Brian Yuzna's directorial debut SOCIETY shunts its way onto Blu-ray/DVD combo courtesy of Arrow Video USA.
Although handsome Beverly Hills teen Billy Whitney (BAYWATCH's Billy Warlock, son of stuntman Dick Warlock) is the star of the basketball team and a seeming shoe-in for class president, he nevertheless feels different and distant from his parents Jim (THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE's Charles Lucia) and Nan (Concetta D'Agnese, HUNTER'S BLOOD), debutante sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings), and his social equals. He confides his fears in psychiatrist Dr. Cleveland (Ben Slack, BACHELOR PARTY) who believes a degree of alienation from those closest to him is not unusual at his age. Billy is reluctant to delve too deeply for fear of what he will discover, but his hallucinations become more vivid and his social-climbing girlfriend Paula (Heidi Kozak, FRIDAY THE 13TH VII: THE NEW BLOOD) pushes him to get them invited to a party thrown by Ted "The Tycoon" Ferguson (Ben Meyerson, CAROLINE AT MIDNIGHT) who makes no bones about the reasons for Billy's exclusion ("Some people are born to rule"). Billy realizes that his suspicions about his family may not be paranoia when Jenny's unsuitable techno geek ex Blanchard (Tim Bartell, MEATBALLS PART II) plays him a recording he made from a spy microphone he attached to one of Jenny's ear rings that reveals that her coming out part was a swingers' orgy in which Jenny had sex with Ferguson, her own parents, and other members of high society including the influential Judge Carter (David Wiley, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III). Billy gives the tape to Dr. Cleveland, but it is altered when he plays it back the next day and the doctor wants to prescribe him drugs. Billy asks Blanchard for another copy of the tape, but Blanchard is killed in a mysterious accident on the way to see him. At Ted's party, he meets "bad news" girl Clarissa (Devin DeVasquez, HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY's Aztec sacrificial virgin) who is an irresistible combination of vulnerable and vulgar (and disturbingly flexible as it turns out). As Billy comes to realize that he is being set up for something by his family and friends – the exception being Milo (Brian Bremer, MUTE WITNESS) whose ethnicity also seems to make him socially unsuitable – he decides to face them head on, not realizing just what the nature of his planned "contribution to society."
The directorial debut of Brian Yuzna, who got his start as a producer in Hollywood betting it all on what would become Stuart Gordon's cult hit RE-ANIMATOR (followed soon by FROM BEYOND and DOLLS for Charles Band's Empire Pictures) and was in development with Disney and Gordon on HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS (which would end up being directed by Universal's go-to action movie hack Joe Johnston) when he was negotiating his back-to-back directorial debut SOCIETY and its follow-up BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR. The film is two-thirds slow-burn paranoia thriller with an extended slimy, congealed twisted, contorted, and inside-out surrealistic orgy climax showcasing the effects creations of Screaming Mad George (NIGHT ANGEL), a Japanese artist and musician heavily influenced by Salvador Dali. Although we know from the opening credits background that there will be eventually be an effects extravaganza, Billy is definitely paranoid and prone to hallucinations – although it is not unusual for some teenagers who cannot relate to their parents to wonder if they are adopted – despite his "good breeding."
While Yuzna's take on the differences between the rich and the poor is more fantastical, it is rooted in the popular suppositions that the "rule makers" are not only above the law but are so immoral (or amoral) as to break fundamental taboos. The film may actually be more relevant today with the differential treatment of the wealthy and the rich – both old money and increasingly vulgar new – getting pretty blatant in their statements about the differences between them and us. The middle drags a bit since we know no one is going to believe Billy about the things he has seen and evidence always disappears, but plenty of "odd" touches that admittedly went over my head when I saw the film in the nineties are more evident from the surreal production design elements and playful dialogue ("nothing you say can bend me") to little touches like the two tykes more slithering than crawling across the sand during the beach scene, the suggestive spurt of sunscreen that hits Billy in the face, or the satiric use of the "Eton Rowing Song" with the lyric "society waits for you" gaining increasingly sinister significance. The cast also includes PUMPKINHEAD's Brian Bremer as Billy's nerdy student government rival, Pamela Matheson (FATHER OF THE BRIDE) as Clarissa's hair fetishist mother, and Maria Claire (who would make SILK 2 and SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III for Roger Corman right after). Production manager Gary Schmoeller (NECRONOMICON: BOOK OF THE DEAD) is the brother of director David Schmoeller (TOURIST TRAP).
