Fair warning – for this review we’re taking a trip down:
Well, that was a thing.
So, Society looks like the kind of movie I should have been all over back in the VHS days. Brian Yuzna definitely had name recognition for me, given how much I loved The Beyond and Re-animator. The original VHS cover even looks slightly familiar. I know I haven’t seen it before, though. Yeah, I’d have remembered seeing Society.
I think that by the time it was released in the US – roughly 1992 – I was in the middle of being a ‘serious’ comic book artist and dating the woman I’d eventually marry. My days of renting stacks of horror movies with my friends had been replaced by late night zip-a-tone sessions and negotiating a movie rental me and my girl could agree on. There’s no way she’d have been up for this one.
I’ve heard about it since, of course. One remembers phrases like ‘horror orgy’ and ‘pulled a guy inside out.’ I’ve somehow managed to avoid seeing it before last night, however. Maybe I’m getting soft, maybe gore no longer holds the thrills it did when I was younger. Maybe… maybe I’m growing up.
I’m making that Shudder subscription pay for itself.
Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock, looking like a cross between Johnny Depp and Michael J. Fox) seems like he has it all. He’s from a wealthy family, is the captain of the football team, and is likeable enough to seem like a shoe-in to be voted class president. It’s not all shiny new Jeeps and pool parties, though. Billy is starting to feel a bit estranged from his family – like he doesn’t really belong. Like there’s something weird and wrong with them.
Typical teenage angst, right? And all the late 80’s hair, shoulder pads and fashion could trick you into thinking you were watching a John Hughes knockoff – and not that good a one, either. There are darker elements that worm their way into the storyline, however. Billy’s sister seems to have significant body issues (like, boobs on your back sort of issues) and her old boyfriend has an audio tape that makes it seem like her coming out party involved some serious incest and casual murder, but hey – what teenage guy doesn’t have family problems?
In addition to the building weirdness – and clumsy plot points to try and make it seem like Billy is maybe having a mental breakdown – there’s standard (and boring) teen movie stuff. Billy has a falling out with his blonde beach-bunny girlfriend over his fascination with the sexy brunette bad girl. There’s the scion of a richer family that’s Billy’s rival. There’s the mom of sexy brunette girl who seems to have an unhealthy fascination with hair…
If it wasn’t for the occasional murder, hair eating and body weirdness I would have tried to find something else to watch. It’s thuddingly slow and boring in parts and there’s none of the ingenious staging, sharp editing and fun performances you’d find in the films Yuzna produced, like Re-animator or even Warlock. There’s an almost 50’s feel to things, and I half expected Billy to race to the police station in a hot rod to declaim to a disinterested sheriff that “my parents are monsters!”
There’s some subtext (and a lot of, I dunno, overtext) about the wealthy vs the poor, how you can only be of use if you’re a contributor to ‘Society.’ It’s all pretty ham-handed, though, and if the filmmakers had gone with the original concept of the wealthy members of society all being members of some bizarre cult I’d probably never have bothered to see the film.
But Yuzna has a massive trick up his sleeve, and that trick is named Screaming Mad George. The special effects artist had worked on Big Trouble in Little China and Predator as well as Nightmare on Elmstreet parts 3 and 4. With Society George was given carte blanche to come up with the most crazy, disgusting, fleshy special effects sequence ever seen in a movie.
Because Billy is right, you see. His family members really are weird and there really is something wrong with them. With every member of proper Society with a capital ‘S.’ They’re sickening, shape shifting monsters that literally feed on the lower classes through a process called ‘shunting,’ which seems like code for melting your body into a weird shape and then sticking your hand up a person’s ass until your fingers come out of their mouth.
Now we’re talking!
It’s this horrific orgy of body horror the cements Society as a real cult classic. Without it, it’s a story with a message and not much meat, but the final twenty minutes or so is balls to the wall crazy that takes the whole ‘the upper crust are really monsters that suck off the rest of the world’ idea and makes it flesh and bone. It’s weird that it’s this massive shock of latex and goop that turns the movie around and actually lets it make the statements that it’s been clumsily hinting at the whole time, but it does.
Even here there are some mis-steps. The effects lend themselves to comedic moments and some of them are pretty good – others, not so much. A moment with Billy’s dad, transformed so that his face is sticking out of his ass, is milked way too much. A fight scene with the rival has a rubber ‘twang-g-g-g’ sound effect that goes on too long and too loud to be funny. I still don’t know what is up with that woman and her obsession with hair. Overall, though, the parade of sickening effects works and is almost – ALMOST – as grossly satisfying as the end of Dead Alive.
The Bottom Line
Society is a message movie. A gore and nudity filled message movie. It’s Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” by way of The Blob with a little John Hughes and a hefty, heaving pile of incestuous grue. Don’t let that make you think it is, in any way, a good movie, however. The actors are not great, the cinematography and staging is mediocre, the pacing is all over the place. Pretty much the only good thing about it is the last twenty minutes. But man, if you can stomach it, those last twenty minutes actually make the previous hour or so worth it.