Thursday, 15 October 2015

October Nightmares #15: Society (1989)

Some horror movies are difficult to market. Take Tobe Hooper's 1995 adaptation of Stephen King's The Mangler, a film about a possessed killer laundry press. A laundry press. You could argue that a particularly unpleasant death is frightening in itself, albeit in a rather non-subtle way. But wanna know the rub? It can't move. You literally have to feed yourself to this death machine. How is that scary? That's assisted suicide at best, weaponized Darwinism at worst. Society, directed by Re-animator producer Brian Yuzan, has a similar issue with marketability. Ostensibly a horror movie, Society follows one Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) and his unironic complaints about his privileged, spoilt lifestyle. Bill claims to feel like a black sheep in his own family and social circles - he's just so misunderstood, guys. But after peeling back the ostentatious trappings of Beverly Hills life he discovers a lifestyle of gross excess.

Now a story about a young man, who has everything and appreciates nothing, trying to find his place in the world was always going to be difficult to make appealing. It's such a first world problem, like complaining that your wallet is too small to store all your money. Oh poor you. Maybe if I had a massive vault for my ample assets, I could check it for fucks to give. Luckily for Society, however, writers Rick Fry and Woody Keith merely use this set-up to establish an intriguing slow-burning paranoia fuelled mystery. Think Jacob's Ladder meets Pride and Prejudice. Bill is plagued by nightmarish visions, and a general sense of unease that causes him to feel that something bad is going to happen; a feeling that can also be ascribed to leaving a dinner party with your spouse after joking about her hair. The viewer can probably guess what kind of movie this is going to be from the cold opening; the atmosphere is dream-like as Bill explores his home imagining strange disembodied laughter coming from the ether. Society opts for a psychological approach, purposely blurring the lines between what is or isn't real.

It's only at the film's conclusion that we receive answers to our questions. And boy, like a kid asking his parents if he was adopted, do we regret our desire to know. Despite the opening three-quarters of the 100-minute runtime being little more than an ambiguously creepy melodrama, Society's final act serves up a crescendo of macabre sexuality and mind-warping body horror. The way Yuzan stages the climax is a perfect example of how to connect the overarching themes of a film with the tangible and visceral. It's such an abrupt turn into gut-wrenching madness that even after several viewings I find myself at a loss on how to illustrate my reaction to this shift in tone. Think of it as though you've ordered a cheesecake in a fancy restaurant, only to discover after a few mouthfuls that it's made of foetuses. But then you carry on eating anyway.

What sets Eighties horror apart from modern horror is the dedication to warts and all practical gore. A film like Hostel (2005) may be more realistic in its depiction of a man getting his fingers cut off, but it's so clinical and over-produced. I find the use of puppets and crude workarounds (such as stop-motion) to simulate gore to be far more efficient. Sure, it's not as immersive, but it does have the advantage of coming across as grungy and inhuman. So Society - in its effort to depict what goes on at the Conservative Party annual conference - culminates a bizarre orgy of amalgamating limbs, melting flesh and reconfiguring bodies; all done with rubbery, slimy puppetry. At one point, a guy actually puts his hand up inside another guy and uses him like a marionette - with two fingers and a thumb sticking out of his eye sockets and mouth. And György Dózsa thought he had a bad time of having things forcefully inserted into his flesh, the bloody wimp.

With the squicky nature of the effects, it should come as no surprise that Screaming Mad George was responsible. And yes, that is his name. Apart from sounding like a Mad Max character, SMG had created the effects for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 & 4, Predator, and Arena - demonstrating a propensity for practical effects dripping in bodily fluids. So it's natural that he worked with Yunza on Society, creating the heterogeneous mass of gyrating bodies. The result is a final act that's an endurance test of violent, sweaty, abhorrent sexuality, like being on a honeymoon with Steven Seagal.

Society was intended as Yunza's commentary against a decade of rampant excess and soulless materialism. A reaction to the yuppie culture and its sociopathic politics. Bret Ellis did something similar a couple of years later, with American Psycho - which used 1980's corporate culture as a backdrop for a horror story about the relationship between extreme capitalism and sadism. Society goes further than this, taking the notion of the rich having always fed on the poor to its logical conclusion. Contextualising Society against a period marked by the prevalent corruption of our 'social betters', the film has far greater impact. And it's eerie just how applicable its message is to our own society, where the masses rally against the greedy 1% and the British public endure repressive measures enforced by their elitist government. A film of cutting social commentary that really gets to the heart of...oh my, look that guy's got a face where his arse should be!