Released on VHS and laserdisc by Republic Pictures Home Video, the R-rated theatrical cut ran roughly five minutes shorter than the cut which went out internationally. The cuts were restored for Anchor Bay's 2002 anamorphic DVD which featured the film's trailer and a commentary by Yuzna as the sole extras. Arrow Video's dual US/UK Blu-ray/DVD combo edition derives its 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen transfer from a director-approved 2K restoration by the German company Capelight (who released it on Region B Blu-ray with the Yuzna commentary and trailer as extras). The restoration and encode are fantastic, reproducing the deliberate eighties/nineties TV of the first two-thirds of the film – which could have been mistaken for BEVERLY HILLS 90210 or MELROSE PLACE – and the warmer skintones and hellish red gel lighting of the climax (as well as the moist skin and slimy latex of George's effects creations). The uncompressed LPCM 2.0 stereo encoding of the Ultra Stereo matrixed surround track nicely conveys the score and squishy sound effects (although I could not tell if some clicks on the soundtrack during the scene with Billy and Shauna at his locker are a defect on the soundtrack or were supposed to be dubbed in footsteps for passersby). Optional English subtitles are available which are helpful for a few lines of dialogue that even Yuzna on the commentary track says most people miss.
Yuzna, moderated by Severin Films' David Gregory, appears on a brand new commentary track in which he muses that the film was not as well-received stateside because Americans do not understand the distinction between having money and being "born into society" the way that Europeans do (and the film was more successful in the UK, France, and Spain). He also jokes that it is a semi-autobiographical story by co-writer Rick Fry (BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR), a Beverly Hills kid who had peculiar ideas about where his parents came from. He describes the film as being a very "eighties movie" that shares the same universe as HEATHERS and PARENTS. Although he did not understand the some of the script's and his own surrealistic touches or the origin of the "high society" species, he has since come up with a theory of an Earthbound parasite causing a parallel evolution with human beings of a species that can emulate them. He also briefly discusses working with Stuart Gordon (RE-ANIMATOR), Christophe Gans (CRYING FREEMAN), as well as George on other projects while Gregory points out elements of the film's production design and the locations they were able to use like the Tournament of Roses house, Warlock's alma mater Birmingham High School as the Beverly Hills Academy, and the Christian sound stage that played host to the Whitney house set and the shunting scenes.
"Governor of Society" interview with Brian Yuzna (16:51) goes into more detail about the two picture deal with Wild Street Pictures and the project he had been developing for over a year with Dan O'Bannon (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) in which a woman discovers that all men are aliens (the paranoiac view of which he carried over to SOCIETY after O'Bannon dropped out). He also reveals that the original script idea was more of a traditional blood cult, and that he wanted to do something with fantastic special effects rather than traditional gore, as well as coming up with effects he would like to see realized and then reverse-engineering them into his concept for "society." "The Masters of the Hunt" (22:22) features separately recorded interviews with Warlock, DeVasquez, Barnell, and Meyerson. Warlock and DeVasquez have interesting recollections about the sex scene, with both suggesting that the other was the more uncomfortable one. Barnell and Meyerson admit to having reservations about the content of the script – as well as not getting it – and all four reflect on the week-long shoot of the shunting scene. Meyerson also points out the film's current relevance.
In "The Champion of the Shunt" (20:39), Screaming Mad George talks about studying at New York's School of Visual Arts and drawing inspiration from Dali in his sculptures and paintings. He was frustrated with his art because it was static and developed an interest in make-up effects after seeing THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and ALTERED STATES. He recalls meeting Yuzna and how his concepts for the effects gelled with George's ideas (as well as how a few of his paintings and sculptures he did in school were realized as effects in the film). As the discussion turns to building the creations, the featurette incorporates separate interviews with puppeteer Dave Grasso (who went on to work with K.N.B., Stan Winston, and Patrick Tatopoulos on bigger pictures) and effects tech Nick Benson (who worked with Steve Johnson) who share some of the same feelings as the actors about the slimy shunting sequence.
The 2014 Celluloid Screams Festival Q&A (38:34) finds Yuzna covering a lot of the same ground in answering audience questions and may be more interesting if watched before the commentary track. The disc also has a brief vintage featurette with Yuzna at the film's world premiere (1:56) at London's Scala Cinema which was at the time managed by Palace Pictures' Stephen Wooley (THE COMPANY OF WOLVES). The "Persecution Mania" music video by Screaming Mad George (6:08) is not for the film but has thematic connections with the film in terms of lyrics and special effects. The disc extras close out with the film's theatrical trailer (2:07) and the DVD features the film and all of the video extras. The current June release of SOCIETY was a Limited Edition that is now out of print (although still available from online retailers) and will be replaced with a standard combo edition in September minus the perfect bound comic book sequel included with the limited edition (although not supplied for review along with the Alan Jones booklet). (Eric Cotenas)
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