While I missed out on seeing Brian Yuzna’s Society during it limited run, I’d been hearing quite a lot about this 1989 film over the years while still managing not to see it until a review Blu-Ray popped up in the post. The outrageous “body horror” flick packed with intentionally campy performances, icky practical makeup effects by the legendary Screaming Mad George and a finale for the ages makes for one of those films that will cling to one’s grey matter for a while. Those squeamish to gore or sexual themes will be reaching for something to barf in, but there’s a definite “last gasp” of the 80’s Reagen era excess in the film’s themes and overall tone. Plus there’s just an overall sense of pure insanity that makes the film seem like both the best and worst nightmare you’ll ever have.
(thanks, MVD Entertainment Group!)
Despite having a wealthy family, a hot blonde girlfriend and a new ride and what seems to be the “perfect” life, poor little California rich kid Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) isn’t at all a happy teenage camper. There’s some unseen weirdness going on in his family life and thanks to a cassette tape surreptitiously taken by his sister’s annoying ex Blanchard (Tim Bartell), Billy gets an earful of what sounds like something nasty going on inside his home. Billy’s fragile mental state has him taking a trip to his therapist to leave him the tape to listen to. But the tape somehow changes to a happier recording when Billy meets up with him later on. Things get even stranger when Billy meets and fall for Clarissa (Devin DeVasquez), a beautiful but quite odd brunette who lives with her wide-eyed and somewhat disturbed mother. As things slide even more out of control in his life, Billy realizes that not only is there something insane going on within the wealthy community he resides in, it’s coming for him (and faster than he thinks).
A few “accidental” or assumed deaths ensue as Billy’s pool of friends is whittled down and there are plenty of bizarre twists and turns you may or may not see coming depending on your attention span. The latter half hour or so of the film is one that’s hard to watch or harder to take your eyes off of as the visual effects get more surreal to the point of a key scene resembling a Salvador Dali painting come to hideous life. By this point you’re either going to run out of the room you’re watching this in or be so caught up in Society’s gooey clutches until you’re drained dry of your precious bodily fluids. The film plays hard with its school bullying and class struggle metaphors even reversing the old adage “eat the rich” so that the wealthy are literally and figuratively living off the lower class in the most extreme manner possible. Is the controlling force alien, supernatural or just the essence of the 1% come to nightmarish life? It’s certainly not a sleeper’s nightmare in the world the film takes place in. But given Billy’s mental state from the outset it sure seems like it for a bit.
While social commentary wasn’t new in films in 1989, Society’s take on class structure, and depraved privilege was too rich for the US studio that didn’t know how to market such an unusual film. The film died off quickly here, but did well enough among those who saw and “got” it here and very well enough in Europe to garner a cult following. I lived and laughed through my first viewing and watched it again to spot anything I may have missed. This is one of those films that demands repeat viewing so you can see where Billy’s hallucinations feed his paranoia but turn out to be somewhat prophetic by the end. Granted, the 80’s acting, hairstyles and overall vibe make the film a bit clunky in spots. But this feels intentional on Yuzna’s part as if he wanted viewers to go in not expecting what they were going to get. Calling this a “teen sex comedy” is somewhat misleading as everything is so bent out of shape that I’d bet the target audience wasn’t doing a lot of laughing despite some really funny moments.
In addition to a newly remastered director approved 2K print of the film, the Blu-Ray also packs in a load of bonus content. There’s a brand new audio commentary by Yuzna that’s quite excellent. You’ll want to watch the film again just to hear him chat about how much fun and hard work went into certain shots. There’s also a new interview with Yuzna called ‘Governor of Society’ where he goes into even more details on the film and seems extremely pleased to talk more about it. Stars Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Ben Meyerson and Tim Bartell are featured in ‘The Masters of the Hunt’ where the actors discuss everything from how they got cast, the uncomfortable reality of filming simulated sex scenes and even dealing with prosthetic makeup and gallons of goo (and you’ll never go near a jelly doughnut again unless you make them yourself).
Yuzna is back in a 2014 Q&A session from the Celluloid Screams Festival and through a time warp, backstage at Society’s world premiere. Finally, Screaming Mad George gets some airtime in ‘The Champion of the Shunt’ along with his assistants on the film, FX artists David Grasso and Nick Benson. This particular featurette is really funny because George goes from genially talking about his work on the film and his influences to suddenly doing an infomercial for his more recent work. It’s actually great to see someone so uniquely weird still creating some amazing and disturbing sculptures he REALLY wants to make a profit off of. I don’t blame the man one bit although I’d hate to sleep for a night in a home that has a room full of his nightmare fuel on the shelves and walls. Yikes. There’s also a nice surprise in the twisted form of ‘Persecution Mania’ a 1996 music video directed by and starring Screaming Mad George and his band, Psychosis.
As this was a review disc only, missing in action were the Limited Edition Digipak packaging featuring newly-commissioned artwork by Nick Percival, the Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Alan Jones along with stills and poster art, and the Society: Party Animal Limited Edition exclusive to the retail version. I don’t think this book as collected here will be available separately unless someone buys the box set and decides to sell that part off on ebay or wherever. But there’s a case where the comic doesn’t really do the film much justice and if there was ever to be a filmed sequel I’d be among the many who’d want Yuzna behind the lens once more. Like Arrows other US releases so far, this one’s a BUY. But be prepared for your eyeballs and brain to get a kick in the balls a few times.