From Beyond (1986)

Despite my lifelong obsessiveness as a horror fan, I have several personal taste hang-ups with a few directors considered to be the titans of the genre that I cannot explain, but cause me great shame. I cannot put into words, for instance, why 80s splatter mayhem excites me to no end when Peter Jackson’s behind the camera, but I’m not at all amused by tonally similar work from Sam Raimi. There’s no accounting for why the works of George A. Romero tend to bore me, but I have deep love & appreciation for the gore hound & social critic devotees that followed in his footsteps. I’m not at all proud of these “I don’t get it” reactions to a select few horror greats, but I do have to admit that Stuart Gordon is among the spooky titans whose appeal escapees me. I can laugh & swoon over the misshapen oeuvre of a Brian Yuzna or a Frank Henenlotter without ever tiring of their cartoonishly juvenile sex & violence, but Gordon’s own additions to that exact aesthetic, most notably the Re-Animator series, has always left me cold (except maybe in the case of Dolls, which feels more like a Charles Band production than a standard Gordon film). As I’d obviously much rather enjoy his work than decry it, I recently sought out Gordon’s surrealist, Lovecraftian horror From Beyond (made largely with the same cast & crew as Re-Animator) in hopes of finding something that would finally clue me in on what makes him so beloved. It was only a moderate success.

Produced by Yuzna and starring returning Re-Animator players Jeffery Combs & Barbara Crampton, From Beyond follows a classic HP Lovecraft/”The King in Yellow” plot about people who get too curious about supernatural forces and are subsequently driven mad by their experiences with a realm beyond normal human comprehension. A scientist is accidentally killed and his assistant is driven mad by an invention known as The Resonator. Through a series of intense purple lights and bizarre sounds, The Resonator is a machine that “accesses the imperceptible,” syncing up what we understand to be the world with an entirely different dimension of invisible threats & dangerous sensations. The mental capacity to access this invisible world is linked to schizophrenia and the pineal gland (which protrudes & throbs at the skull walls of characters’ foreheads like a tongue pressing against the inside of a cheek), but its ramifications extend far beyond our understanding of science. Invisible sensations (later echoed in titles like Final Destination & The Happening) terrorize the film’s characters as The Resonator’s immeasurable effect introduces them to Lovecraftian tentacle monsters & increases their desire for kinky, transgressive sex. Even in scrawling this plot description at this very moment, I’m shocked that From Beyond wasn’t instantly one of my all-time favorite films. Assuming I would’ve loved this exact setup with the touch of a Cronenberg or a Ken Russell behind the camera, I have to assume it’s Stuart Gordon himself who’s holding its potential back.

The major letdown of From Beyond is that for a movie about unlocking a sinister realm of infinite possibilities, the places it chooses to go are disappointingly unimaginative. On a visual craft level, I’m wholly in love with the film’s D.I.Y. feats in practical effects mindfuckery. The soft, shifting flesh of the film’s oversexed, inhuman tentacle monsters from another dimension are deserving of audiences’ full attention & awe. The story told around those creations is disappointingly limited in its juvenile white boy masculinity, however, which makes me wonder if you have to be a preteen horror nerd when you experience Gordon’s work for the first time to fully appreciate him as an auteur. Of the four main victims to The Resonator, it’s the two white men who most fully experience its mindbending wrath and transform into surreal monstrosities. The remaining two victims, The Black Man and The Woman, are treated with a much more limited imagination. Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree’s character as “Bubba” Brownlee (even that name, ugh) is an ex-athlete bodyguard who throws out lines like “I know this behavior. I’ve seen it in the streets” in reference to Resonator addiction. His being locked out of the machine’s more extreme effects is disappointing, but what’s even worse is the way Barbara Crampton is immediately sexually violated in her first monster encounter, then asked to sexily model fetish gear. She also never fully devolves into the pineal gland demon her male colleagues transcend to despite her equal exposure to The Resonator. This should be a movie about an endless galaxy of cerebral terrors, but instead it’s mostly about impotence & other sexual hang-ups of white men in power, which is disappointingly reductive at best.

