At his best, Brian Yuzna is a mediocre director. Though I enjoyed his BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3, those flicks only pointed out how much better the previous directors were. SOCIETY is the first film Yuzna ever directed, and lately it’s gotten some lavish praise from horror folk whose opinions I trust. Was it possible he started off with the hot foot before his ascension into mediocrity? Quite the opposite. His first endeavor is a messy, disengaging effort that is mostly 80s high school angst and a touch of goopy weirdness, with social commentary that hits the viewer point blank in the face, all of which falls flat for me.
The film starts smack dab in the middle of Bill Whitney’s nightmare. It’s all spooky noises and dark shadows as his dream self patrols his family mansion. In the following scene with his therapist, Bill reveals he fears everyone. These fears seem unfounded teen angst as the film reveals he lives a charmed life; he’s got a wealthy family, the blonde cheerleader girlfriend, a spot on the basketball team and all the popularity a guy could ever want, enough to make it look as if he’ll win the election for class president in a landslide. But things are a little off, with a weird incestuous vibe that hits home when his sister’s boyfriend plays a cassette tape that indicates his sister and parents may have done quite a bit of coming out at her coming out party. When Billy meets and has sex with the elusive Clarissa, things take a weird turn as Billy delves deeper into the mysteries of his family, and how they tie into those of his society.
SOCIETY is a lot stranger and more complicated than that synopsis sounds. The plot is a tangled mess, sending Billy through a convoluted journey that plays off for the first 80 minutes of film as an 80s high school drama, threading in a mystery and horror tones that don’t jibe with it at all until the flick goes balls deep crazy in the last 20 minutes. The teen angst plays off like 4th rate John Hughes, even tossing in the stock rival who should have been played by James Spader. When finally reaches its unhinged finale, the ending works as a punchline for a joke that the flick poorly sets up. If this plot would’ve meandered less and been more cohesive, I could have at least enjoyed it for that.
The plot isn’t the sole problem. As Billy, Billy Warlock (son of genre fave Dick Warlock) pretends the whole time to be Michael J. Fox in every mannerism and speech pattern. Maybe this was the point, and the flick wants to play it up as satire of the genre, but the tone is so uneven I could never tell for sure. But bizarre dialogue (a character offers to pee in Billy’s tea), outlandish characters (Clarissa’s mother looks like she wandered in from a Penelope Spheeris documentary), and goofy story turns (Billy’s friend Milo steals a cop’s uniform to infiltrate the finale) are so far out there to the point of parody, that any attempt at pointed social commentary is lost. Again, maybe this was all the point and I’m missing it, but a well made film and a director with a message should never leave this much confusion.
As for the social commentary, it’s so on the nose in the last 20 minutes that it might as well be balancing on a nostril. Once the flick pulls back and reveals why it’s called SOCIETY, it hammers its message home: The rich feed on the poor. This is not revolutionary stuff, folks. Nor does its presentation show any signs of restraint, as Yuzna decides to go all out in goopy, disgusting special effects; the scene is part gross out feeding frenzy, part stomach turning orgy in a finale so over the top that, for a second, I thought it literally reached out of my screen and slapped me. Critics occasionally hit George Romero on how surface level his social commentary was, but he’s a master of subtlety by comparison. I’d have preferred something a little more nuanced, one more reason this flick is not for me.
Worst off, the film’s got a mixed message. Why would the society want to swallow Billy? He’s one of the rich. He’s affluent, athletic, attractive, all the things society welcomes. Going back to my Michael J. Fox reference, he’s Alex P. Keaton at the tail end of the Reagan era, waltzing into its continuation under Pres. Bush. Sure, there are suggestions throughout that he may be adopted, which would make him an outsider, but he’s a winner at Beverly Hills Academy, not exactly a pauper from the projects. Maybe this suggests that the rich will eventually turn on each other and devour their own, but that’s not really the core idea here. The message is a mess.
Messy, too, is that finale, literally. Billed as “Surrealistic Makeup Designer and Creator,” Screaming Mad George provides special effects that are zany and over-the-top, with goop, stretching skin and warped humanoids piled on top of piles. Under scrutiny, the effects don’t really play off so well; they’re gross, but also cartoonish. Maybe that was Yuzna’s intent, a parody of gore in a film that essentially becomes a cartoonish parody. Whatever his plans, I’ll give Yuzna credit on one thing: in his first effort as director, he took an anvil to subtlety that tops anything he did in BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR, and that speaks volumes.
I hate to disparage SOCIETY, because I like Yuzna. I’ve seen him in plenty of interviews, and he comes across as a nice guy who genuinely loves horror and filmmaking. That enthusiasm doesn’t equate to having talent, though, and Yuzna would have to turn worlds to impress me as a director. The impression I got from SOCIETY is that it’s a first film with a multitude of issues that prevent me from enjoying it. Though it’s not important enough to fall on the list of popular flicks I find vastly overrated, I’ll never see what those horror folk who love it see in it. All I see is the first misstep to mediocrity.