Rentals Revisited – Society (1989)

As mentioned in the book, Adventures in VHS began life as a series of articles for a site named Eat Sleep Live Film. Here is one of those original, unedited posts focused on Brian Yuzna’s insane and disturbing sexual paranoia squidge-fest Society.

Society (1989)

Medusa Pictures – MO209

(Originally posted May 20th 2011)

As I’ve reiterated in each of these articles, Rentals Revisited has been a great opportunity for me to go back and look at some of the movies I saw as a kid, to see how they hold up under scrutiny today.
I’ve been entertained by the camp fun of From Beyond, thrilled by the action sequences of The Wraith, terrified by the eponymous demonic toys of Dolls, disappointed by The Gate and tickled by the underrated cult classic Vamp. But all good things must come to an end – and I’m hoping I’ve saved the best for last.

I suppose when this particular video hit the shelves, I must have been around 12 or 13 years old. Having had a VHS player in the house for some time, my parents had been more than accommodating in helping to satiate my appetite for horror, allowing me to see most of the things I yearned for. With a careful hand, they managed to deftly guide me away from things they thought I couldn’t yet handle and, although bowing to pester power on more than one occasion, I think it’s fair to say they did a brilliant job in keeping me happy while making sure I was clear on the lines between reality and fantasy. Obviously, there had been times when some pretty intense scenes of sex, violence or both caused them to shuffle uncomfortably in their seats as I gazed at the screen – but I can’t help wonder what they must have been thinking the day we sat down to watch Brian Yuzna’s 1989 oddity Society.

Again, as I’ve said before, my criteria for these articles have been based solely on movies that lodged themselves in my subconscious as a result of having had such an impact on me as a kid. Some I remembered more vividly than others, but all carried at least a few images – even if it was just the accompanying artwork – that I could not escape. Society was no different. The fantastic poster, despite featuring people who look like no-one in the actual film, was beautifully hand painted and incredibly memorable. The tagline, despite being pretty misleading (and only one of many), was also pretty clever. “You are what they eat” played perfectly on a well-used phrase and stuck in the mind almost as long as the cover image of the hot blonde as she gently pulled the fleshy mask from her face, while a dinner-jacketed gent looked on nonchalantly.

However, it was the final 10 minutes of Society that remained with me the most – as anyone who’s seen it will no doubt understand. Unfortunately, years after I saw it for the first time, the film seemed to completely disappear from existence, something those who know nothing of a world without the internet will struggle to imagine. In short, when I wanted to revisit this film back in the mid-nineties, I couldn’t. And as VHS went the way of the Dodo, it seemed unlikely any distributor in the early days of DVD was going to resurrect such a scummy little title to show off what the format was capable of… so I forgot about it.

Years later, I’m guessing probably around the mid-2000s, I was flipping through some DVDs at a comic book fair in Manchester, not looking for anything in particular, when I saw it… that mozzarella-masked woman, the casual guy in bow tie and white scarf… I’d found it! An actual DVD of the movie which I’d genuinely started to imagine I’d dreamt. So, having happened upon this amazing discovery, what did I do? I decided to go buy some comics and come back later. Why? I have no idea, but I’m guessing you can figure out what happened when I went back… that’s right, gone… so once again, I forgot about it.

Even now, in this world where everything is at our fingertips, I’ve been left disappointed. I won’t go into details (for obvious reasons), but suffice to say, it’s always wise to check the things people give away online to make sure they are what they claim to be. But while all this was going on, I hadn’t realised my prediction that no distributor (in the UK at least) would bring this film to DVD had been disproved. It took them over a decade, but in 2007 it seems Palisades Tartan saw fit to put out a region 2 disc of the movie that had completely passed me by. Sure, it wasn’t exactly a special feature-fest and they’d replaced the slick VHS cover art (which appeared on the disc that eluded me years earlier) with a poor resolution photo from the film’s filthy final act, but it didn’t matter… it was here, in my hands, 22 years after I first saw it – and just in time for me to cover it for my final Rentals Revisited article.

