Brandon: In the post-apocalyptic eternity since the presidential election of Donald Trump there’s been bountiful articles explaining why such & such movie, say Bob Roberts or Children of Men or even Rogue One, are now more relevant than ever in our current political climate. The truth is more likely that these films never lost their political relevance in the first place. Although this country has seen a somewhat progressive swing in the last eight years, the same systemic class inequality & civil rights issues that have always plagued it haven’t budged an inch. Most political art made in the last century, particularly art that addresses our deceptively rigid class system & the often brutal ways its boundaries are enforced, is always likely to retain its significance as our presidents change, since the system they helm doesn’t change along with them. That’s why I don’t want to pose the rich-feeding-off-the-poor terrors of Brian Yuzna’s cult classic body horror Society as being more relevant than ever in the face of a Donald Trump regime, as tempting as it may be. More accurately put, Society is very much a product of its Reagan-era times that, when viewed through a modern context, can be a harrowing (and amusingly absurdist) reminder that nothing ever really changes, least of all the status quo.
For all of its continued political relevance in its hamfisted approach to satirizing rigid class structures, Society is admittedly a deeply silly film. High school senior Bill Whitney feels out of step with his Beverly Hills yuppie community, including his own family. Despite his privileged life of manicured mansions, cheerleader girlfriends, and popularity contest high school elections, Bill is intensely uncomfortable in his environment, suffering a growing unease he discusses at length with his therapist. This discomfort amounts to a spiritually crushing paranoia in which Bill hallucinates grotesque body contortions in his Reaganite peers and becomes convinced that his parents & sister are attending incestuous, murder-fueled orgies among a secret sect of Society he simply doesn’t have access to. Of course, Bill’s dead right. He doesn’t fit in with his Beverly Hills social group because he was born an entirely different species, a Poor. The wealthy members of the film’s self-described “Society” are an inhuman race who run the world by literally feeding off the poor. Bill was merely adopted into their ranks as an unworthy outsider & eventual sacrifice. The final half hour of the film is a Cronenbergian mess of melded bodies, unimaginable cruelty, and sexual taboo that exposes the heartless & wealthy ruling class for the monsters they truly are. It’s a bewildering special effects showcase from gore wizard Screaming Mad George that nearly wipes away all memory of the mostly standard horror film that precedes it by putting an outrageously grotesque face on systemic inequality in modern class politics.
What I love most about Society is its complete lack of subtlety & nuance. Once its world’s rules are revealed in its infamous “shunting” sequence in the final act, the film’s themes are spelled out in the plainest of terms. Bill is collared & walked around like a wild dog for public ridicule (before he’s subjected to a more supernatural torment). Wealthy men explain to him that their superiority comes from “good breeding” and that, since he was adopted from a non-wealthy family, “You’re a different race from us, a different species, a different class.” They even explicitly connect their evildoings to a historical tradition of class inequality, bragging that “The rich have always sucked off low class shit like you.” Society was largely panned in its time for this disinterest in thematic subtlety, struggling for three years after its initial release in 1989 to earn a proper US distribution deal. Treating its class politics as a flimsy excuse for the disturbing practical effects orgy in its final act seems like a mistake to me, though, and I’m delighted that the film has been reassessed as a cult classic in the decades since its humble beginnings. The way it explores class divisions in the most literal & grotesque terms possible is highly amusing to me in an almost cathartic way. This is especially true of these earliest days in a Donald Trump presidency, where poking fun at the inhuman cruelty of the wealthy oligarchy feels almost necessary for survival, even if their status as the ruling class hasn’t at all changed since this film’s initial release.
Boomer, do you agree that Society is well-served by its blatant class warfare themes, particularly in the cruelly grotesque way the 1% are characterized in its sledgehammer dialogue & nightmarish gore, or do you think the film would have fared better with an occasional adherence to subtlety & restraint?
