AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 99 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Bill Whitney seems to have it all. His family is wealthy and he lives in a mansion in Beverly Hills, California. He’s popular at his high school, looks to be a shoo-in for class president, has a cute cheerleader girlfriend and owns a new Jeep Wrangler to drive around in. Despite this, he feels as though he does not fit in with his family or their high-society friends, thinks he may have been adopted, and starts to see some odd things, like his sister Jenny twisting her body in the shower in a way which should not be possible. When Jenny’s ex-boyfriend Blanchard gives him a surreptitiously recorded tape of what sounds like his family engaged in a vile orgy, Bill begins to suspect that his feelings are justified, though when the tape is played back by his therapist, the audio has now changed to something completely innocuous….
Nearly everything effects-wise is being done with CGI these days, even simple things like cupboard doors opening [the Poltergeist remake] because things apparently always look better if they’re CGI it seems, at least according to many filmmakers and studios. More and more young people who didn’t have the privilege of growing up in an age before CGI took over probably think that old school effects look tacky and unconvincing [though so can CGI of course], and sometimes that is the case, but there are certain special effects scenes which should be shown to them to prove how good practical effects can still be. The first transformation in An American Werewolf In London is one. Another is the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments [I mean that’s 1956, and it still looks amazing even if you can work out how it was done]. And another is the final fifteen minutes of Society, which is an astonishing phantasmagoria of surrealistic imagery which is not just still pretty convincing, [ok, some of it does look rubbery but then so many computer generated images look just like computer generated images and don’t look real at all], but also disturbing and adventurous in a way you don’t often see, certainly not today. Of course if you’ve seen Society you’ll know all this [and yes the scenes do hold up even if, like me, it has been a great many years since you’ve seen the film], but if you haven’t, I’m not going to tell you any more, I’m not even going to tell you what “the shunt” is. Just prepared to be amazed.
Society was the first film to be directed by Brian Yuzna, who has worked solidly in the horror genre and remains a fan favourite, but to me has never really fulfilled his potential, especially when one thinks of Society. The origins of the film actually lie in another project Yuzna was planning with Dan O’ Bannon called The Men, in which a woman finds out that all men are aliens [us men actually think that about women sometimes]. It fell through, but the themes of paranoia and people not being what they seem found their way into Yuzna’s next project when Yuzna, under a two year deal with producers Keith Whalley and Paul White, was allowed to pick a film of his choosing as long as he followed it up with a sequel to the highly successful Re-Animator, which he had produced. Rick Fry’s original Society script has no fantastical elements, the menace turning out to be a blood cult, but Yuzna, partly influenced by some nightmares he had as a child while watching the 1932 flick Dr. X as a kid, introduced weirder and weirder elements into the story, while later on Billy’s therapy sessions and an early ‘shock’ were added during filming, and the story’s flashback structure was removed. Filmed in five weeks, Society, despite being released in many other countries including the UK where it was a hit, didn’t come out in the US, where it was then shorn of four minutes of footage [mostly narrative scenes but a few effects shots too] for three years and, surprisingly considering some of its content, was barely noticed, though it did soon build up a major cult following.
Society is basically part paranoid horror movie, and part savage satire on the Beverley Hills 90210-style lifestyle with just a bit of very unsubtle class commentary about the rich’s tendency to leech off the poor, and no, this isn’t giving away too many of the film’s secrets. It’s been criticised for coming across like two rather different films joined together, but its feeling of sheer unsettling weirdness and expertly achieved sense of paranoia succeed in peppering over most of the cracks including some jarring scene transitions and some poor performances. The opening sequence is a typical horror film scene of our hero dreaming of wondering around at night in his house because he hears strange laughter, but even though this moment is cleverly repeated near the climax of what is at times quite a cleverly constructed piece despite some disjointedness in places, much of the rest of the story plays out either in broad daylight or in night-time scenes which are similarly bright and deliberately artificial and even plastic in their aesthetic. This in a way makes it scarier even as the story seems to increasingly riff on a number of similarly paranoiac sources from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to Short Night Of Glass Dolls, and even seems very close to the worlds of both H.P.Lovecraft and David Lynch, while retaining a unique feel of its own.
