Schlock Art is where truly tasteless, gleefully grotesque and insanely inventive works of genre cinema are celebrated with unironic fervor. Every other week, we highlight a title available for streaming you may have overlooked. This week, we dive into Brian Yuzna’s 1989 body-horror / satire Society.
Streaming now on Amazon Prime
Brian Yuzna is one of schlock cinema’s tragic, unheralded heroes. Even during the mid-’90s, the peak of his career, Yuzna’s work could most commonly be found among the leftovers in the discount VHS bin at your local video store. (In fact, I distinctly remember being traumatized at my local Marsh by the fantastic cover of The Dentist 2: Brace Yourself.)
For a director casually relegated to the actual bottom of the barrel, Yuzna often strived to reach the heights of genre-transcenders such as David Cronenberg and Paul Verhoeven through social satire and unforgettable, gore-drenched set pieces. From the melodramatic The Dentist saga to the worthy sequel Bride of Re-Animator, Yuzna is a filmmaker whose reconsideration is long overdue.
Filmed in 1989 but unreleased until 1992, Yuzna’s directorial debut, Society, remains his most potent brew of brazen practical effects and scathing humor. The movie, which feels as if Clueless played out in an episode of Tales from the Crypt, centers on Billy. On the surface, Billy embodies the type of adolescent we all grew up loathing in high school; he’s affluent, dating the popular cheerleader and running for class president. He even looks like a young John Stamos.
Still, something feels off to Billy. He can’t relate to any of the people in his life, particularly his parents and sister (all chipper to an unsettling degree), who are intent on breeding him to become “a wonderful contribution to society.” By the time Society reaches its stomach-churning climax, that phrase takes on a disturbing new meaning.
This is one of those movies, akin to Body Snatchers lore, where everyone besides our protagonist seems to be in on some insidious secret. There’s nothing inherently compelling or original about that premise anymore, but its climactic payoff — soaked in garish pink lighting and what appears to be copious amounts of Vaseline — is a magnum opus of gross-out effects. In a delightful choice of words during the opening credits, Screaming Mad George is credited with “surrealistic makeup effects.” That’s putting it mildly. Society traffics in the kind of perverse body horror that would cause a young Cronenberg to convulse with jealous rage.
Like a low-rent version of David Lynch, Yuzna takes interest in exploring humanity’s darkest impulses that lie underneath the squeaky-clean veneer of white suburbia. The opening scene even contains a metaphor ripped right out of Blue Velvet’s playbook: Billy bites into a polished apple, only to find it’s filled with writhing worms. Unlike Blue Velvet, however, Society sets its sights on those living in exorbitant luxury, stockpiling wealth for their own personal gain.
It’s also, well, kind of dumb.
Many horror-films-as-allegories deliver metaphors without much finesse, yet the best discover ways to make up for that through astonishing creativity. Think along the lines of EC Comics’ gruesome morality tales from the ‘50s and you won’t be too far off. By the time Society reaches its sickening, orgiastic conclusion, you’ll have seen some sights bound to stay with you.
Perhaps in spite of such rough edges as a literal butthead antagonist, hit-and-miss performances, inconsistent character decisions and cheap ’80s-soap-opera aesthetics, Society feels oddly prescient in retrospect. Its conceit of the wealthy sucking the poor dry isn’t earth-shattering, but five minutes of scrolling through today’s headlines reveal a relevance stronger today than it was upon its initial release. For a film with what can only be described as the world’s deepest cavity search, it’s perhaps fitting that Society took some time to really dig in.