"Society" was made in 1989, but had an atypical release schedule. It opened in Europe in 1989, but not in the U.S. until 1992. It did okay, financially and critically, in the U.K., Italy, and Spain, but here in the U.S. it was a box office dud, and received mostly negative reviews. However, in recent years it's enjoyed a bit of a revival, as a cult film. But I've enjoyed it since I first saw it the early/mid 1990's, and today I'd like to discuss it. I'll start with a spoiler-free synopsis of it, followed by a marked, spoiler-ific, recap and discussion about some of its main themes.
Bill Whitney appears to be living the perfect life. He comes from a stable, wealthy family, and wants for nothing. He's quite popular at his school, the Beverly Hills Academy, being both a star athlete and a leading class president candidate. But, under the surface, something's amiss. He's being treated by a psychiatrist, Dr. Cleveland, due to irrational fears about his family and many of the people in his social circle. He suffers from hallucinations, which involve incestuous relationships, bizarre monsters, and murderous conspiracies. Things go from bad to worse, as his relationship with his family, and peers, deteriorates. Is Bill crazy? Or is something disturbingly rotten in the society in which he lives?
(SPOILERS AHEAD UNTIL NOTED) "Society" opens with Bill relaying a nightmare with his psychiatrist. Dr. Cleveland assures him that his fears and feelings of alienation are relatively normal, and that everything's okay. Then, shortly after rescuing his sister, Jenny, from an ex-boyfriend, David Blanchard, who's become stalker-y, Bill accidentally sees his sister in the shower, and she briefly appears to be a twisted monstrosity. At the beach, Blanchard tells Bill that he's bugged the Whitneys, and plays a tape that seems to reveal an incestuous relationship between Jenny and their parents, and then many others in an orgy. However, when Bill listens to the same tape at Dr. Cleveland's office (he gave his doctor the tape the night before) it sounds as if his family was acting normally, at a social event. Blanchard then is in a fatal vehicular accident before he can give Bill another copy of the tape. When Bill goes to popular student Ted Ferguson's party, Ted claims the orgy was real, and that he caused Blanchard's fatal accident. A scuffle ensues, and Bill is led away by Ted's mysterious but beautiful girlfriend Clarisa. She seduces him, but later he thinks he sees her lying in an anatomically impossible position. At Blanchard's funeral, Bill and his friend Milo notice that the corpse looks artificial, and doesn't resemble Blanchard. Bill's political opponent, Martin Petrie, asks to meet Bill later that night at a isolated canyon. When Bill arrives, he sees Martin dead in his car of a slit throat, while an unknown person runs away. But when Bill brings the cops to the scene, the car is different, and no body is found. After Bill announces that Petrie is dead at a school assembly, Petrie shows up, apparently unharmed.
Then things get more dramatic. Bill is forcibly drugged by Dr. Cleveland, and taken to the hospital. Milo has followed behind the ambulance, but is told by the hospital staff that Bill is dead. Bill wakes up and meets Milo, and they see that someone has brought his Jeep to the hospital. Milo fears a setup, and warns Bill not to go home. Bill, though, does so anyway, and as he enters his house he's restrained. Dr. Cleveland, his parents, and the rest of the town's rich and elite reveal that Bill's fears were entirely rational and justified. The group, called Society, is made up of weird creatures that can distort their bodies in grotesque shapes. The members literally feed on the poor, regular humans, to enrich their gene pool and for sustenance. This process, called "shunting" is demonstrated on the body of the still alive Blanchard. They suck on and meld into his body, while their bodies twist and mutate into surreal shapes. Clarisa is revealed to be part of Society, but she shows obvious signs of regret, and seems to care for Bill. Finally, Bill taunts Ted into a one on one duel. Ted beats Bill badly, and starts to shunt him, but at the last moment Bill literally reaches inside him and turns him inside out. Milo, who's infiltrated the party, and Clarisa lead Bill out,while the group looks on.
Clearly the main them of "Society" is the conflict between rich and poor. It's not exactly subtle, as the rich and powerful monster Society Members kill and eat the poor directly. Director Brian Yuzna was obviously influenced by the political situation of the late 1980's, but as he said in a later interview, this same idea can also apply to many other eras. But even if it's obvious, and a bit "on the nose," it doesn't mean it's not compelling. Bill, and the few other non-Society members are in a bad spot. The Society folks clearly run the entire show. They run (or at least have giant influence on) the schools, the hospital, the police, and the legal system. How much so is apparent by their reaction when Bill and his friends escape at the end. The members of the group could have easily swarmed and killed them, but they basically let them go. And why not? The escapees can't really hurt the group. I suppose Clarisa could have demonstrated her bodily weirdness capabilities, but the Society folks can clearly pretend to be normal. Who would believe such a weird story? There's even a hint of anti-Semitism shown. At Blanchard's "funeral," we see it takes place in a synagogue. Evidently the Society members are "good" Christians.
Another major theme is traditional teen angst. Probably everyone has felt different at some point in their lives, whether it's from schoolmates, powerful adults, or even their own families. Teens are going through monumental physical changes, accompanied by sexual feelings that they don't fully understand. They're unsure of their status, and apprehensive about becoming an adult, maturing into someone with a career, spouse, children, etc. This movie exploits these common fears, and takes them to ridiculous extremes. Bill feels alienated because he really is--he's the adopted human of a bunch of human-like monsters, who are raising him only for the purpose of eventually devouring him. (They were humans at one point, though. They deny being aliens, at a point when they have no reason to lie. Yuzna stated in a later conversation that he envisioned them as being humans that were invaded by parasites centuries ago.) Effective horror movies mine the fears that many/most people experience--fear of the dark, the unknown, death, etc., and use them in an exaggerated way to scare us anew.
