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  • Benjamin May

Society (1989) Review

Bill Whitney is a teenager who feels he doesn’t fit in with his upper-class family. He thinks they might be hiding something evil, and though he attends therapy, it doesn’t assuage his fears. One day Bill sees a strange vision of his sister transforming into a grotesque creature and- after her ex-boyfriend David gives him a cassette that seems to confirm his suspicions- he is determined to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. After David is murdered, Bill is thrust into a race against time, battling a force more powerful and monstrous than he could have ever imagined.

Directed by Brian Yuzna- who wrote ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’- and written by Zeph E. Daniel and Rick Fry, ‘Society’ is a fiendishly dark satire about the class system, containing make-up effects that rival those in John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’. A bizarre, eerie journey into the hidden world of the rich and powerful, it draws inspiration from other cult classics, such as David Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’ or David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’. The narrative- though cliched in places- explores interesting themes, among them the corruption of the elite and the alienation of the outsider. Its thesis is that the rich- quite literally- feed off the poor, which is a common enough trope; though Yuzna makes good use of it.

The film has a comedic edge, and is full of fantastical body horror, as disturbing as it is inventive. The special effects and make-up from Joji Tani- known professionally as Screaming Mad George- are truly out of this world. In the latter half especially, Tani’s bizarre and brilliant work is on full display, and could be seen as the real star of the show. His clever and creative effects make the film- which suffers from having a bloated first half, laden down with an unnecessary romantic sub-plot- unsettlingly unforgettable.

Matthew C. Jacobs’s production design and Kelle DeForrest’s art direction are similarly inspired, poking fun at the bourgeois, with their perfectly trimmed lawns and gaudy home furnishings. Additionally, Mark Ryder and Phil Davies’s ironic soundtrack adds to the film’s elements of parody, mocking the clichés and conventions of horror films. Furthermore, Rick Fichter’s dynamic cinematography creates a contrast between the bright world of the upper class and the dark, gloomy one of the lower classes. He utilises shadows and lighting to great effect, juxtaposing the colourful with the dull, adding to the film’s themes and overall message.

‘Society’ finds Billy Warlock starring as Bill Whitney, alongside Tim Bartell as David, Patrice Jennings as Bill’s sister Jenny and Devin DeVasquez as his love interest, the mysterious Clarissa. Warlock possesses the same boyish charm that Michael J. Fox had, and delivers a witty, charismatic performance of no vanity. He endears himself to the audience immediately, and portrays Bill’s confusion, fear, and anger with aplomb, as he delves deeper into a nightmare of paranoia and betrayal.

His supporting cast are a bit of a mixed bag, thanks in large part to Fry and Daniel’s scant secondary characterisation. Bartell and Jennings do decent work, though it’s not much to write home about. DeVasquez is a little wooden, and doesn’t have much chemistry with Warlock, while Ben Meyerson’s over-the-top performance as Bill’s nemesis Ted Ferguson is simply irritating. The real stand out is David Wiley, in the all too small role of Judge Carter. Menacing and slimy, his work lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled.

In closing, Brian Yuzna’s ‘Society’ is a memorable movie, though it is far from perfect. The narrative is peppered with unnecessary sub-plots and cliches, while screenwriters Fry and Daniel’s secondary characterisation leaves a lot to be desired. Conversely, its satire works well, and most of the humour lands. Moreover, the special effects from Screaming Mad George are captivatingly creepy and hard to forget, while star Billy Warlock’s central performance is engaging and commendable. The production design is of a high quality, and, though ‘Society’ has its problems; it is definitely worth a watch for fans of the grotesque and macabre.


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