I can see so much DNA from some of my favorite horror titles seeping in at From Beyond’s fringes (Society, Slither, Videodrome, etc.) that it’s a huge letdown that the film is ultimately just Passably Entertaining. The feats of practical effects gore are impressive enough that I enjoyed the film more than Re-Animator’s more minor pleasures, but that isn’t saying much. There’s a violent, over-the-top goofiness to Gordon’s work that I appreciate in the abstract, but he’s so unselfaware about the unimaginative cruelty in the way he treats certain characters (especially women & PoC) that stop me short of heaping on praise. I might have been a lot less critical of it had I seen it for the first time as a kid, but I can’t help but find it a gross letdown now, especially since the infinite possibilities of its premise should have opened it up to so much  more. Then again, this all might just be a matter of taste, and there’s no accounting for that.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #27 of The Swampflix Podcast: Beyond Society – Brian Yuzna’s Collabs With Screaming Mad George & Blood Diner (1987)

Welcome to Episode #27 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-seventh episode, Brandon makes James watch the blood-soaked horror comedy Blood Diner (1987) for the first time. Also, James & Brandon discuss all ten collaborations between director Brian Yuzna & “surrealistic” special effects master Screaming Mad George, the monstrous creative team behind the horror classic Society (1992). Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

The Dentist (1996) and Brian Yuzna’s Search for His Very Own Horror Franchise

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One of the few minor details that bugged me about Brian Yuzna’s otherwise satisfying class politics body horror Society was that it left its abrupt conclusion open for a sequel instead of chasing a more logical narrative end. It’s now been over two decades since Society‘s initial release and, although the idea of expanding the original film’s scope to include other shunting-obsessed wealthy circles like Hollywood or Washington DC sounds promising, there still has yet to be a proper sequel. Leaving Society open in that way, then, has only weakened its own fortitude as a standalone film. Yuzna would have to look elsewhere to establish a horror franchise all of his own the way Nightmare on Elm Street is closely associated with Wes Craven and Alien is associated with Ridley Scott. Yuzna directed two Re-Animator sequels, Bride of Re-Animator & Beyond Re-Animator, and served as a producer on the first, but that series truly belongs to Stuart Gordon. He also directed two sequels for the Christmas-themed slasher series Silent Night, Deadly Night, but that franchise is way too loose & haphazard to claim an authorial voice. Brian Yuzna’s very own horror franchise wouldn’t be found in completing works others had started, but in staking his own ground as the director of both The Dentist (1996) & The Dentist 2 (1998). The Dentist may not have the cult classic staying power of Society as a continually referenced horror work, but its effect is just as equally, brutally fucked up, and it’s easy to see how a single madman could be responsible for both acts of cinematic sadism.

Usually when you rewatch a movie that scared you as a kid, it turns out that it wasn’t so traumatizing after all. That wasn’t my experience with Yuzna’s 1996 body horror slasher The Dentist. If anything, The Dentist felt ten times more nightmarish than it did to me as a kid on this most recent watch. It’s a deeply, almost unforgivably upsetting work, playing as if the shunting sequence from Society were stretched out to feature length instead of capping off an otherwise conventional late 80s horror. Co-written by Yuzna & Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon, The Dentist stars Corbin Bernsen as a killer dentist eventually known as Dr. Caine, who on the surface wouldn’t be all that different from any other cliché of a refined sadist who listens to classical music while slaying/mutilating his victims, except that he hurts them through the delicate nerve centers of their mouths. Some people have a difficult time stomaching on-screen violence directed towards eyeballs or fingernails or groins or any number of specific locations on the body because of a physical aversion to witnessing its depiction. I’m that way with dental-themed gore. The visual of a tooth being pulled or a tongue being split physically hurts me every time, so The Dentist wouldn’t have to do much to make me sweat in fear & anxiety. In fact, it’s likely that catching this film on HBO at a young age is partly why I’m that particular kind of squeamish in the first place. With the first The Dentist film, however, Yuzna & Gordon found a way to make the premise even creepier by aligning the audience POV with the mind of the deranged killer who would inflict that kind of pain in the first place. It is, on every conceivable level, a deeply uncomfortable experience.

In what’s essentially a slasher film take on Falling Down, The Dentist aligns the audience’s perspective with that of a hateful, Conservative monster who has a total meltdown once his marriage starts to fall apart. After wrestling with paranoid suspicions that his wife is sleeping with the pool boy, Dr. Caine does some sleuthing & catches the two lovers in the act (on their anniversary, no less) and suffers a full-blown psychotic break. In his pitch black misogynist fantasy, he confronts the pair mid-fellatio and forces his wife to bite the pool boy’s cock at gunpoint in a moment to so hateful against women as a species it would make even Russ Meyer blush. This is the exact seething anger lens we see the world through in this film. We already know Dr. Caine is evil because he fantasizes about hurting his own wife and obsesses over the state of every one he meets’ teeth, but even that isn’t enough for Yuzna, who doesn’t traffic in subtlety. Enraged by the witnessed infidelity, Dr. Caine shoots a dog out of spite, goes to work at his dental practice to mutilate multiple victims (mostly women & children) during sadistic oral procedures, and eventually cuts out his own wife’s tongue as a gift on their big anniversary date. It’s deeply, spiritually upsetting stuff, misanthropic violence paired with creepy internal monologues about how, “Nothing, no matter how good or pure is free of decay. Once the decay gets started, it can only lead to rot, filth, and corruption.” Divorced from Dr. Caine’s hateful paranoia about a “lack of respect in a world that goes on ignoring dental hygiene” and his personal hangups about how sex = filth, The Dentist is still a horror show. In close-up, medical detail, gums are punctured by hooked teeth scrapers, teeth are violently yanked from their grooves, tongues are stabbed with high-pitched drills, molars are ground into white powder, etc. Yuzna shoots these nightmare visuals through an unflinching fish-eye lens, something usually reserved for a children’s Saturday morning TV show, a music video, or a comedy, but it’s impossible to take the gore lightly. Still, it’s in marrying that visual terror to an even uglier, more difficult to stomach world view and never allowing a second of escape from either that Yuzna found a way to sustain the abject disgust of Society‘s shunting sequence for the entirety of a feature film.

The Dentist 2 (1998) would not be able to repeat that trick. Leaving behind the philosophical monologues on tooth & soul decay that made the first one so especially unnerving, this sequel follows the same pattern of a lot of horror follow-ups and focuses instead on increasing the gore. Yuzna even brings in Society collaborator Screaming Mad George to contribute to the film’s horrific special effects (one of ten shared projects between the two sick bastards), tipping his hat to the fact that gore had become a priority over writing. Escaping from the pristine, dream space psych ward where he had been locked up at the conclusion of the first film, Dr. Caine hides under a false identity in a small, isolated town where he’s now the only qualified dentist (after brutally murdering the one already operating there, of course). The first The Dentist film already stretches audience belief of how long Dr. Caine could possibly get away with killing & mutilating patients before being stopped either by law or by mob rule, but the second one really has no concern for anything resembling reality. The plot isn’t anything to speak of, other than that the dentist is made to feel jealous by a new woman’s sexual desires in a new locale while his mutilated wife from the first film hires a PI to track down his whereabouts. Instead of philosophical diatribes about filth & decay, the film signifies its killer’s murderous insanity through his constant hallucinations of rotting teeth, roaches crawling in his parents’ mouths, and non-existent demons with cartoonishly long tongues (who would’ve fit right in with members of Society). Dr. Caine periodically cuts his arm to relieve these hallucinations, at one point giving himself a crimson mask once they become unbearable in their persistence. There are a couple noteworthy moments, like Dr. Caine joking that “Pulling teeth is like, well, pulling teeth!” during an interrogation, a single-scene cameo from Clint Howard, and the wife from the first film finger fucking the dentist’s mouth to tease out his tongue for a fitting act of revenge, but for the most part The Dentist 2 is all gore! gore! gore! And you know what? It kinda works. I was sweating in fear during the oral horror scenes as much in the sequel as I was with the first film, despite logically knowing that it was a desperately inferior work.

Diminishing returns and forgotten thematic nuance is a large part of the nature of horror franchises as an art form, though, and it’s fitting that Brian Yuzna’s only franchise all to his own got to see that roundabout way of success. The Dentist 2 left its conclusion just as open-ended as Society‘s for a sequel that likewise never came, but Yuzna had already succeeded in scoring his very own franchise just by getting two films deeo. You can feel it as soon as Dr. Caine delivers the first film’s declaration, “I am the instrument of hygiene, the enemy of decay and corruption, The Dentist. And I have a lot of work to do.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe The Dentist has been treated with the same cult classic longevity as Society, a film it rivals at the very least in pure shock value. It’s so overlooked that its entire “Production History” section on Wikipedia reads, “The Dentist was shot in Los Angeles in a residential home.” That can always change, though. Maybe Society‘s Trump-era cultural resurgence will inspire more people to look back to The Dentist the way I just have or maybe people will dig up the first one just to see Baby Mark Ruffalo make an appearance in a few brief scenes. Either way, whether it remains obscure or not, Brian Yuzna has succeeded in creating a horror franchise in the way Society never became. It’s a damn disturbing one too.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its highly questionable DVD-mate Spontaneous Combustion (1990), and last week’s celebration of minor scream queen Heidi Kozak.

