Written by Becky Darke
In 1985, Brian Yuzna produced Re-Animator, with the late great Stuart Gordon in the director’s chair, but Yuzna soon realised that it’s the director who receives the credit and who holds a lot of the power behind whether movies get made. So Yuzna had a plan: he’d pitch Bride of Re-Animator and when the studio agreed, he’d make a deal to direct not one, but two movies. He cannily made the call to first direct Society (1989) – which he wasn’t sure people would necessarily ‘get’ – and then he’d make his sure-bet sequel (going on to direct Bride in 1990).
Now, Yuzna’s risky debut is a popular cult movie in its own right and one of the most memorable body horror films of all time.
Society gives us Billy Warlock playing a Beverly Hills teen from a wealthy family. He’s destined for great things yet between basketball practice and making out with his girlfriend, he’s seeing a therapist for paranoia. Soon we can’t help but see that his fears aren’t all in his head, and nothing here is what it seems at first glance.
Scares-wise, Yuzna gives us a movie that wears its horror pedigree on its sleeve. This is body horror at its purest, and we know what we’re in for from the start – roiling, oozing bodies beneath the opening credits, soundtracked by what sounds like some kind of Fascist nursery rhyme. But there’s more here for fans of the genre; at times, Society delves into slasher and psychological thriller territory, and even shares some themes with folk horror.
As this is 1980s Beverly Hills, the action isn’t confined to dank dungeons or even run-of-the-mill suburbs. It’s all bright sunshine, beaches and convertibles, and when we do go inside, we’re surrounded by luxurious Argento-esque interiors.
The film impressively balances horror with comedy, and displays an almost childish sense of humour. There are fart noises and an excellent money-shot with some suntan lotion. Even the body horror is so extreme and unreal you can’t take it entirely seriously.
Behind the creatures is special effects legend Screaming Mad George, and he draws deep on his surrealist influences to create grotesque bodies that sweat and bulge and meld together, distorting and stretching in fantastical ways.
Yuzna’s inspiration came from werewolf films like John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981), and he worked with the effects team to create fleshy transformations using revolutionary plastics and synthetic flesh. Over thirty years later, a few parts may look a little ropey, but on the whole it holds up and the creations are so extreme and utterly bizarre that it’s always a fun, brilliant spectacle.
The film descends into absolute debauchery and nightmarish depravity but when things get wild, you can’t tear your eyes away.
What makes Society great is that it’s more than just extreme effects and ‘80s sheen. It’s a film that looks at paranoia, gaslighting, teenage alienation, trust and family truths, elitism and corruption, and the horror of feeling unsafe in your own home. Yuzna wanted the film to ask: what’s the line between what outwardly appears to be a respectable life and people’s true desires? And in this, it’s entirely successful.
The pace does slow towards the end – even Yuzna admits it’s kind of clunky – but it’s the moments that push boundaries that are important. Plus it ends with a finale you’ll never forget. Society is an incredible film that needs to be seen to be believed.