Boomer: Honestly, yes and no, as I am of two minds when it comes to film’s mixed relationship with subtlety. Though the plot becomes more traditionally horrific as it plays out, the outpouring of nauseating imagery and sound that constitutes the film’s finale is a huge tonal shift from the relatively grounded story that seems to be playing out in the first act. As much as I love grue, I also love the conceit of the unreliable narrator, especially one who doubts his own mind. Take, for instance, Bill’s first scene with his therapist, in which he takes a bite of an apple only to realize it’s full of worms; he looks away, then back, and the apple is totally normal. This is a fairly obvious metaphor for the way that the presumed normalcy of Bill’s world is merely a thin facade covering inconceivable monsters beneath the surface, but it also implies that Bill’s less-than-objective interpretation of events may be the result of a diseased mind. At least until the shunting begins, anyway.
Of course, that was just my reading of the scene based on viewing the film cold. Many of the early oddities, like the squirming apple, the apparently inhuman body structure of Bill’s sister, and the changes to the audiotape, could easily be interpreted either way: as hallucinations or a They Live-style peek behind the veil of our ordered existence. Instead, of course, we learn that these are just moments in which members of the titular Society are gaslighting (another important term that has seen a resurgence in usage and discussion since the Trump ascendancy) poor Bill. Luckily, for the sake of goreheads and fans of unsubtle social satire everywhere, Society quickly descends into stomach-churning “after dark” madness.
After my viewing, I watched the trailer and looked at posters for the film, and I can only imagine that filmgoers of 1992 would have been highly disappointed if “the minds behind Re-Animator” and the gore wizard “who brought you Nightmare on Elm Street IV (um) and Predator (oh, ok)” had turned out a film about a rich Beverly Hills kid who thought his world was being turned upside-down only to learn that he was merely losing his mind. Still, I think I would like to see a film that plays out more subtly, wherein Bill becomes all-too-aware of how privileged his easy, moneyed life is and begins seeing his 1% peers as the inhuman monsters they are on the inside, without making that metaphor so literal. The film would have been a bit more nuanced if it took that road, but that doesn’t mean Society doesn’t work in the form that it does take.
What the film lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with its overt depiction of the grotesqueries of American pomp and lavishness. When the film shreds the guise of humanity to reveal its, uh, true form, the film doesn’t suffer for its straightforwardness. The rich are fundamentally different from you and me, and it is, from their point of view, a matter of class and breeding. This isn’t even arcane knowedge that I’m talking about, it’s all out there to be seen by anyone who opens their eyes. I never saw a full episode of Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, but I did see plenty of clips on the dearly departed (and sorely missed) The Soup, and have seen enough “Rich Kids of Instagram” compilations scattered around the internet to know that a life of wealth and privilege makes people rotten to their cores. A dear friend used to be a frequent babysitter for the four-year-old daughter of a rich Baton Rouge lawyer; one day, the little girl was so cruel to my friend that she cried, causing the brat to tell her that she didn’t have to be nice because she was pretty. When my friend told the parents about this incident that evening, the father didn’t apologize or even inspect the way that he was raising his child to be a monster; he just looked at my friend and said, “Well, she’s right, you know. She doesn’t have to be nice; she’s pretty.”
Anecdotal though that is, it bespeaks a systemic inhumanity on the part of the American aristocracy, and that inhumanity is on full frontal display in Society, just as it is in society. To hide that behind a veil of subtlety is to do a grave disservice to the truth of our existence. I would even go so far as to argue that the exaggeration of that idea is more important now than it was 30 years ago. After all, our society has degenerated into such frothing madness that satire can hardly find a foothold; so unable are we to discern extreme parodies of absurd political ideation from the actual extremist views held by fringe mentally ill people (whose voices are amplified by the proliferation of the internet) that there’s a plausible argument being made that “fake news” swung the election. If Jonathan Swift were to publish “A Modest Proposal” in the New York Times tomorrow morning, there would be commenters at Breitbart and TeaParty.org putting on their “All Lives Matter” aprons and getting ready to light the grill to barbecue up some Irish babies by mid-afternoon. The finale of Society may be just over-the-top enough to penetrate even the thickest skulls (and Klan hoods).
