31 Days of Fright: The Stepfather

Jerry Blake, needing a little work on his poker face.

Jerry Blake, needing a little work on his poker face.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! The penultimate movie in my January screenings is The Stepfather, directed by Joseph Ruben (Breaking Away, Sleeping with the Enemy, The Good Son). This was the final “free space” film of the viewings, and one I watched mainly due to the presence of one of my favourite character actors, Terry O’Quinn (John Locke himself!). The Stepfather was rented from Queen Video.

What happens:

Much like It Follows, The Stepfather opens on a suburban American street, though with much larger houses than that other film. A bearded man in a washroom removes his glasses and bloodstained clothing, stripping down naked. After showering, he shaves and puts in new contacts, then puts on a nice suit. As he appraises himself in the mirror, the man is revealed to be actor Terry O’Quinn. Leaving the washroom, he places a child’s toy into the proper storage box, then walks downstairs past a scene of utter carnage in the front room. An entire family has been murdered – even a little child with a teddy bear is drenched in blood. The man opens the front door, picks up the morning newspaper, and strolls whistling down the street. He boards a ferry and as soon as it enters open waters, he shoves his suitcase into the drink.

Jerry Blake, fresh from a Jaws-themed costume party, I can only assume.

Jerry Blake, fresh from a Jaws-themed costume party, I can only assume.

The film moves forward one year. In Oakridge, Washington, sixteen-year-old Stephanie Main (Jill Schoelen) bikes her way back to her large house. In the backyard, her mother, Susan (Shelley Hack), has been raking leaves. The two of them playfully engage in a leaf fight until Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn) arrives home. Jerry is Stephanie’s new stepfather (hey, that’s the name of this film!), and he greets his wife with a big sloppy kiss. He also has a surprise for Stephanie: he’s bought her a puppy. As Stephanie scratches the new dog behind his ears, Jerry pets the girl’s arm, saying, “That’s my girl.” Stephanie blanches and backs away. (I’m right there with you, Steph.)

Once Stephanie runs inside, Jerry worries aloud to Susan that Stephanie might think he’s trying to buy her love with the puppy. Susan reassures him that’s not the case. “The puppy was perfect,” she says. “You’re perfect.” Stephanie, wearing a sheep-patterned sweater, visits her therapist, Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer), while Jerry Blake leans against his car in the parking lot outside. Pacing the room like a caged jaguar, Stephanie expresses her baseless (?) fears of her new stepfather. Dr. Bondurant worries because Stephanie has been acting out in school ever since her biological father died a year ago. She’s racked up a number of suspensions in just a short amount of time. During the car ride home, Jerry suggests to his stepdaughter that they both make an effort to try to get along better, and that she make an effort to do better in school. As soon as she agrees, the film cuts to Stephanie and another girl battling each other in art class. The other students jeer until a teacher breaks up the fight and sends Stephanie to the principal’s office.

We next see Jerry Blake on the job with American Eagle Realty. He shows a house to a couple with a young daughter. Jerry pushes the girl on the swing set in the backyard and tells her about his “daughter,” Stephanie, who goes to high school. When the girl says she’s in the third grade, Jerry muses, “I remember when Jill was in third grade,” and the girl catches his inconsistency. Jerry later arrives home to find Stephanie (not Jill) has been expelled from school. At first, he’s in disbelief – “Girls don’t get expelled.” – but then he’s disappointed. Stephanie suggests that boarding school is an option, but Jerry won’t hear of it. He believes boarding school would divide the family: “It’s not a family without children.” Later on, Stephanie speaks with her friend Karen (Robyn Stevan) on the phone and describes her stepfather, “Scary Jerry,” and his obsession with being like the perfect families you see on television. (Interestingly enough, we next see Jerry enjoying an episode of Mr. Ed.) Susan enters and she and her daughter have a heart-to-heart about the loss of her dad. She pleads for Stephanie to give Jerry “a chance.”

Susan retires to her bedroom, where she and Jerry promptly get down to business. Sex business. Stephanie, in the next room, puts on her headphones, cranks the Pat Benatar (or reasonable facsimile), and sighs heavily. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen) drives reporter Al Brennan (Stephen E. Miller) in his old jalopy to the house where we saw Jerry Blake murder an entire family in the film’s introduction. Though according to Ogilvie, a “Mr. Morrison” murdered his whole family in this house. Brennan wrote the story a year ago for the Seattle Examiner. Jim Ogilvie reveals that Mrs. Morrison, the murdered wife, was his sister, and he is on the hunt for her murderous husband. Ogilvie has some evidence that Morrison couldn’t have moved too far away from Seattle, so he asks Brennan to run a follow-up story one year later, along with a photo of Morrison, in the hopes a Seattle Examiner reader will recognize him.

"I'm going to miss you gals when you're dead." "Wait, what?"

“I’m going to miss you gals when you’re dead.” “Wait, what?”

Jerry Blake hosts a backyard barbecue for the first five families he sold houses to in Oakridge. Jerry makes.an impassioned speech about the importance of tradition and family, and poses for a photo op with his wife and stepdaughter – an awkward moment that Stephanie can’t escape fast enough. Later, the assembled dads read a newspaper article about the Morrison murders (though it features no photograph of the killer). Blake plays dumb, asking what the murders were about, and the dads fill him in on a stepfather who butchered his entire family with knives. Jerry seems deeply affected by this news, but also concludes that “maybe they disappointed him.” (So he’s not 100% nailing this “not a murderer” act.) He takes the newspaper and folds it into a pirate hat for a neighbourhood kid. Stephanie, in the basement to find some ice cream, is startled when Jerry storms downstairs for a rage freakout, shouting “We are going to keep this family together!” When he notices his stepdaughter, Jerry explains that as a salesman he builds up a lot of stress and occasionally needs to let off some steam. (Seems reasonable.)

Post-party, Stephanie finds the discarded newspaper hat and begins to wonder if family-slayer Mr. Morrison is the same person as her unusually angry stepfather. She presents this idea to Karen, who is very dismissive. Nevertheless, Stephanie sends a letter to the Seattle Examiner requesting a photo of the murderous Morrison, as she is doing a social studies project on mass murderers. (We all remember that social studies unit.) < /p>

Speaking of photographs, Ogilvie is very upset that Brennan didn’t run one with his article. He finds Brennan and throws him up against the hood of his car. Brennan explains that, as a reporter, including the photo wasn’t his decision. Ogilvie plans his next move, obsessed with finding his sister’s killer – he’s a bit like Fox Mulder in that regard – and Brennan advises him to forget it. Ogilvie can’t forget, though: “You saw what he did them. Could you?” Stephanie floats the idea of boarding school by her therapist, who thinks it’s a fairly good idea. “What’s wrong with running away?” Bondurant asks. He thinks it will provide her and her family some much-needed breathing room. Stephanie, now clad in a unicorn / checkerboard shirt, notes that Jerry opposes the boarding school idea, so Dr. Bondurant offers to speak to him to try to persuade him otherwise. Jerry, meanwhile, has just opened the mailbox to find a letter for Stephanie Main with the Seattle Examiner as return address. He opens the letter to see a glossy headshot of himself (with full beard).

When Stephanie arrives at home, Jerry only passes her the new issue of Cosmopolitan and says nothing of the letter from the Examiner. However, all is not well. Jerry moves to his basement workshop – where he works on crafting birdhouses – and paces the room frantically while examining the photograph and mumbling about his “good little girl.” He picks up a screwdriver and knife from his tool bench, stabbing invisible enemies in mime. Only his wife’s call for dinner seems to snap him back into character as family man, Jerry Blake. The telephone rings and Susan answers. She calls down for Jerry, saying that Stephanie’s therapist wants to speak to him, but Jerry refuses to take the phone.

Back in Seattle, Ogilvie meets with Lt. Wall (Blu Mankuma) of the police and asks him about Henry Morrison. The detective confirms that Morrison was just an alias, and that he suspects the killer will strike another family before long. However, Morrison was clever and left no trace of where he might go. Wall further advises Ogilvie that if he were in his situation, he’d “get a gun and blow the sonuvabitch away.” That very sonuvabitch then visits Stephanie’s old principal and – using a bit of the old Jerry Blake charm – convinces her to reinstate Stephanie in public school. Stephanie confesses to her therapist that Jerry scares her, so Dr. Bondurant takes drastic measures. He calls Blake under false pretences, pretending to be a homebuyer seeking to view a house, to set up an in-person meeting.

On her first day back in school, Stephanie is walked home by Paul Baker (Jeff Schultz), who compliments her artistic skills. They joke and wrestle and almost kiss. Clearly some sort of romance is blossoming for young Stephanie. When Stephanie returns home, she finds an envelope from the Seattle Examiner, but the photo inside is someone she’s never seen before. (Namely because Jerry went to a photo studio and replaced the headshot.) Bondurant arrives for “Ray Martin”’s meeting with Jerry Blake, who proceeds to show him a house under renovation. Bondurant, when asked if he’s a family man, says he’s a “confirmed bachelor” (which I don’t think the makers of this film realized was code for gay). This displeases Jerry: “House like this should really have a family in it.” Bondurant also says he’s in “stress management,” then asks Jerry Blake a bunch of questions about himself. Jerry, becoming suspicious, asks, “Are you interested in buying a house or in me?” Soon after, Jerry catches Bondurant in an obvious lie – he refers to his wife, even though he mentioned he was a bachelor – so Jerry beats him to death with a stray two-by-four. Standing over Bondurant’s broken body, he shouts, “We need a little order around here!”

Dr. Bondurant was a sacrifice the island demanded.

Dr. Bondurant was a sacrifice the island demanded.

Jerry goes through the dead man’s wallet and realizes who he really was. Methodically, he wraps him and murder weapon in craft paper, puts him in the trunk of his own car, then drives that car to the edge of a cliff. Jerry puts the dead man behind the wheel of his car, then shoves a makeshift wick into the gas tank. When he drives it off the cliff, the car explodes into flame. Stephanie is hard at work on her bicycle in the garage when Jerry arrives home to deliver the bad news: Dr. Bondurant was in a car accident and has died. “He was my friend,” Stephanie cries. Jerry hugs his stepdaughter and nods. “In his own way, he brought us together.”

Ogilvie returns to the Morrison murder house to search for any clues he may have missed. In a basement workshop eerily similar to the workshop Jerry Blake uses to make birdhouses, Ogilvie finds a copy of Travel & Leisure with several pages cut out. Ogilvie rushes to the public library, barreling through it like he’s on an episode of Supermarket Sweep. He finds the copy of Travel & Leisure with the other periodicals and realizes the missing section is a story on the best towns in America to raise families. One of them is Oakridge, Washington, not that far from Seattle. Jerry, meanwhile, finishes his latest birdhouse, and Stephanie offers to help him erect it in the front yard. She attempts to reconnect, apologizing for the way she’s been acting. Jerry accepts her apology, noting that he had a difficult time growing up, as well, though he refuses to speak further about his mysterious past.

