1 Hr., 39 Mins.
Society September 10, 2020
ne might think the conceit of Brian Yuzna's Society (1989) was silly if there weren't so much truth at its core. It literalizes, with body-horror aplomb, the reality that the rich feed off lower classes in order to survive — be rich in the first place. Society feels related to something like They Live, John Carpenter's sparky black comedy from 1988 that told us, not far-fetchedly, that avaricious capitalists are actually aliens
in skin suits manipulating the populace to spend money so that they can get wealthier. In Society, our protagonist is Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock), the teenage baby of a wealthy Beverly Hills clan who lets it be known early in the movie that he’s always felt like an odd man out in his family and in the upper-class milieu in general. Not just because their values don’t align (though they don't) but because he feels just generally like he’s simply been wrongfully dropped off into their world. He suspects he’s supposed to be somewhere else. If the air had a color, it’d be off-white.
The offness feels especially strong these days. As the film opens, Bill is
wandering around the family mansion late one evening in a sky-blue tank top, clammy and paranoid, with a knife. He swears he can hear maniacal laughter erupting from every room. He snaps out of his buggy-eyed stupor when his mom (Connie Danese) mellowly turns on the lights and asks him what he’s doing. In the next scene, which finds Bill at a therapy session the following afternoon, he describes something as feeling “like a nightmare.” When the therapist asks him what he’s referring to, he replies, “My life.” (Later, the therapist becomes another person Bill knows he can't quite trust: “If you don’t follow the rules, Billy, bad things happen," he says blankly.)
Some time into the feature, Bill finds out that the lifelong feeling of mismatch isn't all in his head. With the assistance of his sister's ex, who more or less has taken on the role of a snooping gumshoe after their breakup, Bill finds out that his parents (Danese, Charles Lucia) and sister (Patrice Jennings) and all their nicely dressed friends are involved in something that could perhaps only exist in horror fiction. It explains everything — their weird behavior, Bill's perpetual gut-level unease.
Get a load of this: the Whitneys are part of what can half-truthfully be described as a sex cult with a penchant for creepy rituals during which kidnapped 99-percenters are sometimes sacrificed as a sort of climax to a typical evening “orgy.” (When I say half-truthfully I mean that neither the “sex” nor sacrificing is quite orthodox.) The discovery is made, rather gruesomely, when the whistleblowing ex obtains a tape that has recorded on it one of the "cult" gatherings and plays it for Bill. What exactly a meet-up entails is not only explained with explicit detail (Bill’s sister is being “initiated” in the recording, so her and Bill’s parents have to tell her what to expect). We also hear the resulting action, which sounds a bit like someone violently slurping stew. It’s merrily icky.
As written by Woody Keith and Rick Fry, Society chiefly involves Bill's quasi-detective work and several botched attempts to bring what he unfortunately now knows to a broader audience. The movie is capped off by a sublimely gory final 30 minutes during which we get to see one of these awful rich-people bacchanals from beginning to end. What’s happening is gross enough as it stands; Yuzna makes it even grosser by having the sequence lit with a phalanx of red bulbs. We’re meant to feel like this is hell on Earth, clearly, but with all the flesh and sweat exposed during the sequence, sometimes it feels more like tomato sauce or blood has been smeared on cinematographer Peter Teshner’s lenses. It’s carnality as nightmare — an exhilaratingly vulgar portrait of the filthy rich as slobbering and sticky savages. Rotting morality can now suddenly be touched.
Society's extended final act is where the dark humor of the movie is really brought to the forefront. Keith and Fry were probably laughing as they wrote it. I do wish the morbid wit of the finale were as strong in other places in the film: Because Bill's character has an aw-shucks innocence to him, and because the surrounding characters and writing are not always over the top enough to bounce off him properly, the movie for a lot of its length can feel more earnest than in on the joke — like it’s trying harder to play it straight than have fun with itself. Part of what made the similar They Live such a joy was that its protagonist, played by former wrestler Roddy Piper, had a scoffing you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-kidding attitude. He made sure the film’s amusing pessimism was properly lacquered on, not too thickly. Bill, though played convincingly by a persuasively terrified Warlock, sometimes comes across to us like a Greg Brady equivalent starring in a horror feature. He can be too cutesy; cinematographer Rick Fichter’s camera has a tendency to baby him — a cheek might as well be squeezed on screen in certain places. Still, Society is pretty potent — a delectable horror farce that knows having a daring concept isn’t enough. You’ve got to put your back into it. B+