Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Film #13: Safe

Everyone who hears me describe the quiet but terrifying film Safe as a horror film always gives me a lot of gas. (snicker!) “Safe isn’t a horror movie, it’s a blah blah blah!” Well, I’m sorry, but yes, it is a horror film--an extremely modern one, one perhaps way ahead of its time, but a horror film nonetheless. I don't get why some people can't see it. I mean, not all horror movies have monsters or maniacs waiting to chop a gal in the head with an ax. I mean, broaden your views!

Because, to me, the fact is obvious. Forget its mood or subject matter for a moment, and just look at how it's constructed. Writer/director Todd Haynes, in what I still think is his best movie, slyly builds enormous tension while unfolding this story of Carol, a vapid young homemaker (played by a devastating Julianne Moore) whose sterile, not-a-thing-outta-place environment suddenly becomes paralyzed after she contracts an unexplainable illness she thinks is caused by chemicals and fumes in the air.

All right, I admit that Safe doesn’t sound very horrific. I mean, this could be a Lifetime movie, or something. But it sure plays like a shocker, right down to the crushing, foreboding atmosphere in Carol’s too-perfect home--it seems haunted--and the menacing music ringing as Carol has an violent attack at a baby shower, or collapses in a dry cleaning store being sprayed for bugs; it’s as if she’s being stalked by toxins. Every time a car passes or another character uses any sort of concoction, Haynes makes palpable for us the fear that cruelly overtakes Carol’s life, while inevitably making us wonder if Carol herself isn’t the cause of all her suffering.

Safe seems to have been inspired by The Exorcist's unnerving pre-pea-soup spinal tap scenes in moments where her doctors and husband try to figure out what’s gone wrong in her seemingly healthy body. And check out the Cronenbergian touches in the climactic scenes at the cultish desert retreat Carol travels to for recovery; eeriness reeks from the gloomy, glorified refrigerator she inhabits, and from her nearest neighbor, a herky-jerky recluse wandering the countryside like some neurotic Bigfoot. There’s no blood, no gore, no screams in Safe. But there is a monster: an unending sense of dread at the polluted emptiness of modern life.

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