Society (1989) Review

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

Society (1989) Review

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on October 04th, 2018 | Movie Review | Survival, Cult, Psychological, Teen, Body Horror

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It’s about a young man's life in Beverly Hills who is starting to feel like he doesn't belong.

Society was directed by Brian Yuzna (who also directed Progeny and Beyond Re-Animator) and stars Billy Warlock (from The Thing Below), Connie Danese and Ben Slack.

If you don't belong, they'll eat you alive.

Society Review

You’re Better Off Crashing The Party

Society is a tenacious movie to review. One aches so badly not to spoil it, it is so much better going in cold, and yet, like The Cabin in the Woods (2012), it is impossible to talk about without spoiling. Heck, even the movie’s own posters spoil something. So fair warning: this movie has dark delights that, have faith in your Present Author, will richly reward the intrepid horror movie explorer.

“Go see it first without reading another word about it.” That’s high praise around here.

Now To Stall Some To Pad This Out Before The Spoilers

Let’s talk about the late, great Robert Anton Wilson. RAW had a huge influence on me, as a favorite author in my larval stage, and wary readers can catch me pouring one out for him in my own style now and then. RAW was curator of conspiracy theories; not a proponent of them, nor a debunker of them, but a curator, as one tends a museum. Conspiracy theories catch you coming and going, because if they prove true, they’re always an amazing story about what shenanigans people get up to, and if they prove false, they still say fascinating things about our culture and how such myths form.

Society is a conspiracy-based horror movie, and one Wilson would have doubtless approved had he known of it. It’s a pity this subgenre is so sparse. Our present time in Western civilization, more than ever, is ripe for conspiracy horror. In horror movie culture, we’re up to our eyeballs in jump-scares, terror, and gore. But we’re forgetting how to appreciate paranoia. Paranoia gets you both ways: Either there really was a monster in the closet the whole time, or you’re going crazy and mom and dad were right to have you committed.

A Witty Social Satire Treat

In an age where “the 1%” and “Occupy Wall Street” are common phrases, Society gets more relevant with every passing year. It’s a briny satire of class warfare, satire being yet *another* thing that needs to be brought back to modern horror cinema in the worst way. We’re not talking about the Scary Movie franchise, we’re talking about the kind of satire that rips a panic story from the headlines and blows it way out of proportion, to mock either the fear or the situation that made that fear real. The author Ira Levin ( Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil) made a whole career out of this.

In Beverly Hills, California, at the peak end of the grabby-greedy ‘80s, Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) enjoys the privileges of an upper-class, worry-free life. So why is he so worried? He has a therapist to share his free-floating, unfocused anxiety with, and he’s surrounded by a social validation network. That includes hot girlfriend Clarissa Carlyn (Playboy model Devin DeVasquez), a replacement for the even-shallower Barbie doll who dumps Billy literally because he doesn’t have enough social clout. But a friend-of-a-friend plays him a tape of the things Billy’s family says behind his back, and later of a party for the elite, which sounds like an orgy in Hell. As Billy wends his way through solving the mystery, he’s drawn to the center of a web of intrigue that leads to disgusting, shocking realizations.

It’s been mentioned that the target of Society, the divide between rich and poor (or more directly, the powerful elite and the proletarian), is a lesson some still aren’t willing to accept. This movie, filmed and fed in the lap of American glamor, opened in Europe to unanimous praise but was held back in the States for three years before being released to a dismal reception. Europe has a tradition of treating its overstuffed elite to a one-way trip to the guillotine when they get out of hand, a practice not yet taken hold in America. Duly noted.

Come For The Party, Stay For The Refreshments

The direction by Brian Yuzna, whose resume is filled with Lovecraftian goodies like Re-Animator and Necronomicon, should tell you something about where this is going, along with his special effects assistant Joji Tani AKA “Screaming Mad George.” The fact that this movie is often compared to the works of David Cronenberg should tell you some more.

So OK, it’s body horror and really gloopy, but don’t take The Big Spoil to mean that Society has nothing more to offer. Starting with the first scenes, the whole movie makes us question what’s real and what’s inside Billy’s head. It is equal parts pitch-black comedy as much as horror; you will never view the casual insult “butthead” quite the same way again. Billy’s friend Milo taunts him with lines like “You’ll probably end up assassinating the president!” to which Billy observes that Milo has a warped sense of humor.

“Warped sense of humor” is the chief ingredient here. The script joyfully tosses in the smorgasbord of sexual perversions and fetishes. There’s references to incest, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and watersports with Billy’s girlfriend Clarissa casually offering him tea: “Cream, sugar... or do you want me to pee in it?” Sly background hints to the movie’s nature reward re-watching: The contorted exotic masks hanging on the wall at the therapist’s office, and just what is that statue on Billy’s sister’s vanity? A puzzling scene with a gardener removing slugs from the hedges using chopsticks and a plate brings the comment “This is the best crop we’ve ever grown.” Clarissa’s mother catches Billy and Clarissa making out, and her response is to cough up a hairball and hand it over silently. This film takes the Charles Addams prize for double-take “wait, what?” moments.

Worth A Second Look

The only drawbacks you could nitpick are that the movie does look firmly frozen in the 1980s right between Dynasty and Beverly Hills 90210, and the subject of the satire is a tad trite. What, rich people and poor people don’t get along? Hold the phone while I go get Jonathon Swift. Society delivers that message with a sledgehammer, taking extra effort to spell things out to make sure the coked-up mall rats at the Cineplex understand that yes, this movie means you. Those scant faults keep this movie from being a perfect 10.

But let’s be fair: This was Brian Yuzna’s first time directing. Most directors would be glad to see their fifth film turn out this good. In addition, the performances all around are polished, with Billy Warlock’s first time as the lead role in a feature film also turning out surprisingly solid.

Society in recent years has been rediscovered by horror film culture as a film ahead of its time, and one that’s under-appreciated for how well-made it was. That’s great. We just hate to see it spoiled so inevitably, but hey, omelets and eggs. You can’t make an upper-class orgy without scrambling a few people.

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