Society Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Teenager Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) has always felt like the odd one out in his wealthy, upper-class, Beverly Hills family. For some reason, he just doesn’t seem to fit in. But his sense of alienation takes a sinister turn when he hears an audio recording of his sister’s coming-out party, which seems to implicate his family and others in a bizarre, ritualistic orgy. And then there are the strange things he’s been seeing – glimpses of people with their bodies contorted impossibly out of shape… Is Bill going mad or is there something seriously amiss in his neighborhood? (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Brian Yuzna began his movie career producing director Stuart Gordon’s early horror films – Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), and Dolls (1987) – in Europe and under the supervision of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. This work heavily informed his later movies as a director. Like Gordon, Yuzna’s movies all fall under the horror genre and are usually defined by tongue-in-cheek humor, saturated colour photography, and elaborate, sometimes surrealistic, always grotesque special effects. Early on, he was also known for making belated sequels to genre franchises established by other filmmakers, including Bride of Re-Animator (1990), Beyond Re-Animator (2003), Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 (notable for having literally nothing in common with the first three Silent Night, Deadly Night movies, 1990), and his best movie, Return of the Living Dead III (1993).
Yuzna’s stylistic and thematic habits were set early when he made his directorial debut, Society, in 1989. Strangely enough, it was being made at the same time as his first (and only) Hollywood blockbuster as writer/producer – Joe Johnston’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – but it wasn’t released stateside until 1992, about a month ahead of Randal Kleiser’s sequel, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. Society is as flawed as any directorial debut, even one made by someone with as much behind-the-scenes experience as Yuzna, but has earned its rabid cult following. Aside from the unmistakable charm of Screaming Mad George’s outrageous special effects (more on those in a second), it makes an appealing political statement. While mainstream mid-to-late-‘80s pop-culture was fetishizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous, screenwriters Woody Keith and Rick Fry (working under Yuzna’s supervision) were satirically shunning the destructive social divide.
What makes this particular satire so clever is that so much of the film is played as a ‘straight’ movie about high school social structure, at least on the surface. Yuzna slow-burns through typical John Hughes shenanigans, like Takashi Miike slow-burns through common romantic comedy themes in Audition. In both cases, the use of cinematic comfort food is a diversion from the shocking horror to come and, in both cases, the soothing lead-in is stretched to its limit. But Audition’s ruse is more intentionally hidden, despite fitting the melancholic overarching tone of the film. Yuzna builds horror into Society’s foundation, perverting the lightweight coming-of-age traditions with scary music, shots of worms and slugs, and an amorphous, underlying sense of threat. Though he teases us with glimpses of the slimy special effects and effectively builds tension, Yuzna also does too good of a job recreating bland high school drama. The middle of the film drones on into genuinely boring places. The standard-issue teen comedy jokes fall flat and the protagonists, all of whom belong to a higher economic class, fail to ignite any real sympathy. It’s not so much that the slow-burn smolders too leisurely – it’s that the script and performances can’t quite sustain the casual momentum.
The wait is worth it, of course, because the Shunting is an unsung, watershed moment in practical effects history (it was memorably recreated in James Gunn’s Slither, 2005). Viewers that haven’t seen the movie can rest assured that the final 20-30 minutes live up to the cult hype that has surrounded them for decades now. And it isn’t only the nightmarish, sticky extremes of Screaming Mad George’s (Joji Tani’s) fleshy people-blobs – the entire movie morphs into a much more imaginative and bizarre affair. During the blander moments, the camerawork is utilitarian and the editing is a bit stiff. Then, as Billy’s world turns from a cultural nuisance to a Shunt-driven nightmare, the color palette is enlivened and the angles, lighting schemes, and editing slowly turn more expressionistic. Even the lame sense of humor (“I guess you’re right – I am a butthead!”) and nonsensical deviations (Clarissa’s hair-obsessed mother) fit the deranged mould.
Society gained its fame on home video and made its US DVD premiere via an anamorphic disc from Anchor Bay in 2002 (it was then re-released as a double-feature with Tobe Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion, 1990). The first Blu-ray version came from German company Capelight, followed by the US and UK releases of this more extensive version from Arrow. According to the accompanying booklet, Arrow says that Society was scanned in 2K from the best available 35mm inter-positive by TELEFilms Restoration in Germany from 2013, so it’s probably safe to assume both Blu-rays are using the same source material. Former DVDActive.com collaborator Chris Gould compared this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer to Capelight’s and claimed that grain is better preserved on the Arrow disc (sorry that link no longer exists). The booklet also mentions substantial digital restoration to remove dirt/debris and stabilize the image, so I’d also hazard to guess that this is a cleaner transfer than Capelight’s. There are still a number of film-based artifacts to contend with, including the remaining grain inconsistencies, a little wobble, and posterization effects, but these appear to be mostly natural side effects. Yuzna and cinematographer Rick Fichter shoot a lot of soft focus images, which doesn’t facilitate the crispest background textures. Still, patterns are relatively complex and elements are well separated without many over-sharpening issues (there is a slight tinge of haloing on the hard black edges). The vivid, comic book colours that would go on to define Yuzna’s later work appear in force and are quite bright, despite the occasionally heavy presence of grain (I remember the skin tones being orange as far back as the VHS days). The black levels are clean, though sometimes a bit crushed in the lighter sequences.
The original stereo soundtrack was remastered in 24-bit/48kHz and is presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 audio. There isn’t a lot of aggressive noise on this track to get too excited about, but the stereo spread is well-represented. Dialogue and incidental effects do seem centered, despite the lack of a discrete center channel, and the ambient noises (most of which sound like they were culled from an effects library) are neatly situated in the right and left speakers. The Shunting sequence, with all of its oozing, gooping, and squishing, is a highlight. Mark Ryder and Phil Davies’ ominous keyboard music keeps horror at the back of the audience’s mind while the drama and comedy are taking over. The score sits a little too low on the track for my taste, but is plenty warm and clean.
Commentary with director Brian Yuzna – This new commentary track is moderated by David Gregory. Yuzna comes to the table very well prepared and doesn’t really require a moderator, but Gregory offers supporting statements and asks a couple of leading questions. The discussion remains relatively screen-specific and, despite a little stammering, Yuzna fills space without major pauses or repetition. The most interesting anecdotes are the ones where the director discusses reverse engineering the story after developing the Shunting concept. PS: Please note that this is not the same commentary Yuzna recorded for Anchor Bay’s original DVD.
Governor of Society (16:50, HD) – An interview with Yuzna. The director covers some of the same ground already discussed during the commentary, but mentions a couple of other anecdotes.
The Masters of the Hunt (22:20) – A series of interviews with cast members Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Ben Meyerson, and Tim Bartell, who discuss their time on the production, as well as their pre/post-Society careers. Their very personal stories are great, especially when Bartell recalls the hardships of the Shunting scene.
The Champion of the Shunt (20:40, HD) – Interviews with FX artists Screaming Mad George, David Grasso, and Nick Benson. SMG kicks things off by explaining his stage name, early career, and Society’s Dali-inspired imagery. Benson and Grasso’s interviews remain more specific to their jobs as SMG’s assistants. This featurette ends with SMG discussing his newer sculpture work, including footage from his Psycho Fiction short film.
Footage from a 2014 Q&A with Yuzna, recorded at the UK’s Celluloid Screams Festival (38:30, HD)
Brian Yuzna ‘in conversation’ at the Society London premiere in 1989 (2:00, SD)
Persecution Mania Screaming Mad George music video (6:10, SD)
The (now very OOP) limited-edition package also includes liner notes from critic Alan Jones and Society: Party Animal, the official comic book sequel to Society.
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