-Brandon Ledet

Heidi Kozak: Undersung Scream Queen

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There’s a lot to be shocked about in February’s Movie of the Month, Brian Yuzna’s satirical class politics body horror Society, but long before the incestuous, gore-soaked surrealism of the film’s climactic shunting began I found one of my biggest shocks in a very minor casting choice. The protagonist’s Valley Girl brat girlfriend was a very much unexpected face, the same actress who played the drummer in one of my favorite discoveries last year: Slumber Party Massacre II. Heidi Kozak has a tidy little career as a television actor to her name, most notable from her arc on the long-defunct drama series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Her feature film career, however, is much more limited. After a single scene debut as a street tough in the Sharon Stone/Adam Ant cop thriller Cold Steel, Kozak enjoyed a brief run as an undersung scream queen in three 80s horror classics: Slumber Party Massacre II, Friday the 13th Part VII – The New Blood, and, of course, Society. Her respective roles as Sally, Sandra, and Shauna in these films were never big enough to snag top bill or make her anything close to a household name, but Kozak did find a way to leave a huge impression on horror schlock as an art form in just a few years’ time.

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Sally

I ran through the entirety of the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy twice last year, not because each entry in the series blew my mind, but because the second film in particular was a life changer. Slumber Party Massacre II is an MTV-inspired fever dream of slain teenagers & nightmarish hallucinations that completely reinterpreted its straightforward slasher predecessor as a kind of surreal live action cartoon. All four girls in the film’s central garage rock band (a surprisingly decent The Go-Go’s knockoff) who embark on the titular doomed slumber party road trip are exciting to watch as performers. Courtney’s got the Final Girl timidity, Amy’s got the Best Friend sincerity, Sheila’s got the Rock Star sex appeal: each are entertaining in their own right. Still, I’d argue that Heidi Kozak’s performance as the band’s drummer, Sally, is a definitive show stealer. She not only features prominently in the movie’s most stomach-churning practical effects showcase (just one of her two onscreen deaths in the film), but she also brings a distinct Valley Girl cheese to the character that would make the actor so easily recognizable in her later horror works.

We don’t know much about Sally as a character except that she’s boy-crazy and she’s a drummer. The drumming part is something Kozak sells hilariously unconvincingly, endlessly miming the same repetitive motions with her drumsticks while the soundtrack does its best to make her seem competent. She does sell the character’s boy-crazy delirium quite well, though, chiming in as often as she can with announcements like, “I met this outrageous guy! He was such a babe,” and “I know what Courtney’s getting for her birthday . . . a boyfriend!” Sally seems to be her social group’s air headed cut-up, prone to shouting half-formed thoughts like, “Someday we’re going to be in movies and rock videos and everything,” and “Do anything you want to! Good times!” It’s easily the most dialogue Kozak is afforded in any of her works as a minor scream queen and she makes Sally out to be such a fun, bubbly character that every moment she’s onscreen is a gift. This is especially true of the first of her two onscreen deaths in the film, when Courtney hallucinates that a pimple Sally’s been worried about all weekend grows to encompass the entirety of her face and explodes all over the bathroom. It’s hideous, highly effective gore work and a much more memorable moment than when she’s later impaled by the killer’s phallic guitar drill. Poor Sally.

Most Killer Outfit: In the pillow fight scene, Sally sports a yellow crop top with Daisy Duke cutoffs and an asymmetrical ponytail. It’s the perfect outfit for any summertime sleepover, but it’s especially sporty for when you might need to flee from a demonic sex monster and his giant, guitar-shaped drill.