Let’s back off of that for a second though, before I work myself up too much. For me, the weakest link in the film has nothing to do with the story or the direction but with Billy Warlock’s performance. I’m sure part of my less-than-hospitable attitude towards the actor is the result of Allison Pregler’s delightful abridged series project Baywatching, but I still found Bill to be a thoroughly disinteresting lead, with no power in Warlock’s portrayal to save the character. Hell, if anything, Milo is the hero of this story, not Bill. What do you think, Britnee? Were you distracted by Billy Warlock’s lackluster presence, or was it suitable for the film? What change would you make to strengthen the film: recasting, or rewriting the character?
Britnee: I’m in agreement that Billy Warlock’s performance in Society was pretty terrible. With such an interesting last name, who would’ve guessed he’d be such a letdown? Even though his acting was shit, he didn’t really have that much of a negative impact on the movie, though. Society was absolutely insane from the opening scene to the disturbingly haunting ending, so, if anything, Warlock contributed to the insanity that made this movie such a success in the cult film community. Imagine how off-balanced the movie would be if someone decent played the role of Bill. I couldn’t even imagine such a thing.
If I could change anything about Bill’s character, I would want him to take all the strange occurrences happening around him more seriously. It was irritating to watch him be so willingly blind to what was happening around him, and it was even more annoying to know that he didn’t start questioning his place in his weird family until he was in his late teens. I’m assuming that he was adopted by the Whitney family when he was a baby since he didn’t know he was adopted, so he probably noticed their strange behavior way before he started to question it. Maybe I’m being too harsh because he was raised in that environment his entire life and probably thought it was normal, but it’s still hard to believe.
The biggest question that I have from Society (and I have many) is why did the Whitney’s adopt Bill and raise him for so long with the intention of eventually “shunting” him? They didn’t have to groom him for so long just to shunt him in the end because they shunted Blanchard, who was pretty much just an average guy. They could lure or capture any lower class individual to shunt, but I don’t understand why they put so much effort into shunting Bill.
Alli, what do you think about the Whitney’s adopting of Bill to just shunt him in the end? Would you have liked more of a background story of their motivation to adopt and raise Bill? If you could create the story for Bill’s adoption, would would it be?
Alli: I think their cruelty and extravagance has made them bored, so they need increasingly sick diversions. I’m imagining some sort of extremely twisted My Fair Lady, where they found this poor family with a child they can’t afford and just for kicks decide to groom a lower class “poor” into a false sense of security just to see the terror and confusion. It also kind of brings to mind “The Most Dangerous Game.” My main question is why now? Have any of them thought of keeping “shuntable” pets before? It’s such a hyperbole of the idea of the poor as sheep for the rich to herd and take advantage of. It’s amazing that they’re applauded and congratulated on their great achievement, because in a way this makes the Whitney’s farmers, and I imagine farmers are some sort of unimaginably lower rank.
But something more mysterious to me than any of that is Mrs. Carlyn (Pamela Matheson). I didn’t ever really figure her character out. Her doe-eyed, empty stare and tricophagia aren’t really explained. Very early on the cheerleader types reference her in disgust when talking about Bill’s infatuation with Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez), “Have you seen her mom?!” After mentioning Clarissa’s turning tricks, I assumed her mom would be some sort of scandalous gold digger, but she’s the opposite. Instead, she’s a semi-catatonic wanderer with wild hair. She’s harmless enough as a member of Society goes, but I guess I don’t really understand why they keep her around. The most I can make of it is that this Society even has outcasts and those who don’t fit in. They sweep them under the rug and ignore them, but is Mrs. Carlyn anymore messed up than any of the rest of them?
Brandon, what do you think about Mrs. Carlyn’s place in Society?
