Society: Celebrating the Subversive, Surreal Classic

Brian Yuzna's 1989 horror Society is out on Blu-ray from Arrow Films. Ryan takes a look back at a grotesque satire...

Bill Whitney’s just an ordinary American high school kid. Sure, he may live in a Beverly Hills mansion. He might drive a brand new Jeep to the beach. But deep down, he has the same hang-ups as most teenagers: he distrusts authority, resents his parents, and suspects that he might actually be adopted.

Gradually, however, we suspect that there might be something more to Billy’s paranoid fantasies than raging hormones – his parents really do seem to be up to something sinister – something to do with private parties, naked orgies, and shunting…

“We’re just one big happy family…except for a little incest and psychosis.”

Society stars Billy Warlock, a young actor fresh from TV shows like Days of Our Lives. If this were a straight drama, Bill Whitney could be just another troubled rich kid who resents the gilded cage his parents have created for him. But because this is a Brian Yuzna film, it’s clear from the opening scene that something really is rotten in the state of California.

Billy seems to quietly lust after his sister, Jenny (Patrice Jennings), even though he shudders when he happens to notice the flesh on her back pulsate sweatily one summer afternoon. There seems to be something similarly incestuous going on between Jenny and her parents, Jim (Charles Lucia) and Nan (Concetta D’Agnese), who look like something straight out of an 80s soap like Dynasty or Falcon Crest.

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Billy tells his psychiatrist Dr. Cleveland (Ben Slack) that he feels separate from his family, as though they’re some other species. And one day, fleshy-faced young outcast Blanchard (Tim Bartell) comes to Billy with what seems to be concrete proof – a secret tape recording of Billy’s parents engaging in a decidedly unsavoury, which seems to involve Billy’s sister, the richest kid at school, and a nameless victim screaming himself hoarse.

“How do you like your tea? Cream, sugar…”

Brian Yuzna made an indelible impression on 80s horror as the producer of Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). Marked out by their no-holds-barred gore, black comedy and acres of wobbling flesh, both films – especially Re-Animator – thrilled audiences and horrified the MPAA.

Re-Animator wasn’t even submitted for certification, in fact, yet still managed to garner a cult audience through word-of-mouth and glowing reviews – the movie even went down well at Cannes. As a result, America’s classification board were gunning for From Beyond right from the beginning, and the movie was cut quite heavily on initial release.

After those hits (which also included Dolls, released in 1987), which were directed by Stuart Gordon, Yuzna decided it was time to head up a film himself. Yuzna had initially partnered with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon on a project called The Man – a paranoid sci-fi tale which suggested that all men were from outer space. When that film failed to pan out, Yuzna turned instead to a spec script called Society, written by Woody Keith (who’d grown up in Beverly Hills) and Rick Fry. The premise, Yuzna thought, had the same angst-ridden tone as The Man, though he was less enamoured with the final act, where it emerges that the Beverley Hills millionaires are all secretly part of a bloodthirsty cult. Society needed something more out there, Yuzna thought. Something more disturbing. Something fleshier.

“You were right Billy, I am a butthead!”

Society owes a huge debt to Japanese special effects artist Screaming Mad George. Suggested by producers Keizo Kabata and Terry Ogisu, he realises Yuzna’s gloopy, carnal vision, which goes into overdrive in the film’s mesmerising final third. It’s here that Society switches gear from 50s-style fear and loathing (akin to such genre gems as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars) to something far more graphic. The evil that’s been humming under the surface suddenly bursts into full view, engulfing both Billy and the audience like a panting by Dali, Goya or Bosch sprung horribly to life.

In terms of special effects, Society fits right into the decade that brought us the flesh-mangling special effects of John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Chuck Russell’s The Blob. This was the era when special effects artists like Rob Bottin, Dick Smith, Rick Baker and Stan Winston dominated horror, and Screaming Mad George’s artful distortions seem to follow in their slipstream.