I was watching an interview with Yuzna that appears on a new special edition DVD that I just received, and he admitted straight out that the incest plot line was an intentional exploitation of another common fear/taboo. And it is disturbing. Bill's adoptive parents look younger, and more attractive that most middle aged parents. His adopted sister is also very attractive. So the scenes where they're acting a little too friendly and familiar with each other makes the viewer uncomfortable and queasy. When they distort themselves into strange, impossible shapes and combine with each other this just reinforces the horror of the taboo. Also, staying on disturbing sexual imagery, the shunting process is both a devouring, and a kind of rape. All the bodies involved are naked, glistening, and both penetrating and eating their victim in a nasty violation.
As with many horror movies, for much of it we're not sure if what's shown is real, or if the main character is insane. "Society" toys with us for quite a while. Bill sees and hears things that seem weird and awful, but then everything appears to return to normal and safe, very quickly. Some films, of course, never fully tip their hand, and leave it up to the viewer to decide what the truth really is. "Society" eventually comes down firmly on the interpretation that Bill is not crazy--there is a conspiracy at hand, hatched by powerful monsters. But it's still well played while it lasts, I thought, and adds to the unsettling tone of the movie. The co-author of the script, Woody Keith, might have had some issues, according to Yuzna. The basic story was supposedly based on his life, growing up wealthy and disaffected in the Beverly Hills area. Write what you know, I guess. (Hopefully he wasn't really raised by sick cultists, or murdering monsters.)
Finally, no discussion of "Society" would be complete without getting into its extreme weirdness. Most obviously, the bodily forms that the group members take are wonderfully imaginative and bizarre. Faces distorted into elongated snouts, bodies twisted like pretzels, people melded into each other, a man grows his head out of his butt, and another becomes a figure with a giant hand for a head. During the shunting scenes, everyone's naked, covered in goo, and simultaneously having sex and consuming each other. But there are other odd touches, too. Clarisa acts strangely much of the time, including her rather unusual and disgusting offer to add a bodily fluid to Bill's beverage. Her mother, who's apparently a Society member, doesn't ever seem to be normal. She's mute, dresses oddly, appears to be mentally handicapped, and shows a tendency to enjoy ripping out and consuming people's hair. The special effects person for this movie, Screaming Mad George, really did a great job. The effects are wonderfully gross and unique--some remind me of Rob Bottin and Stan Winstons' creations for the 1982 remake of "The Thing." Evidently Screaming Mad George and Brian Yuzna drew direct inspiration from a 1930's movie "Doctor X," and several of Salvador Dali's stranger paintings.
(END SPOILERS--SAFE FOR ALL READERS) Of those involved in the production of "Society" I think it's safe to say that director Brian Yuzna is the most known. Yuzna produced "Re-Animator" (1985), "From Beyond" (1986), "Warlock" (1989), and "Dagon" (2001), among others. Aside from "Society" he directed such films as "Bride of Re-Animator" (1990), "Return of the Living Dead Part 3"(1993), "The Dentist" (1996), "Beyond Re-Animator" (2003), and "Amphibius" (2010). He also co-wrote the original story behind "Honey I Shrunk the Kids." Star Billy Warlock (son of famous stuntman Dick Warlock) has had a busy acting career, but mostly in television soap operas and "Baywatch." He was in "Halloween 2" (1981) and "The Thing Below" (2004) in addition. Evan Richard, who portrayed Milo,appeared in such movies as "Altered States"(1980), "Twilight Zone: The Movie"(1983) "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1986) and "Mute Witness" (1995). Devin DeVasquez (Clarisa) is probably best known for being a Playboy Playmate, and also appeared in "Can't Buy Me Love" (1987) and the fourth "Toxic Avenger" film (2000). Ben Myerson, who played Ted Ferguson, also acted in Speed 2: Cruise Control" (1997), "Knocked Up" (2007), and "Funny People" (2009). Charles Lucia (Bill's dad Jim Whitney), Ben Slack (Dr. Cleveland) and David Wells (Sergeant Burt) all had over 70 acting credits, mostly in television roles. Finally, Brian Bremer (Martin Petrie) appeared in another movie I discussed on this blog, 1988's "Pumpkinhead" (See July 13, 2016 post) as Bunt. Special effects guru Screaming Mad George worked on such films as "Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors" (1987) "Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master" (1988), "Predator" (1987), "Freaked" (1993), and "Beyond Re-Animator" (2003). So essentially, many of the actors and crew have had eventful careers, but I wouldn't classify any of them as being household names (unless you're in a household made up of obsessive horror fans, I guess).
Therefore, in conclusion, I don't know why "Society" did relatively poorly, at least in some areas of the world. The story is innovative, and the film blurs genres effectively. There's a nice creepy tone to it, punctuated by spectacular, disturbing and disgusting special effects, especially at the end. There's even some darkly humorous moments. All in all, in my opinion, it's a fun, bizarre, and horrific movie. Yuzna stated in the past few years that a sequel might be in the works. Or, knowing Hollywood, perhaps a reboot. Hopefully either of these resist the urge to try to top Screaming Mad George's efforts with a bunch of unconvincing CGI effects.