Brian Yuzna is an oft-overlooked figure from ’80s/’90s horror filmmaking. He got his start as a producer for Stuart Gordon on classics like Re-Animator and From Beyond but branched off as the ’80s drew to a close to start his own directing career. His films didn’t break through in the U.S. at a theatrical level but they were staples of home video and cable. His directing debut was Society, an uneven but wildly ambitious film that combined Gordon-esque body horror of the From Beyond variety with the high school flick and a hefty shot of Reagan-era social satire.
Society is told from the point of view of Billy (Billy Warlock), a Beverly Hills teen who is in therapy despite seeming to have it made. He feels disconnected from his status-conscious family and is convinced something terrible is about to happen. He locks horns with Ferguson (Ben Meyerson), the big man on campus, as he becomes convinced that his clique is up to something nefarious. Billy begins to investigate a conspiracy posed by misfit David (Ben Martell) about his well-to-do peers, causing everyone to question his sanity. It all builds to a climax that unveils a revelation that is equal parts Bret Easton Ellis and H.P. Lovecraft.
Never let it be said that Society lacks ambition. Yuzna and his screenwriters Rick Fry and Woody Keith never shy away from the dark themes inherent to their plotline – everything from cannibalism to incest is woven in – but Yuzna is patient enough to wait until the third act to unleash the full, all-stops-out freakiness. Along the way, it offers a subversion of the John Hughes-style high school dramedy, also throwing some pointed satire of upper-class viciousness into the mix before culminating in the kind of flesh-distorting horrors that one usually associates with David Cronenberg or John Carpenter’s version of The Thing.
However, Society also has its problems. Both script and direction have trouble balancing the plotlines combination of surrealism, horror and satire, leading to some cartoonish gags that fall flat, and the storyline gets bogged down with too many repetitions of the “Billy sees something strange/tries to convince others/ends up seen as crazy” cycle. Warlock makes a good lead, Meyerson is an amusingly nasty nemesis and there’s also nice work from ex-Playmate Devin DeVasquez as a love interest for Billy – but the script doesn’t always let them get beyond the archetypes it provides for them.
More importantly, the finale doesn’t quite live up to the buildup it gets throughout the film: it’s packed with wild makeup FX from Screaming Mad George but never pays off several character, never develops its critique of callous rich people beyond making them simply evil and ends in a weirdly abrupt way that suggests the creators simply ran out of gas before they come up with a coda that lives up to the wild sights they created.
That said, Society is one of the most unusual horror films of the ’80s, a quality that is doubly notable given how watered-down a lot of horror was during the late’ ’80s time frame in which it was made. As such, it’s worth seeing at least once for any horror fan who wants to survey the extremes of ’80s horror.
Blu-Ray Notes: Society was just issued in a limited blu-ray/DVD deluxe edition by Arrow Films in both the U.S. and the U.K. They produced a fresh transfer for the uncut version of the film and the results are impressive: the distinctly ’80s colored lighting really pops and the details are nice and vivid throughout. The original 2.0 stereo mix is included with this transfer in lossless form and it sounds pretty good for a two-channel track, with nice layering of music and gooey sound effects.
Arrow has also kitted this release out with plenty of extras. The bonuses begin with a commentary track featuring Yuzna and moderator David Gregory, who produced the other extras for this set. They discuss how writer Woody Keith’s Beverly Hills background influenced the script, the elements that Yuzna added to the story and plenty of details on the cast and crew. Yuzna comes as smart but unpretentious and instinctive in his approach to filmmaking
Yuzna also appears in a trio of interview-style featurettes. The first two cover a lot of material from the commentary but expand on it and add enough fresh elements to be worth watching. The first is a 17 minute chat filmed for this set which offers some details on how he set up the deal for this film, the philosophy behind the film’s outré elements and how an unproduced project with Dan O’Bannon influenced Society. A 38-minute Q&A appearance at the 2014 Celluloid Screams festival adds some details about the film’s U.S. censorship problems and how technology has changed film culture. The last is a brief 2-minute backstage bit from a U.K. premiere where he gives a passionate defense of the horror genre.
There are two other featurettes. The first is a cast interviews segment that includes input from Warlock, DeVasquez, Meyerson and Bartell. All admit being a little confused by the script (Bartell admits being daunted by his role in the finale) and there are funny stories about the sex scene and the “shunting” sequence. An FX interview piece deals with Screaming Mad George and two of his assistants. The designer reveals the story behind his name, discusses the influence of Salvador Dali on his work and everybody tells interesting stories about the “shunting” sequence from the FX tech’s perspective.
A suitably paranoia-themed trailer and an FX-packed music video for one of Screaming Mad George’s songs round out the disc’s extras. Also included in this set are a liner notes booklet with an informative essay from Alan Jones and a comic-book sequel to the film. In short, another fine super-deluxe set from Arrow that gives Criterion-level treatment to a lesser-known cult item.
Full Disclosure: this review was done using a check-disc blu-ray provided by Arrow Video U.K. The disc used for the review reflects what buyers will see in the finished blu-ray. A PDF of the liner notes was provided by Arrow for this review.