Sandra

A year after her scream queen debut in Slumber Party Massacre II, Kozak hit it big time (as far as mainstream horror franchises go). Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood practically lifted the Sally character wholesale from her previous film, only leaving behind her beloved drum kit. I can’t say that I especially enjoy this late-in-the-game franchise entry, but I do appreciate that it occupies the sillier end of Jason Voorhees lore that makes movies like Jason X and Jason Takes Manhattan, some of my favorites of the series. In this loosely sketched out version of Crystal Lake mythology, Jason’s dead body is reanimated & freed from its watery grave when a troubled young teen accidentally exercises her Carrie-like telepathic abilities in his general vicinity. Unfortunately, the film finds a way to make this ludicrous premise punishingly dull, despite some promising ideas about Jason functioning as a supernatural curse. There’s only two worthwhile aspects to The New Blood once the plot gets stuck in its by the books slasher rut: an inventive kill in which Jason smashes a girl zipped up in a sleeping bag against a tree (a kill later satirized to even greater effect in Jason X) and the casting of Heidi Kozak as inevitable victim Sandra.

Again, there isn’t much difference between Sandra & Sally in terms of character work, except that Sandra actually gets to act on her boy-crazy teen horniness while Sally only got to gush about it. In her introductory scene, Sandra is shown sunbathing and ogling a nearby hunk. In her second scene, she’s screwing a different boy, her boyfriend, in the back of a van, essentially marking herself as ineligible for Final Girl status, a surefire victim for Jason’s swinging machete. It’s in this romantic pairing that we get to see a different side of Kozak that wasn’t already covered in Slumber Party Massacre II. Because her wealthy boyfriend is hosting a teen party at his uncle’s Crystal Lake cabin, Sally winds up playing party mom during a large portion of the film’s first act. She’s still operating within her usual ditzy Valley Girl caricature, but now with a flustered sense of responsibility that has to negotiate between her oversensitive boytoy and some rowdy teens who just want to get drunk & screw. She makes no show of hiding why she’s with the wealthy dipshit either, answering his question, “When did you fall in love with me?” with a teasing, “The first time I saw the enormous size of your beautiful . . . wallet. The bulge in your pants was calling my name. Sandra, Sandra!” Unfortunately, Sandra’s life on this Earth is cut short when she gets the idea to go skinny dipping in Crystal Lake, one of Jason’s biggest pet peeves. She watches in horror as her boyfriend is decapitated on the shore and her naked body double is subsequently drowned. It’s a shame too, because she was one of the few compelling characters in a film that desperately needed more of them, yet she was one of the first to go.

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Most Killer Outfit: In accordance with her status as a more horned-up replica of Sally, Sandra sports a skimpier version of the yellow crop top & short jorts outfit from the previously mentioned pillow fight in her big skinny dipping scene. This time, however, it’s paired with a nude body double instead of an asymmetrical ponytail.

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Shauna

Society is easily the strangest film in Kozak’s trio of horror outliers, depite each work being uniquely goofy in their own unique ways. Kozak reprises her Valley Girl routine for one final go-round in Brian Yuzna’s cult classic body horror, but not as a participant in the gore-soaked “shunting” climax, neither as a victim nor as a wealthy mutant “sucking off” the life force of the lower class. Instead, Shauna is a total outsider to the entirety of the plot. She’s just as clueless as the film’s protagonist as to what supernatural evils lie under the surface of the film’s well-to-do Society, but instead of investigating the Truth, she spends the entire film trying to join the ranks of a ruling class that has no use for her. Her character traits aren’t much different than Sally’s or Sandra’s, but Shauna’s ditzy, boy-obsessed teen routine is put to a much stranger use, likely because Society itself is much less structurally formulaic than the two straightforward slashers she worked on previously.

Shauna has exactly one goal in Society: to earn an invitation to rich cad Ted Ferguson’s party. She does not succeed. The high school cheerleader schemer pretends to be so into and in love with the protagonist, Bill, but her interest in him seems to be a political move based on his football star social status and potential election as senior class president. When Bill finds himself entangled with a potential love interest that actually wants to have sex, Shauna is incensed not because she’s jealous of the affair, but because she wasted so much emotional work with Bill and never earned that Ted Ferguson invite she wanted so badly. Once their romance is fully dissolved, Shauna’s storyline is left by the wayside and she disappears before the climactic shunting, forever an outsider, never to be heard from again.

As an actor, Heidi Kozak similarly disappeared. Her work as a minor scream queen dissipated within three glorious, but short years and it’s doubtful she’d be remembered for any other popular media contributions, except maybe by the most dedicated Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman fans. I’d say she fully deserves to be remembered now, though. All three of her horror projects have proven to be such strange genre outliers with unexpected cult status longevity and she makes a striking presence in each instance. She’ll never enjoy the status of a Neve Campbell or a Jamie Lee Curtis, but she’ll always be a cherished scream queen to me.

