliviousness that it looks fulsomely expensive from beginning to end. It drips with gaudy display from the very first sequence, a series of grim nocturnal contemplations of New York’s hard-edged, sleek-surfaced, glass-and-steel stalagmites of capitalist striving. Sitting alone in a corner office is one particular striver who, toiling over financial charts and numbers and spreadsheets, works himself literally to death.

There is nothing simple about the way Verbinski (the director of the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies as well as “The Lone Ranger”) films this executive’s demise. The director doesn’t use one shot if he can figure out how to use several; he doesn’t take a picture without finding a way to move the camera flashily. He uses liquids and surfaces to capture eye-catching reflections, and fills the frame with conspicuously curated objects. In short, he creates a cinematic world imbued, in image and object and performance, with a sense of style. Like “La La Land,” Verbinski’s film is a work of style, a word that, far from summing up the viewing experience, only begins the conversation, invoking the inevitable question: What exactly is his style, and to what end does he fashion it?

The story is launched in an investment bank, where the late executive’s replacement, an ambitious young businessman named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), is quickly dispatched to a spa in the Swiss Alps to bring back a former partner named Pembroke (Harry Groener), whose signature is needed on a merger agreement that will rescue the business. The rest of the film—the rest of the hundred-and-forty-six-minute-long film—takes place in or near that clinic, which turns out to be a palace of horrors in an idyllic setting.

The ultra-expensive, ultra-luxurious Volmer Institute is a virtual castle in the clouds (one of its employees sits at his desk reading Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”) where ultra-wealthy people seek respite from their stressful lives. They’re seen disporting in matching white bathrobes, doing Tai Chi or playing croquet or doing crossword puzzles or playing cards, seemingly living in slow motion on the manicured lawn and marbled patio of an enormous courtyard. Lockhart arrives, but a thicket of rules and regulations keeps him from seeing Pembroke at once, and the institute’s overlord, Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), induces Lockhart to stay and wait.

Volmer is a doctor and scientist under whose rigorous management the clinic’s chilly, parodically Teutonic employees regulate the patients’ routines to the minute, administering an elaborate range of mysterious therapies and proprietary medicines. The treatment seems devised to liberate the mind while healing the body, to unleash and dispel the demons of the past while also purging the body of its accumulated toxins, but Lockhart soon senses that something is amiss in the compound. When Lockhart encounters another inmate, a waif-like pre-pubescent girl named Hannah (Mia Goth)—the only young person there, whom Volmer treats as his “special patient”—Lockhart gets a pretty clear idea of the trouble in Paradise.

There’s an elaborate historical backstory involving the property’s long-ago proprietor, a baron whose misdeeds caused the local peasantry to burn down his château on the very site where the institute is now housed. There’s another backstory involving Lockhart’s repressed childhood memory of his father, also an investment banker. But there is, above all, the quasi-Gothic horror that emerges from Volmer’s treatments—subjections of a terrifying physical constraint that may be a form of torture, of human experimentation, or simply of slow-motion murder—and Lockhart’s efforts to discover what’s happening behind locked doors and in sealed-off antechambers, and to escape.

Verbinski borrows the ethos of such playfully lugubrious horror classics as “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Dracula” and grafts onto them a visual mannerism distantly distilled from Orson Welles and a sense of design proximately and conspicuously cribbed from Wes Anderson. The result is a cinematic mutant whose parts don’t fit together and whose stitches show; the creature never comes to life. The very setting of the Volmer Institute, founded atop the physical and mental ruins of an ancient curse, seems cribbed from “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It is a living anachronism, and Volmer’s antique-y pseudo-scientific contrivances could have been rejects from Andersonian cupboards and storyboards, with their brass fittings and leaded glass, their ornamental forms and hand-tooled contours. The same goes for the symmetrical groupings of patients, who perform synchronized exercises with matching solid-color medicine balls, or the patterned tiles of ballroom expanses and hospital floors, or the instruments of medical affliction with which Volmer works his diabolical scheme.

The essence of style is that it is, in fact, substance. Filmmakers who perfect an identifiable one capture the depths of existence in its surfaces, perceiving the pleasure and the power that goes into aesthetic control and the pain and degradation that it conceals. Wes Anderson is a director whose energetic characters, as dapper as they may be, display physical aplomb and bold violence. He blends aesthetics and action with a freedom akin to that of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and James Bond, which is why he’s the very engine of current cinema, and the envy of directors such as Verbinski and, for that matter, Chad Stahelski, whose contract-killer agency in “John Wick: Chapter 2” is also an Andersonian derivative. The mediocrity of Stahelski’s film is that he has nothing to say. The awfulness of Verbinski’s is that he has something to say, but it’s of a stultifying banality, and he says it through a cinematic megaphone with a crude and tasteless rhetorical insistence. It’s no spoiler to suggest that it has something to do with the degrading effects of the world of business in which Lockhart has prospered.

