Billy Whitney seems to lead a charmed life: he lives in a Beverly Hills mansion, is popular at school and appears to be a dead cert for the position of class president, and is dating a hot cheerleader. But all these comforts aren’t enough to overcome his profound sense of alienation, the feeling that he doesn’t truly belong where he is, particularly with his family. What seems to be a case of simple teen angst is proven horrifically true when his sister Jenny’s ex-boyfriend passes along an audiotape secretly recorded at her coming-out party. While the tape admittedly seems to be proof that the party was actually a murderous, incestuous orgy, it turns out the truth is even weirder than that as Billy comes to suspect his family, neighbors and schoolmates might not even be human…
Society is the directorial début of Brian Yuzna, and even at this early point in his career (although he wasn’t a complete stranger to filmmaking, having worked with Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli to write and produce movies such as Dolls and Re-Animator for Charles Band) that comes with certain expectations. There’s going to be gore, lots of it, and it’s going to be beautiful. And the entire production, from the effects and cinematography to the story and the themes, is going to be–for lack of a better term–fucking bizarre, particularly in regards to the portrayal of sexuality.
On these points Society does not disappoint. The effects, by occasional Yuzna collaborator Joji “Screaming Mad George” Toji, are designed and executed well (although they look a bit dated by modern standards). The most striking is probably the strangest T&A scene I’ve ever seen: a teen girl is seen in the shower, her front half facing backwards and her bottom half pointed forwards.
What I hadn’t counted on was the film’s subtext: Yuzna and his screenwriters conceived Society as a tale in which the rich feed eat the poor–not metaphorically, but literally. They seem to have been a bit ahead of their time on this: while this idea fits in very well with concepts such as one-percenters and the Occupy movement, in the film’s original context–made at the end of the ’80s, during the wane of GOP control of the executive branch–this must have seemed outright novel. It’s not uncommon for genre filmmakers to claim “social commentary” in defense of their more extreme or shocking work (Nightbreed is a forerunner of the idea of “the 99%,” I Spit On Your Grave is a statement of feminist empowerment, and Hostel is about global anti-American sentiment in the wake of 9/11 and the War On Terror) but here, Yuzna and friends seem to actually mean it.
Apart from the effects, Yuzna’s direction is competent and effective although not particularly visionary at this point, although he does keep a palpable sense of paranoia throughout. He’s not entirely in control of the film’s tone, which occasionally crosses over the line into broad comedy when it should stay on the side of satire. This is best illustrated in a scene leading up to the film’s centerpiece “shunting” sequence which basically consists of little more than a series of visual sick-jokes (including the image most associated with the film nowadays, a scene in which a man shapeshifts so that his face appears between his butt cheeks) which, while admittedly funny, break the spell the film has cast (and also go on for a bit too long).
Characterization is fairly strong and distinctive, but the acting is wildly uneven. The actors playing the adults are fairly good, including Connie Danese and Charles Lucia as the Whitney parents, Ben Slack as a psychiatrist, and David Wiley as the pillar of society Judge Carter (a deliberate reference to Judge Crater?), with a special nod to the scene-stealing Pamela Matheson as a hair-eating misfit.
The teen performances aren’t quite so strong. Billy Warlock (as Bill) doesn’t quite have the range needed for his character’s emotional state. Patrice Jennings (as Jenny) and Heidi Kozak (as Bill’s cheerleader girlfriend Shauna) are a bit flat and occasionally annoying, while Evan Richards (as Bill’s best friend Milo) fails to make much of an impression. As for Clarissa, the film’s female romantic lead and bundle of “bad girl” clichés, Devin DeVasquez puts the exact performance you’d expect from a Playboy Playmate (Miss June 1985, in fact). The casting also suffers from teenaged characgters played by actors obviously in their twenties (in 1989, DeVasquez and Kozak were 26 and Warlock was 28). There are, thankfully, a couple of memorable performances from Tim Bartell (as Jenny’s ex Blanchard) and Ben Meyerson (as Bill’s nemesis Ted Ferguson).
Overall, Society is a highly enjoyable if flawed début. Gore fans won’t be disappointed, but neither will viewers who want their horror movies to make them think as well as barf. Not a bad way to start a career as a director.
My rating: 7 of 10.
Seen at Terror In The Aisles 13.
99 minutes. Directed by Brian Yuzna. Starring Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Evan Richards, Ben Meyerson.