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Society
(1989)

Director: Brian Yuzna
Cast:
Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Even Richards


When I was young, my mind was thirsty for all sorts of knowledge, whether it was information about what was happening overseas to what was happening on my home turf. I know I must have endlessly bugged my parents with all the times I went up to them and asked them a question about something of this world of ours. But slowly I started to find it more satisfying to do research for myself to find insight into societies that were not as familiar to me as my own. For example, one of the ways that I learned about a foreign society all those years ago was with comic books - specifically, British comic books. They were much different than American comics in a number of ways, which by itself gave me some insight into British society. One of those ways was with how they portrayed characters who were rich and upper class. I observed that there were two (and only two) ways that such people were portrayed in British comics. The first way was to portray these fortunate people as those who had close ties to people who were lower class and had less money. They would constantly share their wealth and good connections with the less fortunate, and they would eschew higher class things in order to have a good old fish and chip dinner or a game of marbles with their lower class friends. The other portrayal was to show these rich and upper class people as being downright bastards, acting snooty and using every opportunity to shame or humiliate lower class people. Inevitably, these cruel upper class people always ended up humiliated and punished themselves one way or another at the end of every adventure in the comics each and every week.

Even though I was just a child making this observation, I felt pretty safe in thinking that in England there must be a lot of hostility towards the upper class, and that these hostile people thought the upper class should share a great deal of their fortune. Years later, when I was an adult, I found out that I was more or less right with that conclusion when I read Michael Caine's autobiography, where he told how his success was met with a hostile response from a number of his countrymen from the taxman to the common man. As the years passed, I got more insight into other foreign societies. One time I was talking to a friend who was from Japan, and I commented on how it might be easier in some ways to live in a society like hers where everyone had to act more or less alike. She responded, "Oh, you would hate it!" Apparently she had frustration with her society even though she had grown up in it and knew all the rules. Since that day I have learned a lot more about Japanese society and have concluded that I probably would find it difficult to live in. Certainly, there would be some advantages, like everyone acting a lot more polite. But as you may have guessed by my writings in the past, I am kind of an oddball. I like to do my own thing, not just be obsessed with unknown movies. That is not to say that I don't want to live in a society that has a lot of unwritten rules - I am glad that my society has rules that prevent total anarchy. But I've learned that everyone has their own set of quirks, and the society that I live in seems welcome to them as long as I am responsible in other areas. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Anyway, while I am glad for the most part to live in the society that I currently inhabit, sometimes I wish I was more accepted by more people in it. I think that's how most people think - being accepted gives people more of a feeling of power and opportunity. But there are also times when SocietyI'm proud of the way I am and look at conformists with suspicion - do they really enjoy constantly following the pack? What are they really like behind closed doors? I often have thoughts like those, and I got them again recently when I got my hands on a copy of Society, a movie I originally saw when it first came out (albeit in a cut version.) I didn't remember much about it except for the notorious final sequence, as well as the set-up, which appealed to my non-conformist ways as much now as it first did more than twenty years ago. This time I managed to get a copy of the uncut version, and I suspected it would this time have greater appeal to my non-conformist ways. Society is about a youth named Billy (Warlock, Days Of Our Lives), a teenager who seems to have it all. With his sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings), Billy lives in a nice home in Beverly Hills with his wealthy father (Charles Lucia, Tank Girl) and mother (Connie Danese, Hunter's Blood), who are preparing to celebrate Jenny's official entry to their inner circle. But despite all this wealth and love from his family, Billy is unsatisfied; he doesn't feel like he fits in this upper class society, and he is seeing a therapist (Ben Slack, A Savage Hunger) for this, though has not made that much progress. But Billy soon finds his troubles go beyond just not feeling that he fits in. Peering into the bathroom one day, he sees his sister's body twisted around in a grotesquely impossible pose in the shower. Later, he is confronted by his sister's former boyfriend, who plays for Billy a tape recording supposedly of his family involved in some sort of sick sexual activity. Though when Billy delivers the tape to his therapist, the recording has changed to something more innocuous when it's played back at his next session. Are the members of Billy's family, and their friends and acquaintances, really hiding big secrets from Billy? Or is Billy's mind more disturbed than he thinks, and he's really imagining all these bizarre things?

