“I believe horror is important because I believe it’s like fairytales. It’s not a fluke that it continues. The fact that the establishment, in film and in culture, treats horror like the bastard stepchild is ignoring the persistence of horror. It’s ignoring Edgar Allan Poe, it’s ignoring Mary Shelley.”
So said producer/director Brian Yuzna at the London premiere of his 1989 film Society, a satirical exploration into the slimy underbelly of the richest Beverly Hills families and the secrets they keep very much within the family.
Having previously produced 1985’s Re-Animator, the film which brought the work of H P Lovecraft to greater prominence within horror cinema, Society was a difficult sell and not well received, Yuzna admitting that it was “largely ignored” when it eventually received Stateside release three years later. “I was shocked because I thought it was really going to be great.”
Now remastered with bountiful supporting features in a deluxe package from Arrow Films, it’s time to take the tuxedo and the shoulder pads out of mothballs and once again pay a visit to the zippiest of zip codes: Society waits for you.
With a soundtrack opening with an eighties synth creep which reminds of Elm Street, Bill Whitney (Baywatch’s Billy Warlock) has nightmares of an empty mansion, strange noises emanating from out of sight. He’s scared of his parents, his sister, even his psychiatrist to whom he confesses “I feel like something’s gonna happen. And, if I scratch the surface, they’ll be something terrible underneath.”
He should apparently have no reason for this anxiety; he is wealthy, handsome, popular, captain of the debating team even when distracted by the glamourous Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez), but his parents Nan and Jim (Connie Danese and Charles Lucia) are cold to him, obviously preferring his sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings), the very definition of “daddy’s little princess.”
David Blanchard (Tim Bartell), Jenny’s ex, breaks into the house to try and see her and is promptly thrown out, but after Jenny’s “coming out party” David intercepts Bill at the beach, giving him a secret recording of what sounds like an orgy.
Increasingly convinced that he was adopted as he bears no resemblance to the other members of his family and believing that they don’t like him, Billy gives the tape to his psychiatrist and begs him to listen to it. “We’re just one big happy family… except for a little incest and psychosis.”
When he returns, the recording is different, the normal sounds of a debutante party. Believing the recording to have been switched and now unable to trust anyone, Bill tries to obtain another copy of the original, but minutes before they are due to meet David is killed in a car crash, and the offhand response of Bill’s family is unfathomable.
Originally presented to him as a script by Woody Keith and Rick Fry’s featuring what was in effect a “Beverly Hills blood cult,” it was the paranoia which appealed to Yuzna who had worked for a year with his friend Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien) on the script for the similarly paranoid The Men, a project which never entered production.
Inspired by the “synthetic flesh” of Michael Curtiz’ Doctor X (1932) and the traditional werewolf transformations of Hollywood, Yuzna brought in special effects artist Screaming Mad George to work on ideas which is where the concept of the shunt was developed. In an unusual choice, the show-stopping climax of the film actually plays under the opening titles, but without context or frame of reference, the audience is at that early point unable to comprehend what they are witnessing.
A self-described “big fan of surrealism in art” with an interest in “stream of consciousness imagery, dreamlike imagery,” in the accompanying interview Yuzna sees himself as a following early cinema pioneer Georges Méliès rather than the realism of Auguste and Louis Lumière. He found a kindred spirit with Screaming Mad George who suggested the work of Salvador Dalí as a starting point, particularly the paintings Autumn Cannibalism and Premonition of Civil War.
Made now, Society would be a much darker, more subversive film; despite all that occurs, perhaps tied with the theme of maintaining appearances, it always feels bright and fresh. In contrast to the challenging and pioneering body horror of David Cronenberg with its young attractive stars in swimwear, designer clothes and fast cars caught in a troubling undercurrent Society tries to be a more commercial film than it actually is.
Warlock had recently completed a run on the popular daytime soap Days of our Lives and DeVasquez had a background in modelling; interviewed a quarter of a century later alongside Bartell and Ben Meyerson, the principal antagonist of the film beyond Bill’s apparent “family,” all four remain remarkably youthful and speak with enthusiasm and much laughter at the memories of the shoot, particularly the final scenes.
While the narrative runs out of steam, the prosthetics of the final act are not only amazing but the coordination and dedication of the performers is astonishing, Meyerson describing it as “horror porn” as he laughs at the memory of “a lot of nudity, a lot of greased up women running around” before suddenly recalling “I forgot I kissed Billy!”
The man known as Screaming Mad George (“He fits his name,” according to Meyerson), a talented artist and sculptor who saw his creation as “a living surreal sculpture” confirms that conditions were not easy on what became “a really gooey set,” and that for him at least sleep was sparse on that final week of shooting.
Despite the fact that DeVasquez’ first impression was that the script “was daunting,” her curiosity about the project won her over: “I was sort of drawn to the fact that it was different.” That sentiment is echoed by Meyerson, who says “I really liked it because it was so odd.”
Bartell recalls a face-to-face meeting with his agent where he expressed his more direct concerns (“There’s people licking my body!”) but admits practicality won out in the end: “I really needed the part.”
His trepidation justified, Bartell goes on to say “Your dread is not only met but surpassed,” and states that his death scene was so disturbing that it was toned down in the edit. “Brian just wants everything to be as intense as possible – ‘Scream, Tim, it motivates the actors!'”
While Yuzna feels he “wasn’t the best director,” regarding parts of it as “clunky,” Warlock says “Brian knew exactly what he was doing,” though Yuzna admits his process is not necessarily conventional. “You work from the images and then back engineer,” trying to make sense of a narrative which doesn’t always flow. “The hair thing – I have no idea,” he says referring to the late Pamela Matheson’s scene stealing as trichotillomaniac Mrs. Carlyn, without a word one of the best things in the uneven film.
Also including an extended question and answer session with Yuzna from a recent screening and the music video for Screaming Mad George’s Persecution Mania, a lo-fi, inventive and a hugely imaginative showcase of his talents, despite any failings Bartell expresses the continuing relevance of the film when he says “As timely as it was at the end of the Regan era, I think it’s even more timely now.”
“You’re going to make a wonderful contribution to society.”