With the final sequence looming large in my expectations, I was keen to see what the first 80-something minutes of Society could offer me and, I’m happy to say, it’s all adds up to a thoroughly watchable experience. Over the course of the movie, we watch as one young man’s entire world falls apart around him. As the horrific, carnal reality behind the affluent small town he lives in slowly reveals itself, questions are raised about what it is to belong – and whether or not aspiring to be part of the ruling class is a good idea when you’re clearly an outsider.

When we’re introduced to Bill (Warlock), were told this is a kid who’s already somewhat damaged. He openly admits being scared to his therapist and, we find out later, his status as college sporting hero and debating champion hides real feelings of anxiety and a sense he doesn’t quite belong. In this pre-credits scene, we’re also given the first signal that something beneath the ripe, healthy skin of this wealthy middle-class suburb is rotten to the fleshy core.

Bill and his sister Jenny (Jennings) seem to have a pretty healthy relationship, she’s a fairly typical teen, looking forward to her societal debutant party and he seems keen to look out for her, even rescuing her from a kid named Blanchard who is keen to let her know something strange is going on. But it’s Jenny who delivers the first – and one of the final – blows to the ultimate shattering of her brother’s reality. Accidentally (or perhaps not accidentally – you decide) stumbling across her in the shower, Bill sees Jenny’s body mysteriously contort as she moans orgasmically and soaps herself. It’s the first of many sequences that combine personal sexual gratification with bodily mutation and incestual desire – plus it’s pretty creepy.

Of course, as with most films, the hero gets a love interest. Perhaps the most curious thing here, however, is that it’s a princess who isn’t in need of rescue. Bill already has a girlfriend, a popularity-obsessed cheerleader who seems only to be with him as she sees it as some kind of meal ticket for peer approval, so when he hooks up with the mysterious and incredibly attractive Clarissa (DeVasquez), the signs should suggest this will be his salvation. Unfortunately, when their moment between the silk sheets arrives, Clarissa’s glistening skin and optical illusion of a body tells us that if something’s going on, she’s a part of it. As the weirdness continues to spiral out of control, Bill finds himself walking in on a suspiciously affectionate moment in his parents room between his mum, dad and sister. Worse still, Bill’s mum seems pretty keen to get her son involved, allowing him to erupt when she suggests he has the potential to “make a great contribution to society”. Finally severing his ties, he announces he’s done with his creepy-assed family aesthetic and is moving out – with a great parting shot at his father that comes back to haunt him later: “Fuck you butthead.”

What follows is the obligatory sequence in which the central lead seems to have tapped into something no-one else knows about. People think he’s crazy, either because they don’t believe his theories or because they’re protecting the truth. Either way, his family, the police and even the women in his life, can’t – or won’t – help him. In the past, I’ve alluded to my love for films that offer this dynamic. There’s something I find incredibly terrifying about the idea that there is a dark secret that everyone shares and you are the last to know about it. While there are some pretty obvious issues around class that seep from every dripping pore of Society, my interest in it comes from the way it seems to fuse the rampant sexuality of something like Calligula with the eerie paranoia of The Stepford Wives (1975) or one of the many films you could class under the ‘Body Snatchers’ genre. Mix in with this the prosthetic effects of something like Re-Animator (which, of course, Yuzna directed the first sequel to) and you have a deliciously messed-up, freakishly thrilling dark thriller with a bitter comic centre.

And what of that final, insanely memorable and disgustingly bizarre finale? In which the secret society of hedonistic, incestuous, paedophilic, suburban aberrations bind together in some sadomasochistic, cannibalistic orgy of filth and gore. Well, it was every bit as creepy and disturbing as I’d remembered. But more importantly, in the context of everything that came before, it seemed even more sinister and uncanny than my mind had allowed me to think it could be. I love nothing more than being pinned to my chair with a feeling of quiet, unsettled shock and I have to admit that, putting the whole of Society together with an older, (slightly) wiser brain, I probably relished it even more this time for its sheer oddness.

I think I now know what my parents must have been thinking as they shifted uncomfortably in their seat watching this delightful little slice of weirdness – although, I’m pretty sure mine was a more enjoyable experience on both occasions.