This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Last night, I watched Society, a bonkers little film directed by Brian Yuzna (Bride of Re-Animator, The Dentist). Society is yet another good use of a free movie space, as I’ve been hearing about the movie’s bananas climax since I started reading about horror movies. Society was obtained from Toronto mainstay, Bay Street Video.
Part of the reason I undertook a viewing of Society is for its infamous final half-hour, which was promised to be – by all accounts – unforgettable. But before we get to that masterpiece of body horror, there’s a whole movie to cover, so strap yourselves in. The film begins with an establishing shot of a massive white mansion, the kind that Philip and Vivian Banks might own. A teenager in a blue tank top, Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) lets himself in to the dark, seemingly empty house, and hears what can only be described as “squicky” sounds from somewhere within. Bill can best be described as a young Jesse Katsopolis or a hunkier Michael J. Fox. He retrieves a kitchen knife and holds it like a communion student holds a candle. Demonic laughter can be heard and suddenly, with a flash of light, Bill’s in his living room and his mom, Nan (Concetta D’Agnese), is asking him what he’s up to.
That, it would seem, was just one of Bill’s many stress dreams. We next see Bill talking to his therapist, Dr. Cleveland (Ben Slack), who asks what he’s so afraid of. Bill answers readily: his parents, his sister, even Dr. Cleveland himself. “I feel like something’s going to happen to me,” he says. You don’t need to be Dr. Cleveland to realize Bill has an acute case of anxiety. Bill then bites into an apple. When he pulls his mouth away, he sees it’s full of bloodworms! The title sequence starts – a blurry montage of wet, writing bodies – leading viewers to assume that, too, was a dream sequence, and his therapist probably doesn’t have a bowl of worm-ridden fruit on offer.
Bill and his best friend Milo (Evan Richards) are shooting some b-ball outside of his mansion, both wearing oversized shirts. They see a blue van roll up and Bill immediately recognizes it as the ride of Dave Blanchard (Tim Bartell), his sister Jenny’s ex-boyfriend. He yells to Jenny (Patrice Jennings), who comes to the window. She asks him to get rid of Blanchard. Jenny then undresses in front of her massive vanity, and tries on a party dress. When she goes to put on her earrings, she notices one is missing. Jenny finds the errant earring at the bottom of her walk-in closet, and is startled by someone who did, in fact, walk in: Dave Blanchard. Blanchard leaps out of the closet and seizes his ex-girlfriend, insisting he has to explain something to her. He claps his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming, but luckily Bill hears the commotion and intervenes. He gives Blanchard the bum’s rush from their opulent house just as his parents, Jim (Charles Lucia) and Nan Whitney arrive.
The Whitney parents, very formally dressed, are disheartened to see Dave Blanchard. “I thought you weren’t going to be seeing David Blanchard anymore,” Jenny’s father says. Jenny returns to her bedroom to prepare for her coming out party. It promises to be a big to-do. Even Judge Carter will be there! Jenny asks Bill to finish zipping up her dress, and as he does, he notices the skin on his sister’s back pulse. The next day, Bill, running for student council president, debates fellow candidate, Martin Petrie (Brian Bremer). Bill, basketball superstar, employs his cheerleader girlfriend, Shauna (Heidi Kozak) to rile up the student audience. It seems like he has a lock on the student vote, especially given how nerdy and preppy Petrie is. But Bill becomes distracted by a female student in the front row, who performs a sort of Indecent-Proposal lite for his benefit. He recovers during his speech, but Milo, acting as moderator, whispers to him, “She’s bad news, man.”
That afternoon, he tells his therapist of his successes at school. The therapist is pleased he can take some joy in his accomplishments, but Bill turns dark when Dr. Cleveland inquires about his family. “We’re just one big happy family,” he jokes. “Except for a little incest and psychosis.” His parents don’t approve of his friends, and treat him very differently than they do his sister, Jenny. Bill worries that he might be adopted. But Dr. Cleveland tries to reassure him he has nothing to worry about. “You’re going to make a wonderful contribution to society,” he says. That weekend, Bill makes plans to visit the beach with Shauna. Retrieving suntan lotion from the bathroom, he spies his sister showering. Through the frosted glass, it looks like her body has contorted, so that her face and butt point in the same direction. Horrified, he opens the shower door and merely emotionally scars his sister (whose body is totally normal). Embarrassed, Bill leaves the house, passing by his parents who, with the gardener, are assessing some garden slugs.
In his jeep’s passenger seat, Bill finds a disfigured Ken doll. He drives to the private club on the beach and applies suntan lotion to his bikini-clad girlfriend. Shauna complains that Ted Ferguson hasn’t invited them to his party. If Bill loved her, she says, he’d get them an invitation. Some local brats steal their sunscreen and Bill chases after them, nearly running into the girl from the front row of the student debate, now wearing a ridiculous metallic bikini. She playfully squirts some suntan lotion into his face (paging Dr. Freud!) and walks off. Bill, in a daze, nearly runs into an imposing, heavily made-up woman stomping across the beach. He then visits Ted Ferguson (Ben Meyerson) and friends, camped out at another spot on the shore. Ted is good friends with Petrie (Bill’s student council rival), which may be why he never got invited to Ted’s party. Petrie was born to lead, Ted insists. Then Dave Blanchard, in a deep sweat, runs up to Bill and interrupts. He needs to show him something in private, he claims.
Back at the Whitney homestead, Judge Carter (David Wiley) makes a visit. He’s chatting with Mr. Whitney when Jenny walks in, seeking help with one of her earrings. Back at the beach, Blanchard opens his suitcase of audio equipment and plays a tape for Bill. He bugged his family, he says, and this is what he recorded on the way to and at Jenny’s debutante party. The audio is upsetting, as it already begins with Bill’s dad mentioning that at the party, first they dine, then they copulate. Jenny will first start with someone her own age, then he and her mom will get in on the action. The audio seems to document the preamble to a massive orgy, and contains the amazing line, “the hotter and wetter you get, the more you can do.” Bill simmers until he hears the passionate sounds of an orgy in progress, then flips out, attacking Dave and taking his audio tape. Judge Carter and Mr. Whitney, meanwhile, have discovered what’s wrong with Jenny’s jewelry: it’s got an audio bug implanted. Mr. Whitney recognizes the work of Dave Blanchard, electronics wizard.
An enraged Bill runs to his therapist’s house, after hours, and asks him to listen to Dave’s tape. Dr. Cleveland says he can’t simply listen to it at the moment, but insists he come back in the morning. Bill leaves the tape with him to listen to at his leisure. When Bill next sees Shauna at school, he attempts to tell her about the horrible information he discovered from the tape, but Shauna is only concerned about getting an invite to the Ferguson party. This incites a shouting match, during which Shauna cuts Bill off by suggesting they should see other people. When Bill next sees Dr. Cleveland, his therapist is very concerned that what Bill is doing is illegal. When he plays the audio tape, what Bill hears is a PG-rated version of the earlier conversation. Gone is the talk of orgies and incest, replaced with completely innocent talk about dancing and hors d’oeuvres. Cleveland warns his patient that society has rules, and if he’s unwilling to follow the rules, it will only cause him harm. The doctor starts to prescribe some anti-psychotics, but Bill grabs the telephone and calls Blanchard, demanding another copy of the audio tape. “It can’t wait!”
Bill races to the corner where he and Blanchard are supposed to meet, but is greeted with a crime scene: Blanchard’s van has been completely overturned and a bloody mess of a man is hidden under a sheet on a stretcher that paramedics are loading into an ambulance. Bill asks if Blanchard is dead and is given no answer. He wanders over to the car crash and begins to sort through the open suitcase of audio recordings. A police officer, Sergeant Burt (David Wells) stops him – “Hey, this isn’t a garage sale” – and seizes the tape recorder. Bill heads home to inform his family of the tragic news. The Whitneys, however, have already heard about the car crash and are surprisingly unmoved. Bill expects a bit of sorrow, especially from his ex, Jenny. (In her defence, he did become something of a stalker, though.) The Whitneys are actually in a very good mood, because they received a telegram that officially invites Bill to Ted Ferguson’s shindig! Everything’s coming up Whitney! “What are you going to wear?” Jenny asks her brother. “To the funeral?” he asks. “No, the party.”
Bill Whitney dutifully attends Ted Ferguson’s party, feeling completely out of place. The one person he’s able to talk to is that dark-haired girl from before, Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez). Bill and she begin to hit it off. Bill’s slightly loserish friend Milo shows up at the party, which is a bit of a surprise, and very rudely implies (or outright states) that Clarissa turns tricks. She leaves, offended, and escapes to an outdoor tent. Bill follows her, and inside the tent is met by Ted Ferguson, holding court and smoking a joint. Bill’s mood intensifies quickly, and he demands to know what happened at his sister’s coming out party. Ted has no compunction informing Bill: “First, we dine. Then, I fucked your sister. Then, everybody else go so turned on, they fucked her, too.” He also says that he caused Blanchard’s accident. Bill takes a swing at him, and then Ferguson’s goons rough him up and toss him into the swimming pool. “Don’t make waves, Whitney,” Ted warns. “You’ll drown.”