For all the movie’s stylization, there’s nothing original or unusual in “A Cure for Wellness”’s performances. Volmer is a coolly sinister, dapper villain with a German accent. Lockhart is an American frat boy with a brain but no heart, who needs to learn a little humanity. Hannah is a stereotypical innocent, and the thinness of their dialogue is delivered neither with natural ease nor with theatrical flair. The image-repertory is elaborate, as are the effects of lighting, but their intricacy offers no complexity; the movie reflects an empty virtuosity and a resonant vanity. But that vanity isn’t itself devoid of substance; rather, it’s a transparent and self-revealing package for the director’s own artistic delights and emotional inclinations. It’s especially telling that Verbinski, who builds the theme of sexual depredation into the story, doesn’t hesitate to show Hannah topless on the verge of being raped. Even though Goth, the actress who plays the role, is in her mid-twenties, Hannah is hardly even a teen-ager, and the character’s partial nudity is implicitly pornographic and explicitly creepy. There’s no better example of Verbinski’s dubious, clueless sensibility.

Review: ‘A Cure for Wellness’ Is a Riot of Film References. With Eels.

Outside of a sushi context, I don’t usually spend much time thinking about eels, but “A Cure for Wellness” gave me no choice. Ever since the screening, I’ve been wondering about those slithery creatures, which you may have noticed in the trailers and the posters, where a bunch of them share a bathtub with Mia Goth, one of the movie’s stars.

Not wondering in the “What does it mean?” sense, mind you. Anyone who has even a slight acquaintance with Freudian theory or Japanese erotica will grasp the psychosexual significance of those eels, who live in the aquifer underneath an Alpine spa and occasionally make their way into the plumbing and beyond. My questions are of a more basic nature: How did they get down there in the first place? Are they an invasive species or part of the native ecosystem? What evolutionary process might account for their curiously symbiotic relationship with the spa’s human residents?

It would be unfair to blame the director, Gore Verbinski, or the screenwriter, Justin Haythe, for declining to provide a thorough explanation. “A Cure for Wellness” defiantly and splendidly flouts the tenets of plausibility and coherence, which have never interested Mr. Verbinski very much. His résumé, after all, includes “The Lone Ranger” (also written by Mr. Haythe), “Rango” and, most notably, the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. He comes by his knack for enjoyable nonsense as honestly as his taste for aquatic fauna.

The eels may be the key to the puzzle posed by his latest project, or they may be (forgive me) a red herring. Maybe it would be best to drop the piscatory metaphors altogether. “A Cure for Wellness” is a lustrous box of genre candy, the self-revealing work of an auteur who has laid bare not so much his psyche as his online streaming queue. To watch this movie is, above all, to make a list of all the other movies it evokes, sometimes with a literalness that treads the boundary between homage and outright plagiarism.

You will notice a lot of Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” here, as a dogged young man (Dane DeHaan) makes his way through an asylum-like complex of buildings in search of answers, only to become ever more deeply ensnared in the place’s sinister mysteries. You may also catch echoes of Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” in the mountain rest-cure setting, the weary disdain for modern life and the visual voluptuousness. Mr. Verbinski doesn’t so much observe shiny surfaces and opulent furnishings as caress them, sending a frisson of visual delight through his camera as it glides down corridors and soars over wooded glades.

There’s a bit of Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” in the exuberant gothic creepiness, especially as the plot moves from corporate thriller to psychological melodrama to full-on creep show, complete with incest, medical experiments and ghoulish aristocratic shenanigans. And while these recent movies are the most obvious and distracting influences, an intrepid viewer will pick up hints of Hitchcock and Kubrick (and also, but only at the very end, of Spielberg), of “Suspiria” and Mario Bava.

It’s all in good fun, really, though two and a half hours may be more of this kind of fun than a body can stand. You might feel like you’re in the company of a manic cinephile friend breathlessly recounting his favorite movie scenes in no particular order. You admire his devotion, his taste and his scholarship, but in the end the experience is probably more satisfying for him than it is for you.

Still, the company isn’t bad. Mr. DeHaan brings an air of curdled innocence that inspires an interesting ambivalence. You sort of root for his character, a Wall Street hotshot named Lockhart, but you also kind of hope he suffers, since he’s a selfish, ill-mannered jerk. Dispatched by his bosses to retrieve an executive who has vanished in Switzerland, Lockhart, who is haunted by memories of his father’s suicide, finds himself in the company and eventually the care of Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), a suave Continental with unnervingly impeccable manners. Mr. Isaacs is the kind of silken, charismatic villain that you can’t wait to see again.

More plot summary would be an offense against Mr. Verbinski’s demented inventiveness. Lockhart also encounters a curious elderly patient (Celia Imre), a heavy-eyed limo driver (Ivo Nandi), a tavern full of hostile young locals and a dreamy girl named Hannah (Ms. Goth, looking like a ’70s fantasy hybrid of Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek). There are clues and false leads, shocking discoveries and bouts of talking-bad-guy exposition, narrow escapes and fights to the death. And those eels, of course. You’ll figure it all out for yourself, or not. In any case, the moral of the story turns out to be a bit of advice often given to travelers: Don’t drink the water.

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