Most Killer Outfit: In the scene when Shauna confronts Bill for his cheating ways, she shows up at his house in a skin tight denim dress, paired with a candy red sports car. She looks incredibly powerful in that getup and Bill was a fool to let her go in his pursuit of the truth about the shunt, especially since his eventual fate was entirely unavoidable.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its highly questionable DVD-mate Spontaneous Combustion (1990).

-Brandon Ledet

Double Feature Disaster: Spontaneous Combustion (1990) & Society (1992)

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When I first set out to track down a copy of Society, I turned to my old pal, the Vulcan Video catalog search, which showed that there was a copy at the location nearest me. When I went to locate it, however, it was nowhere to be found on the shelf, and the kind woman working the counter that day noted that their copy had actually been sold several years back and that the catalog listing was an oversight (an unusual lapse for the fine folk of Vulcan). We did eventually track down a copy of the film in their stacks, one of those early double-sided DVDs with Society on one side and Spontaneous Combustion on the reverse. I was pretty pleased by this, because a double feature usually means an easy instant follow up article (just add water).

I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. There’s nothing easy about Spontaneous Combustion.

The film stars America’s non-darling Brad Dourif as Sam, the adult son of a husband-and- wife team who were given an experimental anti-radiation injection during a propagandistic Cold War exercise. Following his birth, both parents spontaneously combust after contact with their new infant, leaving him to be raised by the mysterious Lew Orlander (William Prince), a wealthy industrialist who acts as the face of the original experiment when his company takes over from the government.

Some reviews identify Sam as a would-be actor, apparently based on his first scene in the film, in which he recites some lines of Shakespeare on stage with a student, but I think he’s supposed to be a teacher, as is his love interest Lisa (Cynthia Bain). One can hardly blame the audience for being unclear as to who Sam is, what his motivations are, or for failing to follow the so-called plot of the film. From what I can understand, Sam was once married to Rachel (Dey Young), Orlander’s granddaughter, who was always pushing Sam to visit Dr. Marsh (Jon Cypher), who is secretly in Orlander’s employ. Since their divorce, Sam has struck up a relationship with fellow anti-nuclear activist Lisa, but this relationship is also the result of Orlander’s manipulations, and the supposed homeopathic medication she has been sharing with him is actually from Dr. Marsh. These treatments are provided in order to encourage the growth of Sam’s supernatural power to start fires.

All of this seems pretty straightforward, but there’s also the mysterious reappearance of Sam’s childhood toy that sends him off searching for the truth of his origins, Sam’s budding powers and the ensuing accidental deaths thereof (including a couple of police officers and John Landis in a cameo as a radio . . .  technician, maybe?), a radio evangelist/medium who seems to be speaking to Sam directly for reasons that are utterly unclear, the sudden reappearance of a woman (Melinda Dillon) involved in the original experiment and her just-as- sudden murder, the murder of another woman who was investigating the soon-to- be-activated nuclear plant nearby, Lisa’s own pyrogenetic powers, and an inordinate number of conversations held on neon telephones.

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The composition and plotting of this movie are bafflingly inelegant, and even two viewings left me unable to accurately gauge just what in the hell was happening at any given time. This was a frustrating viewing experience, both times, and not in the sense that some deeply philosophical films are hard to parse. Instead, Spontaneous Combustion feels like a unauthorized, non-union sequel to Firestarter that was hastily edited together by someone trying to recreate the experience of watching that film with a 104° fever. It’s a movie that actively tries to discourage you from watching it even as the story (such as it is) unfolds, challenging the viewer to a test of wills.

Despite the incohesiveness of the overall plot, I was able to discern two similarities that would reasonably connect this film to Society and, to the inebriated mind of some marketing exec, warrant putting the two films on a single disc. First, the actor playing Sam’s father, Brian Bremer, also portrayed Petrie, Billy’s rival for student body president, in Society. More thematically, both Billy Whitney and Sam are the children of working class people raised by wealthy elites for their own nefarious purposes. It’s a bit of a stretch, but there it is.

Even if you find yourself with a copy of this double DVD in your pursuit of watching Society, don’t flip that disc. It’s not worth it.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Society (1992)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Alli, Boomer, and Britnee watch Society (1992).

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.

EPSON MFP image

Lagniappe

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