Oh Brian Yuzna, you are a special kind of director. Possibly, I’d say, the closest thing horror has had to an Argento or a Fulci in the last couple of decades. Argento certainly isn’t Argento anymore. What Yuzna likes to do, when not writing Honey I Shrunk The Kids films, is take a story of something potentially dark, show you that darkness and then crank that darkness to 11 via a short segway into absolute balls out weirdness. One film that does this with quite some ballsy amount of style is his 1989 film Society. Click the link below for my review where I’ll try as hard as possible to not spoil how weird this film gets.
Society follows a teenager by the name of Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) who’s seeking psychiatric help to deal with the niggling feeling that his family may not be quite what they seem. His parents appear to have a relationship with his sister that’s a little bit on the creepy side of things and he’s not too keen on that. Trouble is, everything seems fine to everyone else. Gradually he starts to uncover a mystery that seems to imply some sort of secret society is at work in Beverly Hills that reaches far beyond just his parents. Is it Billy’s paranoia making him see and believe things that may not be true? Is it a case of a teenager just struggling with the world around him? Or is there something much, much creepier going on? It’s the last one. Definitely the last one.
The vast majority of Society plays out as a paranoia thriller with a mostly high school student age class. Kinda like how Brick is a noir but with a teenage twist. What the film manages to do really quite well is hold back from really showing you just what is going on. There’s a clever little element that Billy only ever sees his sister and a girl he is attracted to, and later involved with, as being physically transformed. This helps assert the idea that it’s his teenage hormones and mental state causing his suspicions. The fact there’s an allusion to incest made between his parents and his sister just helps deepen the potentially disturbed thoughts Billy is having. This is one of those films that could very easily have an entirely different third act, bring the film down a more psychological path, that would have been just as acceptable.
I don’t want to spoil just what is going on but I’ll say that the film has a visual tone that borrows heavily from David Lynch in its portrait of modern Americana. This is asserted very early on when we get an interaction between Billy, his parents and his sister that feels ripped right out of a Lynch film. His parents physically close in proximity to his sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings), they’re all smiles, congratulating her on everything, hands gently on her shoulder. While this plays out the music is kept in that tense unnerving tone Lynch enjoys. By contrast when they talk to Billy they’re physically distant, blunt and disinterested.
The film doesn’t go into Lynchian surrealism/subversion, but that’s because Yuzna channels another director for when he needs to ramp up the horror value. That director being David Cronenberg. In the words of Rick and Morty, he goes “full Cronenberg”. But that’s the final act, and I don’t want to get into that. Once you see one pic from those scenes you’ll be trying to see more. It’s best to experience the full glory of what is in store for you by just watching the film. Suffice to say the film features some really cool, but clearly dated now, make up effects by Screaming Mad George, who’s worked on a number of make-up effect heavy films over the years such as Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Progeny and, in his directorial debut, that Guyver film Mark Hamill was clearly very drunk in. Which was produced by Brian Yuzna by the way. I should get that film. It’s called Mutronics over here. Lord knows why.
Whilst the film contains no major stars, and only a handful of faces you’ll likely recognise, everyone does their best to nail that low budget horror style of (over)acting that help keep these films from taking themselves too seriously. There’s a lot of dark humour to be had, as is the way of The Yuzna. Towards the film’s climax some of this humour swerves directly into Looney Tunes territory, which is oddly perfectly in keeping with the twisted imagery you’ll be seeing. Billy has a crush on a girl called Clarissa (played by Prince’s former squeeze Devin DeVasquez) who does a fine job playing the seductress. Oddly she pretty much edges Billy’s girlfriend from the first half of the film completely out of the picture. There’s an arc where Clarissa becomes the love interest but quite how this actually happens is beyond me. One minute she comes across as a force of corruption, next thing you know she’s in love with Billy. It was the late 80s though. Logic didn’t exist in the 80s.
The film has plenty of issues. Leaps in logic. A sudden shift in Billy’s personality towards the end of act 2 that reverts 2 scenes later. The occasional effect that really hasn’t aged well. The high school cast are largely filling out tropes and stereotypes direct from the Animal House school of character types. Although, with that last one, the over cliché nature of the characters does somewhat lend to the real-unreal tone of the high society life. The film doesn’t really tackle major themes in an attempt to provide any insight, but more utilises them to create a sense of tension. The rich socialites having secret, debauched, meetings plays into the average person’s potential suspicions of those much better off than ourselves. Billy’s parents in particular are near cartoonish in their wealth. They have meetings in a room with chairs that are all but one gold leaf away from being full blown thrones, for example.
Subtle Society is not. But then it wouldn’t be a Brian Yuzna film if it was. This is one of those cult films that you’ll either love or hate. I pretty much loved it. It’s creepy, dark and a real slow burner. It actually handles paranoia and madness well and provides you with the ultimate “I was right all along… OH MY GAWD WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!” scenario. I recommend the shit out of Society. Just, please, do not look for spoilers. Don’t even look for images. Just sit down, watch it, and about 30 minutes in order takeaway so it’s delivered just as you reach the final act. Yeah… do that.