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But Society is also more satirical than those films. Its B-movie overtones and distrust of America’s elites puts it in similar territory to Carpenter’s They Live. Its suggestion that something horrible lurks under middle-class America’s respectable veneer recalls David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. In that film, Lynch’s camera takes us through a seemingly perfect American suburb and down, down, down – between the blades of shimmering green grass, where beetles click and tumble over one another. In Societys opening scene, an apple – a loaded symbol if ever there was one – is chomped into, revealing a writhing nest of maggots within.

There’s also a kind of sexual horror in Society, which puts it at odds with the carnal fascination in the movie of David Cronenberg. Bill’s love scene with the predatory Clarissa (former Playboy model Devin DeVasquez) is loaded with fear and disgust – Bill seems both hypnotised and terrified by Clarissa’s apparently boundless sexual appetite, and recoils in horror when he she somehow twists herself into an inhuman arrangement of arms and legs. In the era of John Hughes, Society could be seen as the most surreal teen flick of the 1980s.

Yuzna’s direction lacks the singular flair of Lynch, but it still has a certain ramshackle impact. Even when character actions defy logic or a line of dialogue is shakily delivered, Yuzna somehow keeps his story on its wheels. Maybe it’s because of the delightfully surreal humour he keeps threading through the movie – Clarissa’s mother, for reasons never explained, seems to have an addiction to eating human hair. And maybe it’s because that humour rubs up so powerfully against the sense of the sordid and the taboo throbbing all the way through Society, from its suggestive opening to its startling end. Even the music – a quite dreadful backwash of wheezing, waltzing electronica – starts to make sense towards the end, when the screaming and the shunting begin.

“You’re going to make a wonderful contribution to society.”

It’s fair to say that Society didn’t have the smoothest of releases. Where Yuzna’s films as producer had largely appealed to critics, Society was greeted by a certain amount of hostility in America. Variety, for example, described it as “pretentious, obnoxious.”

Shelved for three years in the US, and only emerging in their cinemas in 1992, Society seemed to be in danger of slipping by without a trace. Yet in the UK and parts of Europe, the movie found a receptive audience. In a 1992 review published in the Los Angeles Times, critic Michael Wilmington says that it played in London’s West End for three months.

The growing appreciation seemed to seep into America when it was finally released there. As opposed to Variety‘s review three years earlier, the LA Times critic described it as a “gory assault on privilege”, and compared it to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

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It’s an apt comparison, and goes a long way to explain why Society has survived as a cult item. A Modest Proposal was published in 1729, and its full title was “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being A Burden to Their Parents and Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.”

In it, Swift suggested that the poor of Ireland could help themselves out of poverty by selling their children as food to the rich. It’s a scathing piece of satire that still has the power to shock today, designed as an attack on what Swift saw as the inhuman treatment of the poor by an inept and uncaring political elite who saw them as “commodities.”

In its own rough-and-ready, unsubtle way, Society offers its own assault on the “greed is good” 80s era. And like Swift’s 18th century essay, Societys conclusion offers a timeless comment on the division between the rich and the rest of us – here, the wealthy really are a breed apart – a shapeless, gelatinous morass of champagne and expensive underwear. As high school rich kid Ferguson (Ben Meyerson) sneers to Bill, “The rich have always sucked off low-class shit like you.”

As Yuzna’s camera lingers over Screaming Mad George’s pulsating latex orgy, the thinking behind the dreadful music mentioned earlier suddenly snaps into focus. The wheezing, waltzing title tune is an electronic rendition of the Eton Boating Song – a piece of music associated with Eton College, one of the most exclusive seats of learning in the UK (where, by-the-by, British prime minister David Cameron once schooled).

One of the lines in that song reflects the grotesque activities on the screen, as Beverly Hills’ wealthiest mutate and devour their latest, luckless victim:

“Swing, swing together, with your bodies between your knees…”

With a black sense of humour like this, it’s little surprise that Society still has the power to surprise and fascinate more than 30 years later. Times change, but the shunting never stops.

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Society is out in a special edition Blu-ray on June 8, courtesy of Arrow Films.