Clarissa helps him out of the pool and takes him back to her place, quickly freeing him from his wet clothes. Bill is anxious that her parents will arrive home at any time, but she assures him that won’t happen. They make love, during which Bill falls off the bed when startled that Clarissa’s arm is in a position it really shouldn’t (physically) be in. However, when he takes a closer look, she seems to be anatomically standard, so he must be imagining things. Outside, however, a friend of Shauna’s has brought her to Clarissa’s, so she can see Bill’s jeep in the driveway. Shauna is distraught that Bill has already moved on. During a second makeout session, Clarissa’s mother, Mrs. Carlyn (Pamela Matheson), the tall woman we saw earlier at the beach, arrives home with a lock of blonde hair in her fist. She then chokes up a hairball and places it gently into Bill’s palm. “What’s with her?” Bill asks Clarissa. “She does things I don’t like,” she answers.
The next morning, Bill finds another present in his jeep: an inflatable doll with a Ken figurine stuffed in its mouth. (Bill is finding increasingly strange things left in his jeep and locker.) Shauna, in a denim dress, rolls up in her Firebird and confronts Tom about Clarissa. When she sees the inflatable doll, she realizes her boyfriend has become a full-blown sex pervert and leaves in a huff. Bill brings the doll inside, and up to his parents’ bedroom, accusing them of being behind it. It’s not a bad guess, as his mom and dad are currently lounging in robes, massaging his teenaged sister. Bill is grossed out: “You guys disgust me.” Mr. Whitney doesn’t appreciate his disrespect, and their argument escalates to Bill threatening to move out. Bill leaves and heads to Dave Blanchard’s funeral. While he and Milo are paying their respects, Milo touches the deceased’s face (inappropriate!), which caves in a bit, spooking the both of them. Speaking of spooky, Martin Petrie sidles up to Bill at the coffin’s side and says he needs to talk to him. About “society.” They make plans to meet in Franklin Canyon that evening.
When Bill drives to meet Petrie – surprise, surprise – his one-time rival is nowhere to be found. Milo has followed Bill to the canyon and hides, watching the whole scene. Bill searches further into the forest where he finds an abandoned Volvo, its four-way flashers going. He tries all the doors, and when he opens the passenger-side door, Petrie’s dead body flops out, his neck gushing blood. Bill drops to the ground and hears laughter from the forest. He gets to his feet and tries to find the killer, but only finds a sweater – Ted Ferguson’s design-heavy grey sweater. Just as he reaches for it, a man in a ski mask knocks Bill down, grabs the sweater and flees. Bill chases after him, but the man escapes in a car. Clarissa’s house is just around the corner, so Bill goes to her and calls the police. Sergeant Burt arrives and leads Bill and Clarissa (wearing a bedazzled jean jacket) back to the canyon, but the car is a completely different model, and instead of a corpse, it only contains a red scarf. The police officer gives them a stern warning, and Bill opts to spend the night at Clarissa’s.
There’s a second student council debate the following day – how often do they hold debates at this school? – a debate to which Bill seems to be the only candidate in attendance. Jenny tells her brother that their parents are worried he never came home last night. Bill, for his part, pleads for his sister to talk to him about what’s wrong, but she refuses. Bill then takes the stage to reveal to his school why Petrie hasn’t shown up for this debate. In his Howard Beale moment, he rants about the conspiracy in Beverly Hills – a conspiracy that killed Dave Blanchard, and now Martin Petrie. But then Petrie walks into the gym and the entire school roars with laughter. (How embarrassing.)
After the debate, Milo reaches out to his friend Bill. He admits he was the one leaving all the strange items in Bill’s car and locker because he felt neglected, but something strange really is happening. Milo reveals he followed Bill to Franklin Canyon, and Ted Ferguson and Petrie were up to something really weird. They agree to join forces and solve this mystery together. When Bill returns home, everyone is gathered in the drawing room – not just his family, but Dr. Cleveland and Judge Carter, too. Waiting outside, Milo sees an ambulance roll up to the house. Two paramedics ambush Bill inside his own house and Dr. Cleveland sedates him. Bill is loaded into an ambulance that drives away, tailed by a resourceful Milo. When Milo inquires with the desk nurse about his friend, she can’t find the patient at first. Then she says that he died; Bill Whitney can be found in the morgue. Milo can’t believe it. He faithfully waits in the hospital parking lot, like some human version of Fry’s dog, Seymour, on Futurama.
