Society (1989) – By Roger Carpenter

 

Similar to the film itself, Society has a bit of a convoluted history. Brian Yuzna had experienced some success producing a series of Lovecraft-inspired films (that have now become genuine cult classics) such as Re-animator, Dolls, and From Beyond, before becoming involved with Disney’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Typical of Hollywood producers, Yuzna inevitably decided he wanted to direct, with Society being his debut. Made in 1989, the film was extremely popular across Europe and did well in Japan, but suffered censorship here in the U.S. and promptly disappeared after a small initial release in 1992, several years after its production. Americans simply didn’t understand this dark comedy of a horror film. But since that time, and over several video releases, the film’s reputation has steadily increased, at least in the horror collector’s circle. As of this writing in 2017, it’s fair to say that Society has also now become somewhat of a cult classic, though I doubt it has ever been as widely seen as some of Yuzna’s other work such as Re-animator and Night of the Living Dead Part 3.

The film opens with Bill (Billy Warlock, soon to become famous with TV’s Baywatch) visiting a psychiatrist. While Bill is only 17 and lives in the upper-crust of society in Beverley Hills, he has never been able to shake the feeling of being different—from his family, from his friends…basically from everyone else he rubs elbows with. He has become paranoid and is trying to hold things together. Billy thinks he sees and hears things that are…well, just a little odd. Billy thinks it’s weird the way his mother strokes his sister’s cheek. Sure, she’s proud of her daughter who is having her “coming out” party soon, but the touch strikes him as just a little too familiar. And those back massages Dad gives his sister. Could it just be the stress of trying to choose the perfect dress or is there something more to these touches as well? And why don’t his parents touch him or treat him in such a way? Yes, they have always said and done the right things for Bill, but he can’t shake the feeling that things are just a little off.

As the evidence that something strange is happening begins to mount, each piece of evidence is able to be explained away. Bill’s paranoia builds to the breaking point. Is he beginning to snap? Are the things he sees and hears reality or just his warped and paranoid translation of events? Everyone else seems to have it together. They are all so perfect and he’s just weird. What exactly is going on here? As Bill is drawn deeper into the mystery, things are about to come to a head…and get really weird. For those who have not seen the film, I will say no more about the plot lest it is ruined by spoilers.

Yuzna was drawn to the theme of paranoia and wanted to make a film addressing these fears. At the same time, he was struck by a comment someone made about the theme of incest and how the majority of horror films had an undercurrent of incest. Now, I’m not totally sure about this undercurrent being so widely present in the horror film genre, but Yuzna does a superb job making this theme much more overt in Society. And this theme fits well when one considers that throughout time the ultra-elite of society, feeling their blood should not mix with commoners, preferred to marry relatives to keep their blood “pure”. World history is replete with brothers and sisters or cousins marrying, and more than one monarch has suffered for this intermingling of close family bonds. Yuzna expands upon this theme by asking the question, if there is a secret, ultra-elite society who happens to live in the super-rich environs of Beverley Hills, how would it maintain genetic diversity so as not to develop conditions which are known to develop when there is only a shallow gene pool present? The answer is to occasionally introduce fresh genes into the pool, but genes that come from someone who has been selected and raised as one of high society’s own, at least until it comes time for those genes to be intermingled with the rest of the pool.

And this is where Society takes a left turn into the surreal world of Salvador Dali, by way of special effects wizard Screaming Mad George. George, in reality a Japanese artist, was a popular choice as a special effects creator in the 1980’s. Deeply influenced by surrealism, and Dali in particular, he was a natural choice for Yuzna who was also influenced by Dali and the surrealism movement. Yuzna attempts to infuse the film with surrealism, as when Bill bites into an apple filled with worms. Some of this works—especially the orgiastic finale of the film—while some of it doesn’t, such as the apple and worms, which come off more like a paranoid delusion than a surrealistic flourish. But when it works, it works well.

Perhaps most famous for the abovementioned finale, Society finishes with a bombastic orgy of slime, goo, sex, and death, all carefully designed by Yuzna and Screaming Mad George to mix reality with surrealism into a mind-bending climax the censors had problems with and American movie-goers didn’t quite understand. While the film’s reputation has grown over the years because of this finale—and it certainly was deserved, especially in 1989—it is perhaps not as shocking nearly three decades later. But it is still wildly imaginative and perverse, and certainly worth a view.

A product of the late 1980’s the film has a John Hughes look and feel to it when not on a surreal tangent, what with the film being populated by teens of that era. The film is bright and multi-colored, with big-haired, spray-tanned girls and mulleted boys. It’s a genuine hoot to view this film as a product of its time. Playboy pin-up Devin DeVasquez co-stars as Clarissa, a gorgeous vixen sympathetic to the merely human Bill while Patrice Jennings plays Bill’s sickly sweet and perfectly cookie-cutter sister, Jenny. Both women are gorgeous and are seen in various states of 1980’s undress (some of the lingerie is absolutely hilarious), but on DeVasquez gets nude. Heidi Kozak is also a highlight as Bill’s girlfriend, Shauna. Shauna is the perfectly airbrushed cheerleader tease who isn’t content being in high society—she is consumed with moving up the ever-smaller circles of the ultra-elite. Kazak plays the part perfectly, with heavy makeup that makes her look clownish and matches her hysterics well.

There are parts of the film that don’t work well, such as Bill’s friend, Milo, attempting to explain several red herrings (he actually says, “I don’t know,” when he admits to pulling these tricks on his friend!). And the incest theme is played with a very heavy hand. It could have been done with more subtlety. It’s as if Yuzna was afraid the audience wouldn’t catch the hints of incest, which I found a bit patronizing. But, as a directorial debut, the film is an overall success.

Arrow Video has released a very nice, uncut print of Society. The picture is bright and clean and the sound is very clear. The package comes with both Blu-Ray and standard DVD presentations of a remastered 2K transfer of the film, approved by Yuzna himself. Subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing are included with the film. Special features include new interviews with Yuzna, the stars of the film, and Screaming Mad George as well as a Q&A session with Yuzna from 2014 at a horror convention. There is also a short archival interview with Yuzna during the original premiere of the film, a theatrical trailer for the film, and a six-minute music video from Screaming Mad George. Rounding out these features is a brand new commentary track by Yuzna.

Arrow Video continues to release some really nice packages for little-seen horror films that quickly become must-owns for the genre enthusiast, and Society is definitely one of these packages. The film is available through Amazon or you can go directly to Arrow Film’s website at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa