Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Society - shunting

Society is an American horror film. It was finished in 1989, but not released in the US until 1992. It was Brian Yuzna's directorial debut and was written by Rick Fry and Woody Keith. The film stars Billy Warlock as Bill Whitney, Devin DeVasquez as Clarissa Carlyn, Evan Richards as Milo and Ben Meyerson as Ferguson. Screaming Mad George was responsible for the special effects. Society is considered to be a minor classic in the body horror sub-genre.

Bill finds a large, formal party. He is snared by the neck and Dr. Cleveland reveals all of the secrets he has been searching for. He is not really related to his family after all. In fact, his family and their high-society friends are actually a different species from Bill. To demonstrate, they bring in a still-living Blanchard. The wealthy party guests strip to their underwear and begin "shunting". The rich literally feed on the poor, physically deforming and melding with each other as they suck the nutrients out of Blanchard's body. Their intention is to do to the same to Bill. In a fight with Ferguson, Bill manages to pull the pliable Ferguson inside-out. With Milo and Clarissa's help—who is also of this alternate species, but has fallen in love with Bill—he escapes.

The 20-minute climax, in which a disbelieving Bill is presented to the nouveau riche as the latest addition to their flesh fondue (the 'Shunting'), remains one of the most startling, shocking, and frankly exhilarating endings in the genre, let alone one of the kinkiest uses of latex in any medium. 2005's Slither may have upped the latex stakes, but SFX genius Screaming Mad George's sobriquet is entirely justified, as a crowd of thoroughbreds, stripped to their underwear, and "bent out of shape by society's pliers" to quote Bob Dylan, rearrange their DNA - dad really is a butthead - and slither through one another's yawning cavities like wet, red slugs.

Had the Marquis De Sade taken too much Camembert before bedtime, he'd be hard-pressed to imagine anything quite so brilliantly disgusting. It may be a one-gag picture, but it executes that gag with wit, flair and delirious abandon. Marx and Engels would surely applaud. Unfortunately, so would David Icke.

What exactly is "shunting," you might ask? Well, if I could try to put this as mildly as I possibly can, it's got something to do with the Beverly Hills nouveau riche asserting their privilege in ways that suggest a Salvador Dali nightmare of Caligula. And given that the man responsible for bringing this indelible image to life is Screaming Mad George, who handled Brooke Theiss' cockroach disintegration scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, you might want to lay off the munchies given that the entire third act of Society involves a mass shunting party held for the indoctrination of teenage lead Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock, Baywatch star and son of stuntman Dick Warlock from Halloween II & III).

Society has been waiting for Billy, but he's been left wanting. Despite his affluence presenting him alpha male status as both a basketball jock and senior class president, Billy still visits a shrink, Dr. Cleveland, confessing to a home life plagued by "incest and psychosis," and that there is something dubious about his privilege that he's afraid to explore. Enter David Blanchard (Tim Bartell), the chunky ex-boyfriend of Billy's pampered sister Jennifer (Patrice Jennings), whose planted tape recorder unveils references to "copulation" in regards to the girl's coming out party that frighten Billy even more. Blanchard turns up dead, and the unctuous taunts of elite preppie Ted "The Tycoon" Ferguson (Ben Meyerson) force the reluctant Billy to scratch the surface of society.

Society packs plenty of unforgettable images involving the goopy, ghastly contortions of flesh. Early on, a voyeuristic glance at Jenny in the shower hints at shapes of things to come, and Billy's sexual encounter with Clarissa, in which she is found in a rather "funny position," is shrugged off with a "pissing in the tea" joke. It all culminates in a finale that gives Yuzna and Screaming Mad George (credited with not merely special, but "surrealistic make-up effects") the chance to one-up the methyl cellulose monstrosities of Stuart Gordon's From Beyond. To arrive there, though, we have to consider the notion that Bill might potentially paranoid, a bit of character detail that doesn't particularly shine through in script or performance. It really isn't a matter of whether or not Bill might be too self-absorbed in his angst, but of waiting for someone to recognize the shady goings-on involving (dis)appearing corpses and incestuous sexuality are not detritus of the imagination.
John Bishop

Tim Bartell: After getting the part, I remember initially being a little freaked out reading the script. Especially my character going through the shunting. I drove to my agent's and said, "Um... there's people I don't even know licking my body in this." He talked me into going through with it. But I was still a little nervous.

And the shunting is of course what stands out for me about the shoot. I remember lying on that couch, screaming and crying as I was being sacrificed to Society... half naked, covered in slime with lots of people fondling and licking me. I had made the mistake of telling one of the crew I was a big fan of art house filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Between takes he would lean in and say, "Tim, Bergman just called! He's very proud of you."

But I really went for it as an actor. I wanted to make my death uber-painful to watch. And I succeeded. Director Brian Yuzna later told me while he was editing my death, he had a visit from one of the actors from Night of the Living Dead. The actor was so disturbed by my performance, he left the editing bay. I was really proud of that. Brian decided my death had to be lightened a little. He cut and trimmed, brought down my screaming and added in some waltz type music under the scene, so it wouldn't play too heavy. Which was probably a wise directorial decision. I screamed so much over the course of the day we shot most the shunting, I lost my voice. We shot a little more the next day, but I had to do that part sans my voice.

The whole thing was frankly a little creepy to play at times. You know you're in a film, it's just a part. But I'm crying, screaming, begging for my life. Everyone is laughing and growling at me like animals. I got a little overwhelmed at one point. I thought it was just pain in my legs, because I was crouching then inside the couch, with the prosthetic version of my body attached at my neck. My legs were really sore. I got a break and an extra came over to me and said "It's hard, isn't it?" He didn't mean my legs. He meant just playing this whole weird scene. His acknowledging that really made me feel a lot better.

But I don't regret the experience at all. It's been nearly 24 years since we shot Society and I have nothing but really the fondest memories of it. Yes, even the shunting.


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