There was a period of time in horror, from roughly 1985-1992ish, where gore effects became more complex and impressive and the filmmakers seemed to be more depraved and demented. It allowed for films that had a very sharp sense of black humor to have the disgusting edge that would accentuate their satire.
Lots of filmmakers were doing these types of movies, but few were producing movies quite as grotty or as irreverent as Brian Yuzna, who made his name in the filmmaking world by producing the H.P. Lovecraft adaptations Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) and the original work Dolls, all three directed by Stuart Gordon.
By 1989, Gordon had moved on to different projects when Yuzna was approached to produce and direct a sequel to Re-Animator, but the young, never-directed-before producer negotiated another film to be made first, one that would perfectly encapsulate his sensibility and this entire period in horror. That movie *shudder* is Society.
Few movies are as unabashedly or as inexplicably weird as Society, and that’s certainly to its benefit. It sticks with you, I’ll tell ya that. It has its roots in cult or everbody’s-out-to-get-you conspiracy movies like The Wicker Man or Rosemary’s Baby, and in many ways it follows those same basic plot lines: a regular person is mostly happy and content (though not always) but they slowly start realizing what seems idyllic and even admirable is nothing of the sort, and the people around them are growing ever more sinister. It’s revealed that everyone is in on the diabolical plan and the endgame is uncovered to be something more shocking and disturbing than anything the protagonist originally thought. That’s mostly how Society goes, but the ending involves people turning into stretchy-skinned grotty-faced hedonists who smush together into a writhing pile of flesh. Nobody’s prepared for that, not the character and not the audience.
The bulk of the movie is like your average paranoid thriller where the world seems out to get our main character, only for him to find out essentially that’s true. Our hero this time around is Bill Whitney (played by soon-to-be Baywatch star Billy Warlock, son of stunt man and one-time Michael Myers Dick Warlock), a good-looking preppy from Beverly Hills with a typical rich family consisting of a mother, father, and hot sister.
But Bill is not a well person. He goes to see a psychiatrist named Dr. Cleveland regularly who keeps telling him he needs to be a part of society, and he’s really going to deserve what happens to him…you know, the creepiest things you can tell a paranoid person. An ex-boyfriend of his sister’s, named Blanchard, attempts to tell them both something, but Bill thinks he’s just being a creep and runs him off; to be fair, the guy hid in the sister’s closet and popped out to tell her. You know, like a serial killer.
The sister is having a big “coming out” party, which I guess is a thing rich people do, but Bill can’t make it due to a sporting event and a student council election thingy. His parents don’t seem all that worried about Bill missing out. He seems to have a good chance of beating the incumbent whatever-position for student council, but all the other cool kids, led by a particularly douchey guy named Ferguson, think their candidate has it all locked up. While at the beach, Blanchard approaches Bill again, this time with a recording. See, Blanchard’s tapped the Whitney’s home (like an utter scumbag) but he’s recorded something disturbing. It’s the family discussing the coming out party, and the father telling the sister “First we eat, then we copulate. With someone your own age first, then with your mother and I.” And apparently it was Ferguson who was the first to partake. Then there’s lots of noise of sexy orgies…GROSS.
Things get even more disturbing when Bill takes the tape to Dr. Cleveland who refuses to listen to it right then and there, but says he will listen to it overnight and they can have an appointment tomorrow. Bill reluctantly agrees and when he comes back, the tape no longer has anything incriminating on it, just the family talking normally, even complimenting Bill and wishing he could have made it. Bill calls Blanchard for another copy, but on his way, Blanchard gets into a massive car crash and is apparently killed. This begins a series of events in which every single thing seems to be set up for Bill to find evidence only for the evidence to disappear later.
Billy also starts seeing some frigging weird things. First, he walks into his sister’s room to get suntan lotion (okay?), and walks over to her glass-doored shower where she’s bathing herself. It appears (pretty clear as day) that the sister has twisted her whole torso around so that her boobs are right above her butt…for what reason? Weirdness, of course. Later, Bill has a dalliance with a young lady named Clarissa (who explains nothing, by the way) and she looks as though her torso twists the same way. Also, Clarissa’s mother is a grunting ape of a woman who’s obsessed with hair…for no reason.
This all leads to Bill being drugged and brought back to his own house to be one of the “sacrifices,” along with Blanchard who hadn’t really died, to a yearly gathering of the Beverly Hills elite. Bill, it seems, was never really part of Society (probably adopted like he was though) and always meant to serve this purpose. And then we get a thing called “the Shunt,” or “shunting,” which is when all the nasty, inhuman hedonists (there’s an implication that the highest of Society have always been a separate species) disrobe and coagulate and begin sucking the life out of Blanchard, eventually leading to the the Judge (the highest of the high) shoving his fist up Blanchard’s backside and ripping his face off. Bill tries to run and hide from Dr. Cleveland’s hand-head and finds his mother and sister glooped together in a single being, and his father with his face literally coming out of his ass… It’s real gross. All of it.
So, Society is a really weird, but ultimately, I think it works more than it doesn’t because of it’s pretty on-point biting satire. What are the super rich and well-bred if not a pulsating mass of pompousness and flesh all laughing uproariously about the lowly “others” as they suck the life out of them and copulate on the floor? In the ’80s? That’s what a yuppie was, pretty much! The squishy, slimy effects are quite effective, silly, upsetting, and delightful, all done by a man who’s name is Screaming Mad George. I mean, who else but someone named that could have thought of such delicious depravity. And Yuzna proved that he could direct, and direct horror sequences effectively. It was a good year for him; on top of directing this movie, he directed and produced Bride of Re-Animator, and, for a complete change of pace, he wrote and produced the massive Disney hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!. From flesh-sucking copulators to kids riding on Anty in one year. Quite a career, huh?