The Thrill Of The Shunt: Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989) – Blu-ray review
While its ghoulish ending has deservedly become part of the horror canon, what really impresses is the twisted commitment to class-warfare society.
(Brian Yuzna, 1989)
Between 2009 and 2014, one of my jobs was as a feature writer for the Total Film website. Mostly, this consisted of creating listicles of the 50 Greatest Such-and-Such Film Moments, which meant having a handy supply of regulars that could always be dropped in, like Star Wars or Goodfellas. Yet it was also an opportunity to showcase lesser-known films and I developed a private joke of always including Brian Yuzna’s Society where I could. [*See below for some examples.]
Why? Like its amorphous, shape-shifting antagonists, here is a film that can be melded into any form. Most obviously, it’s one of the key texts for anything involved make-up effects or WTF? moments, but it’s also a surprisingly coherent satire. Only Bob Balaban’s equally neglected Parents can rival it as a transgressive study of American culture, families and – yes – society. And yet it does so within the frame of a low-budget, near-straight-to-VHS exploitation pic.
In fact, watching this pristine Arrow Video Blu-ray is a disconcerting experience, as my memories are of a grainy off-air tape from the days when long-defunct cable channel Bravo had it as part of their repertoire, alongside other gross-out gems like Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste. That said, the gonzo experience of Society’s famous ending gains fresh nightmarish layers when you can properly see exactly who is doing what to who.
So much has been written about the orgiastic climax – much of it, admittedly, by myself – that the real pleasure of revisiting Society is how well structured it is. The film is one long exercise in delaying the inevitable, but there is much ingenuity in how the otherness of society is teased, from near-reveals of impossible flesh to the myriad puns on the title, as well the multiple double-bluffs of wondering whether Billy Whitney is right to be paranoid.
Yuzna – a producer by trade, who clearly grabbed this as his directorial debut because it was too good to let go off – isn’t a great director, but the prosaic nature of much of the film actively benefits it. We’re in the realm of pop-Buñuel here, where banality is emphasised to set up the contrast with the weirdness to come, but it’s also a document of trashy Californian snobbery to rival Heathers, with its entitled brats driving around in sports cars or worrying about the next party.
And therein lies the film’s masterstroke. Yuzna isn’t presenting anything we haven’t seen before (well, except the obvious). The film is populated entirely by stereotypes – cockily affluent parents, condescending psychotherapists, prejudiced judges and, yes, their equally obnoxious offspring – in order to extrapolate an entire society, rotten to the core, as depicted literally when Billy bites into a worm-infested apple. But that clunky piece of symbolism is a fake-out, because Yuzna has far more imaginative metaphors to come about how the rich feed upon the not-we.
So, as we must, it’s time to talk about the shunting. For such a fabled sequence, the really odd thing is its bloodlessness. This isn’t gore in the conventional sense – indeed, the slasher-tastic cutting of a character’s throat is a deliberate con-job – but allows Yuzna to circumvent censors with full-on grotesquerie. Screaming Mad George’s elastic effects are as good as anything by Rob Bottin or Rick Baker, revolting but shot through with the gallows wit that knows this is a cartoon. It even ends on a sick punchline, which really could and should have allowed Yuzna to make a franchise out of this… but of course it is all the better for its purity never being tainted by bad sequels.
One final point: the film is still incredibly pertinent, especially to a Britain where Eton boys are running the country. The use of the Eton boating song – with its sinister refrain, “society waits for you” – gives a cruelly, mocking edge to events that, rather delightfully, has rather ruined it for anybody who sings it, quotes it or listens to it without any irony. That lead villain Ted Ferguson looks like a cross between David Cameron and George Osbourne, and that if you look closely one of the partygoers looks a bit like Katie Hopkins, and it all begins to make a kind of perverse sense. Let’s face it, Yuzna’s explanation is as likely as any other about why we’re all getting shunted on a daily basis.
* Previous wonderful contributions to Society:
– 50 Best Movie Special Effects (scroll to #7)
– 50 Unsexiest Movie Moments (scroll to #42)
– 50 Greatest WTF Moments (scroll to #30)
Society is out now on Blu-ray. Everybody who matters is interviewed at length in the copious extras, notably Screaming Mad George – the biggest suprise is that he’s actually a softly spoken Japanese guy rather than a real-life Leatherface.