Pretty crappy week, huh? We’re all social-distancing now. Can’t go anywhere. Can’t do anything. Everything’s canceled or closed down. No concerts. No parties. No shows. You can’t even high-five strangers on the street anymore. These are lonely, anxious times. We miss getting together with friends and relatives the way we used to.
But maybe there’s an upside to all this. Or, at least, less of a downside. Togetherness isn’t perfect. And there’s no better example of that than Brian Yuzna’s sticky, gooey 1989 horror classic Society. If you need some motivation to keep your distance from just about everyone, this movie more than provides it. After watching it, you may never want to attend a party again. Certainly not a family reunion.
The film centers around Billy Whitney (Billy Warlock), a handsome, athletic Beverly Hills Academy student with a seemingly perfect existence. His folks (Charles Lucia and Connie Danese), though emotionally-vacant, are loaded. He lives in a posh mansion in an exclusive neighborhood. He’s got his own shiny new Jeep Laredo. He’s a star on the school basketball team. (His personalized license plate reads “HOOPS.”) His girlfriend Shauna (Hedi Kozak) is a perky blonde cheerleader, while his sidepiece Clarissa (Devin DeVasquez) is an even-hotter brunette. Plus, he’s got a loyal best friend named Milo (Evan Richards). With his John Stamos-esque mullet and his penchant for muscle shirts and letterman jackets, Billy Whitney looks like your typical 1980s teen movie hunk. Never mind that he and all the supposed high school kids around him appear to be in their late 20s. This should be a great life during the late Reagan-Bush era, the golden age of yuppies and conspicuous consumption.
From the moment we meet him, however, Billy is a troubled young man. He’s in therapy with stern, round-headed Dr. Cleveland (Ben Slack) because he’s plagued by strange, paranoid visions all the time. Every night, he’s having scary, violent dreams. But his days are no better. On a typical afternoon, he might sink his teeth into a piece of fruit and see worms crawling around inside it. Plus, he’s getting the sneaking suspicion that his parents favor his sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings) and that they’re all involved, along with the other residents of Beverly Hills, in some kind of strange, clandestine, possibly incestuous behavior.
He doesn’t know how right he is. Maybe he’d be better off not knowing.
For the first two-thirds or so, Society is one of those “you gotta believe me!” movies. You know, those are the movies in which the hero runs around frantically, trying to prove there’s a big, evil conspiracy afoot. Naturally, all the evidence vanishes at highly inconvenient times, and the material witnesses who know the truth die or disappear mysteriously. Meanwhile, the authority figures in town — cops, judges, doctors — seem to be in on it. There are times when the hero even doubts his own sanity. But he remains steadfast.
That’s what Billy Whitney’s life is like in Society. He knows something is definitely up, but he just can’t prove it. That is, until the film’s infamous third act, when Billy stumbles into a party his parents are throwing for the upper crust of Beverly Hills. To say the least, it is disgusting and disturbing in the extreme. I’m not even sure how to describe it, except to say that the wealthy, privileged people in this movie are revealed to be hideous, shape-shifting creatures of unknown origin, and they’re into a lot of cruel and kinky stuff. The whole movie has been leading up to this payoff, and Yuzna definitely does not let the audience down. This is one of the drippiest, messiest horror finales ever. Our villains are both figuratively and literally twisted. As for the carpeting and furniture, I don’t think it can be salvaged.
With its combination of outrageous, impossible gore and darkly humorous satire, it’s no surprise to learn that Society has numerous ties to the Re-Animator franchise. Yuzna produced the original 1985 film and directed two more entries in the franchise. Society scripters Rick Fry and Woody Keith also wrote 1990’s Bride of Re-Animator. Cult movie connoisseurs will also detect traces of David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Peter Jackson (specifically, his berserk early films), and Frank Henenlotter here. I’m not sure if Yuzna was influenced by Tim Burton or what, but some of the creatures in Society look like they bubbled up from the afterlife in Beetlejuice (1988).
There are numerous definitions of the word “society.” In the broadest possible sense, it can refer to human beings and the basic rules by which we all theoretically live. More specifically, though, it can be an organized club or group, perhaps an exclusive or even secretive one. Then again, the term “society” can be applied to the wealthy elite, as in “high society” or “the society pages.” Yuzna’s film explores all of those meanings and asks us to think — really think — about the organizations, institutions, and laws that define our lives. It may make some viewers want to reject all of those things and go live in a cave somewhere, effectively opting out of society.
The current crisis has probably caused many of us to reconsider society and our roles within it as individuals. We wonder if things will ever go back to “normal” so we can start living the way we used to. Well, if you’re waxing nostalgic for the good old days of a few weeks ago, why not watch Society? In that film’s final act, the characters certainly get up close and personal and spend a lot of quality time together. They literally could not be closer. Afterwards, you may treasure your current solitude all the more.
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