Society’s metaphor, in that the rich feed (in this case, literally), may have been too ham-fisted for it to be actually effective. This film seems less like a cautionary tale and more like a vehicle to display a grotesque idea from special effects guru Screaming Mad George. Many know “George” as the designer of the original creature from Predator, but I know him from the terrifying and grotesque deaths from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, one of the most visually frightening films I’ve ever seen.
George, you see, specializes in body modification horror, which is the horror that comes from one’s body changing into something without their control. (The most common example of this genre is Jeff Goldblum in The Fly). It scares me to even write about it, but in Nightmare 4, Brooke Thiessen’s death nightmare involved her getting caught in a sticky roach trap where her face and skin are violently pulled off to reveal her as a cockroach. It’s over the top, of course (the film could probably be classified as camp) but nonetheless viscerally haunting. It took me several weeks to get the image out of my head when I first saw it, and simply recalling it here has disturbed me.
Society’s big reveal and visual gore-gasm doesn’t come until the last ten minutes of the film. The mystery sees Bill Whitney (played by the fantastically named Billy Warlock) as a popular, rich, Beverly Hills teen who starts suspecting that his family is not what they seem. Some clues are, oh, just a tape recording of his family murdering someone, seeing his sister completely twist her waist so her boobs face the back, and his sister and mother melding their bodies together for sexual gratification, and, in the film’s most iconic image, his father bends into himself so his face is emerging from his anus. (He obviously utters the line “I feel like such an assface!” and cackles hysterically. Obviously.)
The piece de resistance is the “shunting” frenzy that is secretly on at the black-tie party at Billy’s house. The rich, society guests morph into gelatinous blobs and suction themselves to their sacrificial victim. Or, sometimes their mouths elongate to attach themselves to their victim. Others just transform into horrific blobs of flesh. To tell you the truth, there’s no real consistency in what the actual reveal is. Nor a straightforward explanation, just that the society people are “not of [Billy’s] species.” There’s also the matter of one of the leaders shoving his hand up the victim’s rectum and up out of their mouth, for which I am not sure what the purpose is, if not to heighten the ick-factor. Then again, it may set up Billy’s final revenge and eventual escape: shoving his hand up the leader, grabbing his insides and turning him inside-out resulting in a steaming bloody blob of entrails and flesh. It’s less of a movie plot point and more of a show-and-tell of what the visual effects/makeup department can do, and I am sure they had barrels of fun coming up with the idea. But just pick one of those ideas.
The previous 85 minutes of the film are enacted in a Rosemary’s-Baby fashion; Billy is seeing these signs but the others dismiss it as paranoia. Other red herrings occur, some that make sense and some that don’t, like the staging of the death of a class president that arrives at school seemingly alive. Then there’s the fact that Billy i just now determining something is off with his family? Were they normally loving and supportive before this, or did they always behave like sex-crazed incestuous maniacs and he is just now noticing? Since this is an eighties high school film, there are the tropes: the pretty blond beach babe that Billy breaks up with to go out with “outsider” and goth-like Clarissa. Clarissa is one of the society set to trap Billy, but in the end, her love for him takes over and she helps him escape. It’s a hastily cut-together mish-mash of scenes that somehow are supposed to build the intrigue, but really just clumsily move the story forward.
The inclusion of Carissa’s mother was a baffling choice. She appears to be a large man in drag who only gurgles and stares menacingly at people, rightfully making them uncomfortable.. Are we to believe that she has not been able to grasp her human persona yet, and we are viewing one of these creatures in their more natural state? Highly doubtful, because that would add some depth to the film and an insight into character, which Society does not seem to care about, as long as it gets us to the crazy shunting party.
My in-depth research tells me that this was filmed in 1989 yet not released until 1992, which leads me to believe the studio was not quite sure how to market this film, yet another horror films starring teens given a rating in which actual teens aren’t supposed to see it. My guess is that after the success of Beverly Hills 90210, the studio saw an opportunity to capitalize, but to little to no success. Despite the opinions on the film, it’s surprising that Billy Warlock did not become a teen idol after this film; the guy’s got charisma, and really does commit to all the absurdity his character endures. Don’t fret for him, he eventually found work on General Hospital and Baywatch.
I’m still not sure how to characterize Society as a whole, and not even sure to recommend it. I’m disappointed that I can’t add it to my arsenal of “films people should know about and I get to tell them about.” The premise is intriguing and screams potential cult classic; there are unfortunately abundant horror films more effective than this, and just as many that have more nuanced commentary about the human condition. Cult classics become cult classics because there’s an element of fun somehow present, whether it was intentional or not. Society is not fun nor that memorable.