Last October, Arrow in the Head presented a column called UNSEEN HALLOWEEN, in which the staff recommended movies that are by and large very obscure. This year, UNSEEN HALLOWEEN RETURNS! But with a twist! Each writer is now tackling a very popular horror movie that has somehow eluded them throughout the years. Yeah, we expect to hear it from you guys, but so what! It's Halloweentime, baby!
PLOT: Popular, wealthy Beverly Hills high schooler Bill Whitney has a deep fear of everyone around him, and he may be right to be afraid. There is something very strange going on among the elites.
REVIEW: RE-ANIMATOR. FROM BEYOND. DOLLS. BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT parts 4 and 5. TICKS. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III. As a producer and/or director, Brian Yuzna had a hand in several films that were a part of my earliest years as a horror fan, some of which rank among my favorites to this day. However, one of Yuzna's most popular contributions to the horror genre managed to slip through the cracks for me. That film was 1989's SOCIETY, a movie I would occasionally read references to in the pages of magazines like Fangoria, references talking about how crazy and unforgettably disgusting the film was. I had every intention of watching SOCIETY someday, but didn't get a chance to because it was never available in any of my local video stores. And honestly, even if I did have access to it at the time, I'm not sure a story of strangeness among members of high class society would have been very appealing to me in my younger years. How little draw that concept had for me is evident in the fact that I still never got around to watching SOCIETY even in the age of the internet and movies being more easily accessible. It was on my "I'll watch it eventually" list, but it remained there for decades.
Now this special series of reviews has finally given me the initiative to seek out and watch SOCIETY. With this first viewing, I found that everything I had heard about the film was true. It is deeply strange, and extremely gross.
The story follows Billy Whitney, serviceably but blandly played by future Baywatch and soap opera star Billy Warlock, a character who would appear to have it all - he comes from a wealthy family, lives in a Beverly Hills mansion, is a popular basketball player at his school, and is dating a cheerleader played by Heidi Kozak of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD and SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE 2. Billy just has the feeling that something isn't right, though. He's plagued by nightmares and goes to therapy for an irrational fear of everyone around him - including his parents and sister. Around the time of his sister's coming out party (Wikipedia tells me that such parties are held for young women of upper class families when they've reached the age of maturity so they can make a formal debut in society), which he has to miss for a school function, Billy begins to get an even stronger sense that something is wrong here.
SOCIETY is essentially a BODY SNATCHERS tale at its core, as Billy suspects that the people around him aren't who he always thought they were. There seems to be something very dark and nasty being hidden from him. People start exhibiting inappropriate behavior, and he keeps getting glimpses of bodies moving in impossible ways. A moving bulge under someone's skin. A female whose body parts appear to be on backwards. Bodies twisted. We can't be sure if these are just more of Billy's nightmarish hallucinations or if these things are actually happening.
Perhaps even more troubling than the body horror is the tape recording Billy hears of what took place at his sister's party - the sounds of an orgy with no boundaries, his sister "copulating" with every man and woman there, including their parents. A recording that ends with someone screaming in horror and pain. When Billy listens to the tape again the things it contains are totally innocuous, so was the recording fake or did those things really take place? After digging into the mystery and enduring a series of increasingly bizarre events, Billy eventually discovers the answers when he finds himself the guest of honor at another of the Beverly Hills high society's parties.
The body horror element is the part of SOCIETY that I've heard get the most hype and praise over the years, and there are some jaw-dropping effects on display here, provided by special effects artist Screaming Mad George, who could always be counted on to deliver surreal and stomach-turning sights. The last 20 minutes of this film are a George-supplied barrage of insanity that is quite uncomfortable to sit through.
It took me twenty-seven years to finally watch SOCIETY, but I still found it to be very effective, as Yuzna was able to capture an unsettling atmosphere for this mind-bending story he and screenwriters Rick Fry and Woody Keith were telling. While things like fashion give away the fact that the movie was made in the late '80s, it also doesn't feel dated at all - in fact, the story is just as timely now as it was then, if not more so. This film deals with real world issues that have been getting strong attention over the last several years - social and economic inequality, the 1%, the destruction of the lower classes. It's not subtle about it; a member of high society outright says that the rich have always fed off of those below them on the social ladder.
Not only are the film's themes still relevant, but I also feel like I watched it at the perfect time, this being an October in an election year, as it's set in October and has an election subplot (albeit an election for high school student body president) and characters who work in Washington, D.C.
I wouldn't have understood SOCIETY if I had watched it when it first came out and it ravaged my brain even now, but I thoroughly enjoyed the weird, twisted journey it took me on and I'm glad that I finally saw it. This is a film that I wouldn't hesitate to rank up there among the best of Yuzna's output.
FAVORITE SCENE: It has to be that climactic sequence I've been hearing about since 1989. There's no way to talk or think about SOCIETY without those visuals coming to mind. These things are going to be lingering in my head for a long time. Thank you, Screaming Mad George.
- During the first hour, take a sip of your drink when there's any sort of body oddity.
- Take a drink whenever there's an uncomfortable moment of incestuous sexual tension.
- When you hear the line "I do love the smell of the hunt and the taste of the shunt", down your drink to prepare for what follows.