Over Thanksgiving dinner, Jerry gets all weepy about how warmly the family has accepted him, and Susan wears an outfit more apropos of the Victorian era than 1987. Stephanie later goes for a few sodas at the local teen hangout. She leaves and her classmate, Paul Baker, rolls up on a moped and offers her a ride home. “Only if I get to drive,” she agrees. On the moped ride he wins over his beloved, mainly by insulting other girls. “Cathy Lombardo is a stuck-up bitch,” he says of his ex-girlfriend. (Who wouldn’t want to date this guy?) On Stephanie’s front step, the two kiss, but are interrupted by one very angry stepdad. “You!” he shouts. “You could go to jail! This girl is sixteen years old!” Baker protests, “So am I!” But Jerry doesn’t care. He claims Baker was attempting to rape Stephanie and scares him off. Susan comes downstairs to see what’s happening, and Stephanie complains to her about Jerry. “He’s not my father,” she shouts. “He’s just some crazy creep. How can you even bear to let him touch you?!” Susan slaps Stephanie, who runs off into the night.

It's a bit more threatening to argue curfew with man who's just brained your therapist with a block of wood.

It’s a bit more threatening to argue curfew with man who’s just brained your therapist with a block of wood.

However, Susan isn’t happy with Jerry either, and claims that his overprotective actions have damaged any progress she’d made in bonding with her daughter. Something sprigs inside Jerry and his eyes pop manically. The next day, Jerry quits from American Eagle Realty and says his goodbyes to his coworkers. Ogilvie presents his case to a detective in Oakridge, explaining that he merely needs access to marriage licences issued in the past year to find the assumed name a murderer has taken. The detective, believing this to be a cockamamie fabrication, refuses. But the overly handsome Ogilvie is able to charm the clerk, Ms. Barnes (Gillian Barber), into helping him in his quest. A day or so later, Susan drops Stephanie off for an appointment with a new therapist. Stephanie decides she can’t start things over with someone new, and instead sneaks into Bondurant’s unoccupied office. (The two therapists are in the same building.) Stephanie discovers an intriguing message on his desk notepad – one that seems to detail the location and timing of a meeting with “J. Blake.”

Ogilvie begins canvassing Oakridge, going door-to-door to meet all the recent husbands in town to see if they look like his former brother-in-law. Jerry, meanwhile, has boarded another ferry. In the washroom, he removes his contacts, dons new glasses, and takes off his (convincing) hairpiece, revealing male pattern baldness underneath. With his new look, he attends a job interview for insurance sales in Rosedale, Washington, under a new name: Bill Hodgkins.

Jerry (or Bill or Henry or whoever) goes for a little constitutional, during which he spies one of his client families moving into their new home. Seeing an actual happy family, devoid of any murderous tendencies, he looks sorrowful. Ogilvie visits the Blake residence, but Jerry’s not home. Susan mentions he’s out showing homes to clients. Which is not entirely the truth, as Jerry is, in fact, looking at houses in Rosedale, and, as Bill Hodgkins, introducing himself to the local single moms. (He acts fast!) Susan calls into Jerry’s work to let him know someone came calling for him, but American Eagle Realty says that Jerry no longer works there. He quit a few days ago. Ogilvie, meanwhile, visits another couple on his list of newlyweds. Trouble in paradise abounds as the young couple yell at each other, on the verge of a separation. However, they take time out of their domestic quarrel to look at Ogilvie’s photograph of Morrison. They note the beard doesn’t fit, but he looks a lot like the guy who sold them this house.

When Jerry returns home, whistling “Camptown Races,” Susan confronts him: why didn’t he tell her he quit his job? Jerry insists he still works at the realtors, and that the incompetent new receptionist must have been confused. “How hard a name to remember is Hodgkins?” he asks, not realizing he’s jumped one identity ahead. Susan is confused, especially when Jerry seems lost after his mistake, asking himself, “Who am I here?” (A phrase featured prominently on the film poster and on the trailer.) Susan reminds him his name is Jerry Blake, and Jerry thanks her by smashing her across the face with a telephone. Jerry then chokes his bleeding wife and tosses her into the basement. He returns to the kitchen, sorting through the knives, then calls the family dog to him. When Stephanie arrives, he’s playing with the dog on the floor of the kitchen, a large butcher knife in one hand. Hearing his stepdaughter arrive, he growls, “You’re a very bad girl.”

Unaware that her stepfather has shown his true colours, Stephanie takes a shower. Jerry stalks up the stairs toward the washroom. At the very same moment, Ogilvie speeds toward their house in his old beater, waylaid by a nun and Catholic students crossing the road. When he finally arrives, he lets himself in. Jerry is hiding behind the door, and is surprised to see someone he knows from a lifetime ago: his former brother-in-law, Jim Ogilvie. Ogilvie notices Jerry is spattered with blood and reaches for the gun in his pocket, but the stepfather is too quick, and stabs him in the stomach before he can fire. Meanwhile, Stephanie completes her shower and dresses. Jerry finds her in the upstairs hallway, and lunges at her with the knife. She screams and locks herself in the bathroom.

As her stepfather pounds on the door, breaking the mirror hanging on the inside, Stephanie desperately looks for a means of escape. Instead, she picks up a shard of broken mirror with a towel, so when Jerry eventually smashes through the door and mirror, she stabs him in the shoulder and flees. Stephanie makes a break for the attic, but Jerry grabs her ankle and nearly manages to drag her down. But instead, he has to follow her up into the attic. He chases her around, then falls through a weak spot in the floor, plummeting through the insulation and hitting the second floor below.

Stephanie attempts to sneak out of the house, but sees her wounded mom crawling up the stairs. Jerry revives and knocks Stephanie to the ground, but Susan has taken the dead Ogilvie’s gun and shoots her husband the back. He tumbles down the stairs, but staggers back up. Susan shoots him again, in the butt cheek, but still, he crawls to the second floor. At the ledge, he and Stephanie struggle for the butcher knife, but the daughter prevails and stabs her stepfather in the heart. His final words are “I love you.” Following the harrowing ordeal, Stephanie saws down the birdhouse Jerry built, and her mother embraces her. Both women return to the house.

When your stepfather objects to being treated like a human knife block.

When your stepfather objects to being treated like a human knife block.

Takeaway points:

  • The Stepfather is nearly a fairy tale in its grim(m) depiction of evil stepfathers. (Yes, typically evil stepmothers are featured in fairy tales, but I’m sure there must be at least one or two stepfathers in all of European folklore.) Stephanie expresses the fears of many children whose parents remarry – that the new parent will be awful in comparison to her biological father. In this case, she’s completely right: not only is he awful, he’s legitimately homicidal. With divorce rates on a steady incline throughout the 1980s, this would have been a very relevant fear. In fact, the movie itself is loosely based on the story of a man named John List, who killed his family in 1971 and remained on the lam until two years after this movie was released. (Though unlike the stepfather in the film, List was the biological father to three children. Three children whom he killed – along with his wife and mother – then disappeared.)
  • In addition to serving as a realization of millions of stepchildren’s fears of their step-parents, the movie is also a prescient warning that those people who seem like the perfect fathers, the perfect husbands – who quite overtly aim to make that “goodness” their identity – may not be who they seem. I hate to bring up the spectre of Bill Cosby again, but this was a comedian who built a career of being the understanding dad, who – both in his television shows and speaking engagements – called for a return to more traditional values of family and respect. He even dressed somewhat similar to the stepfather in this film. And yet, lurking under the surface was a man capable of (allegedly) raping countless women. A colourful sweater can hide a black heart.
  • Director Joseph Ruben has made quite a name for himself making thrillers that turn intimate violence into riveting entertainment. Not only did he exaggerate a tale of domestic abuse to the nth degree for The Stepfather, he revisited a similar concept in Sleeping with the Enemy, and looked at the idea of an evil child (or brother) in The Good Son. Ruben seems to specialize in exploiting fears we have of our closest family members. Fears that crime statistics demonstrate are not unfounded. Ruben takes the very real violence between loved ones and ramps it up into potboiler thrillers.
  • The Stepfather improbably spawned two sequels, and while only one of them features Terry O’Quinn, both of them feature the same stepfather character, who somehow survived being shot twice and stabbed in the heart to torment other unsuspecting families in the later movies. His will to create a perfect, Father Knows Best family is stronger than mortal wounds.
  • I appreciated the subversion seen in the depiction of Jim Ogilvie. Throughout the film, he is set up as the lone crusader – the one person who knows what Jerry Blake is – and – as we seem him race toward a crisis situation in his dilapidated vehicle – the hero who will save Stephanie and her mother. But despite that, he’s unceremoniously murdered by the villain. Like Samuel Jackson eaten by the shark in Deep Blue Sea. His story builds, but his revenge is thwarted by a man with a knife just a little bit faster than him. This turnabout is stellar; a much weaker film would have had Ogilvie save the day, but in The Stepfather, Stephanie and mother, like the sisters in the song, are doing it for themselves.
  • Not an important question, but did anybody else find it strange that the family has a taxidermied roadrunner in their dining room?

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: The Stepfather is not great cinema. Instead, it’s a tight, trashy little thriller that rises above its station, thanks to some solid directing and great acting, especially from O’Quinn. The movie certainly has a palpable sense of realistic menace. Not the scariest thing you’ll ever see, but certainly worth watching.

When you can't decide between a sweater vest and suit jacket? Why not wear both?

When you can’t decide between a sweater vest and suit jacket? Why not wear both?

Best outfit: That’s a difficult decision because, for the most part, The Stepfather looks like it was costumed by Northern Reflections. While Stephanie Main has some nice graphic sweaters and shirts featuring sheep and unicorns (just to name some of the standouts), Jerry Blake’s wardrobe, clearly inspired by Mr. Rogers, is the real standout. His clothing adheres to a black, white, gray, and red colour scheme (which probably has some deeper meaning), and he looks like a television father at every moment. The best look is when he pairs an argyle sweater with a full suit and tie.

Best line: “Next time, Jim, call before you stop by.” – Jerry Blake, with a pretty good one-liner to the corpse of his one-time brother-in-law

Best kill: Jerry Blake beating the therapist to death with a two-by-four is pretty vicious. All the more so because Jerry literally has no idea who the man is before he kills him. All he knows is that he threatens the carefully constructed house of lies he has built.

Unexpected cameo: Blu Mankuma, who plays Lt. Wall, has been in almost every movie and television show made in the past few decades. (He was even in an episode of Danger Bay!) Most notably, he was a recurring character on 21 Jump Street, even appearing in the pilot episode.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Never trust a man who builds birdhouses as a hobby. Avoid marriage to someone if they have no friends or family that they’ve known for over a year.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: American Eagle Realty

Next up (and last!): The Beyond (1981).

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31 Days of Fright: It Follows

Photo that accurately depicts what I was *told* happens in the Church of Scientology.

Photo that accurately depicts what I was *told* happens in the Church of Scientology.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Last night, I watched the only horror movie this month that I’d seen once before: the impressive It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover). Good friend Marielle Pawson donated a generous amount to this fundraiser on behalf of her mother. I previously watched The Exorcist III on her mother’s behalf, but Marielle’s real wish was to watch It Follows with friends. See, Marielle was really curious about last year’s indie hit It Follows, but was afraid to watch it on her own. A joint screening with Marielle and Meg was arranged. I rented a copy of It Follows from my friends at Queen Video, who were very excited about my rental.