Eventually, Bill wakes from a nightmare in his hospital bed. He dresses himself and leaves the hospital of his own volition. Seeing that Milo has been waiting for him outside, he attacks the mystery with new relish. Some would say recklessness. He hops in his jeep and drives home. When Milo enters his car, Mrs. Carlyn, who looks kind of like Ursula in The Little Mermaid, has (at some point) entered the backseat and begins to eat his hair. He shoos her away, but gives her a ride anyway. Bill returns to his house, dim and empty as it was at the film’s beginning. He hears whispers behind the walls, and again, goes to find the kitchen knife, but downs a whole glass of water first. When he walks into the drawing room, he is greeted by his parents, dressed in formal wear. The room is illuminated and suddenly Bill is in the middle of a formal party, with nearly everyone in town in attendance. Even the police officer, Sergeant Burt, has come, and he promptly snares Bill by the neck in a catch pole. Judge Carter appears at the top of the stairs and the crowd applauds, but still, no one has explained what is happening.
Bill’s therapist, Dr. Cleveland, attempts to provide some background: “You’re not one of us. You have to be born into society,” he says. It’s an issue of good breeding. With all this cryptic talk, Bill assumes he’s uncovered a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers situation, but Cleveland assures him they’re not from outer space. They have always been there, he notes, helping himself to the slug crudités. Milo and Mrs. Carlyn roll up to the Whitneys’ house and observe the partygoers arriving for the night – and partaking of the valet parking, no less! Clarissa reluctantly arrives at the party and is disheartened to see her sort-of-boyfriend restrained with a catch pole. Meanwhile, partygoers talk about opportunities, the older ones offering the younger ones prestigious internships and the like. Dr. Cleveland begins to fondle Jenny in front of her parents, and her mom notes, “Jim and I both derive a great deal of pleasure from her.” Before long, the second guest of honour arrives, and the body horror Götterdämmerung begins.
Paramedics drag in a man covered in a white sheet to the party. They pull back the sheet to reveal Dave Blanchard, not so dead after all. Judge Carter, presiding over the festivities, announces that after the first “shunting,” they’ll have a special treat: a second “shunting” with a prime specimen raised by members of their order, Bill Whitney! If you don’t know what a shunting is, have no fear, as the next several minutes of the movie are a veritable shunting-palooza. Ted Ferguson instructs Bill to watch what they do to Dave first, as it will be a preview for his treatment. The partygoers tear Dave’s clothes from his body, then begin to kiss and fondle him. As their fondling becomes more aggressive, all their bodies become more and more liquid, fusing them together, their bodies sliding inside each other. Some of the partiers’ faces turn tube-like, sucking from Ted’s flesh. “Don’t you know, Billy Boy?” Ted says. “The rich have always sucked off low-class shit like you.” (I think it’s safe to assume this is what happens at every fancy party.)
Outside, Mrs. Carlyn attacks a police officer’s hair, giving Milo the opportunity to steal his uniform and gun. (The cop passes out, but Mrs. Carlyn is distraught to discover he wears a rug.) The flesh-sharing inside crescendoes – all set to a stately waltz – with Judge Carter disrobing and getting in on the action. He jams his fist deep inside Dave Blanchard (um), pushing upward until his hand comes out Blanchard’s face. Clarissa frees Bill from his catch pole and he runs upstairs to his parents’ room. His parents, however, are in the middle of a smaller incestuous shunting party. His mom’s legs have been replaced with male arms, and his sister’s face emerges from between her legs. Mr. Whitney, meanwhile, has his face where his rectum would normally be, admitting, “I am a butthead!” Horrified, Bill leaves the bedroom where Dr. Cleveland is waiting for him.
The drawing room has become a writhing mass of flesh, with everyone making out with one another, in some cases – Dave Blanchard and Clarissa Carlyn, for instance – without consent. Bill rescues Clarissa from the entire town’s upper class’s advances, ruining the partiers’ good times. People’s bodies reconstitute – though Judge Carter now has Dave Blanchard’s beauty mark – as they crowd around Bill and Ted Ferguson, on the cusp of a fistfight. Though Ted is in Risky Business cosplay and Bill is fully dressed, Ted still gets the best of Bill, hitting him with roundhouse kicks and karate chops. (Ted knows kung fu!) Ted threatens Bill with the night’s second shunt: “See this arm, Bill? You’re going to get very familiar with it.” Bill’s parents, having descended from the bedroom, egg Ted on. Milo and Mrs. Carlyn, who have snuck into the party, attempt to help Bill, but the crowd holds them back.
