Embracing the issue of class-consciousness with aplomb, and thankfully devoid of contemporary horror’s current preoccupation with CGI, Society (1989) is not only a divine slice of body horror, but also a fascinating polemic on the social mores of Reaganite America.
Billy (Billy Warlock) is a basketball jock, festooned with an obligatory mullet, who despite enjoying all of the trappings of privilege, feels desperately out of place within his Beverley Hills enclave, a belief compounded by the disdainful demeanour of his parents, (Connie Danese and Charles Lucia) who not only insist on him seeing a psychiatrist (Ben Slack) but prefer to lavish all of their love and attention on his spoiled princess of a sister, Jenny (Patrice Jennings).
However, as he attempts to balance the demands of his vacuous, social-climbing, cheerleader girlfriend, Shauna (Heidi Kozak) and running for student body president whilst being increasingly distracted by a lovely mysterious woman (Devin DeVasquez), Billy’s suspicions are piqued that all is not well when Jenny’s shambolic and highly-strung ex-boyfriend, David (Tim Bartell) presents him with a tape recording alluding to salacious, yet strange shenanigans, occurring within the confines of his pristine and perfect family.
Initially dismissive of David’s evidence, Billy has a change of heart and agrees to meet him, but on discovering that David has had an accident, Billy retrieves the tape from the scene and passes it on to his psychiatrist to prove he isn’t disturbed after all. However, on a return visit, his psychiatrist presents him with a completely different recording, which only serves to exacerbate Billy’s mental distress and sense of paranoia.
Under the direction of Brian Yuzna, the narrative of Society embraces and lampoons the extremely divisive cultural landscape of 1980s where soap operas such as Dallas and Dynasty in their sumptuous ostentation reflected the laissez-faire economics of the time, and where extroverted affirmation of materialistic values reigned supreme. A philosophy which was not only apparent within the United States during the Reaganite years but also espoused in Great Britain during Mrs Thatcher’s three terms of office.
In essence, body horror also capitulated to a greedy excessiveness, embracing technical advances in special effects; utilising foam, liquid latex in addition to animatronix, where subtlety or suggestion were no longer prerequisites, but gore and utter carnage were. Sentiments depicted to great effect in classics such as The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986) and Hellraiser (1987). After all, who watched a decomposing Jeff “Brundlefly” Goldblum vomit on his doughnuts and then devour them, without sharing the revulsion of his girlfriend Veronica (Geena Davis)?
The final act of Society was expertly encapsulated by special effects wizard extraordinaire, Screaming Mad George, when Billy, following his escape from hospital where he was sectioned, returns to his homestead to find his family in the parental boudoir; engaged in a contorted, incestuous ménage à trois where his father in one scene is literally speaking out of his arsehole.
Billy is eventually captured and his worst fears are confirmed as he is exposed to the Society; an impromptu country club in all of its grim, parasitic, grasping, superior manifestations. As his psychiatrist explains: “You’re a different race, a different species, a different class; you’re not one of us.” Subsequently, and to the dulcet tones of Blue Danube, the rich merge into an indiscriminate, steaming, slimy, leeching mass, akin to an indistinguishable orgy of swingers, in preparation for a horrifying “shunting”.
In exposing and satirising the perpetual hypothesis of the rich which dictates they are born to rule and thus entitled to behave in the most shameful and appalling manner which their wealth and power affords them, while the vast majority of humanity deserves its rightful place immersed in the dung-heap which is the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, banished to eternal serfdom, Yuzna’s film is not only an imaginative parable, but showcases body horror at its best: weird, nasty, unsettling and deeply disturbing.
© 2019 Dawn Daniels