What happens:

It Follows, which – spoiler alert – is one of the better new horror movies I’ve seen in years, opens with some spooky Carpenter-esque music and a quiet suburban American street. (We find out later this is set in the suburbs of Detroit.) A teenage girls runs out of a house in her pyjamas and heels, looking haunted. The neighbour loading groceries asks if she needs help, which she refuses. Then her dad goes to the door and asks what the matter is. She again says she’s fine, and runs back into her house. A few seconds later, however, she rushes back out of the house, into her car, and speeds off. When we next see her, she’s at the beach in the dead of night, seated with her back to the water. The headlights of the car illuminate her as she calls her dad on a cell phone, expresses her love for him, then apologizes for being a brat sometimes.

The film smash cuts to the beach on the morning. The girl is now dead, her leg broken backward and body contorted in a disturbing manner.

We are then introduced to our protagonist, college-aged Jay (Maika Monroe), who lounges in the aboveground pool at her parents’ home. Her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), arrives home, and calls Jay inside. Kelly watches some ’50s B-movies with their family friends: the slightly awkward Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and bespectacled Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who always seems to have her nose in her clamshell-shaped e-reader. She’s reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, but has yet to determine if it’s any good. (Stay tuned, literature fans!) Jay goes upstairs to prepare for her date with a new guy she’s been seeing, Hugh (Jake Weary).

Jay goes to the movies with Hugh, who looks a bit like a dime-store Pacey from Dawson’s Creek. While waiting in line, she tells him about “the trade game” she used to play with her sister, where you choose one person in a crowd you’d like to trade places with, and other people have to try to guess who you chose. When they play, Jay is perplexed by Hugh’s choice, a small boy at the movies with his parents. Hugh looks wistful and expresses envy that the boy has his whole life ahead of him. “You’re only twenty-one,” Jay says. Taking their seats, Hugh tries to guess her choice. “The girl in the yellow dress?” he guesses. But Jay has no idea who he’s talking about; she can’t see any girl in a yellow dress. Hugh makes them leave the theatre immediately, saying he feels ill and needs to be outside. Jay, however, worries he spotted a past girlfriend.

The real question is which of the couple's lives does the marquee's title refer to?

The real question is which of the couple’s lives does the marquee’s title refer to?

Kelly and Jay walk through their neighbourhood, talking about Hugh, and we learn that Jay and Hugh have yet to sleep together. Across the street from Jay and Kelly’s house, we see local cool dude Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a Jeremy London type washing his car in his driveway. Hugh and Jay go on another date, taking some beer to the water, then adjoining to his car’s backseat to make love for the first time in an abandoned parking lot. Afterwards, Hugh goes to his trunk while Jay spreads out on the backseat and reminisces about what her concept of dating was like when she was younger. Hugh then slides up behind Jay and presses a chloroformed cloth to her face, rendering her unconscious. (The rendering takes way longer than almost any other movie featuring chloroform, so I’m going to assume it’s more realistic.)

Jay wakes up bound to a wheelchair that’s been placed in an abandoned aboveground parking garage. Hugh appears behind her and apologizes, assuring her he won’t hurt her. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he’s “given” her something – something someone gave to him through sex and now he’s given it to her. A thing will follow her, and it could look like anyone – someone she knows well or a total stranger. “Sometimes I think it looks like people you love, just to hurt you,” he says. Hugh sees something approaching, so he wheels Jay in her chair to the edge of the garage, where they can see a naked woman slowly climbing up the hill. This, he hopes, will demonstrate that what he is saying is true. Hugh advises Jay sleep with someone as soon as possible to pass it along. For if she is killed by the thing, it will come for him next, then all the way down the line. He offers some advice on avoiding it: never enter a room with only one exit. “It’s very slow, but it’s not dumb.”

Jay, in the halcyon days before she'd ever heard of "it."

Jay, in the halcyon days before she’d ever heard of “it.”

Kelly, Paul, and Yara are busy playing cards on Kelly’s front porch when Hugh’s car rolls up, dumping her in her underpants on the curb, then drives off. (Hugh could have at least given her clothes back!) Greg and his mom see the police situation that unfolds across the street and wonder about Jay’s family. “Those people are such a mess,” his mom says. The police interview Jay to get her information about this consensual, but bizarre sexual encounter that, legally, they can do very little about. Jay is depressed for a few days later, spending much of her time in bed, inspecting her body in the bathroom mirror – she doesn’t look infected, but she feels it. During one of Jay’s college English classes (in which they’re studying “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“), an old woman slowly crosses the campus outside. As she begins to approach the window, Jay hastily leaves class. The old woman pursues her through the hallway and Jay runs to her car to drive away. Realizing that Hugh wasn’t just messing with her head, Jay finds her sister Kelly and friend Paul where they work at the local ice cream store to talk about her unusual condition.

In the ice cream stock room, the three young adults discuss whether what Hugh told Jay was real. Jay tells them about the old woman in her pyjamas, but Kelly is still convinced Hugh was lying. However, they make a plan to all sleep over at Jay’s, with Paul (who is obviously madly in love with Jay) staying downstairs on the couch as guard. During the sleepover, Jay has trouble sleeping, so visits Paul, watching B-movies downstairs. They reminisce about past sleepovers when they were much younger, and about the time the four of them found a stash of pornographic magazines, then brazenly read them while lounging on Greg’s front lawn, not realizing what they were doing. The window in the kitchen shatters and Paul runs to investigate. He returns to say the window has been broken, but whoever broke it must have fled. Paul leaves to find Kelly, and as soon as he does, Jay begins to hear a banging in the other room. Unwisely, she enters the kitchen to see a young woman, topless, only one sock on, who is peeing herself and creeping toward her. It’s following her again!

Jay races upstairs and locks herself in the bedroom. Kelly and Paul knock at the door, asking to be let in, assuring her there’s nothing outside. She lets them in and Jay begins to break down: “There’s something wrong with me.” Someone begins to try the doorknob of the bedroom, so Paul grabs a nearby broom as a weapon. Yara identifies herself from the other side of the door, but when they allow her in, a tall man walks in right behind her. (Clearly, only the infected can see the followers.) Jay screams and flees out the bedroom window. She descends from a ledge and takes her bicycle through the night, ending her journey in a creepy playground. Eventually, her friends find her on the swings in the darkened playground. Greg shows up, too, having overheard the broken window and ensuing ruckus across the street. Jay decides she needs to find Hugh and get some answers, so Greg offers to drive them.

The five arrive at a boarded-up house, apparently the address Hugh have Jay. Inside, they find homemade alarm systems of tin cans and a wealth of medications. In the attic, Paul and Jay find the mattress where he slept, along with a wealth of porno mags and balled-up Kleenex (which he didn’t even bother to throw away). Leafing through a copy of Playpen, Paul finds a photo of Hugh in his letterman jacket, which identifies him as a former student of Dawson High School. Someone there must know his real name! Jay and Greg speak to someone in the school’s office and return to the car with his real name: “Jeff.” They find his house fairly easily and have a very calm chat with him.

Greg and Jay enjoy a soda while discussing the unrelenting demon following her.

Greg and Jay enjoy a soda while discussing the unrelenting demon following her.

While they’re all seated on his lawn, Jeff (formerly Hugh) tries to detail further how to handle this thing that follows you – he says he got if from a one-night stand (he thinks), and the only way to be rid of it is to pass it along. “Should be easy for you,” he says. “You’re a girl.” How Hugh knows so much about this thing, despite not clearly knowing how he contracted it from, is beyond me. A soccer player walks up to their group and Jeff is spooked, but it turns out to be an actual person. He says that Jay and he shouldn’t be in such close proximity. Greg comes up with an idea: to stay at his family’s cottage, situated in a more remote area. As they drove out to the sticks, Marielle, Meg, and I devised various plans as to how we would attempt to forestall “it.” (See the Takeaway Points below for more on that.)

At the cottage, Greg finds his dad’s gun in the boathouse and they begin to practice with it. They have a morose beach party during which no one is entirely able to speak. Greg runs off to urinate while Yara lounges in the water in an innertube. But, strangely, Yara also appears to be walking towards them from the woods. Before any of them can realize what’s happening, they see Jay’s hair being pulled up into the air. Jay is then thrown to the ground. Paul picks up a beach chair and swings it at where the invisible assailant is, but the thing knocks him back. Jay, Kelly, Paul, and Yara run to the boathouse, pursued by the thing. Jay scrambles for the hidden gun. Paul, meanwhile, inspects his body where the thing touched him, and it’s covered in a hand-shaped bruise. As the thing approaches the doorway, Jay fires the gun, nearly shooting Greg in the distance, but then hits it square in the forehead. But the entity lifts itself up after a second and continues to follow. They lock the boathouse door.

The thing bangs at the door, eventually smashing a hole in the bottom. Greg yells at them from the outside, overly concerned about what they’ve done to the door. (He cannot see the thing causing the damage, naturally.) Jay crawls up to the hole to see if the coast is clear, but a redheaded boy leaps out and hisses at her. Jay runs out through the water exit of the boathouse, then finds Greg’s station wagon and speeds away from the cottage, leaving all her friends behind. She drives so recklessly, she doesn’t notice a truck reversing into the street, and has to swerve to avoid it, crashing in some farmer’s cornfield. When she awakes, she’s resting in a hospital bed with a head wound. Her friends are seated in the room beside her, all fast asleep. She waits there, helpless, listening to the nurses walk up and down the hospital halls, wondering if one of them is really “it.”

That night, in the hospital bed, Greg, true American hero, agrees to have sex with Jay to rid her of her demonic stalker. They solemnly make love, but Jay keeps her eyes on the door the entire time. (Paul, obviously, is super-jealous.) Three days later, Greg visits Jay in the hospital again to report that he hasn’t seen it – he doesn’t think it’s following him. (Such hubris!) Despite passing the affliction on, Jay still suffers from intense depression, hiding in her bedroom, refusing to open the door. Greg talks with Jay’s three friends, and they ask if he’s really never seen anything. “She didn’t make it up,” Paul insists. Greg, however, is dubious. That night, Jay stares out her window during her self-imposed sequestration. She sees Greg, in his undershirt and long underwear, walk down the block to his house, then attempt to open his own door. Failing, he resorts to throwing a rock through the window and climbing inside. Jay realizes that this may not be Greg at all!

When the sweathog next door doesn't believe you, it's good your friends have your back.

When the sweathog next door doesn’t believe you, it’s good your friends have your back.

She frantically calls Greg’s phone, but he doesn’t answer. So she runs across the street and climbs in through the broken window, as well. At the top of the stairs, she sees Greg’s mom, half-undressed, banging robotically at Greg’s door. Greg opens it and says, “What the fuck, Mom?” Moments after, his mom attacks him, pushing him back into the bedroom. Jay runs into the room and sees it (in the guise of Greg’s mom) seemingly “sexing” Greg to death. Electricity fires around the two of them and Greg is killed. Jay runs to her car and weepily drives away from her neighbourhood. She parks in a remote spot near the water and falls asleep on the hood of her car. (Meg asked, at this point, whether there was a rule that it couldn’t get you when you’re asleep, which is a very good question. It seems to need to have you aware of its presence to kill you.) When she awakes, she sees a leisure craft on the water, during which a few guys seem to be having an early morning boat party. She strips down to her underwear and enters the water, though viewers have no idea what happens next.

