After a few insistent recommendations, I decided it was time to check out Society, a 1989 horror flick from Brian Yuzna who was a first-time director but had writing and production credits on various ‘80s horror gems such as From Beyond and Re-Animator.
The direct Lovecraft influence may not have made it to Society but Yuzna’s bodyhorror game continued to shock and for a filmography like his, it’s pretty remarkable that Society remains his weirdest ever movie.
The film focuses on Bill Whitney, a privileged young rich man who seems to be set up with a perfect life. He’s the popular kid with his cheerleader girlfriend and a good shot at being class president. However, he’s also prone to hallucinations and feels an odd disconnect between him and his family and so is in therapy with his family shrink, Dr. Cleveland.
His sister, Jenny, is preparing for her coming out party (note to anyone who isn’t a really posh American: wiki defines that as a formal ceremony to ‘debut’ a young lady aristocrat and introduce them to society. She seems nice enough, apart from a weird scene where she seems to have the twisty hips of an ‘80s action figure. Bill puts this down to his mad hallucinations but is still paranoid.
His paranoia is then justified when Jenny’s weird ex Blanchard (to be fair, everyone in Society is weird) plays him a tape that sounds like Jenny and her family having an insane orgy. Bill attempts to play the tape for Dr. Cleveland but he’s in with the family and furthermore, the ‘Society’ itself.
At this point you realise that Bill is correct. His family are an ancient species of shape-shifting aristos that are intent on eating poor people. After a run-in with the poshest, most popular kid in town, Ferguson, Bill realises that the society extends beyond just his family and therapist and after Blanchard is killed in a staged car accident and Bill fins Martin Petrie (his main rival for class presidency) dead in a car before Martin returns to humiliate him in the final debate, Bill’s mindset is severely challenged and his fake bastard weird alien dad decides to have him drugged up to the eyeballs and taken to hospital.
Bill escapes the hospital and returns home to find his house is full of rich people and they are ready to party. And by that I mean gloop around in a weird way absorbing people. The insane sequence of body shifting madness that occurs next really cannot be described and has to be seen. Suffice to say that the fight between Bill and Ferguson has the kind of finisher that’d make Mortal Kombat’s programmers blush.
Society leaves you with an icky weird feeling afterwards. The 100% practical effects get to you in the same way that John Carpenter’s head-splitting dog did in The Thing. There’s an uncomfortableness to it. However, to get to the frankly insane final reel you do have to endure a lot of nonsense.
While Billy Warlock does a great job in the lead role – in fact you’ll be wondering why his IMDB filmography is so sparse – his character’s confusion is completely shared by the viewers. Because you’re never sure what is real and what isn’t, it’s hard to stay invested in the plot. He’s not a hugely sympathetic character either.
There are some great moments though and his relationship with Clarissa Carlyn, a very odd girl that he gets involved with when his stuck-up cheerleader girlfriend leaves him, does at least introduce Clarissa’s mother (played by Pamela Matheson) who is a hair obsessed mute maniac. Her condition is never really explained and nor do you need it to be. She’s just hilarious and ace.
I can’t claim to have really enjoyed Society but as an example of late ‘80s body horror, it’s an important film that is worth watching once and if you want to see what happens when a filmmaker is given free rein to explore their own imagination, Society is probably the most obvious example of that. Don’t expect to enjoy it (although you very well might) but do expect to be challenged a little.