Society (1989) – dir. Brian Yuzma

High school was not for me. I was bored, and wanted to be doing literally anything else. I felt I had little in common with my classmates, adults could never give me any useful advice, and I felt like I was part of a system that gave me no chance to thrive. The world did not understand just how special I was–an attitude I’ve since learned is embarrassingly common–but if I had any kind of in, I know I could prove everyone wrong about me. As an adult, the desperate need to be unique has faded considerably, but the system playing favorites sometimes still seems totally real.

Society is the ideal film for any adolescent with a remotely transgressive fiber in their body. A coming-of-age horror film in the tradition of The Stepford Wives, V, and even a hint of Blue Velvet, Society is that rare piece of wish-fulfillment that almost feels justified. An expressionist story of a facade crumbling around a young man, who just has that nagging feeling that nothing is quite right, that everyone is in on some secret that he isn’t, Society is shaggy, but shocking and unforgettable.

In the film’s first moments, Billy (Billy Warlock) enters his darkened house, whose open, shadowy halls are filled with slimy, animalistic churning, and taunting laughter. He grabs a knife, and cowers in by his front door. Billy is roused from this Carpenter-esque nightmare by his mother (Connie Danese), still by the door, but weaponless. In therapy, Billy eats a pare that he imagines is full of nightcrawlers. When Billy zips up his sister’s dress in the next scene, he catches her back bulge. Soon, Billy’s snapping at others who mock him as paranoid.

Despite deep-seeded anxiety that his life is somewhat off-center, Billy lives a rather enviable life. He comes from an affluent family, he’s handsome, he’s a skilled athlete, he’s well-liked by his peers, and his girlfriend Shauna (Heidi Kozak) is, presumably the head cheerleader. Billy could not be a more blatant embodiment of privilege. Yet, when his sister’s ex-boyfriend Blanchard (Tim Bartell) presents Billy with an audio recording of Billy’s family engaging in some pseudo-Huxleyan orgy, Billy’s suspicions are all but confirmed. When Blanchard is found dead in an auto accident, Billy begins to pick up where Blanchard leaves off.

Though his family refuses to give him answers, while his therapist Dr. Cleveland (Ben Slack) tries to pacify him through medication, Billy manages to round up a couple of allies. By his side are his best friend Milo (Evan Richards)–who is the token voice-of-reason, but who is an enjoyable presence–and the sexually liberated, but otherwise thinly-defined rogue Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez)–whose initial interactions with Billy begin with her flashing him while he’s in a class presidential debate, and squirting him in the face with his stolen sunblock, mirroring a money shot.

These two characters are not well-defined, but the film justifies this by creating a sense of reluctant trust around them, and by being so rooted in Billy’s perspective that even when Milo calls this out, their one-dimensionality makes sense. That these shady occurrences are taking place don’t only affect Billy is important. Still, the film disappoints by leaving Billy point-of-view near the end, letting us know we can trust certain characters, rather than doing the brave thing by staying exclusively with Billy.

Society is an alienating and anxious film, whose agitation provides thrust through a sometimes plodding narrative. Billy, like any teenager, is sure that he’s the exception, that he’s the target. So, when he lashes out at his parents and sister in a tirade that, in the context of any other teen story, would otherwise feel too trite, is electrifying. Through Billy’s eyes–and, by extension, the film’s–telling off his family is downright courageous. Even through the lens of being supposedly misunderstood by his family, Society makes clear what that looks like to someone like Billy, not just what Billy’s life is like, therefore looks like for other teenager. We understand how Billy feels, through the kicked-up, anti-establishment, anti-aristocracy ethos of the film. For a film that is generally misanthropic, Society still manages to answer for that misanthropy, even if the solution is a little lazy, and if the satire isn’t as sharp as the execution.

In fact, Society is guilty of more than a few instances of sloppiness. Society’s most glaring shortcoming is in the editing. This is a story of disorientation, but often the film will place our characters in a jam in one shot, saving them in the next, running around their evasion entirely. For as much information is skipped, the first two thirds of the film are, while not at all unwatchable, woefully uneven. The same could be said for the picture’s writing, though one gets the sense this, too, is intentional, given the real crown jewel of Society: The ending.

Whatever flaws Society has–which are often considerable–the finale is the stuff of legend. As an amateur connoisseur of horror, Society has a final act so demented and ingenious that any further description would cheat prospective viewers. A disjointed, often thoughtful, sometimes fumbled story turns into a freak show like nothing else. One surmises that the film is cobbled together with just enough stability to earn that last, gonzo stretch.

Make no mistake: For any missteps the film makes, Society is nimble, intelligent storytelling. As body horror, as a coming-of-age story, as a psychological/conspiracy theory, Society works without feeling like multiple movies. For a debut feature from Brian Yuzna, Society is supremely impressive. That his career did not offer him more opportunities to flex his chops feels like a missed opportunity. The 90’s is a weak era for horror, and Yuzna could have been a major, highly influential player. His one real claim to fame–outside of a string of Re-Animator sequels–would make any filmmaker proud, though. Society may not be in the same echelons of the best of Cronenberg, or even the postmodern Craven-isms that would live beyond the 90’s, but it certainly deserves to be.

Rating – 8.7/10

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