Class warfare has always been ripe for satire. Oscar Wilde, Moliere, Luis Bunuel, Alice Cooper, National Lampoon—all the majors have tackled the idea that the rich feed off of the poor, that proper standing and breeding are more important than human decency. In 1989, horror producer Brian Yuzna took the themes and ran with them for his directorial debut, Society, and wound up with a very strange movie indeed.
As well-bred Bill Whitney (Baywatch’s Billy Warlock) approaches his eighteenth birthday, he starts to suffer the onset of existential angst. Yes, he has it all—fancy girlfriend, wealthy parents, the high school presidency all but locked up, but he just feels so alienated by it all. Dr. Cleveland, Bill’s therapist and an old family friend, chalks it up to normal post-adolescent angst, shoves some pills down his throat and sends him on his way. But then he runs into Blanchard, his sister Jenny’s creepy and bloated ex-boyfriend, who gives Bill an audio tape containing what sounds to be his family involved in a perverse and squishy murder-cum-orgy. When he plays the tape for Dr. Cleveland, however, Bill hears only the delighted sounds of Jenny’s “coming out” party.
Only Bill’s lower-upper-middle-class best friend Milo believes his story. Blanchard’s sudden death in a car accident confirms their suspicions that something is amiss. At a high-class party, the insufferable upper-upper-class Ferguson boasts to Billy that not only was the first tape real, but he was there and he had sex with Jenny. In quite a huff, even a huff-and-a-half, Bill leaves the party with the genetically-perfect Clarissa. At her house, they have sex a contortionist would envy—at one point, Bill enters the bedroom convinced that he sees both her front and backside aimed in his direction.
Things get even nastier for Bill at home. At one point, he walks in on his parents and Jenny oiled up together on the bed, grooming or preening in their underwear. Which, face it, has to be worse than anything you’ve ever caught your parents doing.
After a series of misadventures, Bill winds up back at his parents’ house, where he is caught in an animal-control snare and dragged into the dining room where another party is being held. All the upper-and-upper-still-class members are there—his parents, Jenny, Ferguson, Dr. Cleveland, Clarissa (the Professor, Mary-Ann, etc.)—and they want to confirm his fears. He’s not blue blood-related at all and the rich really are different from us. To prove it, they drag a stripped-down Blanchard into the middle of the room and corral him for “the shunting”. All around him, Bill sees the people he’s known all his life, their bodies elongating, melting and merging, changing form—his father’s head, for instance, literally pokes out of his ass as he, mom and Jenny have “sex” for lack of another word. The upper-classes start to ooze around each other, becoming a single organism as they literally absorb Blanchard’s nutrients, reducing him to similar fleshy ooze while he screams. And Bill is meant to be next—he’s been bred his whole life for just this night.
“Surreal” doesn’t begin to describe the climax and it must be seen to be believed—just don’t make the mistake of eating while you watch. Reducing pompous rich folk to malleable slugs must have been satisfying to all involved but particularly Yuzna and effects-maestro Screaming Mad George. The climax is especially effective because it’s clear that’s where the movie’s entire budget went. The rest of the movie looks low budget, cramped and cheap, which it was. Made at the tail-end of the ‘80s direct-to-video hey-day, getting a weird movie in the can and to the audience was the main goal. And like the best of that era, Society is not your run-of-the-mill horror entry.
Occasionally referred to by fans as a black comedy version of From Beyond, which Yuzna produced in 1986 with Stuart Gordon at the helm. The Lovecraft-inspired Yog Shoggoth story also featured body horror in the form of molecular change. While Society lacks Gordon’s polished panache, Yuzna keeps things moving admirably. It still feels like a “first film” in a lot of places, but it doesn’t feel like anyone else’s first film, that’s for damned sure. The plastic atmosphere generated by the low budget actually works to the film’s advantage in this case, accentuating the artifice in which the “Society” lives outside of their marble palaces, where they retreat to be themselves.
Unfortunately, Society may have proved to be too pointed in its satire as it had a hard time finding an audience. Completed in 1989, it didn’t reach home video in the U.S. until 1992 and then in only limited release. But it did quite well overseas. Europeans in particular found it clever, disturbing and wonderful. Which seems to add gravity to the argument that Americans can’t make fun of themselves in the same way as the Europeans. We have thinner skins and unless Hollywood is lampooning itself (ala The Player), the suits in charge certainly don’t take well to some indie upstart pointing a finger at them.
Now in the DVD era, Society is a little easier to locate, thanks to Anchor Bay. The stand-alone edition is out of print, but it can be found on a double-feature disk with another underappreciated entry, Tobe Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion. You are now free to view society in all its squishy, slimy glory, but from the safety of your own home. It gives you a solid reason to appreciate being an outsider. Seriously, tell me you couldn’t see Donald Trump melting down like that in a sex orgy with Oprah Winfrey? …Actually, don’t tell me. I don’t want that image in my head. Bottom line: the rich are different.