In 1989, Brian Yuzna’s Society was barred from a US release but resonated with audiences commercially and critically throughout Europe, so the story goes. Yuzna wasn’t surprised: “Europeans are more willing to accept the ideas in a movie. I was totally having fun with them, but they are there nonetheless,” he told Off-Screen 10 years after Society was released. But in a country where, according to recent research from the University of Chicago, “at least 50% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory,” it’s puzzling that this subversive oddity remained obscure for so long on the domestic front.Society complicates the “Why does nobody believe me?” trope monopolized in the mid-1980s with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) by taking its story out of the realm of dreams and into ‘the real.’ Whether this is Yuzna’s intent or not, it’s more than incidental that the film’s protagonist, Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock), navigates the strange boundaries between his conscious and subconscious minds with the help of a psychiatrist. Dr. Cleveland (Ben Slack) is here to remind Bill that the subconscious — as audiences had learned by now, after the first four films in the Nightmare franchise — is an often self-sabotaging thing whose power can never be fully trusted. So when Bill’s nagging suspicions about the shiny veneer of his family’s life in Beverly Hills begin to eat at him to the point of disrupting his run for high school class president, naturally Dr. Cleveland is there to curtail his imagination. “Oh, that violent, slimy moaning and screaming you heard on a tape your ex-girlfriend recorded of your family? That’s just your sister’s coming out party. Get some rest and take it easy.”
…Says the shrink on mom and dad’s payroll.The proverbial ‘outsider’ trope, on which horror film has something of a stronghold, is inverted in Society. Though Billy luxuriates in his alpha-male status and the trappings of white privilege, he nonetheless senses something otherworldly, even insidious, about his family, and thus never quite aligns his perspective with that of his mother, Nan (Connie Danese), father, Jim (Charles Lucia), and sister, Jenny (Patrice Jennings). Billy’s paradoxical existence, in which he both plays the high school-bound game of popularity and sees through its pathetic facade, is fertile ground for Yuzna to explore themes of class elitism, social anxiety, and alienation. Society’s climax, then — now infamous among cult circles — is the film’s most enduring contribution to horror film history, insomuch as it critiques the excesses of the Whitney family Billy disdains by way of the body horror excesses of Yuzna collaborator Screaming Mad George’s special effects.
Clearly, Arrow Video has packaged their restoration of Society as Yuzna’s dip into the paranoid conspiracy thriller milieu that permeated films like The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), and others of the preceding decade. That the writer-director — whose place in horror history was cemented when he teamed up with Stuart Gordon as the producer of Gordan’s filmic adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator (1985) — retains said milieu while introducing populist characters and settings of ‘80s America works greatly to Society’s benefit. The necessity of social consciousness in horror film language is far from lost on Yuzna, who, in his director’s audio commentary track, speaks at length about his lifelong fascination with genre cinema’s engagement with taboos — specifically, the incest taboo, which creeps its way into Society’s subtext, and, at the film’s climax, becomes central to its narrative.Among other special features of Arrow’s director-approved limited edition are a variety of interviews with Yuzna spanning from the time of Society’s release to the present day; The Masters of the Hunt, a featurette focusing on interviews with stars Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Ben Meyerson, and Tim Bartell; The Champion of the Shunt, a featurette centered on interviews with Screaming Mad George on his work on the film and the wonky visual style of his prosthetic FX; the music video for Screaming Mad George’s “Persecution Mania”; and more. Arrow’s package also includes a collector’s booklet in which venerable British horror film critic, Alan Jones, delivers an historical overview and critical analysis of Society, accompanied by original and archival illustrations. All of the aforementioned features of this new disc strongly bolster the film’s charming peculiarity with astute supplemental discussion and contextualization. Arrow’s 2K digital transfer of Society, too, affirms its standing as an essential part of the distribution outfit’s impressive, ever-expanding catalogue. Its title a metaphor for the way in which various sects of international audiences have accepted or rejected this peculiar cult gem, Society, in the right hands, can continue an ongoing conversation about social, artistic, moral, and ethical notions of ‘acceptability.’ For now, rest assured, the hands of Arrow Video’s team are right for such a task. Just as the University of Chicago, and other schools like it, have begun to seriously measure the resonance of conspiracy theories, so too has Arrow taken an important step, with their release of Society, to ensure that the film be treated with just enough seriousness to salvage it from irredeemable obscurity. Thanks to Arrow’s heavy-lifting, Society, and, in turn, society now have a presentation of the tongue-in-cheek, butt-on-face anti-establishment satire that befits Yuzna’s film’s irreverent aims. And, for the fans simply awaiting a fun and messy throwback: Society, at long last, waits for you.
Society is now available in the UK and US via Arrow Films and Video.