Later, Jay and Paul sit in her barricaded bedroom. Paul suggests that she could pass it on – to him, that is. Paul, clearly hurt that Jay decided to give Greg a death sentence instead of him, asks why she picked Greg. She notes that he didn’t seem scared, and she refuses to subject Paul to the same fate. Paul, looking around Jay’s room, spots a photo of her swimming and develops an idea. The four friends go to 8 Mile (a.k.a. Eminem’s home turf) and talk about how scared their parents were of their children ever visiting Detroit. (“That’s a weird class element to introduce,” Meg noted, given the movie was entering its final act.) They break into a massive university swimming pool, totally unattended but well maintained. They plug in an assemblage of electrical appliances and set them up poolside. Their plan is to lure it into the water, with Jay as bait, then dump in the devices to electrocute it.

Jay treads water for a while until her relentless pursuer arrives. He has taken the form (I think) of her father (who we’ve only seen in photographs to this point), and she begins to freak out. She points at the thing – invisible to everyone else – and says it’s just staring at her. Then it, unseen, doesn’t enter the water but instead begins tossing in the electrical equipment at Jay. He manages to wing Jay with a typewriter. Their plan is totally backfiring, but at least Jay doesn’t get electrocuted. Paul takes the gun and begins to fire at where the thing seems to be. Instead, he accidentally shoots Yara in the leg. Finally, Kelly – clearly the only one who’s ever seen an episode of Scooby-Doo – tosses a blanket over the entity, which provides Paul with a clear target. He shoots it in the back of the head and it falls into the pool.

TFW you regret being bait for the murderous entity that's taken the form of your estranged father.

TFW you regret being bait for the murderous entity that’s taken the form of your estranged father.

Jay tries to swim out of the pool, but the thing isn’t dead. The creature that looks like her father swims after her and grabs her ankle. Paul begins to shoot wildly into the pool – who put him in charge of the gun? – finally hitting the thing in the head. It sinks to the pool’s bottom and Jay clambers out of the water. Her ankle is seriously bruised. Paul asks Jay if she can tell whether it’s dead. Jay cautiously crawls over to the pool, but only sees a massive amount of blood pooling and mushrooming in the water. On the rainy night that follows, Paul and Jay decide to have fairly grim sex. “Do you feel any different?” he asks her afterward. Neither of them do.

Paul is later seen driving past a couple of sex workers. The gang visits Yara, recuperating from her gunshot wound in the hospital, and she regales them – through a mouth full of sandwich – with a passage from The Idiot about the inevitability of death. Paul dozes in his chair, possibly exhausted by a bunch of sex-having. The final shot of the film shows Jay and Paul, walking hand-in-hand, down their street, with someone trailing behind who may or may not be following them.

Someone should tell the mature student that university kids no longer show up to class in their pyjamas.

Someone should tell the mature student that university kids no longer show up to class in their pyjamas.

Takeaway points:

  • It Follows, in which our characters sexually transmit an unstoppable pursuer who follows you until you die, is very obviously a metaphor for STIs, but also, of death in general. Much has been made of the STI parallels, and there’s no shortage of dread around sex in the movie. But the filmmakers – with their references to The Idiot and “J. Alfred Prufrock” – seem to be suggesting that “it” is more like death than an STI. Your really can’t avoid death. Even if you pass it along to someone else, it will eventually come back to you. Perhaps this is partially why It Follows is so scary – it’s a horror movie that is also our reality.
  • Or is It Follows really a PSA about best practices regarding sex when you have an STI? Obviously, the meanest thing would be to have sex and pass this thing along without telling your partner. (In this case, your partner would die relatively soon, and the “STI” would come back to kill you in no time.) A better practice, the film seems to suggest, is to do as Hugh did – have sex with this STI, then inform your partner what has happened and what to expect. This allows him to live a bit longer – he is not punished as severely in this scenario. But he still tells Jay after the fact. The most humane practice would be to do as Jay and Paul do – go into it with the foreknowledge that you will be infected. In this case, they can both watch out for each other. As Marielle pointed out during the screening, there seems to be strength in numbers. Whether this is or isn’t a tacit endorsement of polyamorous relationships can’t be definitively proven.
  • The big question of It Follows is: when does this take place? The vehicles look like they’re from the 1960s. The movies they watch are from the 1950s. The clothing they wear reads mostly as 1980s. But the compact e-reader Yara uses is clearly modern – even futuristic – and the girl from the opening calls her father on a mobile phone. It Follows consciously establishes its setting as outside of time, giving it a dream-like quality. You are not supposed to be able to identify the year.
  • During a slower portion of the film, Marielle, Meg, and I devised our best practices for avoiding “it.” Suggestions included: having sex with someone relatively promiscuous just before they board an international flight, having sex with an astronaut just before he/she departs for space, having sex with a cheetah (?), attempting to trap it in a well, and possibly filling that well with concrete. But we are open to other suggestions.
  • It Follows is yet another horror film that benefits greatly from a killer soundtrack. The score, composed and performed by Disasterpiece, is a collection of eerie and ominous electronic songs reminiscent of John Carpenter’s best work. It’s one of the best, most effective horror soundtracks in years.
  • Perhaps the most clever part of It Follows is how it uses pre-established rules of pacing and framing from other horror movies to create its sense of dread. The camera is constantly either in slow-zoom or slow-pan, making viewers glance around the frame uneasily. In horror movies, when the cinematography takes on a certain feeling or pace, viewers know to be wary, for something unfortunate is about to happen. The genius of It Follows is that after Jay is infected, literally every scene is one of those scenes. Whenever Jay is conscious, we are on alert that something bad might happen, as is Jay herself. The nail-biting suspense can be almost too much to handle in some scenes.
  • I have yet to parse what this means, but every thing that follows Jay is either completely naked or in some kind of sleepwear. Given that it also seems to be inactive while the victims are asleep, I feel like there’s a very distinct reason for this.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: It Follows is great. Just one of the best horror films made in the past decade. Not only is it high-concept, it’s incredibly creepy. You’ll feel paranoid for days afterward about anyone walking toward you at a certain pace. The very concept seems culled from a nightmare of our collective unconscious. It Follows also really exploits my personal fear of things happening at a distance. In horror movies, I find disturbing / scary things happening in close-up far less unsettling than things that happen at a bit of a distance to the camera. Thinking of scary moments – the bat-guy from Jeepers Creepers jumping into his truck, the filmmaker facing a corner in The Blair Witch Project, the cloaked lopper attacking the nurse in The Exorcist III – these all happen at some distance from the camera. It Follows is almost entirely scenes like that.

Legwarmers at the beach? Choose a style, Kelly! Just kidding; keep doing what you're doing.

Legwarmers at the beach? Choose a style, Kelly! Just kidding; keep doing what you’re doing.

Best outfit: Who wears leg warmers to the beach? Jay’s sister Kelly does, along with a floral bikini top and jean shorts. It doesn’t seem like it would work together, and I’m not sure it does, but I certainly applaud the effort.

Best line: “Not Hugh?” – a perplexed Paul, upon learning Jay’s it-infected boyfriend’s real name is “Jeff”

Best kill: Not too many people die in It Follows. The post-murder scene of the film’s introduction is pretty striking, though – backward leg and all. So while the murder doesn’t happen on-screen, it manages to be the most memorable in it’s artistic, Hannibal-like aftermath.

Unexpected cameo: Paul is played by Keir Gilchrist, who may be known to many viewers as Marshall Gregson, Tara’s film-obsessed son on United States of Tara. When the entity takes the form of a very tall man who barges into Jay’s bedroom, he’s portrayed by Mike Lanier, a 7′ 7″ gentleman who also happens to be one of the world’s largest twins.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Despite their devastated economy, Detroit still manages to keep the lights on in their massive-yet-empty swimming complexes throughout the entire night.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Clamshell E-Reader

Next up: The Stepfather (1987).

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31 Days of Fright: Possession

If anything, Possession demonstrates why it might not be a great idea to own an  electric knife.

If nothing else, Possession demonstrates why it might not be a great idea to own an electric knife.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Last night, I watched Possession, a bonkers little film directed by Andrzej Zulawski (La femme publique, Fidelity). This film was another suggestion from donor and friend David Summers, who you may recall recommended the very strange and appealing Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural. Of Possession, Summers said it was “the most essential on the list” that he provided. Possession was obtained from my backup video store, Bay Street Video.

What happens:

Ladies and gentlemen, the other horror movies can go home, because I don’t think any of them are going to get weirder, more intense, and ickier! This is like Antichrist meets H.P. Lovecraft. The film opens in West Berlin (before the fall of the Wall, obvi), with Mark (Sam Neill) returning home from a mysterious business trip. (If your business is mysterious in 1981 Berlin, I have to assume it involves espionage.) Carrying the most bags any human could possibly carry, he’s met outside his apartment by his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani, killing it in every scene), who seems a little codl. Mark, realizing things are not well in their relationship, is confused about her ambivalence. But she reluctantly lets him up. They watch their young son, Bob (Michael Hogben), in the bath for a while, then retire to bed. Lying side by side, they muse that perhaps all couples go through this feeling of distance, and they each blame themselves for their relationship’s dissolution.

Their marriage, it would seem, was ending some time before Mark went away. They ask each other if they have been faithful, and both promise they were. Mark says that this sort of growing apart is just natural. Maybe growing apart as a couple is, but what follows in Possession 100% isn’t. Mark then goes to resign from his mysterious job. In a large, empty room, he provides his final report on the man in pink socks (?) to a tribunal of four men. They want to hire him for more work, but Mark says their business is through. He needs to spend time with his family. Mark leaves with a suitcase full of bills. He returns to his blue apartment, which overlooks Checkpoint Charlie.

That night, Mark is awakened by a phone call. Anna is downtown and won’t be coming home; she needs time to think about herself. Going through the bookshelves, Mark finds a postcard from someone named Heinrich, who writes, “I’ve seen half of God’s face here. The other half is you.” (Silver-tongued devil!) Mark calls Anna’s one friend, Margie, and asks if she knows about another man in her life. Margie claims ignorance, but Anna calls Mark immediately after he hangs up, telling him it’s over. Anna admits she’s been seeing someone for a while now, and Mark asks a hundred jealous questions: “Do you sleep with him? Do you like it? More than with me?” He insists they meet at the Cafe Einstein to discuss how to live their lives going forward.

Mark and Anna test out the latest speed-dating fad in Possession.

Mark and Anna test out the latest speed-dating fad in Possession.

In the cafe, they sit at adjacent tables, and Mark outlines what he’ll do – he’ll pay a certain amount to her every month, but he doesn’t want to see Bob, their child. This upsets Anna greatly. Mark begins to make a scene, dumping his glassware on the floor. Anna, however, tells Mark that no one is good or bad in this situation. But if he wants her to be the bad one (as it seems he does), she will tell him that she regrets having a child with him. This snaps something in Mark and he chases after his wife in a rage, knocking over tables. The servers have to physically restrain him. Mark later moves into a hotel and falls into a deep funk, living in squalor, not shaving, being unable to speak on the phone, convulsing like a prisoner of war attempting to readjust to civilian life. He lives like this for three weeks without realizing it.

