Flushed with success after Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, partly through a desire to take a more hands-on creative role coupled with struggles to secure suitable talent, set his sights on stepping up to director-producer on the sequel, Bride of Re-Animator as well as exploring other projects which would provide him with scope to diverge from the Re-Animator template. Having seen a prospective partnership with Alien writer Dan O'Bannon fall by the wayside, Yuzna hooked up with old friends Keith Walley and Paul White whose production company, Wild St Pictures, were keen to produce Bride of Re-Animator and fund an additional project both with Yuzna at the helm as director.
Where previously Yuzna had thrown his energies into the development of O'Bannon's script 'The Men', he was now looking out for new material that arrived in the shape of Woody Keith's script for Society. Mining the same paranoid vein as O'Bannon's work, Keith's plot focused on a horrific secret society blood cult and whilst the essence of this appealed to Yuzna he was keen to expand upon the central premise introducing a more fantastic, surreal element fuelled by his love of the weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft and the paintings of Salvador Dali. By happy coincidence the Japanese backers of Wild St were keen for Yuzna to work with special effects designer Screaming Mad George, who shared a lot of the same influences and preoccupations, allowing their collective imagination to run riot. What resulted was a feature which whilst dismissed by critics and receiving a limited release at home in the US, found its market and a warmer reception in Europe, building an enduring cult following in the process.
That its leading man, Billy Warlock, had subsequently gone on to land a plum role in Baywatch and was, at the time Society's release, romancing his co-star Erika Eleniak, only helped to pique interest in Yuzna's film and at the world premiere in London's Scala Cinema, Warlock and Eleniak's attendance garnered much interest from both the general public and the paparazzi. When viewing such events against the tone and content of Society it is seems fittingly ironic that the customary surface glitz and glamour of a premiere should precede a feature in which the primary obsession concerns peeling away the layers of polite society to expose the dark heart lurking beneath. In a neat twist upon the plot of the movie, in stepping out from the minor league of daytime soap operas to the heady heights of primetime TV and film stardom, Billy Warlock had achieved (albeit briefly) the recognition, access and acceptance into that strata of 'society' from which his character felt so detached and alienated.
As a young, outwardly confident and popular high school pupil in affluent Beverly Hills, Bill Whitney (Warlock) would appear to have the world at his feet. However as his fevered dreams and his sessions with psychiatrist and society grandee Dr Cleveland (Ben Slack) attest, Bill is a deeply troubled boy, questioning his 'place' in the society in which his family play a central role and even his parentage. In the wake of what appear to be several hallucinatory experiences and, presented with a disturbing audio recording of Bill's family and the wider society circle indulging in god-knows-what by erstwhile family friend Blanchard (Tim Bartell), Bill starts to question what the true nature of the society really is, its purpose and what great secret it hides. His increasing conflict with society golden boy Ted Ferguson (Ben Meyerson) and romantic entanglement with the mysterious Clarissa (Devin DeVasquez) draws him into deeper intrigue and the ultimate showdown with his society peers in the centrepiece social event that is 'The Shunting'.
As Brian Yuzna readily acknowledges on numerous occasions, Society has the look and feel of an 80s high school movie, largely eschewing the more subdued, brooding atmosphere of the traditional horror movie. In keeping with his desire to subvert and defy expectations, Society exhibits tropes from a number of identifiable genres - horror being only one and arguably not the most conspicuous for the most part - without sitting comfortably in any one of them, and mirrors the sense of disorientation experienced by the main protagonist, flitting from one to another before finally settling on the downright bizarre for its finale. Reflecting the experimental approach taken by director Yuzna, bizarre vignettes, dialogue and oddball characters abound, chief amongst them Clarissa's mother Mrs Carlyn (Pamela Matheson), whose background, purpose and bearing are never explained (in the commentary and interviews Yuzna discusses the hairball scene as an example of him exploring possibilities without necessarily knowing where he was headed with an idea).
In fact very little about Society could be described as stable - in interview Yuzna repeatedly stresses his determination to experiment with the form and by his own admission on his first directing gig had a lot to learn about the craft. Equally, performances within the film are also uneven, the younger cast members are visibly less accomplished than their elder counterparts due in part to their lack of experience in film acting or acting in general. However this proves to be part of the charm of Society as the aggregate effect of this dissonance plays into the off-kilter nature of the plot and the veiled transgressiveness that pervades the film as a whole. Screaming Mad George's quirky surrealist effects feed this oddness by increasing degrees until the final third of the film where Yuzna effectively throws off the shackles and the only thing that appears to rein in the action are the limits of their combined subconscious.
Indeed this fascination with pushing the boundaries of visual and special effects, and producing something never-before-seen could conceivably have threatened to suffocate the underlying political message that was key to the heavily autobiographical vision as scripted by Woody Keith. Whilst Keith's major preoccupation appears to have been in using the writing process as a form of therapy resulting in an outlandish conceit, the terms of reference were still couched in a recognisable terrestrial (nightmare) reality. By contrast, whilst Brian Yuzna appears to broadly sympathise with Keith's political stance, his approach to the material and delivery of the message is markedly different. However thanks to some terrific full-blooded performances by senior cast members, most notably David Wiley as Judge Carter, the cigar-chomping patriarch of the alternative elite, barnstorming his way through the guts and the goo in the eye-watering, never-to-be-forgotten climactic shunting, the message remains intact. As a consequence, if one wishes to view that particular scene allegorically, it could be argued that the message is rammed home even more forcefully. Ouch.
