SOCIETY (1989) Review

Finding a picture for this one was hard because as I scrolled through the various options Google Images threw up, I found myself — in a kind of warped, Yuzna-esque version of the tagline from Wes Craven’s exploitative (and horrific) feature debut Last House on the Left — repeating the phrase: Don’t spoil the ending. Don’t spoil the ending. Don’t spoil the ending. Seriously, this one is just… it has to be seen to be believed, and no amount of praise (and let me tell ya, folks! Imma ‘bout to heap a whole lotta praise on it) will do it justice.

Honestly, I still can’t quite believe it myself, and I first saw Brian Yuzna’s Society like fifteen years ago! It’s a bizarre, surreal, outrageous, and ballsy little movie that — in my opinion at least — gives meaning to the oft-overused phrase ‘underappreciated’, and absolutely deserves way more love than it currently gets. It could be easy to say that it exists in the category of ‘too ahead of its time’ given it is troubling relevant today, except that it was just as relevant upon release, and is also so hilariously ’80s in its visuals and style that to claim it as such is just silly. But then… it really is relevant, perhaps even more so here in 2022, and people, that fucking sucks. Anyway, I won’t hold y’all in suspense, you wanna know what I consider a five-star movie… welcome to Society.

The man behind Society is one Brian Yuzna, who initially made a name for himself as a producer. Before turning his attention to directing, Yuzna helped Stuart Gordon bring his Lovecraft adaptations — the excellent Re-Animator and the even more excellent From Beyond — to the big screen. He also produced Gordon’s other weird horror movie, Dolls, before deciding that, basically, as producer — despite doing a helluva lot of the work — he was getting almost none of the recognition he felt he deserved, and so decided to helm his own project. That movie was Society, based on a script by Woody Keith and Rick Fry, which Yuzna was drawn to because of the similarities between it and a concept he had been developing with Dan O’Bannon (the screenwriter of such beloved classic genre properties as, among others, Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, and Total Recall). Using his clout as a producer, Yuzna managed to secure funding for Society by promising to also deliver a sequel to Re-Animator, but in a rather savvy move only agreed to make the latter if he could make the former first. As Yuzna himself put it, “if I wasn’t any good, if the first time I tried directing it was a bust, at least I’d get another chance because there’s no way they’re going to give up the Re-Animator sequel!”.

Society was, disappointingly, a ‘bust’ (and — much like Speilberg’s 2011 action/adventure epic The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, or Tarantino and Rodriguez’s balls-to-the-wall, batshit 2007 extravaganza Grindhouse — Society’s box office failure sits there as a point of contention in my mind, and I’m actively annoyed by every single person who didn’t make it a success), but Yuzna’s move meant that he was able to continue a career as a director long after, and has since helmed such cult classics as Bride of Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead 3, and The Dentist, but it is his feature debut that — at least as far as I’m concerned — remains his most accomplished, interesting, and memorable movie. It tells the story of young teen Bill Whitney (played by Days of Our Lives and Baywatch star Billy Warlock) who, while attempting to navigate the kind of high-school politics one expects from shiny teen-centric daytime fluff, slowly begins to suspect that his wealthy, upper-class Beverly Hills family may be hiding something sinister and terrifying from him. Despite his therapist's insistence that Bill is merely paranoid, our hero finds himself dragged into a dark, surreal world that exists just beneath the surface of so-called polite society.

To point out the Marxist undertones (or ‘overtones’, perhaps, the film isn’t subtle) is obvious. But what makes Society so good is the way Yuzna develops these themes and these ideas. Using stereotypical soap-opera trappings (I don’t think Warlock’s casting is an accident, while several of the other cast members have featured in various daytime TV dramas) Yuzna highlights the falseness and fakeness of the upper-class, Beverly Hills-based socialites that the film aims its sights at. Bill’s awareness that something is wrong is only heightened by the television-style bright lighting and excessively good-looking young cast who hang out on beaches and go to house parties in cliched, soapy fashion. This seemingly idealized version of reality is then carefully stripped back — the rotted, maggot-infested core of the apple, as it were (again, the film really isn’t subtle) — with the use of unsettlingly creepy and mesmerizingly inventive moments of body horror (the practical effects, by effects master ‘Screaming Mad’ George, truly are a sight to behold, and the film sits alongside John Carpenters The Thing or David Cronenberg’s The Fly as one of the best examples of cinema’s weirdly wonderful and frighteningly gloopy offerings), which start small and then begin to grow as the film progresses, each moment more outlandish and bizarre than the last, until we get to the climax which… yeah… Don’t spoil the ending. Don’t spoil the ending. Don’t spoil the ending.

Inevitably, however, this over-the-top, overtly ’80s, daytime drama-esque approach is destined to put people off, and the film does take its time building suspense (even at a slick 100 minutes), so if you’re not willing to put up with the purposefully hammy performances and glossy, sunlit settings then it’s fair to say Society isn’t gonna be for you. However, if you are able to buy into the movie’s silly, heightened tone, then you’re in for a treat! It’s a film that leaves you with your mouth agape, shocked that yes, they really did ‘go there’, and just who the hell would have dreamt up this kind of gross, shocking, horrific thing to begin with? It’s also a hilariously good time, with plenty of odd little throwaway gags and lines of dialogue (“How do you like your tea? Cream, sugar… or do you want me to pee in it?”), and it has one of the best final lines of any film, up there with The Lost Boys’ “all the goddamn vampires” as both perfectly on-point and hilariously unexpected.

But the most important facet of Society, stripping away the incredibly impressive effects work, the hilariously exaggerated soap-opera tone, the wonderfully hammy performances, and the humourous little jokes, is that ultimately the concept at its core is both depressingly timeless and properly frightening. Society is by no means a scary film — it’s a fun one, designed as a good time, not a spooky time — but there’s no denying that the ideas present are scary. Perhaps scarier still is the fact that all these years later, those ideas are as relevant and as contemporary as ever.

That, I think, is why Society works. It is a film that is both wonderfully ’80s and unsettlingly contemporary, and it is well worth some kind of rediscovery or reappraisal (apparently, back in 2013, there was talk of a sequel; Society 2: Body Modification. Personally, though, I think I’d like to see the concept brought up-to-date with a Blumhouse-style requel; the film certainly leaves itself open for such, and it would be great to see just what modern audiences would make of this kind of weirdly grotesque cinema. Of course, we’d have to take a classic approach — and I am unsure whether modern studios would be willing to go to the places Yuzna so gleefully delves into). Perhaps the only word that can really do Society justice is ‘unique’. There is quite literally nothing else like it, a strange blend of comedy and horror that is equal parts funny, creepy, and outright gross. And I love it. A film that stays with you long after the credits roll, Society belongs in a class (lol!) all to itself; flawed yet masterful, rough-around-the-edges yet expertly crafted, outdated yet modern. You should watch it. Why aren’t you watching it? Go watch it! 5/5.

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