People on both sides of the political spectrum have been warned about the ‘elites’ and their eerie influence on society. The Left pictures The Elitist as a merciless corporatist, a self-righteous but also religious hypocrite, someone who doesn’t hesitate to either sacrifice our natural environment or human rights for financial profit, a cold-hearted individualist who believes his pursuit of happiness is exceedingly more important than the social collective; while The Right envisions The Elitist as an out-of-touch Hollywood socialite, someone who actively participates or funds political organizations that promote social engineering, a hopeless idealist who is willing to let others suffer or die for a hopelessly misguided cause. You can find enough examples on both sides. Sometimes they are hilariously oblivious to their stereotypical nature. Sometimes they are shamelessly open about their mission.
Whatever side they are fighting on, we imagine them to be the true architects of inequality in society. Whether through apathy or cruelty, their influence of society, if one takes the most cynical approach, it often comes at the expense of the well-being of either the lower or middle-class.
However you view the ‘elites’, there’s one person who probably has an even lesser opinion on them, and that’s film director Brian Yuzna. Yuzna brought his vision on the elites to the screen with the wonderful but disgusting 1989’s horror-satire Society.
Since we all have been seeing a political fearmongering about the ‘elities’, from both populist and socialist voices, it’s seems like an ideal time to revisit Brian Yuzna’s classic and explore its enduring relevance. Besides it being mostly famous for its gruesome finale, it’s a film that has a lot more to offer thematically and should be appreciated as more than just another piece of eighties horror schlock.
Let’s First Talk About Brian Yuzna
Before we delve into Society, I think it’s a good idea to briefly look at the career of Brian Yuzna, arguably one of the most underrated genre directors. Yuzna’s career started out with a bang, as a hands-on producer for 1985’s Re-Animator, working alongside director Stuart Gordon. His partnership with Gordon would result in numerous memorable films such as 1986’s From Beyond, 1987’s Dolls and 1989’s Disney classic, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids which they co-wrote together.
It was during the making of Re-Animator that he started having directorial ambitions. He had financed the film himself and despite having final say over the eventual end-product, he quickly realized that the amount of creative control he aspired was that of a director. He managed to make a two-picture deal for with a little independent production company called Wild Street Pictures, where he would eventually direct Society and Bride of the Re-Animator — an all-round excellent if unnecessary sequel.
While he had produced several notable films after that, his directorial career was decidedly mixed. He directed and wrote Initiation: Silent Night and Deadly Night 4, which despite its title has little to nothing to do with the franchise — though it does have some killer practical effects courtesy of Screaming Mad George who also did the practical effects for Society.
He directed Return of the Living Dead 3, hailed by fans of the series as being far superior to the second part — though this is not saying much apparently. His efforts in the horror anthology film, Necronomicon, is well worth seeing, especially since the first short film, The Library, stars Jeffrey Combs — Herbert West himself — as H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re a fan of Corbin Benson, you can do worse than Yuzna’s Dentist series — though if you thought the dental torture of The Marathon Man was too much to endure, stay far away from this one.
Yuzna would direct the final film of the Re-Animator franchise: Beyond Re-Animator, which though enjoyable, doesn’t tread any new interesting ground. One still hopes that they will one day make that reported House of the Re-Animator film, which had the delightfully ludicrous story of Herbert West being called by the White House to re-animate the President of the United states (which was supposed to be played by William H. Macy!).
Unfortunately the latter directorial efforts of Yuzna veer from underwhelming to downright depressing. While 2000’s Faust has some enjoyable moments (it’s got Jeffrey Combs at least), but films like Rottweiler, Beneath Still Waters or Amphibious are best left forgotten. All these films were produced by European production companies as Yuzna has struggled to find financing for his projects inside the United States.
It seems hard to deny that Yuzna’s directorial peak started and ended with Society. Though he has made great genre pieces after that, none would have the social significance and delicate balance of horror and humour that was perfected in Society. While it’s too bad that he can’t find funding for more projects within the states, his legacy is undeniable. Here’s hoping he will shine once more — perhaps by making that House of the Re-animator film, with the President of the United States being based on a certain blonde-haired buffoon perhaps?