Society is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in a newly remastered 2K transfer. As referenced in the review, the look and feel of Society is initially very much in the style of a high school movie with colours suitably bright and vibrant. As the tone of the film shifts and the colour palette darkens accordingly, deeper reds and blacks predominate with image quality consistently high throughout.
The sole audio option is an LPCM 2.0 soundtrack. Dialogue is clear, music and sound effects are well-handled, notably in Davies & Ryder's reworking of the Eton Boat Song and during the finale where strains of the Blue Danube Waltz crescendo seamlessly (kind of) with the icky climax of the shunt. Additionally optional English SDH subtitles are also available.
Audio Commentary with Brian Yuzna and David Gregory
A wide-ranging discussion with director Yuzna and Severin Films' David Gregory. Given the level of his involvement and artistic control over the project, Yuzna is able to relay a wealth of information about the background to the film, his influences, scripting, casting, locations, working with the production company, his collaboration on the artistic vision with Screaming Mad George as well as the political philosophy underpinning the script and the modifications and additions Yuzna made in taking a more surrealistic, experimental direction. He also covers the shoot, in particular the stylistic choices he made to achieve the look of an 80s high school movie whilst accentuating the subversive horror lurking under the surface notably the incest taboo which already existed in a more latent form in Woody Keith's original script. Additionally he goes into more detail on the key scenes of the film and broaches the recurring theme of artistic control, sharing his thoughts on the dynamic between the different players and the power relationships involved in determining who assumes ultimate control over a picture. On a lighter note, as the discussion develops Yuzna and Gregory trade anecdotes and trivia such that we discover that Billy Warlock's father played Michael Myers and Yuzna recalls Devin DeVasquez calling her then-boyfriend Sylvester Stallone to share the news that she had landed a role in the film.
Governor of Society (16:52) - interview with Brian Yuzna
Yuzna talks about the background to the making of Society coming off the back of the success of Re-Animator, his abortive collaboration with Dan O'Bannon, turning his attention to Society and extending the original premise of Woody Keith's plot, and taking the plunge into film directing. He discusses the 'shunting' scene, the influence of surrealist art, dream-like imagery and simulacra on his work and his pre-occupation with bodily transformation and his desire to break new ground with the special effects. Yuzna also reflects on the reception of the film in different parts of the world and its burgeoning cult status as well as his thoughts on his own abilities as a director at the time, trying to balance the formal aspects of filmmaking with the inherently 'wild' nature of the subject matter.
Masters of the Hunt (22:22) - interviews with Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Ben Meyerson and Tim Bartell
A lively piece in which some of the main cast recall their involvement in the film touching upon their backgrounds and casting; experiences working with Brian Yuzna; opinions on their own performances; Warlock and DeVasquez on their difficult love scene; reliving the shunting and the challenges of shooting the scene; thoughts on the film's reception and Warlock's overwhelming experience with the premiere in London; and their views on the final product.
Champion of the Shunt (20:39) - interviews with Screaming Mad George and special effects technicians Nick Benson and Dave Grasso
Screaming Mad George discusses his background, influences, how he came by his nom de plume, and his work with Brian Yuzna. Benson and Grasso talk about their work on Society and collaboration with SM George to bring his surrealist creations to life. Not surprisingly the shunting scene takes up the bulk of the discussion as SM George talks us through the visuals that he and Brian Yuzna created and Benson and Grasso give an insight into the practicalities of turning the vision into a reality and the complexity of putting the shunting scene together and their obvious glee at SM George's discomfort at the use of all manner of creepy crawlies to achieve certain effects.
Brian Yuzna Q&A (38:34) - at Celluloid Screams Horror Film Festival in Sheffield
A lengthy piece in which Brian Yuzna discusses the film from inception through to reception touching upon the artistic and political influences that shaped and informed the movie; reworking Woody Keith's original script, working with the political angle and excentuating the incest taboo; the philosophy behind the shunting; perspectives on why the film was well received in some territories and not others at the time of release; and the censorship dilemmas that arose when trying to get an 'R' rating for US theatrical release. In addition he fields questions that additionally touch upon matters relating to making vs selling films; the renaissance and rehabilitation of Society; reasons behind his predilection for the horror genre; his preferred approach to filmmaking and the balance between the formal and creative aspects; and the possibility of a sequel to Society and a plot outline.
Brian Yuzna - Society Premiere (1:56)
Director Yuzna in an archive piece recorded at the Scala Cinema briefly discusses his thoughts on the film and his love of the horror genre.
Screaming Mad George music video (6:09)
Proof if it were needed that George really is Screaming Mad - as someone whose tastes in music are in the main far removed from heavy metal and hard rock I feel otherwise unable to comment on quality...
Theatrical trailer (2:08)
Also included in the limited edition package is a booklet containing new writing on the film by critic Alan Jones and a standalone bound comic book representing an official sequel, Society: Party Animal, which picks up Bill Whitney's story ten years after the events of the movie.
Returning to Society for the first time in 25 years I was prepared to be underwhelmed. However for all its faults there's a lot to enjoy in this energetic, inventive and utterly daft piece of genre-bending cinema. Once again this is bolstered by a fine presentation from Arrow and a superb array of extra features, and it's great to see so many of the principal contributors return to speak so candidly and with such warmth about their involvement a quarter of a century on. In short, whilst the film remains for me a guilty pleasure I hold no such reservations about the disc as Arrow's presentation, from packaging through to content, is once again impeccable.