BFI Cult Season – Society (1989)
I think I’ve been a little too easy on you of late gentle reader, there has been far too much emphasis on family friendly blockbusters and prestigious cinema classics over the past few months, this sweaty summer weather makes me feel like getting dirty and dragging you all down with me. The impetus to see Brian Yuzna’s body horror satire Society copulates from three sources, the first imperative a strange appetite I had for seeing some horror of any ilk, like I said I’ve become a little exasperated with wholesome storytelling and heroics of late and with the next films on my agenda being the Fantastic Four reboot, Pixar’s Inside Out (or ‘oh, is that the bio-pic of the dog from The Thing? as the CHUD guys amusingly queried) and MI:V this innocent trend is set to continue. The materialization of the film on the BFI’s cult movie programme therefore pricked my curiosity, aligned with the fact that the GGtMC guys, the hosts of one of the most respected and long-running cult movie podcasts serendipitously covered the film as part of last weeks broadcast, and their musings and observations further intensified my terrible intent. Finally I’ve just started reading this and while Herzog may seem an incongruous choice allow me to elaborate – I’ll cover the book in detail as part of my continuing season but one core element of the 700+ page tome is the urge to follow your instincts and inquisitive drive, so after an unproductive weekend lounging around the flat I just thought sod it, I’m gonna take in a double bill at the BFI and all sense and sensibility be damned. That’s just how I roll sometimes man, like some turbo-charged maverick who simply doesn’t follow the rules, throwing caution to the wind like some delinquent debutante.
As a misshapen antidote to the preening emotional insecurities of John Hughes oeuvre Society follows the neurosis of preppy and privileged high school student Bill Whitney, played with incredulous inefficiency by the sorcerously monikored Billy Warlock, acting the son to an extraordinarily wealthy Los Angeles family. Although he wants for no financial strain and sports the best threads, vehicles and sporting equipment a young man could want poor Billy is deeply unsatisfied, feeling like an outsider and alien to his inordinately satisfied parents and cheerleading siren sister (Connie Danese). These neurotic malfunctions begin to manifest as strange, contorted hallucinations of his peers and kin being warped and melded creatures from a Lovecraftian nightmare, a surreal vision of contortionist catastrophe beyond any sanity supporting limit of human endurance. The paranoia intensifies as some of his less privileged school friends mutter darkly of strange rituals and transgressive séances within the community, only for them to end up dead in some strangely convoluted accidents. It’s Cronenberg goes to high school, or maybe Heathers goes to hell, although the latter is a much finer expose of the rituals and insecurities of teenage turbulence. Instead Society is impregnated within a wider picture of social horror, the urge to fit in and function while one’s hormones are ‘jack-hammering like a Jock’s heart on prom night’ as Ash might say, to confirm within one’s own class and strata or be damned for the consequences…..
If I do say so myself (and fuck any false modesty) I’ve probably made the film sound far more slithering and effective than it actually is, but given the circumstances of its production the movie gets a modest pass. Society is striving for the Lyncian nightmare nestling beneath the white picket fences and warm apple pies cooling on the window sill, almost Ballardian in its intent if not in tone, as this is a film with a potent premise which is hamstrung by some budgetary blunders and directorial inexperience. There’s a kernel of a good film here but the execution is more ‘C’ movie than even ‘B’ movie, but you can’t fault debutante Brian Yuzna as his mischievous heart is in the right place – he’s playing this one for gruesome grins rather than ghastly groans. For crepuscular chills you’ll need to look further afield for a genuine pricking of the hackles, as Yuzna’s approach seems to be to ladle some dark and moody lighting, dutch-angled camera displacement and a ‘menacing’ soundtrack to equal spine-chilling terror, when in fact the only horror is some truly insipid and nonsensical dialogue tumbling from the teenage casts woeful mouths. It would be charitable to suggest that these affectations are intended, that the film is designed as a wooden parody of your Beverley Hills 90210, Saved By The Bell and other late Eighties teen-dramas, but quite frankly I just think that the filmmakers just didn’t have the sophistication for witty writing or for moulding a competent acting performance, but as with many cult films these failures seed the film with a strange, amateurish charm. When the film lurches into its final notorious contortions then it does, well, burst into life, with some gloopy prosthetics and slime designs supplied by the amusingly named Screaming Mad George. Even with that colourful name he ain’t no Rob Bottin or Rick Baker but the sequence largely holds up, it is this metaphorical massacre which has echoed throughout the ages and awarded the film some sort of noxious notoriety, serving as the main marketing hook when it was publicised in the likes of Fangoria, Starburst and the rest of the entrail attuned press back in the day.
The film is absolutely ripe for a remake, and I’m sure I heard rumours of such predictable activity, however a quick scourge of the interwebs yields little evidence. Is there a more pregnant contemporary horror metaphor that the rich leeching from the poor, or of the young sacrificed to maintain the status quo? Throw in some Bohemian Grove, Skull & Bones Ivy League conspiracy theorist texture and the damn thing writes itself, and you could easily raise, what, $5 to $10 million seed funding I reckon. Maybe hire Bret Eastern Ellis to take a screenplay pass for some elite school debauchery kudos, hire Greg Nicotero for costume and creature SFX and rope in Eli Roth or Ti West on helmsman duties. If you wanna real stir the controversy up then hire some wholesome mouseketeer types (or the modern equivalent), young fresh-faced starlets of the sort that were in Spring Breakers and you’ve got yourself a modest little hit as long as you maintain the 1% metaphor to keep the intellectuals happy, and expose enough bare flesh and pulsating protrusions to keep the teenagers and gore hounds satiated. Although Society has dated fairly badly and was never entirely corpulent to begin with I still recommend a Blu-Ray watch, it has just been reissued in a handsome set which is dripping with ichorous extras, and as the GGTMC guys observed it’s an ideal double-bill with Larry Cohen’s The Stuff or maybe even Carpenters They Live for a duo-fix of consumerist charged commentary. Next up I’ll be plumping the depths of 1970’s Hollywood neo-noir, until then you’d best get prepared for the ‘shunting’, the absolute summit soirée of the season;