Society (1989) Review

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Horror movies can be difficult to market. Take Tobe Hooper‘s 1995 adaptation of Stephen King‘s The Mangler, for example. It’s a film about a possessed killer laundry press. A laundry press. You could argue that a particularly unpleasant death is frightening in itself, albeit in a rather non-subtle way. But wanna know the rub? It can’t move. You literally have to feed yourself to this death machine. How is that scary? That’s assisted suicide at best, weaponized Darwinism at worst.

Society, directed by Re-animator producer Brian Yuzna, has a similar issue with marketability. Ostensibly a horror movie, Society follows one Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) and his unironic complaints about his privileged, spoilt lifestyle. Bill claims to feel like a black sheep in his own family and social circles, but lives in carefree luxury. But after peeling back the ostentatious trappings of Beverly Hills life he discovers a lifestyle of gross excess.

Now a story about a young man, who has everything and appreciates nothing, trying to find his place in the world was always going to be difficult to make appealing. It’s such a first world problem, like complaining that your wallet is too small to store all your money. Luckily for Society, however, writers Rick Fry and Woody Keith merely use this set-up to establish an intriguing slow-burning paranoia fuelled mystery. Think Jacob’s Ladder meets Pride and Prejudice.

Bill is plagued by nightmarish visions, and a general sense of unease that causes him to feel that something bad is going to happen. The viewer can likely guess what kind of movie this is going to be from the cold opening: the atmosphere is dream-like as Bill explores his home imagining strange disembodied laughter coming from the ether. Society initially opts for a psychological approach, purposely blurring the lines between what is or isn’t real.

It’s only at the film’s conclusion that we receive answers to our questions. And boy, are we made to regret our desire to understand. Despite the opening three-quarters of the 100-minute runtime being little more than an ambiguously creepy melodrama, Society’s final act serves up a crescendo of macabre sexuality and mind-warping body horror.

The way Yuzna stages the climax is a perfect example of how to connect the overarching themes of a film with the tangible and visceral. It’s such an abrupt turn into gut-wrenching madness that even after several viewings I find myself at a loss on how to illustrate my reaction to this shift in tone. It’s a shift into utterly puerile territory. Think of it as though you’ve ordered a cheesecake in a fancy restaurant, only to discover after a few mouthfuls that it’s made of foetuses. But then you carry on eating anyway.

What sets Eighties horror apart from modern horror is the dedication to warts and all practical gore. A film like Hostel (2005) may be more realistic in its depiction of a man getting his fingers cut off, but it’s so clinical and over-produced. I find the use of puppets and crude workarounds to simulate gore to be far more efficient. Sure, it’s not as immersive, but it does have the advantage of coming across as grungy and inhuman.

So Society culminates a bizarre orgy -referred to as ‘shunting’ – of amalgamating limbs, melting flesh, and reconfiguring bodies; all of which is brought to life with rubbery, slimy puppetry. At one point a man actually puts his hand up inside another man and uses him like a marionette – with two fingers and a thumb sticking out of his eye sockets and mouth. Another has a face for an arse.

With the gross-out nature of the effects, it should come as no surprise that Screaming Mad George was responsible. And yes, that is his name. Apart from sounding like a Mad Max character, SMG had created the effects for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 & 4, Predator, and Arena – demonstrating a propensity for practical effects dripping in bodily fluids. It’s therefore natural that he would work with Yunza on Society’s big ending, creating the heterogeneous mass of gyrating bodies. The result is a final act that’s an endurance test of violent, sweaty, abhorrent sexuality.

Society was intended as Yunza’s commentary against a decade of rampant excess and soulless materialism. A reaction to the yuppie culture and its sociopathic politics. Bret Ellis did something similar a couple of years later, with American Psycho – which used 1980’s corporate culture as a backdrop for a horror story about the relationship between extreme capitalism and sadism. Society goes further than this, taking the notion of the 1% having always fed on the poor to its logical conclusion.

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