Somehow I don't think that it was necessary for me to ask those two questions I put forward at the end of the previous paragraph. I'm sure you know that in the world of B movies, there is little tolerance by moviegoers for a movie where a central character finds out that his suspicions of dark things happening are simply wrong, because deep down most moviegoers want a juicy payoff at the end of a B movie. And most B movie filmmakers, just like the makers of Society, know this. So to a significant degree there's no surprise when the two questions are answered at the end of the movie. But while the movie does give the audience what it wants at the end, along the way the movie does some things that its B movie audience may not expect. Namely, with the portrayal of so-called "society", the upper class environment that the character of Billy finds himself stuck in and feeling not a part of. The clear message is that this environment does no one any good, at least for outsiders. While Billy has managed to make one good friend (played by Evan Richards) at the exclusive academy he attends, there is constant pressure for Billy to do good, whether on the basketball court or debating with other students for class president. Billy has managed to land a sexy girlfriend, but often she seems more concerned with their status than their relationship, demanding to Billy at one point that he better get them invited to an upcoming party if he really loves her. Billy also gets no relief despite seeing his therapist on a regular basis. When Billy vents his fears and concerns, the most "helpful" his therapist gets is to tell Billy, "If you don't follow the rules, bad things will happen."

Even when it comes to his home environment, Billy finds no sanctuary. His home looks too clean and not lived in - it feels unnatural. Worse of all are his family members. Sure, his father, mother, and sister give Billy praise and indicate (sort of) by their speech that they love him, but it also doesn't feel right. There's no warmth, no real feeling of concern to their words. They seem devoted to themselves and their inner circle. It's a real surprise that Billy's sister's boyfriend turns out to be Jewish, but it's no surprise when this character makes a tragic exit - from what we've seen of Jenny and her upper class comrades, such a relationship could never last. These and other observations of this screen society provide a lot of interest and take up a great deal of the movie, enough that while the movie is billed as a horror movie, a great deal of it really isn't. This fact may turn off some potential viewers who are horror fans, but let me assure you that Society does have a considerable amount of squishy and grotesque stuff on display. In fact, the opening credits of the movie have a credit for the famed Screaming Mad George for providing, "Surrealistic make-up effects". True, about 90% of these effects are confined to the last twenty minutes or so of the movie, but I thought it was worth the wait. I don't want to say what exactly happens or is displayed in those final twenty minutes, but what we get to see is a real jaw-dropper. The closest I can describe the experience without spoiling things is imagining David Cronenberg in a mood that's ten times more twisted and sick than he usually gets when he's in a creepy mood.

The extremely grotesque touches in Society should come as no surprise, since director Brian Yuzna has made a name for himself doing the same in other horror movies. But Yuzna does manage to accomplish more than showcasing the weird and strange. For starters, while Yuzna was saddled with a low budget, he manages to spend the limited funds wisely so the movie never looks particularly tacky, except for a couple of moments when I saw the shadow of the boom mike blatantly creep into the frame. Yuzna manages to get the mostly no-name cast to give some solid performances. The actor who gets the most showcase is of course Billy Warlock as the protagonist. Although the twenty-eight year old actor looks too old to be a teenager, he manages to show concern, confusion, and panic in a way that makes his character sympathetic and almost makes us believe all of his character's actions. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Woody Keith and Rick Fry make the character of Billy one who does not learn from his mistakes. Several times, Billy makes an outrageous accusation and is quickly proved to be wrong. I could buy this happening once or even twice, but afterwards I think anyone with a lick of sense would do further investigations a lot more carefully. Another problem with the screenplay is that the story goes on far too long. While I admit that I wasn't bored at any moment, all the same I saw that a number of scenes were running a lot longer than they should, and some other scenes could have been eliminated entirely without hurting the movie at all. In fact, the story might have worked better as an hour long (with commercials) television show rather than a movie. Because of all this padding, it is entirely possible that without the gargantuan payoff at the end of the movie, I might have been inclined to label the movie as a miss. But that climatic payoff, as well as the other interesting and entertaining things found in Society, do manage to outweigh the negative stuff. But if you are a person who easily gets impatient, this may be one movie to watch in twenty minute chunks, with a break between chunks to break the monotony of the movie often spinning its wheels.

(Posted April 29, 2017)

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See also: The Apple, Didn't You Hear, Jabberwalk

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