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Ick's Alive! Brian Yuzna's Society Revisited
Sean Kitching , June 19th, 2015 06:29

Sean Kitching has another look at Brian Yuzna's enduringly disgusting Society, recently reissued by Arrow films

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Shock is a diminishing commodity in horror. The single minded pursuit of the gross out alone leads only to unilluminating dead ends such as the ideologically bankrupt Human Centipede series, now utterly beyond parody in its third and (hopefully) final sequence. Yet throughout the history of the genre, there have been examples of directors who have deployed truly shocking imagery or ideas along with satirical and darkly humorous aspects to powerful and lasting effect. The early films of Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon (who went on to co-write the late 80s Disney classic Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) fit comfortably into this category. The Lovecraft inspired Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), directed by Gordon and produced by Yuzna, remain classics of the genre, fusing heavy gore with ingenious (and simultaneously puerile) sight gags and a nihilistic undercurrent to deliver ample delights for the jaded modern horror fan. The image of the drooling Dr Gruber in Re-Animator repeatedly smashing his head against the glass in the locked door of the asylum room remains as chilling as ever, even thirty years on. Finally re-released after many years of out of-print limbo-existence, Yuzna’s directorial debut, Society, is a different species of beast altogether. It’s also a film that, despite leaning heavily on the cliches of the era in which it was constructed, remains cannily resonant with today’s particularly self-centered strain of capitalistic enterprise.

Anyone who saw Society back in the day likely remembers it predominantly for its crazed and downright disgusting denouement. Those wishing to avoid spoilers are best advised to open the wonderfully repackaged film with eyes averted from the gloriously grotesque new artwork by British artist Nick Percival. Having only seen the film once myself, soon after its release to video, I was curious to see how well it had weathered the intervening years. That the film stands up so well, and is still capable of delivering such a forceful punch at its ending, is due in part to the solidity and shrewdness of its central premise. Combining the paranoid reality of a teen outsider point of view while questioning the reasoning behind the assumed authority of the privileged elite makes for a satirical viewpoint that seems completely reasonable, even given the fantastic flights of fancy the film eventually attains. Although Yuzna is clearly no David Lynch, he handles the premise with the gleeful flair of a man who clearly knows he’s onto something unique. The Heathers like aspect of the early part of the film soon collapses under the weight of its own paranoia and gradually becomes something far more sinister. The wonderfully named Billy Warlock (of Baywatch fame) feels alienated from his family and the society in which they move. At this point, there are also echoes of John Frankenheimer’s disturbing 1966 masterpiece Seconds and also later films questioning the apparent benevolence of societal norms such as 1975's The Stepford Wives. Yet there are also a number of non-sequiturs: anomalies that would fit more comfortably into a John Waters movie, such as Clarissa’s weirdo hair-munching mother and the offhand perversity of that infamous line: ‘Do you have cream or sugar in your tea... or would you like me to pee in it?’

Prior to beginning work on Society, Yuzna had been involved in the genesis of an aborted project with Dark Star and Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, called The Men, which dealt with the discovery of the truth that an ‘alien race... took control of the planet half a million years ago.’ Although this premise differs in many respects from the plot of Society, it’s likely that some of those ideas found their way into that film. The original script of Society postulated the ruling elite as a sacrificial blood cult, which didn’t go far enough for Yuzna, who instead opted for something wildly surreal and outrageous - the concept of ‘the shunt.’ When the ending finally arrives, even the undeniably ludicrous aspect of the latex special effects courtesy of Screaming Mad George cannot entirely denude the film of its sinister atmosphere. If anything, even crude gags of the kind that recall Re-Animator’s infamous severed head cunnilingus scene (which guaranteed many reviews employing variations on the phrase ‘going down’) simply add sauce to the gross out. Judge Carter declares ‘The rich have always sucked off low-class shit like you’ as a prelude to some really quite horrific events that good taste, and a desire to avoid inflicting serious spoilers, thankfully preclude me going into in any detail here. Suffice to say that the ending presents what could be seen as an almost believable glimpse of possible events behind close doors at Tory party HQ whilst celebrating their recent electoral victory. The fact that the film’s music at its end transforms from a carnivalesque lurching travesty, into a quite recognizable version of the 'Eton Boating Song' merely serves to reinforce that impression. If one were to follow that thought to its logical conclusion, it may provide one possible reason behind the physical similarity of many Tory politicians. Perhaps one day all Tories will look like a combination of William Hague, Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith.

Arrow Films have done a wonderful job in remastering and repackaging this perverse gem so that deserves a place in any horror film fan’s collection. The quality of the picture on the blu ray disc isn’t 100% perfect, but it represents by far the best version of the film available. The new artwork for the limited digipak looks fantastic, the extras are generous and illuminating and the addition of Society: Party Animal, the comic book sequel to the film, make this release something truly special.

Society is available from Arrow Films now

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JImi Fletcher
Jun 19, 2015 11:24am

Thanks for highlighting the excellence of this most messed-up of films. The last twenty minutes are unforgettably wild, but I also like the slow-build up of the first hour. I have the Arrow Blu-Ray and agree that it's another top-notch release from Arrow.

By the way, the line about the rich sucking off low-class shit was spoken by Grade A turdhead Ferguson and not Judge Carter, who instead gets the delightful line '...and now, we'll get to the BOTTOM of this'. Poor Blanchard.

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Sean K
Jun 19, 2015 2:06pm

In reply to JImi Fletcher:

Yes, of course you are right. I had initially intended to include that line you mention, but decided against it as it was a bit too specific and I'm always wary of enraging the 'spoilers' crowd.

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Jimi Fletcher
Jun 19, 2015 2:26pm

In reply to Sean K:

Good point, I apologise if I've revealed too much myself, I couldn't resist! I knew little about the film when I first saw it nearly twenty years ago, all I had to warn me was two screenshots. One was of Billy Warlock in his high school get-up, a totally normal publicity still. The other was a screengrab featured in Empire magazine and it was not normal. Not normal at all.

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