It’s Not Paranoia If They’re Really Out to Get You
Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock), a teenager living in affluent Beverly Hills, has this constant insidious feeling that people are not what they seem. He feels that his parents (Connie Danese and Charles Lucia) and his sister (Patrice Jennings) are hiding something, some terrible perhaps even incestuous secret. Sometimes Bill seems to have frightening hallucinations, mostly to do with his sister’s bodily contortions and transformations. His therapist, Dr. Cleveland (Ben Slack) insists that it’s all inside his head and sometimes worries that these thoughts are part of some underlying mental disorder.
When his sister’s obsessive ex-boyfriend, Blanchard (Tim Bartell), lets him listen to a secret recording of some sort of sickening orgy, involving his sister, his parents and a local bully named Ferguson (Ben Meyerson), Bill’s suspicions are heightened. But every effort to come closer to the truth seems to be stopped by conspiratorial forces, which he fears are coming from deep within society. Is Bill simply paranoid or is there something really sinister going on?
The plot of Society is reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, as we discover the truth alongside the main character and just like Polanski’s classic, the revelations are much more sickening than the protagonist could have imagined — Yuzna has cited Rosemary’s Baby as a definitive influence on the film. In Rosemary’s Baby, the secret society turns out to be a demonic cult while in Society, we are dealing with flesh-melding humans who like to suck down nutrients of lower or middle-class subjects. The film never makes clear where Billy is exactly from, but the film makes clear that he’s not related to either his parents or sister. The idea is that he was probably kidnapped from lower society and groomed to eventually becoming the subject for higher-society’s consumption.
Who (or What) Do They Represent?
The script was written by Woody Keith and Rick Fry and Yuzna responded positively to it, especially since he had always been interested in the idea of secret societies. In the original script, the reveal was much more simple and conventional, with Bill being goaded into becoming a blood sacrifice for the wealthy elites. Yuzna wanted to do something far more surreal and together with the writers and special effects wizz Screaming Mad George, he devised the flesh-melding secret society we’ve now became familiar with.
There’s just something creepy about cults, about a group of people sharing some disturbing belief system. In Society, the ritual of consuming the poor — or ‘shunting’ as these socialites refer to it — has probably been going on for centuries. These monsters laugh gleefully and find sexual pleasure in the slow and agonizing death of an innocent person. Perhaps this act is not based on some conventional cultish practice, but it could just as well be. Whether for a higher power or for selfish pleasures, the cruelty of it seems based on a belief system shared by most of them — the exception being Shauna (Heidi Kozak), a member of high-society and the main-character’s love interest who refuses to participate in the shunting ritual.
When the socialites truly reveal themselves as the monsters they are, Billy refers to them as ‘aliens.’ But the socialites laugh at this notion. They state that they aren’t from outer-space but that they are merely a different human species. They have placed themselves in the highest and most powerful places of society, as Dr. Cleveland tells Bill: ‘’We’ve been here as long as you have.’’
Not much else is told about them or how they have received this power of body transformations and shunting, but none of that matters. What matters is the act itself — the consumption of the poor — and what this means for the film’s greater narrative and message.
Considering the era this film was made, one could assume that these socialites are partly based on the fervent laissez-faire capitalists who grew to power in the Reagan office. The eighties were a time particular known for its glamorization of wealth and excess and though there was a considerable economic boom in its day, the resulting economic policies would eventually lead to the massive wealth inequality America has now become accustomed to.
Though much can be attributed to the self-interest inherent in humanity, laissez-faire capitalism was also idealistic, as they felt that any regulation would withhold economic progress and that the market, if left alone, would work itself out and bring about wealth equality. Similar to the pursuit of the Communist Utopia, the unfettered Free-market dream would end up becoming a nightmare for the lower and middle-class populace. Its effects are still being felt today.
Meanwhile wages went down for the lower and middle-class while the rich exceedingly richer. This is nothing new, as the villainous Ferguson so memorably hails to Billy: ‘’the rich have always sucked off low-class scum like you.’’
The problem was that many of the elites at the time, and still today, feel that their wealth is fair, while at the same time proclaiming that those who struggle to make a living have nobody but themselves to blame. They seem to forget that most wealth of society was not self-made, but a consequence of lucky circumstances — mostly through family inheritance. And for those who aren’t born in poverty, it’s statistically very difficult, especially when education became exceedingly unaffordable in America, to rise to the upper-class. This feeling of superiority is shared by the villainous socialites in Society. There’s even a reference made about being born in a wealthy family, as Dr. Cleveland tells Bill: ‘’it’s a matter of good breeding, really.’’
