Tag Archives: Religious cult

CAPSULE: SAFE (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Todd Haynes

FEATURING: , Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman

PLOT: A wealthy woman who finds herself suffering from nosebleeds, vomiting and other unexplained maladies is drawn into a New Age cult that promises to deliver her from her “environmental sickness.”

Still from Safe (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like its protagonist’s non-specific malaise, Safe has an uneasy, hard-to-pin-down tone that’s subtly disquieting. Whatever is plaguing Carol, however, we aren’t comfortable with a final diagnosis of “weird.”

COMMENTS: Safe is a movie in two parts. In the first half, Carol, a bored housew—um, homemaker—sleepwalks through a wan, bourgeois existence. Sex with her affluent but uninspiring husband is unfulfilling, the furniture store inexplicably delivers the wrong couch, and post-aerobic conversations with her friends revolve largely around upcoming baby showers and fad fruit diets. Finally, the wrong kind of excitement enters her life: she begins suffering unexplained nosebleeds, vomiting, and wheezing panic attacks. The doctors are nonplussed by her vague symptoms, and allergy tests turn up negative (except for milk). Still, she’s hospitalized after suffering a seizure at a dry cleaners; she has something.

At this point, the film changes focus when Carol investigates a  health club flyer with the intriguing title, “are you allergic to the 20th century?” At first she attends lectures about “environmental sickness” or “multiple chemical sensitivity,” educates herself in the pseudo-scientific jargon about “body load” and “getting clear”; eventually, she declares herself a candidate for the expensive health retreat of Wrenwood, a “non-profit communal settlement dedicated to the healing individual.” Rather than getting better, however, Carol gets progressively sicklier the longer she stays within the carefully controlled atmosphere of the retreat: her body turns bony, her skin blotchy, she takes to lugging around an oxygen tank, and the slightest accidental sniff of fumes from a passing truck sends her into a wheezing spell. The psychobabble therapy—which insists that the patient’s illness is a result of negative emotions and of not loving themselves enough—keeps the residents in state of infantile dependency. Carol’s sickness actually gives her, for the first time in the movie, a sense of purpose and identity; her deterioration is, therefore, not surprising.

Haynes’ camera is deliberate; the film is shot mostly in clinical long shots, with very slow, ian pans. The soundtrack is low, rumbling synthetic drones, with vapid soft rock interludes. The feeling is of distant, gathering doom. The themes suggest layers of interpretation: the story could be a bourgeois satire, New Age satire, feminist allegory, AIDS allegory, or an existential nightmare manifesting itself as body horror. At Safe‘s heart are the subconscious concepts of “purity” and “contamination” (whether environmental, spiritual, or even demographic), and a warning about the danger of yearning for utopian homogeneity and withdrawal from the chaotic world. Ambiguous and creepy, Safe is a call to danger. In these gluten-wary times, Haynes’ message is still vital.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alas, one waits through the entire two hours hoping that [Haynes] will save himself by puncturing his own balloon of self-seriousness with some of the bizarre humor and inventive genre-bending that has characterized his films to date. But it never comes.”–Todd McCarty, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard , who said “It features a great performance from Julianne Moore as a neurotic germophobe who becomes so paranoid in living in a modern industrialized society that she is shipped off to this naturalist colony where other neurotics wander around in these weird body suits that protect them from harmful pollutants in the air.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: KABOOM (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Gregg Araki

FEATURING: Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett, , Chris Zylka, James Duval

PLOT: A sensitive college freshman experiences sexual awakening, stumbles upon a murder mystery, and uncovers secrets about his family while once in a while working on his film studies major, all set amidst scores of colorful visions, voodoo hallucinations, and sexy encounters.

Still from Kaboom

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Kaboom is a tough one to pin down.  It takes a while to get a handle on itself, combining a wealth of different ideas and subplots that don’t quite add up, but it does command my respect with its delightfully trippy visual approach and boldly unhinged ending.  It must be said: this movie is definitely weird.  But is it List-worthy?

