Written by: Rick Fry, Woody Keith
Directed by: Brian Yuzna
Starring: Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez and Evan Richards
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“You're going to make a wonderful contribution to society."
Some films are immediately resonant and manage to be even more so as time goes by and continues to properly contextualize them. Brian Yuzna’s directorial debut, Society, is one such film. Even when it was released in ‘89, it was a clear reaction against 80s excess and yuppie scum; however, in the wake of twenty years worth of unrest over wealth inequality and the Occupy movement, it’s tough not to hear a film insist that “the rich have always fed on the poor” and not consider it not only eerily prescient but also really awesome since it literalizes that insistence in an outrageously bizarre climax.
Everything leading up to that point is pretty solid too. Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) lives with his family in a posh Beverly Hills manor, and he’s even one of the cool kids at school. Not only does he play on the basketball team, but he’s also in the running for class president. However, he’s never been able to shake the suspicion that something is just a little off, and, as his sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings) is on the verge of her coming out party, this suspicion becomes further aroused. When one of her ex-boyfriends (Tim Bartell) presents some disturbing audio recordings, Billy begins to consider that he may have been adopted.
If a movie could ever be described as delightfully fucked-up, Society would fit the bill. A sick, smart movie, it wickedly contorts the tropes of teenage awkwardness and paranoia into a dark and comedic suburban fable. Most teenagers feel a little different from their peers, and Bill is forced to explore this in a most twisted fashion, and Yuzna keeps us uncomfortably on our toes from the outset. From the minute he and his sister share the screen, there’s an off-putting sexual tension between them, and the film constantly hints at something incestuous going on in the Whitney household. Yuzna keeps this stuff subdued, but it’s always there, and we catch subtle glimpses. When he wanders into the bathroom while his sister is showering, he can’t help but notice that her body seems contorted in some unnatural fashion behind the shower door glass.
Small hints like this eventually escalate into more overt weirdness, like his friends disappearing or becoming victims of car accidents. And there’s the tape recording, where it sounds like his sister is participating in some kind of horrific orgy, all with the encouragement of his parents. The uncovering of this sinister plot is similar to that of a pod movie, but Society is actually more akin to a guy discovering that he’s always been living in a pod movie without knowing it--until now. Society ends up being like They Live by way of Salo, and it's infused with a demented, splattery 80s spirit. There’s a cleverness to the script that guides the proceedings and twists them about, such as when Billy meets a seductive socialite (Devin DeVasquez) whose purpose within the plot shifts away from expectations (she’s the dark woman in stark contrast to Billy’s bubbly, sweet, cheerleader girlfriend--or is she?). Upon their first meeting, Billy’s face is embarrassingly spattered with suntan lotion, a not-so-subtle innuendo that foreshadows the surreal sexual encounters yet to come.
The most noteworthy encounter is the film’s most infamous sequence--a twenty minute or so climax where the veil is lifted on this deviant society. Yuzna has always been in the shadow of frequent collaborator Stuart Gordon for obvious reasons, but he’s also been relegated to playing second fiddle to David Cronenberg in the concert of body horror. This climactic showcase in Society, however, feels like a younger sibling getting some new toys and doing their best to impress everyone--and he succeeds. Masterfully realized by Screaming Mad George’s intricate, grotesque effects, this sequence fights excess with excess with an grand guignol sensibility. Bodies are warped, deformed, melded, and eviscerated in a demented, over-the-top orgy of effects porn. The gratuitous and repulsive nature of this stuff keenly cuts at the hypocrisy of pomposity, as the prim, proper façade melts away in a sea of bad taste and perversity--these are the exact type of people who worry about what’s going on inside other people’s bedrooms while gleefully engaging in their own aberrant behavior.
Yuzna is certainly on the nose, and Society isn’t without its rough patches--the director especially can’t resist tossing in some really puerile humor that doesn’t quite hit, and some stretches drag on a bit since the game is given up rather early. Furthermore, none of the performances exactly soar, with the exception of some of the more notable weirdos that are broadly realized by Charles Lucia (a perfect 80s hardass dad), Pamela Matheson, and Ben Slack, who especially embraces the splatstick nature of the final act. Society is also graced with wonderful set design, particularly the swanky interiors that are suffused with elitist materialism. These people are the 1%, and they have no qualms about reveling in it. Of course, the placement of our hero among that 1% for most of the film is a little odd; Society kind of comes across as a movie about a rich white kid and his problems, and it’s sometimes difficult to drum up a whole lot of empathy since he similarly revels in it. Yuzna and Warlock are able to right this for the most part, though, as Billy ends up being affable enough.
Besides, Society is really the type of movie that’s eventually content to assault your gag reflex and funny bone as it hammers on one rather relevant note. Society is not quite a masterpiece, but it’s definitely among the best stuff Yuzna actually directed. Few horror films can feel so dated (and, wow, do the fashions ever date Society) and so continually relevant, and it’s a shame it’s a bit difficult to see these days. Released about ten years ago by Anchor Bay, Society’s DVD features a solid presentation, a trailer, and a commentary by Yuzna, and it was repackaged in a double feature with Tobe Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion. Both releases are rather difficult to find now without breaking the bank, and one can only hope there’s a re-release in the future because Society is probably due for a re-evaluation. If the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s presidency represented “morning in America,” then Society presents its twilight in all of its ugly, disgusting grandeur, and it turns out that the only thing that trickled down was saliva as the elite scooped the poor into their mouths. Buy it!
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