Eventually he cleans himself up – well, he shaves, even if he’s still wearing filthy clothes – and goes back to their apartment. He finds Bob, completely unattended, living amidst a total mess. Bob, happy to see his dad, shows him a ship that “Uncle Heinrich” gave him. When Anna returns, Mark has been waiting, silently stewing in the rocking chair. She promises him about their latchkey kid, “It’s not always like this.” Mark announces he’s taking over. He says that Anna must restore order, and she must do so by calling Heinrich on the telephone and ending it. Anna says she would have to do it in person, and Mark says he no longer trusts her. She begins to weep, and a conciliatory Mark undresses her and tucks her into bed. It seems like things are getting a little better when Mark is awakened by a phone call. Anna has disappeared. The man on the other end of the phone says, “Anna is with me and will stay with me.”

Incensed, Mark calls Margie to obtain Heinrich’s number. He calls it, but an older woman answers and says that Heinrich isn’t home, and Anna hasn’t been around for weeks. Once Bob wakes up and finds his father crouched on the floor, looking up names in the Berlin White Pages, Mark feels embarrassed and gives up his pursuit. He drops Bob off at school the next day and makes a startling discovery: his son’s teacher, Helen, looks exactly like his wife in a wig. (Probably because she’s also portrayed by Isabelle Adjani.) “What is this, a joke?” Mark laughs. With his son safely in school, Mark hunts down Heinrich at his home. The leather-skinned Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), who doesn’t seem to know how shirt buttons work and speaks like Fritz Lang, answers the door. “I’ve come for Anna,” Mark announces. Heinrich, who is very touchy-feely (kind of like Dr. Oz) insists that he and Mark don’t have to be brutal with one another. Heinrich, unlike Mark, is very into spirituality and personal psychology and all that kind of thing. But more importantly, he says that he hasn’t been with Anna since Mark had returned from his trip.

Heinrich’s aged mother walks in and Mark is bewildered. “Is she here all the time? Even when you’re fucking Anna?!” Apparently, “yes” is the wrong answer, because Mark attacks Heinrich. Heinrich, however, is some sort of expert brawler and beats him bloody. Mark starts to choke Heinrich when the older, tanner man lets his guard down, but that just leads Heinrich to rough him up a little more. Mark returns home, bleeding freely, too find Anna preparing Bob some food. Mark demands to know where Anna went last night, and she refuses to tell him. Mark suggests that if Anna really cared about their son, she would try to hold their relationship together. Anna has a pretty good response to that: “Don’t you understand you disgust me?!” Their verbal argument reaches a fever pitch and Anna slaps Mark. “Do it again,” he whispers. Anna just grins, then runs away. Mark then proceeds to give his wife a merciless, interminably long beating that’s really difficult to watch. “You know what this is for?” he asks. “Lllliiiiieeeessss.” She runs downstairs and he pursues her, shouting names. Anna runs into the street, drooling blood, and they nearly cause a truck accident.

Don't be fooled. Possession is not a vampire movie. Unless by "vampire," you mean a relationship sucking the will to live from you.

Don’t be fooled. Possession is not a vampire movie. Unless by “vampire,” you mean a relationship sucking the will to live from you.

Margie Gluckmeister (Margit Carstensen) arrives at the apartment to take care of Bob in Anna’s absence, even though she professes to loathe Mark. (The feeling is mutual.) The next day, Mark visits Mr. Zimmerman (Shaun Lawton), a private detective, and asks him to follow his wife for a few days. Eventually, Anna returns to the apartment, and, almost upon arrival, begins to cut up some meat with an electric knife. (You know, as you do.) Mark asks how long this situation is going to last, with her coming back intermittently, them fighting and splitting up once again. Anna then busts out a meat grinder and starts grinding the meat she’s cut. Mark continues his interrogation, asking about a hundred questions, all of which Anna won’t answer. The only question she does answer is when he asks if she’s afraid he won’t like her. “Yes,” she nods. Then Anna takes the electric knife to her neck and starts to cut.

Mark grabs the knife away from her and rushes Anna to the bathroom, where he patches her up with gauze. He doesn’t want his wife to die. “You’re my whole family,” he says tenderly. Then Mark returns to the kitchen, where he calmly cuts himself in three places along his arm with the electric knife. Anna returns, looking like Mina Harker with her neck bandage, and announces she has to go. As she departs, a not-very-good detective (Carl Duering) very obviously tails her on her way home. On the subway, a homeless man takes a banana from Anna’s shopping bag and eats it – a visual admission that this movie is, in fact, bananas. By the end of this pursuit, the detective is literally running after Anna. Though it seems clear he’s been “made,” he at least found Anna’s address. He calls from a pay phone and provides the address to Mark.

The detective then decides to pay Anna a visit. He rings at the door first, and when no one answers, bangs insistently. She opens the door and the man enters, claiming to be from the building, investigating a claim about broken windows. Anna clearly does not want the detective in her apartment, and seems terrified by his arrival. The apartment is large, but barely furnished. He tours the place, appraising all the windows. But when Anna offers him a glass of wine, the detective is weirdly unsettled by her offer. He then goes to investigate the washroom and finds, in the darkness, a black, writhing something. Before he can identify what it is, Anna surprises him, then stabs him twice in the neck with a broken wine bottle.

Bob’s teacher, Helen, makes a house call, looking for Anna. Mark begins to explain they split up, but the doorbell rings again. Mark puts the teacher in charge of Bob and goes to greet Heinrich, who is possibly drunk, and looking for Anna. Heinrich reveals that he had a wife and kid once, who now live in Cincinnati (a fate worse than Heinrich). Mark keeps him talking his spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but refuses him entry into his apartment. “I used to be afraid of you,” Mark says to the shambolic man. “There is nothing to fear but God,” Heinrich responds. “Whatever that means to you.” To Mark, God is a disease. (Cheery.) Once Heinrich leaves, Helen helps put Bob to bed, then starts doing the dishes. She asks Mark if he has any help taking care of Bob. She’s concerned that he’s been having night terrors. Mark then launches into some men’s rights monologue, claiming he’s at war with women. “They have no foresight. I can’t trust them.” Helen responds by saying, “There is nothing in common among women except menstruation.”

Helen does some chores around the house, which largely involve removing blood from various surfaces and utensils.

Helen does some chores around the house, which largely involve removing blood from various surfaces and utensils.

Moved by Helen’s speech, Mark embraces her, and she decides to stay the night. They enter bed, naked, but are interrupted by Bob’s screams for “Mommy!” When Mark returns to the bedroom, Helen has dressed and is ready to leave. The next day, the true example of fragile masculinity Mark is, he can’t even look at Helen when he drops Bob off for school. Mr. Zimmerman finds Mark at his son’s school and asks if he’s heard from the detective on his case: he never returned home. Zimmerman reveals in confidence that the detective is his lover, and Mark provides him with the address he found for Anna.

When Zimmerman arrives at the apartment, the door is ajar. He lets himself inside, where Anna is busy washing the floor. He flashes a photo of his partner and asks if she’s ever seen the man. Their talk turns dark and existential – almost suicidal – and then Anna reveals the man is in the next room. Zimmerman enters to find a scene of pure horror. On the blood-drenched bed is a squirming, tentacled thing. Blood and foam has spilled all over the floor. “Mein Gott,” Zimmerman says (clearly quoting Nightcrawler from the X-Men). Anna explains: “He’s very tired. He made love to me all night.” She also notes that he’s “still unfinished.” Zimmerman then spots the body of his partner, and in a rage he shoots at her. But Anna retaliates, smashing his head mercilessly, then taking his own gun and shooting him thrice.

Mark finds a film strip on his doorstep, so he plays it. The film, shot by Heinrich, shows Anna teaching a dance class. Anna is a complete sadist, forcing one pre-teen dancer into uncomfortable positions until she moans and cries in pain. After shaming this average dancer, criticizing her lack of ambition, she turns to the camera to say, “That why I’m with you. Because you say ‘I’ for me.” (I’m just as confused as you are.) Also in the film strip, Anna confesses that she loves Heinrich, but what keeps her going is the pain that their affair will cause Mark. The next time Mark arrives home, Anna is again present (you’d think he’d change the locks), putting clothes in the refrigerator and doing other such helpful things. Mark tries to get her to just sit with him on the couch, and, like Lady Macbeth, she tries to wash off her hands without water. She begins to flip out, moreso than any character in a David Lynch film, and shouts, “I feel nothing for no one!” And then she reveals she had a miscarriage, which she blames for her erratic behaviour.

Then comes the most unsettling subway scene in film history, this side of Irreversible. In flashback, Anna departs the subway. In the subway corridor, she begins to laugh nervously, then scarily. She begins to scream and wail, then smashes her bag of groceries on the tunnel wall, spreading milk and other fluids on the wall. Next, Anna pants and contorts her body into what seem like modern dance positions. Eventually she falls to the subway floor, and white fluid and blood begin to pour from her mouth, ears, and vagina, pooling in a mess on the floor. (And the whole time, not a single other commuter passes by.) We return to Anna on the couch, who says that what she miscarried was “Sister Faith,” and what remained was “Sister Chance.” Not sure what to make of this, he tells Anna that she looks uglier and more vulgar than he remembered.

Anna, in the most harrowing rendition of the Batusi committed to film.

Anna, in the most harrowing rendition of the Batusi committed to film.

Anna leaves, and Mark, feeling sinister, calls Heinrich’s mom and tells her Anna’s address. Heinrich drives over to Anna’s flat right away, dressed all in white, toting a bouquet of flowers – Morrissey would be proud. He enters her apartment and immediately begins to feel Anna up and offer her some sex-enhancing drugs. Heinrich drags Anna to the bedroom, but then spots, in the other room, the terrifying blood-soaked fleshy creature, which now has something resembling eyes and a mouth. Heinrich panics at seeing the monster. He runs to the kitchen and sees, inside Anna’s fridge, the severed body parts of the two detectives. When he turns to question Anna, she begins talking about how people are just meat, then stabs him in the chest. Heinrich runs from the apartment and calls Mark on the pay phone. Mark tells Heinrich to wait in the bar at the corner – “bleed for a while” – and he’ll come to him. Anna, meanwhile, undresses and approaches the creature, now reclining on the bed.

Mark finally visits Anna’s new address – just walks right in, very sprightly. He’s got a real spring in his step now that Heinrich’s been stabbed. He even clutches at his genitals like a four-year-old. No one seems to be in the apartment, though. Anna and the creature are gone. And Mark’s good mood is ruined when he sees the horror in the refrigerator. He begins to hyperventilate and has to open a window to calm down. But once he regains his equilibrium, develops a devilish grin. Mark turns the stove on, filling the room with gas, then heads down to the bar to visit Heinrich. Heinrich, hiding by the pinball machine in the rear, will only talk in the men’s washroom. “She’s killing people,” he says. Then he tells Mark, now chewing on a toothpick like Ryan Gosling in Drive, about the thing in the bedroom. “Maybe it was divine!” he jokes, probably not talking about the John Waters actor. Heinrich pukes, just thinking about it, and Mark starts to scheme. He plugs a toilet with a shoe he finds in the garbage, then takes feather (also from the trash) and sticks it down his throat to make himself sick.