Brandon: I’m really glad that came up, because Mrs. Carlyn & her hot to trot daughter were the first thing that came to mind when Boomer & Britnee called out Bill for being a lackluster presence in the film. Mrs. Carlyn in particular is a sore thumb. She plays Society‘s already broad comedy a tad too far into a cartoonish territory that spoils the winking camp a little for me, recalling a Laurie Beth Denberg character from a long-forgotten All That sketch. This is more a fault of the filmmakers’ than the actor’s, though. They don’t give her much to do outside tired fatty-fall-down-make-boom lines of humor and excuses to mug crazy-eyed for the camera when she tries to eat unsuspecting victims’ hair. (In a typifying punchline, she’s confused when she attempts to eat a toupee.) If I had to justify her inclusion in the plot, I could argue, as Alli suggests, that she’s a comedic take on the way wealthy families always seem to have that one black sheep weirdo that doesn’t quite fit in, usually due to mental illness. Mrs. Carlyn & her oversexed daughter are essentially this Society’s version of Grey Gardens, their outcast mutant lives existing as a sort of bane on the more respectable slug-eating mutants of Society proper. That’s giving the film more credit than it probably deserves, though, especially since nothing else in its themes is treated with any semblance of subtlety. For a film willing to beat you over the head with lines like, “There are people who make the rules and people who follow them. You’re born into it,” and the often-repeated “You’re going to make a wonderful contribution to Society,” I think a little acknowledged justification for the Carlyns’ existence as outsiders, even as a source of embarrassment, would’ve improved the script. I also could’ve done without Mrs. Carlyn’s character entirely, to be honest.
Her daughter Clarissa is another strange outlier in the story. Clarissa seems to at first be horny for Bill in a nefarious way, as if she’s playing with her food or further trapping him in his predetermined downfall, but that attraction is later revealed to be genuine. This could possibly be a result of her identifying with his fellow outsider status as a Poor, thanks to her family’s position as the Grey Gardens black sheep. Again, the script doesn’t give us much to work with there. Clarissa’s affection for Bill honestly wouldn’t distract me too much, though, if it weren’t used as a deus ex machina (along with her mother’s trichophagia) to rescue him just before his turn to be shunted. Bill’s escape at the end & ultimate survival makes for an interesting gender-swapped version of the Final Girl trope (something telegraphed in the red herring slasher film opening), but I was honestly rooting for a much more pessimistic conclusion to the story. As far as screenwriting tradition goes, a gore-soaked Canadian horror indie just might be one of the few times when you can get away with a triumphless, dispiriting ending without gripes from producers or test audiences and it just seems weird that Society would allow its protagonist to walk away without more than a few scratches. If all these wealthy families conspired for nearly two decades to shunt Bill, why would they so easily allow their science project to escape once he’s learned all of their horrific secrets? I guess you could argue that they’re in a vulnerable, physically soft state during the shunting that would inhibit his capture, but that seems like a pretty weak excuse. Having Bill suffer the shunting and the wealthy secure an inescapable victory over their born-poor protagonist might’ve better served the film’s central metaphor and it seems as if the only reason he’s allowed to escape is to set up a sequel that never came, a lame cop-out if there ever was one. And since Clarissa’s entire existence in the plot is the machination of that escape I have to question her validity in the script just as much as I do her mother’s.
What do you think, Boomer? Would a pessimistic ending have better driven home Society’s central metaphor? Would it have been a better film if Bill had fallen victim to the shunting he was groomed for all his life?
