Monday 1 June 2015

BFI Cult: Society by Brian Yuzna

"The rich have always sucked off low-class sh*t like you." This line, coming late in Brian Yuzna's Society, effectively summarises the film's dog-eat-dog - or more precisely pedigree-eat-mongrel - theme. For here, five years after Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and three after Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Yuzna was taking the temperature of the LA neighbourhood's exclusive social set and exploring its vampiric relationship to the rest of America - and the world - via the genre he knew best: horror (Yuzna had previously produced Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, From Beyond and Dolls).

Yet the line is revealing in other ways too. For this slippery social satire is no ordinary horror film, and the ambiguous phrase "sucked off" hints at a strong sexual undercurrent, apt for a work so focussed on the bottom line of what 'good breeding' connotes. The film starts with a nightmare in which our hero, teen heartthrob Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock), is stalked by unseen (but audibly whispering and laughing) figures in the darkness of his family's palatial home. Bill relates his frightening fantasy to Dr Cleveland (Ben Slack), declaring his fear of "my parents, sister, you… I feel like something's going to happen, and if I scratch the surface, there'll be something terrible underneath."

Certainly on the surface, 'Wonder Boy' Bill has it all. He's athletic, handsome, articulate, popular; and he lives in a Beverly Hills mansion, has his own high-end jeep, and a loving blonde bombshell girlfriend in Shauna (Heidi Kozak). And yet he covets more. He is jealous of the love that his Stepford-smile parents (Charles Lucia, Connie Danese) withhold from him yet show - maybe a little too much - to his budding sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings). He wonders why Martin Petrie (Brian Bremer), his rival for the school presidency, seems entitled to win the competition and "born to lead" despite lacking Bill's talents. And his eye keeps wondering from shallow, ambitious Shauna to sultry dark-haired seductress Clarisse (Devin DeVasquez).

So far, so Beverly Hills, 90210 (which in fact started its run on television a year later). Yet when Jenny's ex David Blanchard (Tim Bartell), dumped for not being "the right sort", presents illegally recorded evidence that Jenny, her parents and their establishment friends might have got up to a little more than social hobnobbing and monied networking at Jenny's coming-out party (from which Bill was absent), alarm bells start ringing for our jock hero - and they reach klaxon levels not long after when Blanchard's body is removed from the scene of a horrific car accident. As Bill starts asking questions and everyone closes ranks, the paranoia sets in. Seeing conspiracy everywhere and hallucinating bodily transformations in the people around him, Bill realises, too late, that a trap set years ago is about to close in on him, revealing his true "contribution to society."

"Die alien scum!" screams a young mischief maker on the beach as he sprays Shauna in the face with her own sun lotion. Each of the prankster's words resonates here, whether the foreshadowing of fatal peril in 'die', the hint at monstrous otherness in 'alien', or the classist language of 'scum' - while the image of Shauna's face, covered in white goo, tells its own inestimably perverse story. Moments later, as Bill crawls across the sand after the boy, Clarisse, towering over Bill in her bikini, squeezes out the same creamy splooge all over his face and mouth, with the words, "Don't get too hot." These are taboo images, their shock tempered only by context. Not only will Clarisse prove to be far more sexually forward than Shauna - and backward too, as her body contorts into very unusual positions - but she also reels off lines like, "How do you like your tea? Cream, sugar - or do you want me to pee in it?" with the decadent brand of pleasure-seeking that comes only with privilege. "You're a class act, Clarisse" is Bill's telling response. The well-groomed, you see, are not like you and me - they are another species, only occasionally allowing the great unwashed to take a dip in their otherwise inbred gene pool.

The best indication of how vulnerable that gene pool is comes in the form of Clarisse's mother Mrs Carlyn (Pamela Matheson). She is a grunting, hulking monster of not entirely determinate gender - think Harris Glenn Milstead's Divine, only with an obsessive penchant for chowing down on other people's hair - and although no-one ever exactly leaves the society into which they have been born, her rogue status perhaps explains her daughter's propensity to rebel against the system.

It is in the final sequence of Society that all this comes to a head, as Yuzna unleashes his full body horror cum comedy (facilitated by Screaming Mad George's 'surrealistic make-up effects'). Bringing to life Bill's earlier nightmare, this icky 'climax' merges together all the film's characters and themes and creates from them a carnal - and carnivalesque - spectacle which changes forever the association of the word 'shunting'.

For while Society offers as much leering T&A as any self-respecting teen horror from the 80s, by the end it serves up something far more polymorphous in its perversity, something rich and strange - about the rich and strange - where incest, Oedipal appetites and errant appropriation are right at home. It is hardly subtle, but its point - about the invisible aristocracy running and raping America without votes or merit - is so rarely made that perhaps it would get lost in any nuance. Putting a fist up America's hidden dynastic structures and pulling them inside out so that the terrible things underneath are revealed for all to see, Society is a veritable orgy of influences assimilated into something very singular and entirely sui generis.

Society. USA 1989. Directed by Brian Yuzna. Starring Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Evan Richards, Patrice Jennings...

Society is screening at the British Film Institute as part of Michael Blyth's Cult Strand on the 16th and 19th of July. For more information and to buy tickets, click here.

Society is also released in dual format Blu-Ray/DVD by Arrow Videos on the 8th of June. Click here for more info.

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