Vomiting in the toilet, he calls Heinrich for help. When Heinrich opens the stall, Mark smashes his face with the porcelain toilet tank lid, then pushes him face-down into the plugged toilet. Mark flushes and leaves the stall as blood overflows from the bowl. He then returns to Anna’s gas-filled apartment and rigs a sparking mechanism, which causes the apartment to explode as he departs. Mark speeds away home on a dead man’s motorcycle. When he returns to his apartment, he finds Margie, whose throat is cut and front is soaked with blood. He grabs Bob’s de facto caregiver and drags the dying woman to his bathroom. Mark finds Anna in the kitchen and reaches out to her, covered in blood, and begins to weep. Anna washes Mark up in the kitchen sink, then turns to him: “Do you believe in God? It’s in me.” She kneels before him and they make love on the kitchen floor.

Heinrich, on his way to P. Diddy's white party, stops to romance Anna.

Heinrich, on his way to P. Diddy’s White Party, stops by to romance Anna.

Afterward, Anna says that her apartment has become unsafe. (Her apartment has become a smoking crater, but I guess she doesn’t know that yet.) Mark gives Anna Margie’s keys and tells her to wait for him there. He then goes about routine chores, like stuffing Marge into a mattress bag and stuffing that all into the trunk of his car. Heinrich’s mother calls Mark, worried about where her son is. She reveals that she travelled to that address Mark gave her, and the apartment is but a smoking ruin. She then went to a nearby bar and found Heinrich’s body, “but not his soul.” Blowing off the old woman, Mark brings Bob to Helen, having killed his usual babysitter. By the time he arrives at Margie’s apartment, Anna is already dying of thirst (if you know what I mean). Mark can hear her orgasmic moans, and each cry of joy drives him mad. Mark continues into the apartment and finds her in bed, having sex with a tentacled blood creature. As they copulate, Anna turns to face Mark, and moans, “Almost … almost … almost …”

For reasons not entirely clear, Mark goes to Heinrich’s and speaks with his mother. He tells her that Heinrich is dead, and that he found Anna. He also confesses that he thought about killing her. (The old woman, not Anna … but he probably did that, too.) The two talk about the body / soul divide, and Mark helps her into bed. The next morning, Mark stands at the Berlin Wall, contemplating life (and death). He sees a dead dog under a bridge and thinks about the dog from his childhood that crawled under his porch to die. His employer arrives at the Wall and tells him the dog didn’t die of old age. In vaguely threatening terms, he tries to convince Mark to come back to work.

Mark goes to Zimmerman’s house, where police have arrived for an investigation. Mark commandeers a taxi cab and forces the driver, at gunpoint, to ram the parked police car. As Mark runs from the scene, he’s shot by a one-eyed detective, who Mark shoots and kills in retaliation. He drives away on the motorbike, but skids out in a parking lot, earning a serious case of road rash. Drenched in blood, Mark staggers to Margie’s apartment. He ascends the spiral staircase and, as he reaches the top, Anna enters at the ground floor. She runs up after him with someone in tow. “I wanted to show it to you,” she says. “It is finished now.” The creature now looks exactly like Mark – though a lot less battle-damaged. Mark, horrified, aims his pistol at the thing’s head. But at that exact moment, the police enter below and open fire on the three of them. Both Anna and Mark collapse in the hail of gunfire, but the Mark-like creature appears unharmed.

Romeo is bleeding ... pretty much through the entire movie. They both are, really.

Romeo is bleeding … pretty much through the entire movie. They both are, really.

Mark and Anna share a passionate, bloody kiss, then Anna takes Mark’s gun and – in the strangest possible way – shoots herself in the lower back. The creature turns to Mark and says, “So hard to live with it. Eh, brother?” Somehow Margie is still alive (?) at the top of the stairs. The creature hands her Mark’s gun and instructs her to shoot Mark. Mark rolls off the stairs and plummets to his death while the creature climbs over top Margie and escapes through the roof. Mark’s former employer – clearly wearing pink socks – finds his body. Like the dog, it appears Mark didn’t die of old age.

The film then cuts to Helen, Bob’s teacher, playing with Bob at her kitchen table. The doorbell rings and Bob warns her, “Don’t open! Don’t open!” Nevertheless, Helen goes to the front door, and the Mark-like thing waits on the other side of the glass. Bob runs upstairs and (seemingly) drowns himself in the bath (which was already filled). The apartment fills with the sounds of explosions and flashes of light. The camera noses in to the teacher’s face, mid-revelation, as something that may or may not be Mark paws at the door behind her.

Clearly the end sequence of Possession was an influence on the video to Drake's "Hotline Bling."

Clearly the end sequence of Possession was an influence on the video to Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”

Takeaway points:

  • The director, Andrzej Zulawski, has noted that the film was inspired by a messy divorce. Much like David Cronenberg’s The Brood, a movie that, alongside Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, shares a lot of qualities with Possession. They meld the drama of a relationship breakdown with the tropes of horror. In Possession, even before the murder and goopy tentacle monsters make an appearance, Mark and Anna’s relationship is shown to be a total horror show. Clearly, Anna is suffering from some mental health concerns, but it doesn’t help that Mark deeply mistrusts her and is driven into rages by the mere idea that she might have had sex with someone else. The fights between the couple are horror enough. When you introduce the actual scary elements, the film becomes a sort of nightmare tone poem for the most dysfunctional romance imaginable. Makes you worry about Zulawski and his ex-wife.
  • In my notes, I have written, “I feel like I don’t understand sex enough to understand this movie.” And I stand by this statement. Clearly, sex is central in Possession. In fact, it’s as if Mark can think of his wife Anna as nothing but sexual. His only concern, it seems, is whether Anna is having a sexual relationship with someone else (and whether that relationship is better than their own). He is horrified enough when he meets Heinrich, in all his new-agey, significantly older man-glory. So when he sees the thing that is truly giving Anna this newfound sexual pleasure – a disgusting tentacle monster, the very definition of ugly-hot – so much greater is his distress. For Mark, possessing Anna’s sexuality is of utmost importance. She is allowed to have no secrets – there can be no unknowability in their relationship. This is why he questions his wife constantly. Mark’s need to possess is indicative of his general fear of women – for women’s sexuality is unknowable: their genitals are found inside the body, they can fake orgasm, the paternity of children can be questioned. Mark’s worry that Anna is “sleeping around” is his fear of the opposite sex. In other sex talk, Heinrich talks about sex as a method of getting closer to God, and there are more than a few references to the creature that Anna keeps secret as divine. Has Anna moved one step closer? Is she having sex with God (or a god)?
  • The difference between Helen and Anna couldn’t be starker. Whereas Anna – at least at the point we see her in the movie – is unpredictable, at times violent, and usually a bit neglectful of young Bob, Helen is a natural caregiver, immediately shouldering the emotional and physical labour of child-rearing. It’s almost comical how readily the young teacher takes to raising the child of a stranger. She visits to talk about Bob’s nightmares, but before Mark can turn around, Helen is putting Bob to bed and washing their dishes. Helen is an unusual figure because she really embraces the traditional idea of woman as caregiver – even to the point of being worried that Mark doesn’t have any help with Bob. (Would she express the same worry about a single mother?) Yet she’s also the one who tears a strip off Mark when he rails against all womankind in his misogynist rant. More than anything else, the dichotomy of Anna and Helen serves to illustrate what sort of man Mark is, and the traditional expectations he holds.
  • So, just what in the Sam Hill is happening in Possession? I have very little idea, and I can’t pretend I do. I feel like it may take me weeks to even begin to establish a theory. (Days alone spent interpreting that final scene!) At the very least, it seems to be about self-disgust on some level. Anna professes the idea that she is the maker of her own evil, of everything she wars against. There is something loathsome about her that she recognizes, and her only real fear is that Mark will recognize it, too, and dislike her. Mark expresses the same self-disgust in a less vocal manner. He is repulsed by the creature Anna has taken as a lover. But it is a creature that ultimately looks and acts just like him.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Possession is both creepy and unforgettable. After viewing it, I sat in my living room for a few minutes, trying to make sense of what I saw. Whatever it was, certain images and scenes are now burned into my visual memory. And it’s not just the tentacle creature or the interpretive miscarriage that carry the most weight. Anna and Mark’s fights are the most disturbing scenes of all. The film should carry a Surgeon General’s warning that it shouldn’t be viewed by anyone in the midst of a breakup. As disturbing as it is, I’d also consider it a very strange masterpiece.

Sam Neill, looking more than a little like Mark Hamill in the midst of a Corvette Summer.

Everybody in Berlin is wearing bloodstained trousers this summer.

Best outfit: The clothes that Mark first wears to drop off Bob at school is the best of his many tight-fitting outfits. With his shirt collar sticking out from a tight olive sweater, rounded out with white stovepipe pants, Mark is the single dad that has all the moms doing a double-take. (Good thing they never saw him in his three-week-old filth.)

Best line: “I can’t exist by myself because I’m afraid of myself, because I’m the maker of my own evil.” – Anna, neatly summarizing modern existence in one sentence

Best kill: This is just a personal preference, but I’m a big fan of stabbings with broken bottles. (In movies, that is. Not so much in real life.) So, as sad as it is to see the (unnamed?) detective get a wine bottle to the neck, it is a pretty good kill.

Unexpected cameo: Obviously, Sam Neill – a.k.a. Dr. Alan Grant – is always a welcome addition to a film. Even if he’s spending the majority of it being incredibly jealous and angry. And of course you know Isabelle Adjani from Nosferatu (where she actually played Mina Harker) and Ishtar.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: There are not a lot of what you’d call “concerned bystanders” in Berlin. Apparently no one uses the subway system, no one bats an eye at a man gushing blood while hanging out near the pinball machine in the rear of a bar. And you can stuff a clear plastic bag with a woman’s body inside into the trunk of your car in broad daylight.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Postcards from Heinrich (like Letters to Cleo, but better)

Next up: It Follows (2014).

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31 Days of Fright: Society

If you thought the ending of The Game was strange, have we got a movie for you!

If you thought the ending of The Game was strange, have we got a movie for you!

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Last night, I watched Society, a bonkers little film directed by Brian Yuzna (Bride of Re-Animator, The Dentist). Society is yet another good use of a free movie space, as I’ve been hearing about the movie’s bananas climax since I started reading about horror movies. Society was obtained from Toronto mainstay, Bay Street Video.

What happens:

Part of the reason I undertook a viewing of Society is for its infamous final half-hour, which was promised to be – by all accounts – unforgettable. But before we get to that masterpiece of body horror, there’s a whole movie to cover, so strap yourselves in. The film begins with an establishing shot of a massive white mansion, the kind that Philip and Vivian Banks might own. A teenager in a blue tank top, Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) lets himself in to the dark, seemingly empty house, and hears what can only be described as “squicky” sounds from somewhere within. Bill can best be described as a young Jesse Katsopolis or a hunkier Michael J. Fox. He retrieves a kitchen knife and holds it like a communion student holds a candle. Demonic laughter can be heard and suddenly, with a flash of light, Bill’s in his living room and his mom, Nan (Concetta D’Agnese), is asking him what he’s up to.

