Brian Yuzna is a seminal force when it comes to imaginative popcorn horror. Famously beginning his career as the producer of Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult classic Re-Animator, Yuzna has continued to the present day as the producer, writer and director of an array of entertainingly gruesome movies, spinning wonderfully nasty riffs on the tales of H.P. Lovecraft and even writing the screenplays for some rather uncharacteristic fare, namely Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. His direction of several instalments of the hilariously awful Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise notwithstanding, Yuzna has rightfully undergone deification in the eyes of many a gorehound.
In 1989, he made his directorial debut with the much-loved and perennially notorious Society. A hilarious, ridiculous, disturbing and utterly revolting comedy horror, its satire of class warfare couldn’t be more on-the-nose if it tried, and the crazily ambitious SFX will either render it the stuff of your worst nightmares or an epic of consummate silliness. I believe that for those who love it, it is both of these things at once, cementing its place as a singularly special midnight movie to be enjoyed by new generations of genre fans and unsuspecting cinematic pedestrians alike.
Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) is a high school student living a life of luxury in Beverly Hills. Handsome and likeable, Bill enjoys a relationship with the popular Shauna (Heidi Kozak) and is the scion of one of the most respected local families, Bill’s parents Jim & Nan (Charles Lucia and Connie Dionese) regarded as paragons of Beverly Hills’ elite class. With everyone hotly anticipating his sister Jenny’s upcoming presentation to ‘society’ in a debutante ball, Bill essentially wants for nothing, the only expectation on his shoulders being the propriety that keeps his family in good standing. Alas, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Despite all of this privilege, Bill feels that something is seriously wrong with his family and their social circle.
Unable to overcome the suspicion that he must be born of different stock due to the completely divergent personalities of his parents and sibling, Bill confides in avuncular psychiatrist Dr Cleveland (Ben Slack) about his feelings of alienation and doom, the latter cheerfully dismissing the young man’s fears as perfectly normal growing pains that he needn’t worry about in the long term, stating that Bill is destined to ‘make a wonderful contribution to society’. Cleveland encourages Bill to ride the waves of his anxiety in order to build his confidence for a bright future.
One afternoon, Jenny’s seemingly unstable ex-boyfriend David Blanchard (Tim Bartell) accosts Bill in desperation, pleading with our hero to listen to something of crucial importance. Impatient with Blanchard owing to his habit of stalking Jenny and breaking into the family home, Bill is ready to pummel the oddball’s face when Blanchard suddenly begins playing a tape recording of Jenny’s introductory ball (or ‘coming out’ party). Just when it seems that Blanchard has crossed the ultimate line by bugging Bill’s family, what initially sounds like an unremarkable debutante ball quickly escalates into squelching, erotic moaning, cackling and cries of pain, all in a decidedly inhuman fashion. Overwhelmed with horror at what he has just heard, Bill promptly assaults Blanchard, vomits and desperately seeks the help of his best friend Milo (Evan Richards).
As Bill delves deeper in his quest to uncover the mystery behind the horrific noises on the recording, his paranoia is turned up to 11 with an onslaught of deadly coincidences, increasingly bizarre behaviour exhibited by his folks and other residents and the unprecedented attention of his school’s ruling rich-kid bully clique, led by the arrogant Ted Ferguson (Ben Meyerson) and Ted’s oddly sweet girlfriend Clarissa (Devin DeVasquez). With Clarissa burgeoning into a love interest, disquieting shifts in the emotions of his peers and the notion that he is being constantly monitored, Bill might have to face the fact that his family and their social network are the last people who have his best interests at heart…if, indeed, they are actually people at all.
Rather predictably, Society endured waves of critical vilification upon its initial release, derided for its obvious satire, deranged sense of humour, ostentatious visual effects and the air of sexual perversity that hangs over it. I’m not out to refute any of those descriptors, it is guilty as charged, but I most certainly argue against the assertion that these are all axiomatically negative traits. On the contrary, they positively enrich the film’s atmosphere of complete and utter batshittery, and despite what many detractors have espoused, it is not bereft of clever touches.
Mischievous digs are taken at the higher echelons of the social strata via the use of the Eton Boating Song and Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube, ensuring violently eccentric nods to stereotypes of blue-bloods as amoral, incestuous freaks. The humour does veer from satire into straight-up stupidity at times (Clarissa’s mute, hair-loving ogre of a mother being exemplary of that habit) but it is delightfully reminiscent of the proclivity for weirdness-for-its-own-sake that is incumbent in maverick directors such as David Lynch and John Waters.
While it’s also a truism that none of the performances exactly drip with authenticity, this is as contextually relevant as throwing the same accusation at a work like American Psycho i.e. the magic is in the unnaturalness. There is much absurd mirth to be found in the affected pomposity of Bill’s parents and community alpha dog Judge Carter (David Wiley), the unnerving and seemingly rehearsed Stepford-like mannerisms brilliantly contrasted with Bill’s down-to-earth albeit angsty adolescent normalcy. Yuzna’s visual effects throughout the film are perfectly disturbing and uncanny, culminating in an eye-poppingly nuts climax for which I shall include no spoilers. Rick Fichter’s cinematography skilfully compounds the sensation that Billy is inhabiting an R-rated Twilight Zone, bolstered by the quintessentially 80’s creepiness of Phil Davies & Mark Ryder’s score. It’s all overdone and nauseating, and it never feels anything short of appropriate.
It’s gross, funny, stupid and perturbing, and it knocks it out of the park as a slice of satirical overkill. Not released until 1992 in the U.S., the film found more of a cult following in the UK than it did on home soil (I guess us limeys are just really messed up in that way), but it has developed a growing legion of admirers over the past 30 odd years. Far from pretentious, Society is well aware of how schlocky and mental it is, delivering solid entertainment that is equally becoming of a beers ‘n pals movie night as it is a solo viewing. If you’re unfamiliar, track yourself down this superbly uncomfortable and unhinged treat right now.