Boomer: That’s an interesting question. More than the relative positivity/negativity of the ending, I was struck by how abrupt it was, and how odd that conclusion felt in a film that spent much of its runtime letting the story breathe. To use a comparison that is accessible for many, consider the ending of Terminator: imagine that, after Sarah Connor destroys the T-800, the film cut to black and the end credits immediately started rolling, without the follow-up scene in which she drives off into the desert as the distant thunder of a gathering storm rumbles ominously. That’s how you end this kind of movie: the hero vanquishes (or escapes) the clutches of evil, and the audience is treated to an epilogue that allows us to digest the climactic finale and imagine a future for the character or characters in whom, if the film is successful in its presentation, we have become invested. It doesn’t have to be completely optimistic or pessimistic; in fact, Terminator‘s final moments are all the more poignant for their ambiguity. James Cameron’s film is perhaps the best example of how to make this work, given that it could so easily have been yet another generic action film like so many of that era, but rose above the milieu to become iconic through strong performances, impressive VFX work, and attention to detail.
I have a feeling that director Brian Yuzna may have even thought he was endowing the ending of Society with this same feeling of bittersweet uncertainty: Billy escapes, but a member of the Beverly Hills shunt calmly tells a cohort that there is another Society… in Washington (dun dun DUN). But instead of giving the ending room to breathe, the end credits start to roll seemingly out of nowhere, without even a perfunctory denouement in which Billy, Milo, and Clarissa drive into the night as the first fingers of the sun grab at the horizon. On the other hand, I might just be making this connection between the two movies because both Sarah Connor and Bill drive sweet Jeeps; that’s for the reader to decide.
In the end, however, I think that the film’s “happy” ending is difficult to parse as either a function of its time of creation and its creative genesis. Although Yuzna was born in the Philippines, the film can be read as a clear product of anxieties about the rich that are not unique to American wealth distribution but specifically reflect that culture. As such, my initial assumption was that the optimistic ending was a result of the need to represent the hope of escaping the clutches of wealthy evil, metaphorically. As obvious as that may seem, interviews with the director indicate that the film was originally about religious cultists out to sacrifice Billy, but that this plot point was altered following discussions between Yuzna and Screaming Mad George during the pre-production process. The “shunting” was conceived by George and the plot reworked backward from there, meaning that any discussion of the relative “happiness” of the ending presupposes a premise that is supported by the text itself, but appears unintentional.
Roland Barthes would argue that this is irrelevant, however, so in the interest of not limiting the text, I declare the author dead and put forth this explanation: the ending must be optimistic in order to give the audience hope of escaping the wealth-positive cronyism of Ronald Reagan. An ending in which Billy dies at the hands (?) of the Society would be reflective of the way that this generally works in the real world (for instance, with the recent repeal of the ACA damning many Americans to a slow and painful death without affordable medical care in order to support the malevolent and uncharitable greed of a few), but wouldn’t make for very good entertainment, so a happy ending is called for.
To go back to the Terminator reference above, how would you see a potential film franchise for Society playing out, Britnee? Do you think there would be any value in confronting other Societies? Would those be better served by taking on the more pessimistic (perhaps even deterministic) tone that the Terminator franchise did?
Britnee: I would absolutely love a Society franchise! I recently read an interview that Yuzna had with Horror Channel back in 2013, and he mentions that he was actively working on a sequel to Society. I haven’t seen anything else that mentions the status of Society sequel, but I hope that it’s still in the works. Having a sequel come out over 20 years after the original film was released sounds insane, but I think that it would be great to get a modern day dose of Society while we’re living in Trump’s America. There’s actually loads of potential for a Society franchise. Think of all the Societies around the world that the films could focus on: the British royal family, Russian oligarchs, Indian billionaires, etc. Could you imagine how amazing it would be to see Queen Elizabeth II lead a shunting with Prince Charles? There’s just so much to work with, and by exploring “Societies” in other countries, viewers could be more aware of the endless supply of greedy jerks all over the world.