That, it would seem, was just one of Bill’s many stress dreams. We next see Bill talking to his therapist, Dr. Cleveland (Ben Slack), who asks what he’s so afraid of. Bill answers readily: his parents, his sister, even Dr. Cleveland himself. “I feel like something’s going to happen to me,” he says. You don’t need to be Dr. Cleveland to realize Bill has an acute case of anxiety. Bill then bites into an apple. When he pulls his mouth away, he sees it’s full of bloodworms! The title sequence starts – a blurry montage of wet, writing bodies – leading viewers to assume that, too, was a dream sequence, and his therapist probably doesn’t have a bowl of worm-ridden fruit on offer.

Bill and his best friend Milo (Evan Richards) are shooting some b-ball outside of his mansion, both wearing oversized shirts. They see a blue van roll up and Bill immediately recognizes it as the ride of Dave Blanchard (Tim Bartell), his sister Jenny’s ex-boyfriend. He yells to Jenny (Patrice Jennings), who comes to the window. She asks him to get rid of Blanchard. Jenny then undresses in front of her massive vanity, and tries on a party dress. When she goes to put on her earrings, she notices one is missing. Jenny finds the errant earring at the bottom of her walk-in closet, and is startled by someone who did, in fact, walk in: Dave Blanchard. Blanchard leaps out of the closet and seizes his ex-girlfriend, insisting he has to explain something to her. He claps his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming, but luckily Bill hears the commotion and intervenes. He gives Blanchard the bum’s rush from their opulent house just as his parents, Jim (Charles Lucia) and Nan Whitney arrive.

Bill Whitney, just your average, handsome, rich, mulleted teen.

Bill Whitney, just your average, handsome, rich, mulleted teen.

The Whitney parents, very formally dressed, are disheartened to see Dave Blanchard. “I thought you weren’t going to be seeing David Blanchard anymore,” Jenny’s father says. Jenny returns to her bedroom to prepare for her coming out party. It promises to be a big to-do. Even Judge Carter will be there! Jenny asks Bill to finish zipping up her dress, and as he does, he notices the skin on his sister’s back pulse. The next day, Bill, running for student council president, debates fellow candidate, Martin Petrie (Brian Bremer). Bill, basketball superstar, employs his cheerleader girlfriend, Shauna (Heidi Kozak) to rile up the student audience. It seems like he has a lock on the student vote, especially given how nerdy and preppy Petrie is. But Bill becomes distracted by a female student in the front row, who performs a sort of Indecent-Proposal lite for his benefit. He recovers during his speech, but Milo, acting as moderator, whispers to him, “She’s bad news, man.”

That afternoon, he tells his therapist of his successes at school. The therapist is pleased he can take some joy in his accomplishments, but Bill turns dark when Dr. Cleveland inquires about his family. “We’re just one big happy family,” he jokes. “Except for a little incest and psychosis.” His parents don’t approve of his friends, and treat him very differently than they do his sister, Jenny. Bill worries that he might be adopted. But Dr. Cleveland tries to reassure him he has nothing to worry about. “You’re going to make a wonderful contribution to society,” he says. That weekend, Bill makes plans to visit the beach with Shauna. Retrieving suntan lotion from the bathroom, he spies his sister showering. Through the frosted glass, it looks like her body has contorted, so that her face and butt point in the same direction. Horrified, he opens the shower door and merely emotionally scars his sister (whose body is totally normal). Embarrassed, Bill leaves the house, passing by his parents who, with the gardener, are assessing some garden slugs.

In his jeep’s passenger seat, Bill finds a disfigured Ken doll. He drives to the private club on the beach and applies suntan lotion to his bikini-clad girlfriend. Shauna complains that Ted Ferguson hasn’t invited them to his party. If Bill loved her, she says, he’d get them an invitation. Some local brats steal their sunscreen and Bill chases after them, nearly running into the girl from the front row of the student debate, now wearing a ridiculous metallic bikini. She playfully squirts some suntan lotion into his face (paging Dr. Freud!) and walks off. Bill, in a daze, nearly runs into an imposing, heavily made-up woman stomping across the beach. He then visits Ted Ferguson (Ben Meyerson) and friends, camped out at another spot on the shore. Ted is good friends with Petrie (Bill’s student council rival), which may be why he never got invited to Ted’s party. Petrie was born to lead, Ted insists. Then Dave Blanchard, in a deep sweat, runs up to Bill and interrupts. He needs to show him something in private, he claims.

Just a normal, ritzy party. Nothing strange here. I half expect Bruce Wayne to start making a scene.

Just a normal, ritzy party. Nothing strange here. I half expect Bruce Wayne to start making a scene.

Back at the Whitney homestead, Judge Carter (David Wiley) makes a visit. He’s chatting with Mr. Whitney when Jenny walks in, seeking help with one of her earrings. Back at the beach, Blanchard opens his suitcase of audio equipment and plays a tape for Bill. He bugged his family, he says, and this is what he recorded on the way to and at Jenny’s debutante party. The audio is upsetting, as it already begins with Bill’s dad mentioning that at the party, first they dine, then they copulate. Jenny will first start with someone her own age, then he and her mom will get in on the action. The audio seems to document the preamble to a massive orgy, and contains the amazing line, “the hotter and wetter you get, the more you can do.” Bill simmers until he hears the passionate sounds of an orgy in progress, then flips out, attacking Dave and taking his audio tape. Judge Carter and Mr. Whitney, meanwhile, have discovered what’s wrong with Jenny’s jewelry: it’s got an audio bug implanted. Mr. Whitney recognizes the work of Dave Blanchard, electronics wizard.

An enraged Bill runs to his therapist’s house, after hours, and asks him to listen to Dave’s tape. Dr. Cleveland says he can’t simply listen to it at the moment, but insists he come back in the morning. Bill leaves the tape with him to listen to at his leisure. When Bill next sees Shauna at school, he attempts to tell her about the horrible information he discovered from the tape, but Shauna is only concerned about getting an invite to the Ferguson party. This incites a shouting match, during which Shauna cuts Bill off by suggesting they should see other people. When Bill next sees Dr. Cleveland, his therapist is very concerned that what Bill is doing is illegal. When he plays the audio tape, what Bill hears is a PG-rated version of the earlier conversation. Gone is the talk of orgies and incest, replaced with completely innocent talk about dancing and hors d’oeuvres. Cleveland warns his patient that society has rules, and if he’s unwilling to follow the rules, it will only cause him harm. The doctor starts to prescribe some anti-psychotics, but Bill grabs the telephone and calls Blanchard, demanding another copy of the audio tape. “It can’t wait!”

Bill races to the corner where he and Blanchard are supposed to meet, but is greeted with a crime scene: Blanchard’s van has been completely overturned and a bloody mess of a man is hidden under a sheet on a stretcher that paramedics are loading into an ambulance. Bill asks if Blanchard is dead and is given no answer. He wanders over to the car crash and begins to sort through the open suitcase of audio recordings. A police officer, Sergeant Burt (David Wells) stops him – “Hey, this isn’t a garage sale” – and seizes the tape recorder. Bill heads home to inform his family of the tragic news. The Whitneys, however, have already heard about the car crash and are surprisingly unmoved. Bill expects a bit of sorrow, especially from his ex, Jenny. (In her defence, he did become something of a stalker, though.) The Whitneys are actually in a very good mood, because they received a telegram that officially invites Bill to Ted Ferguson’s shindig! Everything’s coming up Whitney! “What are you going to wear?” Jenny asks her brother. “To the funeral?” he asks. “No, the party.”

Bill Whitney dutifully attends Ted Ferguson’s party, feeling completely out of place. The one person he’s able to talk to is that dark-haired girl from before, Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez). Bill and she begin to hit it off. Bill’s slightly loserish friend Milo shows up at the party, which is a bit of a surprise, and very rudely implies (or outright states) that Clarissa turns tricks. She leaves, offended, and escapes to an outdoor tent. Bill follows her, and inside the tent is met by Ted Ferguson, holding court and smoking a joint. Bill’s mood intensifies quickly, and he demands to know what happened at his sister’s coming out party. Ted has no compunction informing Bill: “First, we dine. Then, I fucked your sister. Then, everybody else go so turned on, they fucked her, too.” He also says that he caused Blanchard’s accident. Bill takes a swing at him, and then Ferguson’s goons rough him up and toss him into the swimming pool. “Don’t make waves, Whitney,” Ted warns. “You’ll drown.”

Bill and Clarissa engage in some pillow talk about why her mom eats so much hair.

Bill and Clarissa engage in some pillow talk about why her mom eats so much hair.

Clarissa helps him out of the pool and takes him back to her place, quickly freeing him from his wet clothes. Bill is anxious that her parents will arrive home at any time, but she assures him that won’t happen. They make love, during which Bill falls off the bed when startled that Clarissa’s arm is in a position it really shouldn’t (physically) be in. However, when he takes a closer look, she seems to be anatomically standard, so he must be imagining things. Outside, however, a friend of Shauna’s has brought her to Clarissa’s, so she can see Bill’s jeep in the driveway. Shauna is distraught that Bill has already moved on. During a second makeout session, Clarissa’s mother, Mrs. Carlyn (Pamela Matheson), the tall woman we saw earlier at the beach, arrives home with a lock of blonde hair in her fist. She then chokes up a hairball and places it gently into Bill’s palm. “What’s with her?” Bill asks Clarissa. “She does things I don’t like,” she answers.

The next morning, Bill finds another present in his jeep: an inflatable doll with a Ken figurine stuffed in its mouth. (Bill is finding increasingly strange things left in his jeep and locker.) Shauna, in a denim dress, rolls up in her Firebird and confronts Tom about Clarissa. When she sees the inflatable doll, she realizes her boyfriend has become a full-blown sex pervert and leaves in a huff. Bill brings the doll inside, and up to his parents’ bedroom, accusing them of being behind it. It’s not a bad guess, as his mom and dad are currently lounging in robes, massaging his teenaged sister. Bill is grossed out: “You guys disgust me.” Mr. Whitney doesn’t appreciate his disrespect, and their argument escalates to Bill threatening to move out. Bill leaves and heads to Dave Blanchard’s funeral. While he and Milo are paying their respects, Milo touches the deceased’s face (inappropriate!), which caves in a bit, spooking the both of them. Speaking of spooky, Martin Petrie sidles up to Bill at the coffin’s side and says he needs to talk to him. About “society.” They make plans to meet in Franklin Canyon that evening.

Have you been engaging in any class-based orgies tonight, son?

Have you been engaging in any class-based orgies tonight, son?

When Bill drives to meet Petrie – surprise, surprise – his one-time rival is nowhere to be found. Milo has followed Bill to the canyon and hides, watching the whole scene. Bill searches further into the forest where he finds an abandoned Volvo, its four-way flashers going. He tries all the doors, and when he opens the passenger-side door, Petrie’s dead body flops out, his neck gushing blood. Bill drops to the ground and hears laughter from the forest. He gets to his feet and tries to find the killer, but only finds a sweater – Ted Ferguson’s design-heavy grey sweater. Just as he reaches for it, a man in a ski mask knocks Bill down, grabs the sweater and flees. Bill chases after him, but the man escapes in a car. Clarissa’s house is just around the corner, so Bill goes to her and calls the police. Sergeant Burt arrives and leads Bill and Clarissa (wearing a bedazzled jean jacket) back to the canyon, but the car is a completely different model, and instead of a corpse, it only contains a red scarf. The police officer gives them a stern warning, and Bill opts to spend the night at Clarissa’s.