Society isn’t subtle about its message but it doesn’t have to be. The film is a visual metaphor, an unforgettable and sometimes hilarious experience. While Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is often hailed as the defining film that exposes eighties greed, it’s actually no less subtle — and a lot less fun — than Brian Yuzna’s Society.
Some critics have noted the cheesy acting and though Yuzna’s production never had any shortage of ham-fisted performances, it serves a defining purpose in this film. While Billy Warlock as the film’s lead is in my opinion quite excellent, the secondary cast, especially from the villainous socialites, tend to be over the top. Sometimes their line delivery can seem downright laughable. But that’s precisely the point: we are supposed to empathize with Bill’s paranoiac sensibilities and that only works if the people he suspects of hiding something are acting strangely, at times unconvincingly.
Not only that, their artificial demeanor adds to the satire of the film, of portraying the ultra-elites as phonies, as cardboard cut-outs of real people. The fact that Billy Warlock was cast, a star from an eighties soap Days of Our lives, adds to this sense too. The characters act like they are straight out of some cheesy soap opera. The parents vehemently correct Bill for cursing; something that would have never been accepted on daytime TV — and this artificial sense of wholesomeness is countered by their repugnant hedonism later in the film.
The socialites seem picture perfect on the surface. And that only makes the revolting reveal all the more impactful.
The Dark Awakening
One person who doesn’t get enough credit for why this film works is its leading man Billy Warlock as the film’s unfortunate hero Bill Whitney. Warlock’s main fame at the time was the soap Days of Our Lives, which is, admittedly, not well-known for its subtle acting but Warlock brings just the right amount of ham and seriousness to the part. There’s an innocence about him that makes you root for him and worry about his eventual fate throughout the movie. If you didn’t care about him, the film wouldn’t have worked as well as it did.
While his character doesn’t receive much depth, he doesn’t need it. His character represents our own youthful scepticisms to the world, our suspicion that there are darker forces at play there, forces we need to uncover and expose. I’m sure I’m not the only one who went through several political revelations throughout their teenage years. You might think you found the answers to society’s ills with Marxism or perhaps, you realize ‘society’ is in dire need of traditional values. At some points many of us have even flirted with conspiracy theory, reading books or scrolling through the internet about the various nefarious organizations that secretly control the world. And while we might not have experienced such darkly suspicions about our own parents or siblings — if you were lucky that is — we all had doubts about the answers we were giving, about the lies we are or are not aware off. We are all seeking that awakening, the answer to society’s malignance.
We all want to know the truth. We all want good and evil to be simple. Bill Whitney gets this simple yet horrific answer at the end of the film. In some ways he’s most unfortunate but one can’t help but envy him too. In real life, the world isn’t as black and white. Just like John Carpenter’s They Live, there is no simple ‘THEY’, because the true villains of society are scrambled in political and corporate offices, in well-meaning social circles.
In real-life most of the elites aren’t always aware of their monstrous influence on society, that this means the physical or spiritual subjugation of the working-class. In real life, there aren’t really that many villains. It’s just people being part of system, filled by all manner of delusions and privileges.
For a time in our lives, no matter how short, we were all Bill Whitney once, treading the abyss, thinking we uncovered the horrifying answer. But the real answer is often more horrifying: the real answer lies with human nature, our natural tendencies of corruption and hubris. The real answer is that there are no definitive answers. There are ways to make society more equal, and they lie somewhere on both sides of the political spectrum. But people lose themselves with one-sided solutions to the problem, making enemies of those with a differing opinion, their hubris making way for prejudice which if taken to the darkest extremes becomes validations for violence. The real world is filled with moral complications and unbridled savagery. And there seems to be no end in sight.
No, the monsters of Society can never be as scary as in real-life, where most of the time the Bill Whitneys of this world fail to escape their clutches. But I’m glad we have artists like Brian Yuzna giving them the monstrous treatment they deserve. It’s good to laugh at their revolting appearances, their vacuous lifestyle and their low-brow humor.
It’s good seeing them — and this means in the literal sense too — inside out.
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on Society? Comment down below!
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