Movie of the Month: Society (1992)

The post from which this was excerpted was originally published on Swampflix.com as part of that site’s “Movie of the Month” feature, in which one contributor makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and the staff discusses it afterwards. For February 2017, Brandon made AlliBritnee, and I watch Society (1992).

EPSON MFP image

I am of two minds when it comes to film’s mixed relationship with subtlety. Though the plot becomes more traditionally horrific as it plays out, the outpouring of nauseating imagery and sound that constitutes the film’s finale is a huge tonal shift from the relatively grounded story that seems to be playing out in the first act. As much as I love grue, I also love the conceit of the unreliable narrator, especially one who doubts his own mind. Take, for instance, Bill’s first scene with his therapist, in which he takes a bite of an apple only to realize it’s full of worms; he looks away, then back, and the apple is totally normal. This is a fairly obvious metaphor for the way that the presumed normalcy of Bill’s world is merely a thin facade covering inconceivable monsters beneath the surface, but it also implies that Bill’s less-than-objective interpretation of events may be the result of a diseased mind. At least until the shunting begins, anyway.

Of course, that was just my reading of the scene based on viewing the film cold. Many of the early oddities, like the squirming apple, the apparently inhuman body structure of Bill’s sister, and the changes to the audiotape, could easily be interpreted either way: as hallucinations or a They Live-style peek behind the veil of our ordered existence. Instead, of course, we learn that these are just moments in which members of the titular Society are gaslighting (another important term that has seen a resurgence in usage and discussion since the Trump ascendancy) poor Bill. Luckily, for the sake of goreheads and fans of unsubtle social satire everywhere, Society quickly descends into stomach-churning “after dark” madness.

After my viewing, I watched the trailer and looked at posters for the film, and I can only imagine that filmgoers of 1992 would have been highly disappointed if “the minds behind Re-Animator” and the gore wizard “who brought you Nightmare on Elm Street IV (um) and Predator (oh, ok)” had turned out a film about a rich Beverly Hills kid who thought his world was being turned upside-down only to learn that he was merely losing his mind. Still, I think I would like to see a film that plays out more subtly, wherein Bill becomes all-too-aware of how privileged his easy, moneyed life is and begins seeing his 1% peers as the inhuman monsters they are on the inside, without making that metaphor so literal. The film would have been a bit more nuanced if it took that road, but that doesn’t mean Society doesn’t work in the form that it does take.

What the film lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with its overt depiction of the grotesqueries of American pomp and lavishness. When the film shreds the guise of humanity to reveal its, uh, true form, the film doesn’t suffer for its straightforwardness. The rich are fundamentally different from you and me, and it is, from their point of view, a matter of class and breeding. This isn’t even arcane knowedge that I’m talking about, it’s all out there to be seen by anyone who opens their eyes. I never saw a full episode of Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, but I did see plenty of clips on the dearly departed (and sorely missed) The Soup, and have seen enough “Rich Kids of Instagram” compilations scattered around the internet to know that a life of wealth and privilege makes people rotten to their cores. A dear friend used to be a frequent babysitter for the four-year-old daughter of a rich Baton Rouge lawyer; one day, the little girl was so cruel to my friend that she cried, causing the brat to tell her that she didn’t have to be nice because she was pretty. When my friend told the parents about this incident that evening, the father didn’t apologize or even inspect the way that he was raising his child to be a monster; he just looked at my friend and said, “Well, she’s right, you know. She doesn’t have to be nice; she’s pretty.”

Anecdotal though that is, it bespeaks a systemic inhumanity on the part of the American aristocracy, and that inhumanity is on full frontal display in Society, just as it is in society. To hide that behind a veil of subtlety is to do a grave disservice to the truth of our existence. I would even go so far as to argue that the exaggeration of that idea is more important now than it was 30 years ago. After all, our society has degenerated into such frothing madness that satire can hardly find a foothold; so unable are we to discern extreme parodies of absurd political ideation from the actual extremist views held by fringe mentally ill people (whose voices are amplified by the proliferation of the internet) that there’s a plausible argument being made that “fake news” swung the election. If Jonathan Swift were to publish “A Modest Proposal” in the New York Times tomorrow morning, there would be commenters at Breitbart and TeaParty.org putting on their “All Lives Matter” aprons and getting ready to light the grill to barbecue up some Irish babies by mid-afternoon. The finale of Society may be just over-the-top enough to penetrate even the thickest skulls (and Klan hoods).

Let’s back off of that for a second though, before I work myself up too much. For me, the weakest link in the film has nothing to do with the story or the direction but with Billy Warlock’s performance. I’m sure part of my less-than-hospitable attitude towards the actor is the result of Allison Pregler’s delightful abridged series project Baywatching, but I still found Bill to be a thoroughly disinteresting lead, with no power in Warlock’s portrayal to save the character. Hell, if anything, Milo is the hero of this story, not Bill. What do you think, Britnee? Were you distracted by Billy Warlock’s lackluster presence, or was it suitable for the film? What change would you make to strengthen the film: recasting, or rewriting the character?

Read the full discussion on Swampflix.

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