COMMENTS: Enrolled in a clean and modern college replete with impossibly beautiful, voraciously horny undergrads, Smith (Dekker) has plenty of free time to sleep with or fantasize about most of the people he comes across.  While he becomes a surprise sex-buddy for the blunt and sexy London (Temple), his best friend Stella (Bennett) begins dating a real-life witch with a clingy personality.  Through many sexual escapades and relationship woes, a lingering murder mystery involving a scantily-clad redhead and some creepy men in animal masks worries Smith for months.  The more he delves into the puzzle, the more he seems to get konked on the head or chased by mysterious figures no one else sees.  And it all seems to tie into his recurring dream featuring those closest to him and a bright red dumpster.

With its over-exposed, over-saturated cinematography and frequent use of dreams and hallucinations, Kaboom definitely finds its way into “surreal” territory.  The vibrant color schemes, kooky mod fashion, slightly pornographic sex scenes, and sarcastic one-liners belie the dark undertones involving mysterious killings and abductions, masked men, witchcraft, and a sinister doomsday cult.  This dichotomy can work against the film as a whole; the tone is uneven and the script flits back and forth with awkward attempts at cohesion.  However, seeing these distinct narrative halves somehow come together in a completely unexpected way makes for an admittedly compelling and memorable viewing.

Kaboom has its drawbacks—dialogue that tries too hard to be funny, a few too many sex scenes (which I didn’t think was possible), some stilted performances—but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself.  Everything (and everyone) was just so pretty!  It gets weirder as it progresses, and it’s better for it, and the brash, unexpected ending definitely has a special effect on audiences (there was a good mix of “Huh…”, “Ha!”, and “What the hell?!” at my screening).  It is riddled with twists and turns, and is sure to keep anyone with a libido somewhat interested, but I’m still not quite sure just what to make of it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Araki lets his absurdist imagination run wild, and ‘Kaboom’ takes the time-honored gambit of gradually revealing that nothing is as it seems to delightfully cockamamie extremes.”–Kevin Thomas, The LA Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985)

AKA Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear

DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson

FEATURING: Alan Cox, Nicholas Rowe, Sophie Ward

PLOT: Young Watson meets prodigy schoolboy Sherlock at a British boarding school; together with Holmes’ girlfriend, they solve a mysterious rash of bizarre murders plaguing London.

Still from Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Noteworthy for some dark and intense hallucinatory scenes, but basically it’s a rollicking Spielberg-produced action-adventure a la the Indiana Jones series.

COMMENTS: Directed by Barry Levinson but bearing executive producer Steven Spielberg’s stamp all over it (much like “Tobe Hooper” ‘s 1982 Poltergeist), Young Sherlock Holmes was an unexpected box office flop in 1985, but has since garnered a minor cult film reputation among nostalgic post-boomers. There are a few exhibitions of Holmesian deduction in the early reels to establish the prodigal intelligence of the adolescent Holmes, but the main mystery, involving an ancient Egyptian cult in Victorian London, isn’t quite up to Arthur Conan Doyle’s intricate standards. The reason to watch it is for the special effects in the fanciful hallucination sequences, which hold up excellently today, and can still be intense and scary for younger viewers. The most memorable of these is a stained-glass knight who jumps down of a cathedral wall and menaces a cleric; a more whimsical example is the sinister cupcakes that menace chubby young Watson in a graveyard. Leaving aside the objection that shooting your victims full of hallucinogenic drugs and hoping that they commit suicide while battling phantasms in their delirium isn’t the most fail-proof of techniques for a professional assassin to employ, these scenes are mildly weird and enjoyable enough in themselves to make this flick worth catching for weirdophiles. The hallucinations cease in the second half, as the film becomes more concerned with solving the mystery and restoring the status quo; inevitably Holmes, the apex of rationality, is able to defeat the dark occult specters from the ancient unconscious and reestablish the Age of Enlightenment.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…things take a turn towards the predictable thanks to Chris Columbus’s script ignoring all the things that made the duo so dynamic and instead cobbling together some nonsense about Eastern cults and hallucinogenic drugs that more readily recalls the work of Sax Rohmer (Fu Manchu) than Conan Doyle.”–Richard Luck, Channel 4 Film