It’s easy at first to identify with Bill’s feelings of not seeming to fit in, and even of something not being right with the world he lives in, as we’ve all had thoughts like this, though most of us probably wouldn’t look rather too admiringly at our sister in the shower, or bite into an apple revealing maggots inside it, an early clue that perhaps Bill could be imagining things. The story throws in an early red herring with Jenny’s stalker of an ex-boyfriend, though he becomes the one who really alerts Bill to what could be going on, and gives him some tangible proof that something isn’t right. What with his girlfriend Shauna seemingly only interested in being invited to a cliquey party, it’s not that hard to understand why he sleeps with the sexy Clarissa who gave him the ‘come-on’ when she’d in the front row during a speech he gives, though he still seems to be attracted to her even when she performs gymnastics in bed that I don’t think any bloke would wish a woman to do. Soon Bill doesn’t know who to trust, even folk who claim they’re on his side, and they all stand a good chance of winding up dead anyway. About half way through, Yuzna has a little bit of trouble maintaining the tension that he’s been building up, but we’re not far away from the supremely crazy and disgusting, though largely bloodless, climax anyway, the suitably named Japanese special effects artist Screaming Mad George [whose work in 1993’s Freaked is also remarkable] being let loose in spectacular fashion.
Considering that you can see Society as a very ‘messed-up’ teen comedy, it’s probably appropriate that it throws in a few conventionally humorous moments like a beach scene where some small boys steal sun cream from Bill and then, after he chases them, squirt it all over him [which is then followed by Clarissa also squirting the stuff at him]. Such moments still manage to contribute to Bill’s vulnerability. He’s a likeable protagonist even when he does at least one questionable thing, and it’s always nice to have a film that reverses the usual good girl/bad girl dynamic. Society is also a film though where many of the smaller characters and story elements also make a strong impression, hinting at subplots which remain just unexplored. I especially love the character of Clarissa’s zombie-like, possibly brain-dead, but maybe actually ‘with it’, mother; you never really learn much about her and she remains just a ‘presence’, but she’s the sort of person you could easily think up a whole back story about. The film is often content with just feeding us juicy details about its world, leaves quite a lot unexplained, and even gives us an ending scene which actually isn’t really very happy and conclusive at all if you think about it. Certain aspects of its tale have been thoroughly thought through, others haven’t been at all, leaving an undoubted imbalance, but then isn’t one of the pleasures of repeatedly viewing a film like this trying to fill in the gaps?
Yuzna’s direction is mostly functional but certainly doesn’t hamper preceedings, the overly bright cinematography by Rick Fichter takes some getting used to but is obviously a deliberate choice, and the acting is mostly okay and very suitable even when it’s being extremely hammy, though there are some jarringly bad performances in there too. Of course it’s possible to view the terrible line delivery of, for example, Patrice Jenning, as being appropriate given that her character is a fake in more ways than one. The synthesiser score by Phil Davies and Mark Ryder is exactly of the kind prevalent in horror pictures of the time and has some charm while wittily incorporating snatches of classical tunes and having as its main theme the bizarre choice of something called the Eton Boating Song whose lyrics have been cleverly re-written. In a way Society manages to evoke, in its twisted manner, the late 80’s better than some of the more obvious examples, and it certainly succeeds in walking the difficult tightrope between being both blackly amusing and genuinely disturbing, while of course its savage attack on the rich is still very pertinent in today’s times where the rich minority seem to be getting richer and richer off the backs off the poor and really do seem like a different species. I was a big fan of this film in the video age and then didn’t see it again for around fifteen years for some reason. Revisiting it again, I was more wise to its flaws, but enjoyed it just as much. Fun, funny yet at the same time subversive and scary, you’ve got to see it if you haven’t done so already.
Arrow again deliver with a superb Blu-ray restoration of Society that looks amazingly pristine while still managing the retain the deliberately tacky look intended by the filmmakers, and with the usual selection of worthwhile extras, including a director’s commentary which manages to be largely different from an earlier DVD one and an illuminating Q and A where Yuzna says a few things about a possible sequel that actually made me want it to happen. Come on Brian, let’s have it!
*Newly remastered 2K digital transfer of the film, approved by director Brian Yuzna
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation
*Original Stereo 2.0 audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
*Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Brand new audio commentary by Yuzna
*Governor of Society – a brand new interview with Yuzna
*The Masters of the Hunt – a brand new featurette including interviews with stars Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Ben Meyerson and Tim Bartell
*The Champion of the Shunt – new featurette with FX artists Screaming Mad George, David Grasso and Nick Benson
*2014 Q&A with Yuzna, recorded at Celluloid Screams Festival
*Brian Yuzna in conversation backstage at the Society world premiere
*Persecution Mania’ – Screaming Mad George music video
*Limited Edition Digipak packaging featuring newly-commissioned artwork by Nick Percival
*Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Alan Jones, illustrated with original archive stills and posters
*Society: Party Animal [Limited Edition Exclusive] – the official comic sequel to Society, reproduced in its entirety in a perfect-bound book