Society Blu-ray Review: Glorious Mess of an ’80s Horror Movie

Horror movies are often critiqued as metaphors, largely in an attempt to approach them in terms that distance critics from the act of watching the horror movie. I’m not watching a guy with a knife stab some poor, mostly undressed girl, and enjoying it! I’m watching a metaphor!

And filmmakers, who sometimes make the mistake of listening to critics, have built metaphorical aspects of their stories into genre codes (all skewered in Scream and its imitators) so the filmmaker is not filming mock-rape scenarios that end in violence for titillation’s sake – they’re filming a metaphor! Except it’s always the same metaphor, saying the same thing.

So one of the things I like a lot about Society is that it has a very unique, undisguised metaphor not hidden inside genre codes. Whatever is good (or bad) about Society, it is its own movie, saying its own things and presenting its own, mostly really weird, imagery.

Filled with actors who look and act like they’re on loan from Baywatch (which is kind of the case for the lead), Society stars Billy Whitlock as the disaffected member of the Whitney family. He has bad dreams, goes to a therapist to discuss his alienation, and all around does not fit in. The stilted acting and awkward tempos of the scenes where Bill tries to talk to his parents, where every actor seems to be waiting for a cue from somewhere off camera to say their lines, are genuinely uncomfortable in a way I can only imagine was intentional.

Billy’s sense of alienation is mixed with a sexual attraction to his sister Jenny. Incest is a constant theme in Billy’s therapy, as is the feeling he belongs somewhere else and should be living in constant fear.

It’s left open whether Billy’s fears are in his head until Blanchard, Jenny’s former boyfriend, brings him a tape he made of the Whitney family (sans Billy) talking in the car on the way to her coming out party, where his father reassures Jenny, “First, we dine. Then we copulate.”

What the hell that means, for them, for Billy, for everyone in his circle of friends and enemies, social outcasts and social climbers, is the secret at the heart of Society and, I suppose, society. It has a very specific take on what exactly it means that “the rich are different” (and not just that they have more money.) In Society, the rich are very, very different – in a way that makes it difficult to describe in a review without completely revealing the horrible and grotesque ending of a horrible and grotesque movie.

This article being on the Internet, the secrets of Society are available to anyone who searches for the movie. Hell, the gooey true nature of the Society’s members is guessable from the movie poster or the terrific box that comes with this Arrow Video release. Better received overseas than in America, Society is the directorial debut of producer Brian Yuzna (who, like most horror moviemakers, come across as amiable and calmly enthusiastic about his material in the copious interviews and the commentary on this disc). Brian Yuzna had been a producer on numerous horror movies (Re-animator, From Beyond) before taking on directing this script by Rick Fry and Woody Keith. While the original script was about a blood cult made up of the rich, Yuzna likes weird, and so he added his vision for what the society really gets up to behind closed doors, and it’s as gruesome, strange, and nauseating as late ’80s latex and a crazy Japanese artist as a special effects director can allow.

A word on the special effects: many of them look like what they are – molds and plastic and air bladders. Appreciating these kinds of practical effects requires a bit of work on the audience’s part. Looked at outside the context of the story, I can imagine viewers spotting the seams, but that’s always been the case with special effects (and is even the case, if you look hard enough, with CG). Some members of the audience see a flying saucer, some see the plate and the string.

For Society to work, it requires an audience who sees the flying saucer. What helps is the pure exuberance and decadence of the horror at the end – again, I’m dancing around spoiling the material – but there isn’t anything somber or serious about the Society’s creepy murderous orgies. They’re having the time of their lives (it’s the exact opposite of the Eyes Wide Shut orgies 10 years later, where all the random sex and funny costumes were Serious Business). People get killed in Society, but the orgiers are laughing and having a ball.

The film is full of touches that take the questionable acting and pokey pace, and make it all worth it just for the weirdness. After Billy sleeps with one of Society’s pretty girls, she serves him tea and asks, straight faced: “Cream, sugar? Or do you want me to pee in it?” Her mother comes in afterward and coughs up a hairball. It is never explained.

What separates Society from a lot of its ’80s brethren is the even-handedness of all the creepiness and weirdness. It isn’t like Yuzna seems to be going out of his way to shock the squares. He finds a context for the surreality he presents, and keeps a sense of humor throughout that makes the creepiness even creepier. The ending is disgusting, gory, unprecedented, and goes on and on for 20 glorious horrible minutes. It’s cheesy, pokily paced and acted, with a soundtrack that sometimes gets too goofy, but they sure as hell don’t make ’em like this anymore.

The Arrow Video Blu-ray Limited Edition release of Society includes copious extras, including featurettes with interviews with Yuzna, the cast, and the special effects guys, as well as a filmed Q&A and a feature-length commentary, and a comic book sequel (with the limited edition).

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Kent Conrad

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