There’s a second student council debate the following day – how often do they hold debates at this school? – a debate to which Bill seems to be the only candidate in attendance. Jenny tells her brother that their parents are worried he never came home last night. Bill, for his part, pleads for his sister to talk to him about what’s wrong, but she refuses. Bill then takes the stage to reveal to his school why Petrie hasn’t shown up for this debate. In his Howard Beale moment, he rants about the conspiracy in Beverly Hills – a conspiracy that killed Dave Blanchard, and now Martin Petrie. But then Petrie walks into the gym and the entire school roars with laughter. (How embarrassing.)

After the debate, Milo reaches out to his friend Bill. He admits he was the one leaving all the strange items in Bill’s car and locker because he felt neglected, but something strange really is happening. Milo reveals he followed Bill to Franklin Canyon, and Ted Ferguson and Petrie were up to something really weird. They agree to join forces and solve this mystery together. When Bill returns home, everyone is gathered in the drawing room – not just his family, but Dr. Cleveland and Judge Carter, too. Waiting outside, Milo sees an ambulance roll up to the house. Two paramedics ambush Bill inside his own house and Dr. Cleveland sedates him. Bill is loaded into an ambulance that drives away, tailed by a resourceful Milo. When Milo inquires with the desk nurse about his friend, she can’t find the patient at first. Then she says that he died; Bill Whitney can be found in the morgue. Milo can’t believe it. He faithfully waits in the hospital parking lot, like some human version of Fry’s dog, Seymour, on Futurama.

Eventually, Bill wakes from a nightmare in his hospital bed. He dresses himself and leaves the hospital of his own volition. Seeing that Milo has been waiting for him outside, he attacks the mystery with new relish. Some would say recklessness. He hops in his jeep and drives home. When Milo enters his car, Mrs. Carlyn, who looks kind of like Ursula in The Little Mermaid, has (at some point) entered the backseat and begins to eat his hair. He shoos her away, but gives her a ride anyway. Bill returns to his house, dim and empty as it was at the film’s beginning. He hears whispers behind the walls, and again, goes to find the kitchen knife, but downs a whole glass of water first. When he walks into the drawing room, he is greeted by his parents, dressed in formal wear. The room is illuminated and suddenly Bill is in the middle of a formal party, with nearly everyone in town in attendance. Even the police officer, Sergeant Burt, has come, and he promptly snares Bill by the neck in a catch pole. Judge Carter appears at the top of the stairs and the crowd applauds, but still, no one has explained what is happening.

Bill’s therapist, Dr. Cleveland, attempts to provide some background: “You’re not one of us. You have to be born into society,” he says. It’s an issue of good breeding. With all this cryptic talk, Bill assumes he’s uncovered a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers situation, but Cleveland assures him they’re not from outer space. They have always been there, he notes, helping himself to the slug crudités. Milo and Mrs. Carlyn roll up to the Whitneys’ house and observe the partygoers arriving for the night – and partaking of the valet parking, no less! Clarissa reluctantly arrives at the party and is disheartened to see her sort-of-boyfriend restrained with a catch pole. Meanwhile, partygoers talk about opportunities, the older ones offering the younger ones prestigious internships and the like. Dr. Cleveland begins to fondle Jenny in front of her parents, and her mom notes, “Jim and I both derive a great deal of pleasure from her.” Before long, the second guest of honour arrives, and the body horror Götterdämmerung begins.

Paramedics drag in a man covered in a white sheet to the party. They pull back the sheet to reveal Dave Blanchard, not so dead after all. Judge Carter, presiding over the festivities, announces that after the first “shunting,” they’ll have a special treat: a second “shunting” with a prime specimen raised by members of their order, Bill Whitney! If you don’t know what a shunting is, have no fear, as the next several minutes of the movie are a veritable shunting-palooza. Ted Ferguson instructs Bill to watch what they do to Dave first, as it will be a preview for his treatment. The partygoers tear Dave’s clothes from his body, then begin to kiss and fondle him. As their fondling becomes more aggressive, all their bodies become more and more liquid, fusing them together, their bodies sliding inside each other. Some of the partiers’ faces turn tube-like, sucking from Ted’s flesh. “Don’t you know, Billy Boy?” Ted says. “The rich have always sucked off low-class shit like you.” (I think it’s safe to assume this is what happens at every fancy party.)

Like the party in Can't Hardly Wait, but if Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ethan Embry's flesh fused together.

Like the party in Can’t Hardly Wait, but if Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ethan Embry’s flesh fused together.

Outside, Mrs. Carlyn attacks a police officer’s hair, giving Milo the opportunity to steal his uniform and gun. (The cop passes out, but Mrs. Carlyn is distraught to discover he wears a rug.) The flesh-sharing inside crescendoes – all set to a stately waltz – with Judge Carter disrobing and getting in on the action. He jams his fist deep inside Dave Blanchard (um), pushing upward until his hand comes out Blanchard’s face. Clarissa frees Bill from his catch pole and he runs upstairs to his parents’ room. His parents, however, are in the middle of a smaller incestuous shunting party. His mom’s legs have been replaced with male arms, and his sister’s face emerges from between her legs. Mr. Whitney, meanwhile, has his face where his rectum would normally be, admitting, “I am a butthead!” Horrified, Bill leaves the bedroom where Dr. Cleveland is waiting for him.

The drawing room has become a writhing mass of flesh, with everyone making out with one another, in some cases – Dave Blanchard and Clarissa Carlyn, for instance – without consent. Bill rescues Clarissa from the entire town’s upper class’s advances, ruining the partiers’ good times. People’s bodies reconstitute – though Judge Carter now has Dave Blanchard’s beauty mark – as they crowd around Bill and Ted Ferguson, on the cusp of a fistfight. Though Ted is in Risky Business cosplay and Bill is fully dressed, Ted still gets the best of Bill, hitting him with roundhouse kicks and karate chops. (Ted knows kung fu!) Ted threatens Bill with the night’s second shunt: “See this arm, Bill? You’re going to get very familiar with it.” Bill’s parents, having descended from the bedroom, egg Ted on. Milo and Mrs. Carlyn, who have snuck into the party, attempt to help Bill, but the crowd holds them back.

Ted, moving well beyond redemption, punches Clarissa when she tries to stand between him and the increasingly wounded Bill. Mrs. Carlyn attacks him in return, but Ted escapes and is left to face Bill alone. Ted begins to kiss Bill, then prepares to fist him, but Bill grasps his pliable wrist and turns it completely around, instead fisting Ted! Bill shoves his hand further and further up Ted, pushing out his eyeballs and balling up his face. Finally, Bill pulls downward and literally turns Ted Ferguson inside out, killing him. The party is stunned. Bill is then able to leave the crowd of paralyzed fancy pants, taking Clarissa and Milo with him. His dad makes a feeble attempt to stop him at the front door, but Bill punches him in his butthead, and the three speed away in Bill’s jeep.

Not only can Bill's therapist transform his face into a giant head, he also loves metal.

Not only can Bill’s therapist transform his face into a giant head, he also loves the metal.

Takeaway points:

  • You’d have to have fallen asleep during Society to not realize it’s a statement about class and privilege. And a rather ham-fisted statement at that – the upper class literally feeds off the lower classes. What starts as adages about breeding and being a valuable member of society morphs into an over-the-top gross-out climax with the same message: the rich are different and they are literally out to consume the poor. (That said, this privilege is not merely a monetary measure: Bill is from the same family, but is not considered one of society, due to his working-class friends and ways. Shades of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.) What starts as subtlety becomes a sledgehammer. Society is stupid, but brilliant. But this is what exploitation films do best: incorporate a high-concept message into what is otherwise an extreme but entertaining narrative. Chopping Mall could learn a few lessons from Society!
  • Film blog Oh, the Horror noted that so few films can manage to feel both dated and extremely relevant, but Society is one such film. The film is explicitly an attack on Reaganomics, in which the “trickle-down effect” is shown to be what it more accurately was: the privileged excluding the poor, yet still milking them for tax and labour. Yet, the discussion of privilege has not disappeared. Privilege has worsened. If you don’t think the 1% are shunting people at their private parties, I fear you may be willfully naïve. (That’s only half a joke.) In taking this WASPy interest in propriety and high society and revealing it to be the veneer cast over some sick, weird vampiric sex parties, the filmmakers are trying to show the audience this is what the upper classes are metaphorically doing. They’re just making the metaphor a really goopy reality.
  • It’s amusing when you realize that Society is essentially a John Hughes teen movie turned into a horror film. Class struggles and all. Like, imagine Pretty in Pink, but instead of Blane and Andie lovingly reconnecting at the prom, Blane invites Andie to a fancy party, then transforms her into a gelatinous puddle of flesh that he consumes to rejuvenate himself. (As long as it has OMD on the soundtrack, I’m still on board.)
  • I can’t be the only viewer of Society who wants to see a buddy comedy featuring Milo and Mrs. Carlyn. They could team up and solve mysteries, with Milo being the brains of the operation and Mrs. Carlyn being the muscle with a fetish for hair. Maybe Milo shaves his head to make life easier. They make a really great team. I was a bit worried when Clarissa, Milo, and Bill fled the party without Clarissa’s mom. Though she does seem to have a taste for hair, I don’t think she entirely fits in with the rest of the “society crowd.”
  • I was also sad that Clarissa Carlyn never revealed what was happening to Bill, so I could never use the line, Clarissa Explains It All.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Society is a movie that manages to be not the least bit scary, but supremely unsettling. You may cringe your way through most of the film, mainly due to all the overtones of incest and the disturbing special effects used during the bravura shunting sequence. Furthermore, it’s too smart to be truly terrible, even though it features all the trappings of a terrible movie. Society is too aware of what it’s doing.

Dig, if you will, this sweater Ted Ferguson is wearing.

Dig, if you will, this sweater Ted Ferguson is wearing.

Best outfit: Most of the clothing on display in Society is indicative of the late 1980s when it was filmed. So many of the outfits look like they came directly from Zack Morris’s closet. There are denim dresses, bedazzled jackets, and even a clever “Eat the Rich” T-shirt. But the item of clothing that stood out most was Ted Ferguson’s grey patterned sweater, if only for its importance to the plot. That sweater stands out. I mean, there’s no point in wearing a ski mask while undertaking your skullduggery if you’re going to bring that sweater, Ted.

Best line: “How do you like your tea? Cream, sugar, or do you want me to pee in it?” – Clarissa, who is far from the kinkiest character in Society

Best kill: Never before has fisting been used so often in a movie to such deadly end. In the final confrontation, Bill Whitney prevents villain Ted Ferguson from fisting him, then revenges himself (and Dave Blanchard) by shoving his own fist inside the only entry point of Ted Ferguson – presumably his anus – then turning the guy inside out. The result is both disgusting and strangely satisfying.

Unexpected cameo: Star Billy Warlock is a soap opera marathon man, having appeared on many of the mainstays (General Hospital, Young and the Restless, etc), and even portraying Eddie Kramer for several seasons on Baywatch. His friend Milo, Evan Richards, was the voice of Bill S. Preston, Esq. on the animated Bill and Ted series.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Some high schools treat student elections with enough gravity to necessitate multiple candidate debates.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Shunt of the Night

Next up: Possession (1981).

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