211. SOCIETY (1989)

“It was so weird… it was probably one of the weirdest movies ever made!”–Devin DeVasquez reflecting on Society

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Evan Richards, Charles Lucia, Patrice Jennings, Ben Meyerson, Tim Bartell, Ben Slack, David Wiley, Connie Danese

PLOT: Despite being a star basketball player and candidate for president of Beverly Hills High, Billy feels like an outcast in his own high society family. He misses his sister’s coming out party due to a basketball game, but her creepy ex-boyfriend plays him a very disturbing recording from the event that causes him to investigate his own family secrets more closely. It seems that there is a secret society of upper-crust residents in Beverly Hills which even privileged Billy is not (yet) a part of; his investigations lead him to a secret party where the elites engage in a practice they call “shunting”…

Still from Society (1989)
BACKGROUND:

  • Brian Yuzna began his filmmaking career as a producer, teaming with director Stuart Gordon in 1985 to launch the hit Re-Animator series. Society was his first credit as director. To convince the producers to allow him to direct, Yuzna promised to make two movies, the other being the pre-sold sequel Bride of Re-Animator.
  • Makeup expert Screaming Mad George used paintings (specifically “The Great Masturbator” and “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans“) as inspiration for constructing the “shunting” scenes.
  • Although it saw some mild success overseas, the climax of Society had to be cut by four minutes in the U.S. to secure an R rating, and the film was not released to American screens until 1992, when it disappeared from theaters quickly.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Something—anything—from the last 20 minutes, a non-stop body-morphing orgy that would put off his lunch. If forced to whittle down the choice to a single image we’d have to go with “butthead,” a creation both juvenile and frightening.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Twisted sister; hair eating; “shunting” in general.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Brian Yuzna’s mixture of horror, satire, and teen sex comedy is clumsy and unsure at times, and bizarre in both theory and execution, but the drawn-out finale, a masterpiece of Dali-esque designs rendered in rubbery goo, puts it far over the top.


Original trailer for Society

COMMENTS: As satire and allegory, Society is obvious; but I believe subtlety is highly overrated. In most cases, “subtle” art is unnecessarily coy at best, and a sign of bad taste at worst. Society is not meant to be a rib-tickler; it’s a gut-punch. Few who make it to Society‘s end will ever forget the sight. The effect is visceral—the screen is literally covered in glistening viscera.

Make no mistake, this movie is built around its final payoff, and if you don’t stick around for the climax you will have no clue why Society is an unforgettable experience. Effects maven “Screaming Mad George” is prominently billed on Society‘s box cover, and he almost deserves credit as co-creator together with Brian Yuzna. The final 20 minutes of the film, in which the lighting suddenly and inexplicably changes to a sickly orange, are given over to his nightmarish, yet humorous creations. There is the buttfaced man, the hand-headed man, and a twisted sexual melding of mother and daughter. Those are just the figures who are easily differentiated; more evocative are the cubic yards of gelatinous, morphing jet-set flesh that pulsates on divans, melting into a bizarre puddle of libidinous, gluttonous ooze, with body parts sticking out at random places. Naked women’s mouths stretch into putty-like feeding tubes. It’s a three dimensional, moving Surrealist body horror canvas of parasites feeding off a human substrate. It’s materialized disgust, and yet it is also strangely enticing. Never has shunting seemed so decadent.

The very idea of “society”—in the sense of an upper class with its own set of rituals, where status is granted by breeding rather than by money— is a little strange in the USA. How many Americans even know someone who’s had a coming out party, or is listed in the Social Register? Not many; and those who have probably live in a few isolated East Coast enclaves, not in the film’s setting of Beverly Hills, where new money rules the day. To most of us, Society‘s well-heeled characters, who wear suits and dresses for afternoon tea, and who pipe the soothing sounds of string quartets through their marble foyers, are the stuff of aspirational soap opera fantasies, or archetypes from out of 1930s screwball comedies. It’s probably no mistake that Society‘s satire initially went over better in Great Britain, where they have a long tradition of class-obsessed literature, than it did in America. It also may be no mistake that Society‘s theme song is the melody of England’s aristocratic “Elon Boating Song,” reworked with arrogant lyrics. In this sense, Society doesn’t work as a satire of Reaganite greed, precisely; after all, B-movie cowboy Ronald Reagan wasn’t a part of “society,” although WASPy George H. Bush might have been. But the very artificiality of these pompous caricatures works in Society‘s surrealist favor; these characters exist in a mirror movie world that reflects our own, but in a distorted fashion.