Honestly, it’s been at least 15 years since I’ve seen any of the Terminator films, so I only vaguely remember them. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy them, I just haven’t revisited them in a while. If there was a Society franchise, I think the films should have a more pessimistic tone. I would’ve liked to have seen Bill shunted to death and Milo as the only one who was able to escape. Then Milo would go on to be the protagonist in the sequel, where he gets a little team together to destroy all the Societies in the world. In each subsequent film, part of the team would get shunted while the others barely make it out alive (covered in that nasty shunting lubricant). Having the films take a more pessimistic approach adds so much more to the horror element. When Billy escaped in the end, it made the film so much lighter. But as Boomer mentioned earlier, the ending was so abrupt. If there was just a little two minute scene of Billy being thrown in a mental institution from suffering from some sort of shunting PTSD, the film would’ve been more of a solid horror movie.
One image that I just can’t get out of my head is when Bill’s dad becomes a butt-face and makes fart noises. It’s probably my favorite part in the movie. Alli, what where some of your favorite body morphs in the movie? Is there any body morph that you would’ve liked to have seen?
Alli: Man, all the body morphs were really great, but the ones that really stood out to me were when the story was still ambiguous and we didn’t know whether or not it was still in Bill’s head. One of my favorites is when Clarissa’s body is all twisted around. It just reminded me of some freakish nightmares I’ve had. I don’t think I would have included any more of the subtle ones though, because I think the story benefits from the quick descent into overt madness. I guess what I would have wanted more of is the fact that the Society can body morph being used as an advantage rather than a bizarre sex cult or strange clumsy hindrances. How cool would it have been for just a really long arm to try and snag Bill as he’s getting away? I think that would be a pretty simple way to fix the abrupt ending, anyway.
One thing I’d like to see explain more is Bill’s hallucinations. Is he seeing bugs in his food because the food is made of bugs, or is he seeing bugs in his food because he’s actually losing it? It would be more of an interesting statement if it were the latter. I’d like for a protagonist in a movie to be going a little loony but also be 100% completely right about something else crazy going on. Rather than being an unreliable narrator, he’d become a reliable narrator with some problems, which would be an interesting take on that trope. It’s also believable in a way; anyone would have problems if they were raised by an out-of-touch rich family of grotesque mutants.
Alli: Britnee mentioned the butt-face morph and I feel like here’s the place to say that I really like the idea of ultra rich people literally talking out of their ass. In a movie totally lacking in subtlety, that might be my favorite in-your-face moment.
Britnee: I don’t really understand why Bill’s mom and dad were checking out slugs with their gardener at the beginning of the movie. Was it supposed the be a hint that they were up to something strange or is that really how rich people prepare to make escargot? I wish there was more explanation for it in the movie because not knowing is really killing me.
Boomer: To go back to the question of Mrs. Carlyn, I think that she represents the way that “good breeding” apparently means some kind of inbreeding here, as was often the case with aristocratic families over the course of history. Since the author is dead, I’ll put in my two cents that I interpreted her place in this group as a kind of blindness to the basics of genetics that must permeate Society, and is indicative of the way that the rich ignore that which doesn’t support their worldview. Mrs. Carlyn can’t be inbred because of how good their breeding is and because they are the elite, even when the counter-evidence is staring them in the face (and trying to eat their hair).
Brandon: I think I’ve come up with a pretty decent Society drinking game: Take a swig every time you see Bill’s Jeep, which Boomer mentioned earlier. The fancy black Jeep Bill drives is featured early on as one of the unsuspecting Final Boy’s hallmarks of privilege. The movie obsessively makes a big deal out of the vehicle long after we get the point, though. If features several scenes of Bill finding vague, prankish threats like lynched Barbies & naked blow-up dolls in the passenger seat and once the plot starts barreling toward a conclusion, the Jeep is repetitively shown as both a literal & a literary vehicle used to get Bill from one horror to the next. It started to remind me of that easy screenwriting device where expository information is dumped over phonecalls instead of cropping up naturally. Anyway, I call the game Jeep Shots. Please play responsibly and avoid operating any Jeeps until long after the credits roll.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: Britnee presents What’s Up Doc? (1972)
April: Boomer presents Head Over Heels (2001)
May: Alli presents Europa (1991)
-The Swampflix Crew