Ted, moving well beyond redemption, punches Clarissa when she tries to stand between him and the increasingly wounded Bill. Mrs. Carlyn attacks him in return, but Ted escapes and is left to face Bill alone. Ted begins to kiss Bill, then prepares to fist him, but Bill grasps his pliable wrist and turns it completely around, instead fisting Ted! Bill shoves his hand further and further up Ted, pushing out his eyeballs and balling up his face. Finally, Bill pulls downward and literally turns Ted Ferguson inside out, killing him. The party is stunned. Bill is then able to leave the crowd of paralyzed fancy pants, taking Clarissa and Milo with him. His dad makes a feeble attempt to stop him at the front door, but Bill punches him in his butthead, and the three speed away in Bill’s jeep.
- You’d have to have fallen asleep during Society to not realize it’s a statement about class and privilege. And a rather ham-fisted statement at that – the upper class literally feeds off the lower classes. What starts as adages about breeding and being a valuable member of society morphs into an over-the-top gross-out climax with the same message: the rich are different and they are literally out to consume the poor. (That said, this privilege is not merely a monetary measure: Bill is from the same family, but is not considered one of society, due to his working-class friends and ways. Shades of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.) What starts as subtlety becomes a sledgehammer. Society is stupid, but brilliant. But this is what exploitation films do best: incorporate a high-concept message into what is otherwise an extreme but entertaining narrative. Chopping Mall could learn a few lessons from Society!
- Film blog Oh, the Horror noted that so few films can manage to feel both dated and extremely relevant, but Society is one such film. The film is explicitly an attack on Reaganomics, in which the “trickle-down effect” is shown to be what it more accurately was: the privileged excluding the poor, yet still milking them for tax and labour. Yet, the discussion of privilege has not disappeared. Privilege has worsened. If you don’t think the 1% are shunting people at their private parties, I fear you may be willfully naïve. (That’s only half a joke.) In taking this WASPy interest in propriety and high society and revealing it to be the veneer cast over some sick, weird vampiric sex parties, the filmmakers are trying to show the audience this is what the upper classes are metaphorically doing. They’re just making the metaphor a really goopy reality.
- It’s amusing when you realize that Society is essentially a John Hughes teen movie turned into a horror film. Class struggles and all. Like, imagine Pretty in Pink, but instead of Blane and Andie lovingly reconnecting at the prom, Blane invites Andie to a fancy party, then transforms her into a gelatinous puddle of flesh that he consumes to rejuvenate himself. (As long as it has OMD on the soundtrack, I’m still on board.)
- I can’t be the only viewer of Society who wants to see a buddy comedy featuring Milo and Mrs. Carlyn. They could team up and solve mysteries, with Milo being the brains of the operation and Mrs. Carlyn being the muscle with a fetish for hair. Maybe Milo shaves his head to make life easier. They make a really great team. I was a bit worried when Clarissa, Milo, and Bill fled the party without Clarissa’s mom. Though she does seem to have a taste for hair, I don’t think she entirely fits in with the rest of the “society crowd.”
- I was also sad that Clarissa Carlyn never revealed what was happening to Bill, so I could never use the line, Clarissa Explains It All.
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Society is a movie that manages to be not the least bit scary, but supremely unsettling. You may cringe your way through most of the film, mainly due to all the overtones of incest and the disturbing special effects used during the bravura shunting sequence. Furthermore, it’s too smart to be truly terrible, even though it features all the trappings of a terrible movie. Society is too aware of what it’s doing.
Best outfit: Most of the clothing on display in Society is indicative of the late 1980s when it was filmed. So many of the outfits look like they came directly from Zack Morris’s closet. There are denim dresses, bedazzled jackets, and even a clever “Eat the Rich” T-shirt. But the item of clothing that stood out most was Ted Ferguson’s grey patterned sweater, if only for its importance to the plot. That sweater stands out. I mean, there’s no point in wearing a ski mask while undertaking your skullduggery if you’re going to bring that sweater, Ted.
Best line: “How do you like your tea? Cream, sugar, or do you want me to pee in it?” – Clarissa, who is far from the kinkiest character in Society
Best kill: Never before has fisting been used so often in a movie to such deadly end. In the final confrontation, Bill Whitney prevents villain Ted Ferguson from fisting him, then revenges himself (and Dave Blanchard) by shoving his own fist inside the only entry point of Ted Ferguson – presumably his anus – then turning the guy inside out. The result is both disgusting and strangely satisfying.
Unexpected cameo: Star Billy Warlock is a soap opera marathon man, having appeared on many of the mainstays (General Hospital, Young and the Restless, etc), and even portraying Eddie Kramer for several seasons on Baywatch. His friend Milo, Evan Richards, was the voice of Bill S. Preston, Esq. on the animated Bill and Ted series.
Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Some high schools treat student elections with enough gravity to necessitate multiple candidate debates.
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Shunt of the Night
Next up: Possession (1981).