Saturday, October 06, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 6: Society

October 6th: Society (1989)

In Brian Yuzna's Society, the title refers to the same 80s cinema stereotype found in Less Than Zero or any Brat Pack movie, the idea that the impeccably mannered (and all-white) upper-classes who constitute an impenetrable over-culture may actually be hiding something rather ugly. The ugliness is made explicit in Society, a literal groteque of Lovecraftian proportions.

Yuzna, long-time producing partner of Stuart Gordon, moved to feature directing with Society, a film written by Rick Fry and Woody Keith (who worked with Yuzna again on Bride of Re-Animator in 1990). Yuzna has directed interesting films since, yet Society has a certain original quality he has yet to match. Besides Yuzna, the other creative force behind the film is prosthetics-wiz Screaming Mad George (Predator, Freeked, Big Trouble in Little China, and most Yuzna/Gordon films), whose distinctive effects are practically Society's raison d’etre.

Our protagonist, Billy Whitney (mugging Soap-actor Billy Warlock), is being groomed by his wealthy parents (Charles Lucia and Connie Danese as Jim and Nan Whitney) for entry into the Los Angeles elite. However, Billy—the Whitney’s adopted child—is too much a rebel to conform to their ideal. So, he’s become a mullet-headed football jock instead. I want to claim that They Live! kick-started the trend of positioning a jar-head as the renegade, the voice in the wilderness, the non-conformist. But this is an archetype that goes back to early Sci-Fi (Quatermass Xperiment), and even to John Wayne. The myth of the rugged individual is embedded in the romantic fiction of Capitalism, after all. Billy may not look like the Spader clones who out-class him, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a jerk. His mullet and football jersey hardly signify “integrity.” He treats the class nerd cruelly. He strangles his girlfriend for lying to him. Think Kevin Dillon in Remote Control, or Charlie Sheen in The Wraith. By placing such an oaf in the rebel role, the film cheapens its central notion. By leaving out deep cultural assumptions in its surface-level condemnation of the rich, Society’s message may be that it’s only okay to break some of society’s rules.

Convenient for Society’s running time, however: Bill is so dumb it takes him the entire length of the film to figure out what’s really going on. His doughy pal Blanchard (Tim Bartell) disappears midway through the film, but not until he plays Billy a tape proving that his parents are involved in something quite strange, including incest (Bill’s WASPy sister Jenny the object of their lust), and—from the sound of the tape—bestiality (Blanchard conveniently happens to be a surveillance expert?). Billy plays the tape for his psychiatrist, only to find the tape has been mysteriously altered. It seems that nearly everyone in town is involved in this yuppie-conspiracy. Bill can’t trust his parents, he can’t trust his sister (Patrice Jennings as Jenny), his classmates, the police (who protect money—like in life), not even his therapist.

Society features a quite obvious message. There isn’t anything controversial about the conclusions the film comes to about class, exclusivity and conformity; in fact, these ideas are classic film tropes. But still, it works. There is something genuine about Society. Horror is a powerful vehicle for satire and social commentary, even when it comes to Yuzna’s somewhat inarticulate film. By the end of Society, it becomes clear that the elites in the film are a kind of symbiotic species, who party hard by melting into a single mass of hive-mind goo. This extended scene is like something out of a Burroughs orgy-scene: sex, gore, submission and assimilation are one and the same.

Even this gross mess is exclusive: a townsperson tells Billy: “You aren’t one of us… you have to be born this way.” Subtlety Society may lack, but it does have a kind of political integrity. There is even some suggestion that members of L.A.’s mutant "Society" are upgraded to Washington after their final initiation.

Society may be termed a smart-dumb movie. Dumb characters, dumb protagonist. Smart premise, smart tone (tongue-in-cheek but serious in the right places). Whatever doesn’t work is smoothed out with a gallon of liquid latex. The look of the film is adequate, and nostalgic for any direct-to-video aficionado. Gordon’s films look like this. Jim McBride’s later films look like this. Full Moon looks the same. New Horizon. So on and so forth. The lighting could be better. The photography and acting are workmanlike. Workmanlike is the operative term here. You won’t marvel at any of the visuals, but the look of the film is fine, and allows for the effects to make a strong impression. If nothing else, Society is entertaining the whole way through. In the genre of gross-out late twentieth-century horror, and in the arena of low-budget direct-to-video, Society may be something of a narrow-scope masterpiece.

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