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April 26, 2016

Movie Review: Society (1989, Blu-ray)

Directed by Brian Yuzna

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Bill Whitney (played by TV regular Billy Warlock) is almost too cool for school. He has a rich, Beverly Hills family, born into a life of privilege and is popular and well-liked at school. Luckily for viewers – as otherwise there would be no story to hang all the perversity on – things are not quite right at home. Eschewing drugs, he walks in on his sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings) showering, and it appears her body is contorted through the frosted glass mirror. When one of Jenny’s ex-boyfriends (Tim Bartell) presents Bill with a clandestine tape, things go from bad to worse. The recording appears to be of his parents encouraging his sister to engage in a perverse orgy, advising her to “shunt,” a word which takes a horrific meaning later on.

Bill’s friends begin to die in mysterious ways, and lots of images foreshadow what’s to come later on – a rival plants an inflatable love doll in his jeep with a doll sticking out of its mouth, and Bill is doused with suntan lotion.

Everyone knows by now – save the people who caught the climactic 20 minutes while channel surfing, which doubtlessly stopped them dead in their tracks, that Bill’s family turns out to be a race of super beings who gather with other like-minded beings for an viscous orgy called “the Shunt.” The Whitneys and their other too-rich and too-thin friends meld bodies, twist into bits of latex and gobble up the less fortunate at their slimy soirees.

An apocryphal bit involving Great American novelist F. Scot Fitzgerald was he once told Ernest Hemingway that “The rich are different than you and me.” Hemingway allegedly replied, “Yes, they have more money.” This notion takes root in Society, with a wink towards Karl Marx. The rich are a different race indeed, and they feed upon the poor and less fortunate. Seen as some as a lethal critique of the Reagan Administration, Society belongs in an elite class of chiller that dared to say at the time – Parents (1989) and Blue Velvet (1986) being the foremost examples -- that monstrosity is frequently normality’s kissing cousin.

The melting mass of humanity seen at the film’s conclusion is the handiwork of makeup maestro and madman Screaming Mad George. The shunters call to mind the work of surrealist artist Salvador Dali, with more than a dash of Hieronymus Bosch. The last great gasp of practical effects, the most memorable monstrosity on display is a man’s face where his anus should be. “Yes, I’m a butthead!” he exclaims.

Dismissed by American critics as yet another cheap horror comedy, Society won very high praise from the British press at the time of its release. Perhaps knowing too well about the abuses of the class system, the incestuous shunters perhaps struck a chord with those in the United Kingdom familiar with the royal family.

Society, produced and completed in 1989, was warmly received in Europe but was shelved for three years before getting a mostly direct-to-video release in the U.S. “I think Europeans are more willing to accept the ideas that are in a movie. That's why for example Society did really well in Europe and in the US did nothing, where it was a big joke. And I think it's because they responded to the ideas in there. I was totally having fun with them, but they are there nonetheless,” director Yuzna said at the time.

The directorial debut of Yuzna, who previously produced the films of Stuart (Re-Animator) Gordon, Society features many broad, overplayed performances. Gordon, a former theatrical director always tends to let his actors overstay their welcome by just a tad with histrionics, and one wonders if Yuzna took this approach directly from Gordon. Society wisely plays its cards close to its vest, with lots of visual cues doled out to the viewer long prior to its bizarre climax.  

Owing to the fact that Society always played better to an overseas audience, the Arrow Video release is packed with so many extras that any further inquiries into this feature will be forever rendered moot. First off is the “Governor of Society," a 17-minute talking head interview with director Yuzna. It is revealed here that Yuzna reveals that the project began after he collaborated with the late Dan O'Bannon of Alien and Return of the Living Dead fame on the screenplay entitled “The Men,” wherein a woman discovers that men are of an extraterrestrial race! Many of these ideas would find their ways into Society. This is followed by 22-minute “Masters of the hunt,” wherein actors Billy Warlock, Devin Devasquez, Ben Meyerson and Tim Bartell talk about their memories of the shoot, in particular the concluding orgy sequence. Seeing as this sequence is pivotal to the film's success, “Champion of the Shunt” is a 20-minute featurette on makeup artists Screaming Mad George, David Grasso and Nick Benson talk about the special effects seen in this film and the great unpaid debt owed to the master surrealist Salvador Dali. If this isn't more than enough, there is yet another Q & A with Yuzna filmed at the United Kingdom's 2014 Celluloid Screams Festival that last mores than 38 minutes. Adding to this overall Yuzna appreciation is a brief two-minute clip of the director speaking at the film's U.K. Premiere at London's Scalia Cinema in 1989. The film's theatrical trailer is also included, which manages for the most part to coyly skirt the issue of the movie's many magical mutations seen in the final third. There's a six-minute, musical video courtesy of Screaming Mad George entitled “Persecution mania,” rather home-brewed in nature that resurrects the giant hand sculpture/costume seen briefly in Society. On top of everything else, there's an audio commentary track of Yuzna with Dick Gregory moderating in addition to English subtitles for the hard of hearing. Phew!

While unsubtle, Society is a worthwhile comedic shocker that adds new meaning to the phrase popularized by President Reagan, “the trickle-down theory.” Keep a lookout for Deep Red magazine publisher and gore guru, the late Chas. Balun as one of the participants in the climatic orgy scene.

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