Society features one of the best and most unnerving opening credits sequences in the horror-film canon. As the credits proceed, after a pair of nesting nightmare scenes that collectively cast doubt on the film’s sense of reality, the audience is able to discern fluid, viscera, portions of human faces and bodies, and odd protuberances that suggest either mutilated flesh or flesh-colored creatures with heads that are shaped in a manner reminiscent of the eerily featureless dome of H.R. Giger’s Alien. Shot in languid slow motion, these images terrifyingly connote a vagueness that’s apropos of dreams that abound in fleeting stimuli that may or may not gain coherence on the wakeful rebound. You can’t quite figure out what you’re seeing. The opening is eventually revealed, however, to foreshadow a memorably gruesome though disappointingly explicit climax that serves to puncture the film’s initial sense of irrational ambiguity. Society is structured as a long preamble for an unveiling of a monster that’s suggestive of a physical embodiment of the cumulative decadence of La Grande Bouffe as envisioned by Salvador Dalí, though that sounds more interesting in theory than it is in reality.
Like a number of other horror films produced in the 1980s, such as Repo Man, Heathers, and Street Trash, Society is built on a bedrock of purposefully jokey flimsiness that’s meant to scan as satire. This film abounds in presentational staging that’s artfully un-artful, often involving blocking in which the subjects are placed in the center of the screen, usually facing us in a confrontational, deliberately obvious head-on manner, though Society lacks the scathing energy of those other movies or anything directed by Stuart Gordon, Yuzna’s frequent collaborator. Nothing in the film is meant to be conventionally realistic, as it luxuriates in a heightened, overheated parodic zone that suggests a cross between a deranged soap opera and a reliably crass and insidiously conformist John Hughes film. The mansion that the teen protagonist, Bill (Billy Warlock), lives in with his blond, blueblood parents and sister is obviously a badly decorated set, with chairs that resemble fake thrones and ugly plants that are situated in absurdly impractical arrangements that a hack TV producer might mistake for production value. Some of the jokes are amusing, such as the ridiculously broad, unconvincing name for the posh school that Bill attends (Beverly Hills Academy) or the flippantly off-color suggestion that a gorgeous young woman has for seasoning tea. There’s also a palpably dreamy dread that keeps one curiously awaiting the revelation of the mystery that Bill seeks to unravel.
But Society introduces a premise and allows it to hang unformed, its creators apparently feeling as if the faint acknowledgement of a social subtext (i.e. rich people are literally giant slugs feeding on society) is enough, and it isn’t. The characters are purposefully stereotypical (a joke that grows stale, as it does in many other 1980s-era horror films), the mystery pertaining to Bill’s heritage doesn’t make any sense once everything’s out in the open, and the pacing is listlessly repetitive, circular, and almost indifferently orchestrated, lingering on scenes that quickly make their point or have no discernable reason to exist to begin with. In several of the supplements included with this edition, Yuzna emphasizes that the film isn’t supposed to make sense because he was attempting to fashion a surreal atmosphere, but Society’s visuals, with the exception of that stunning opening credits sequence, lack the liveliness, or sense of interiority or symbolic heft, that’s necessary to justify that ambition. Society never entirely decides whether it’s a plot-centric horror-mystery or an imagistic fantasy; the film’s self-conscious emptiness drains the incestuous conceit of its shock value, defanging a nervy gross-out.
The image boasts terrifically deep blacks, as well as a sense of clarity that renders the pinks and reds even more lurid than they already were. Other colors, such as the various blues, are also gorgeous. Flesh tones are supple and well-detailed, which is particularly obvious in the authentically sexy love scene between Billy Warlock and Devin DeVasquez. The diegetic sound track has a richness that greatly contributes to the film’s eeriness, and the score by Phil Davies and Mark Ryder really shines with bass-y malevolence. A superb restoration.
The cast members are refreshingly, good-naturedly blunt in their new interviews, particularly Warlock, who admits that he got off while shooting a sex scene with co-star DeVasquez. More notable, though, are the actors’ still obviously unresolved feelings about the film, particularly the big ending, which required that they wear gooey prosthetics while pretending to eat and fuck each other to death. A variety of interviews with director Brian Yuzna span from the year of the film’s initial release to earlier this year, and while he tends to be soft-spoken, he’s also forthcoming and informative, discussing the original script he worked on with Dan O’Bannon, called The Men, which played a role in what eventually became Society. The new audio commentary by Yuzna repeats much of this information, but provides enjoyable context on micro-level details, such as the reasoning behind some of those set choices. There’s also a music video featuring Screaming Mad George, the architect of the film’s special effects, and it has a loose-limbed sense of confident, erotic irrationality that Society sorely lacks, offering instruction via inadvertent contrast. This exceptional package provides a lot of other fan-centric doodads as well: The film’s comic book sequel, Society: Party Animal, is included in its entirety, and the packaging includes newly commissioned artwork as well as a terrific essay by Alan Jones.
This weird, simultaneously inspired and banal horror movie receives an extraordinarily beautiful and attentive refurbishing courtesy of Arrow Video. For fans of 1980s-era horror cinema, this is surely one of the home release events of the year.