Society (1989) Blu-ray Review: Nice Buildup to the Impressively Grotesque

Having never seen it, I read the synopsis for 1989’s Society and thought, “Yeah, that could be interesting.” Then I saw the trailer and started to second guess it. Fortunately, the combination of ’80s cheese, atmospheric tension, and a completely insane third act delivered on the promise of the premise.

See, Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) has never quite felt at home with his family or their social circle. He gets weird vibes from his sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings), conformist advice from his psychiatrist, and is always treated as lacking something by his parents. He sometimes catches glimpses of distortions or contortions around him that trigger a double-take, things that shouldn’t be possible — just enough to make him uneasy but not completely off his rocker. His best friend Milo (Evan Richards) doesn’t seem to be drinking the same Kool Aid as everyone else and wants to help Bill make sense of it all, but is hesitant to upset the status quo. When outsider David (Tim Bartell) approaches Bill with upsetting evidence that confirms his suspicions, things quickly get turned on their head — his paranoia finally had something resembling proof. Then, as quickly as they appear, both David and the evidence appear to perhaps not be what they seemed.

Bill tries fervently to keep his cool while struggling to sort out what’s going on. His preppy high school nemeses start to turn even nastier toward him than usual, his parents increasingly chastise his investigative efforts, and the pressure to just drop the questions and conform to Society as they call it ramp up more and more. When buxom babe Clarissa (Devin DeVasquez) unexpectedly takes an interest in Bill, he questions her motives, suspecting she might just be another agent of the system of control he’s trying to untangle, but ultimately succumbs to her lusty ways. The tension and plot complexity build up at a good pace, making it very fun to watch. It wins with intrigue rather than being showy and gory. It’s not a bloody movie. It’s kind of like if an episode of Dynasty were shot inside The Twilight Zone. Smart scary, not disgustingly off-putting.

Then the third act starts, the truth starts to be revealed, and…wow. I’m pretty jaded to effects and grossness and horror trappings, but effects wizard Screaming Mad George really outdid himself. Words can’t really do it justice. Maybe saying Picasso and Lovecraft had a shot at reimagining the orgy scene from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut with the help of Stan Winston and Rob Bottin starts to scratch the surface. Truly, that 20 minutes or so was one of the most memorably unsettling things I’ve ever seen in cinema. Bravo, cast and crew.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo comes with a slew of special features. The film itself has been bumped up to 1080p on BD and looks good, though there is still some sort of background noise or filter throughout the picture. I don’t know if this was a stylistic choice or a limitation of the source, but it doesn’t detract from the experience unless you really obsess over it. There are a number of featurettes with modern day interviews with director Brian Yuzna, effects guru Screaming Mad George, and key cast members on the making of the film and how it fit into their overall careers. Yuzna also provides feature audio commentary. I can’t comment on the promised reversible case sleeve or the collector’s booklet as I only received a pre-production standalone Blu-ray disc by itself for review consideration.

After some initial skepticism, I ended up really liking Society. It takes a hard left into crazy town by the end, but everything leading up to that harkens back to the days when you had to actually tell a story, not just throw guts at the screen to build tension.

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Mark Buckingham

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