Society (1989) d. Brian Yuzna (USA)
Despite being one of the most popular kids in school and from one of the most affluent families in Beverly Hills, Bill (Billy Warlock) never feels like he fits in. His parents (Charles Lucia, Connie Danese), his sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings), his hot cheerleader girlfriend Shauna (Heidi Kozak), and his shrink (Ben Slack) all assure him he’s perfectly normal, but after Jenny’s ex-boyfriend (Tim Bartell) shows up with a mysterious audio recording of Bill’s family discussing abnormal practices in association with her upcoming "coming-out" ceremony, suspicions escalate. As resident teenage dream Clarissa (Devin DeVasquez) zeroes in on Bill, intent on luring him into her web, the situation grows more tangled, culminating in a climax quite literally beyond anyone’s imagination.
In 2012, Time Out London published their “100 Best Horror Films” list, which sported a trio of titles that I had not yet encountered firsthand: Mick Jackson’s apocalyptic cautionary tale Threads (1984); Come and See (1985), Elem Klimov’s potent condemnation of WWII; and Society, the oft-discussed but rarely seen directing debut of Re-Animator producer Yuzna. Of these, the latter was the most intriguing to my terror-loving mindset and, of course, proved to be the most elusive, prohibitively priced online due to its out-of-print status and not on the shelves of any of my local horror pals’ collections.
I finally succumbed to the siren call of YouTube in order to satisfy my curiosity and rampant completism gene; 10-minute chapter-by-10-minute chapter (this was 2012, remember, when full-length movies violated the ’Tube’s content restrictions), the satirical spin of hedonistic creatures inhabiting the rich bitches of humanity streamed before my wondering eyes. The social commentary by screenwriters Rick Fry and Woody Keith definitely made an impression, as did the oh-so-’80s fashion and dialogue, but it was the great Japanese effects artist Screaming Mad George’s surreal and grue-tastic final reel special effects that clinched the deal.
When super-fan Scott LeBrun suggested it as his entry for Hidden Horror, I gave him the thumbs up in record time, suiting as it did our “celebrating underrated and overlooked fright flicks” mission statement to perfection. I won’t say that his superlative essay is the only reason for Arrow Video’s upcoming slam-dunk Blu-ray home video presentation, but neither would I be surprised to learn it played a small part in bringing this unsung gem to the masses.
In fashioning his satirical vision, Yuzna adopted many of the aesthetics and characteristics of the stereotypical ’80s youth comedy, down to the lighting and wardrobe choices, in order to subvert the familiar. At the other end of the spectrum, Screaming Mad George [hereafter SMG] concocted a climactic assault and/or feast for the eyeballs (or food fight, to complete the metaphor) by borrowing imagery from Salvador Dali and other surrealist artists. A potent taboo-shattering combination of cannibalism, incest, and murder, draped in an extra-thick layer of ooze and latex, this is body horror the likes of which Cronenberg would be envious.
While there isn’t much traditional terror material in the scenes leading up to the grand “shunting” bonanza of bodies, flesh, and ultraslime, Yuzna & SMG conjure numerous striking images along the way (Jenny in the shower, Clarissa on the bed). In place of jump scares, a strong sense of paranoia permeates throughout, the conspiracy of the Society members, the untouchable rich. The discomfiting incestuous subplot is even more pronounced by the fact that Bill’s blonde girlfriend strongly resembles his blonde kid sister, and bizarre flourishes abound, such as Clarissa’s hermaphroditic mother, ever-present sex dolls, and murders foul and faux. The appealing performances (and Warlock’s post-Baywatch popularity) and the effects extravaganza alone should have earned it a fervent following ... had they been able to see it.
It’s still curious that Society didn’t find a warmer place in horror fans’ hearts, even as a cult item, but much of this can be attributed to genuine ignorance of its existence as opposed to matters of taste. Somewhere, somehow, the blame must be laid at the feet of distributor Wild Street and their ill-fated campaign and platform. It’s easy to ascribe the movie’s wrongful obscurity to its cool box office received upon its U.S. release (after being shelved for nearly three years) and the fact that the horror genre of 1992 was a much different beast than 1989. But then again, Society enjoyed success overseas, and Peter Jackson’s splatterpiece Braindead was released to much acclaim the same year, so it can’t simply be said, “Oh, it was all about the post-Silence of the Lambs thriller wave.” Other flicks that had struggled theatrically eventually found their audience on pay-TV channels like HBO and Showtime cable, so we can assume program directors weren’t going out of their way to champion Yuzna’s debut via endless cable cycles.
As such, the newly remastered, 2K digitally transferred appearance of Society on the home video market is reason enough for rejoicing, allowing the film to be rediscovered by a new, more adventurous generation. But the supplemental bounty that Arrow has served up makes the wait almost feels worth it. Yuzna is the hero of the day, appearing in the 2014 Severin-produced featurette “Governor of Society,” a vintage 1989 interview from the world premiere, a Q&A session following a 2014 revival screening at Celluloid Screams Festival, and finally offering an eloquent and articulate audio commentary alongside the always welcome expertise of David Gregory.
The creative force behind a bevy of classic fare, Yuzna is extremely forthright regarding his love for the horror genre and the practical reasons behind his desire to get into the director’s chair. (“I had several projects fall through because the directors walked away. I knew I wouldn’t walk away.”) He’s also not shy about pointing up things that he likes (performances, simple gags), those he’s not wild about (Blanchard’s dodgy blue van, assorted set decoration, some of SMG’s rushed effects), and taking the rap himself when he feels it is deserved. Having recently sat through a number of substandard commentary tracks, it’s a real pleasure to enjoy such an informed, personal, and engaging track. In fact, the only downside is that some of the material covered in the other segments consequently becomes redundant (a mild complaint at best).
The other extras include “Masters of the Hunt,” a collection of interviews with cast members Warlock, DeVasquez, Bartell, and Ben Meyerson (who plays Warlock’s bullying teen nemesis), chatting about how they came to be involved with the film, their universal trepidation upon reading Fry and Keith’s script, their further trepidations once they got on set (and in slime), and their retrospective thoughts on the completed product. 25 years on, all of the actors exude the distinct qualities that made them so effective in their respective roles. (They have also aged very well; fans of Warlock and DeVasquez will not be disappointed.)
The “Champion of the Shunt” segment sits down with SMG and his able assistants David Grasso and Nick Benson, both of whom were just starting off when they tumbled headlong into this “insane, twisted” project. As with Dick Smith, Rick Baker, and Tom Savini, it’s wonderful to peek behind the curtain and find a quiet, eloquent, creative soul behind the monsters and Karo syrup. This is absolutely the case here, and while SMG may look a little haggard with his guyliner and wild shock of hair, he’s still clearly ready to rock and roll, still bursting with energy and imagination.
Arrow’s Limited Edition DigiPak packaging showcases newly commissioned artwork by Nick Percival, and the Collector’s booklet features a new essay on the film by Alan Jones, illustrated by original archive stills and posters.
Society is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video beginning June 9, 2015, and can be pre-ordered HERE:
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine