31 DAYS OF HORROR #22: Andy Stewart on SOCIETY (1989)

Spoilers

Andy Stewart – filmmaker and co-host of the Strong Language & Violent Scenes podcast – mixes with high-Society in Brian Yuzna’s infamous gru-fest…

A suited man looks on impassively as a blonde woman in a figure-hugging blue dress removes her face. Literally. Pulls her face off like it’s a mask. This image, on a bus-shelter poster, was my first exposure to Brian Yuzna’s gooey masterpiece Society (or – to use the splendid Indonesian title – Man Sucks Man).

At the time, I would have been around nine years old. I already had a healthy love for horror and had seen a few things that I would consider “gateway” genre films, such as Gremlins and An American Werewolf In London, but this poster, for a film I knew nothing about, blew my mind, and I knew that I had to see it.

However as a nine year old boy that wouldn’t be easy, and it would be a few more years before I would be able to convince my parents to allow me to get Society from the local guy that drove around in a van, renting films out of the back and jotting down the return dates in a little book.

By the time I did get around to seeing it my interest in body horror had already been sparked, having seen Tetsuo: The Iron Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which is – to this day – one of my favourite films of all time. Society, however, was something very different for me.

Truth be told, I didn’t really get the none-too-subtle commentary on the American class system at the time, or the overtly incestual plotline. But I was absolutely on board for the slimy weirdness of it all, even if I was a little bit put out that no-one actually pulls their face off.

In the intervening 25-plus years, Society has cemented itself as one of the defining films of my youth and beyond. It’s a film that I gush effusively about at every opportunity, still watch semi-regularly and has even partly influenced my own work as a film-maker.

For those unaware, the film tells the story of popular Beverly Hills high-schooler Billy Whitney (Billy Warlock) who begins to realise that his family may, in fact, be a race of shape-shifting creatures who feast on the lower classes.

Baywatch’s Warlock does pretty much the same thing here as he does in that show: he’s a hot-headed, angry little guy that spends the entire film on the verge of hysteria, screaming at the heavens for someone to listen to his suspicions. He’s great, and is absolutely the solid backbone of the film. I can’t say the same for everyone.

Sadly, and somewhat surprisingly to some, I am not going to sit here and claim that Society is a perfect film. It does suffer from moments of bagginess, many plot contrivances, is over-stuffed with pointless characters (I’m looking at you Mrs. Carlyn) and its message is far blunter and less incisive than Yuzna might think. But, that said, I can’t help but be absolutely drawn to it.

And the chief reason for that, I think, is the aforementioned gooiness.

The bizarre, surrealistic FX work of Joji Tani aka Screaming Mad George will always be the focal point of any discussion of Society. There are moments here, like Jenny in the shower, the “butthead” scene and that final “shunting” sequence, that left an indelible imprint on me and showed me how interesting and out-there special make-up effects could be.

I know that I am not the only voice out there heralding Society as a minor classic within the genre, but there certainly aren’t a lot of us. Similarly, I know a lot of folk who simply can’t stand it. I for one am extremely glad that that it exists, and it still brings me just as much joy as it did the first time I saw it.

One of my proudest moments as a film-maker was having the premiere of my own body horror film Ink premiere at Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams a few years back, opening for a 35mm print of Society with Brian Yuzna in attendance. That was enough for me. I got to inflict my own brand of icky on him, almost 30 years later.

So, thank you Society for warping a young man’s mind and forcing a lifelong obsession with slime and gunge. Without you, who knows what I would be into: I might actually like zombie films.

Andy Stewart

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