The fact that Society leans heavily on its denouement should not mislead you into thinking you can skip the rest of the picture and hop right into the shunting. The preceding reels are necessary to absorb the film’s full weird impact. Stylistically, Society is an Eighties farrago, a mix of “Dynasty” and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with hints of Halloween. Future “Baywatch”er Billy Warlock (he of the ridiculous pseudonym and dubious resumé) is decent as a rich kid who is simultaneously privileged (and thus a male teen wish-fulfillment figure) and an outcast (and thus a sympathetic underdog). Former Playboy Playmate Devin DeVasquez scorches as the oversexed temptress, until her role is sidelined by the necessities of the plot. The early reels mix soapy revelations with shameless T&A and gooey foreshadowing (an apple filled with worms, a gardener’s slugs) to create a steamy atmosphere of privileged teen debauchery. Acting is B-movie standard, which means a mix of the competent and the barely competent, but as the paranoid revelations start to pile up, Society starts to come off its hinges. Clarissa’s mother is mute, wears too much makeup, and eats hair; she seems to have wandered into the film from the film shooting next door. Society‘s plot is as convoluted as a shunting debutante’s torso. Billy takes a drug-induced detour to the emergency room that is totally unnecessary to the overall story, ending as one of the red herrings that sometimes make the movie feel like a series of outtakes from teen horror movies that have been stitched together to pad the film out until Screaming Mad George’s creations can take center stage.

Society could have been made with a more consistent tone and a smoother plot arc (one can’t help but wonder what David Cronenberg might have done with this material). It may even have been a better movie; but it probably wouldn’t be as crazy of a movie, and maybe not as fun of one. Yuzna made his first movie intuitively, and the raggedness is partially by design. In an interview included on the Arrow Video DVD/Blu-ray release, he says that what interests him in horror movies is that place “between sanity and insanity, between dream and nightmare, or life and dream.” His mantra is the Expressionist creed: “what you put on the screen is to give you a feeling, not for realism.” He admits, for example, that he doesn’t know exactly why Mrs. Carlyn eats hair. He explains that when working on Society, his team would come up with a striking idea or image first, then try to reverse engineer it into the plot. The process didn’t always work, which makes the film appear shaggy at times. But Society‘s eccentricities are part of what makes it loveable. A movie whose showstopping moment is a man with a face on his butt should have a few warts—the hairier the better.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A bizarre fable… Suffice it to say that the ‘surrealistic make-up designs’ by Screaming Mad George (who did the cockroach sequence in Nightmare on Elm Street 4) will stretch even the most inelastic mind.”–Time Out London

“… while Society offers as much leering T&A as any self-respecting teen horror from the 80s, by the end it serves up something far more polymorphous in its perversity, something rich and strange – about the rich and strange – where incest, Oedipal appetites and errant appropriation are right at home.”–Anton Bitel, FilmLand Empire

“…one of those surreal horror oddities that the late 1980s/ early 1990s seemed to produce in huge quantities. Sitting alongside other metaphorical weirdness of the time such as Parents and Meet the Applegates, Society was really a testing ground for Brian Yuzna… A true cult movie in every sense, Society isn’t for everybody but that is probably the key to what makes it work…”–Gary Collinson, Flickering Myth (Blu-ray)

IMDB LINK: Society (1989)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Society – The Arrow Video Story – Trailer for Arrow Video’s 2015 limited edition DVD/Blu-ray

READER RECOMMENDATION: SOCIETY (1989) – Reader J.S. Roberts first recommended Society to this site back in 2010

DVD INFO: Society‘s poor distribution in the U.S. extended to video, where it languished nearly unseen in an (R-rated) VHS and a short-run, extras free (uncut) DVD from Anchor Bay. The film nevertheless slowly accrued a cult following. In 2015 British outfit Arrow Films, one of a number of distributors currently doing for grindhouse movies what the Criterion Collection does for arthouse movies, released it in a lavish limited edition DVD/Blu-ray combo pack (buy). The most special of the many special features is “Society: Party Animal”, a booklet-sized, graphic novel official sequel to the movie. (This booklet is the only offering likely to be exclusive to the limited edition). The commentary track by Brian Yuzna is informative. Other features are profiles of Yuzna (who passionately defends the weird aesthetic: “I never reject something because it doesn’t make sense”), and Screaming Mad George (a weirdo in his own right), interviews with the main cast, a Q&A session with the director from a 2014 screening, a brief interview with Yuzna from the film’s London premiere. There’s also “Persecution Mania,” a 6-minute punk music video by Screaming Mad George. The video and audio transfers are top notch, and there’s not much more you could ask for from a special edition package of a film that flopped heavily on release 25 years ago and has been nearly forgotten since. Society‘s coming out party has been long overdue, but it’s been worth the wait.

3 thoughts on “211. SOCIETY (1989)”

  1. A fantastic choice. Society is shockingly weird. It’s something that I can show virtually anyone and get the same strong reaction from.

  2. I must confess, I’m a little skeptical about this. Normally I love this site and I eat its recommendations right up; but it really seems to me like the “weirdness” in this doesn’t extend far beyond the gooey, rubbery special effects, which, to me, comes across as a rather shallow sort of “weirdness”.

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