VHS Trash Fest Review – Day 1 – Society (1989)
VHS Trash Fest is now in its fourth year and after two years in Glasgow it has returned to Edinburgh and unlike the last two years through in the West it is being done over 2 days instead of one. Given that previous editions have featured such Z-grade classics as Rats: Night of Terror and Yor: Hunter of the Future, this year’s line-up consisting of Society, Nightbreed and The Burning meant it was a comparatively respectable affair this time around, not that any one of the gathered horror fans was complaining at the selection (and why would they!).
Before the Friday night screening there was tables set up with a variety of VHS tapes which were available to buy but you also had the option of tape trading if you came pre-armed with your own VHS tapes. As well as that there was a varied selection of weird and wonderful posters for a variety of horror/exploitation/scif-fi/action/martial art films.
After a short introduction by the organisers welcoming us to the festival, the film was put on, and as it was being screened from an original VHS tape, clues in the title after all, those in attendance got to enjoy the various trailers on the video which precede the movie. It was no surprise given Society director Brian Yuzna also directed it to see a Bride of Re-Animator trailer, nor was it a surprise to see trailers for similarly gloopy horror’s Basket Case 2 and Frankenhooker (Both directed by Frank Hennenlotter). Some trailers were much more obscure though such as one for a film called The Dark Side of The Moon which I had certainly never heard of and looked like an Alien knock-off but who knows maybe it is better than all that (anyone who has caught this flick feel free to comment on its quality or lack thereof). Finally before the movie began we got one of highlight’s of the night which was Simon Bates VSC (The Video Standards Council) announcement which explained we were about to watch an 18 and what that entailed including the fact the film may include “sexual swear words”. This part in particular was received with glee on the night with crowd actually chanting “Sexual…Swear…Words” which was fun. Anyway after those shenanigans on with the film.
Director: Brian Yuzna
Starring: Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Evan Richards, Ben Myerson
Run Time: 99min
Society is one of those movies that flopped on release both critically (although despite an overwhelmingly negative reaction in the US there was actually some very positive reviews in the UK even at the time) and commercially (again it did better in the UK and Europe) but over the years it has grown in stature and is nowadays seen as something of a cult horror classic. It also a regarded as having one of the weirdest and grossest endings in horror or cinema generally for that matter (which we shall get back to).
It is not that hard to see why audiences could have been left baffled by the movie as it is equally a high school black comedy and a weird body horror. It is a bit like if Heathers met Videodrome which is not the kind of pitch you hear every day.
The basic plot follows Billy Whitney (Billy Warlock) who seems to “have it all”. He comes from a wealthy family, he is popular in school, he is successful at sports, has a cheerleader girlfriend etc. All very “American Dream”. The problem is despite this Billy does not feel like he fits in. His parents and sister seem totally separate from him and those from even wealthier families such as his arch rival Ferguson (Ben Myserson) smugly look down on him. Billy confesses his fear and doubts about the ‘society’ around him to his therapist Dr Cleveland (Ben Slack) who seems to be dismissive of Billy’s fears and believes he may be paranoid.
While several characters try to convince him he is paranoid or merely imagining things whether Billy is mad or not is not really a question the film lingers on much. It is pretty much clear from very early on that the thoughts that there is something very wrong with the neighbourhood he lives in are not just in Billy’s head. Instead the film is more interested in the investigations of Billy and others into what is really going on in this affluent Beverly Hills suburb and how far the rabbit hole goes. The answer to which is pretty far as if you are seeing this for the first time and not seen any spoilers it is very unlikely you will guess how the plot culminates. Although if you have seen it before you will notice a very early clue to the ending.
One of the key strengths of the film is its slow build up. Throughout the movie there is a ratcheting up of unease and creepiness. Actually for large parts of the film it does not feel like a horror at all more of a social satire aiming at the idle rich and black comic examination of your average teen’s feeling of “otherness” from those around them, only in this case it is not just a feeling but an actuality. That said there is consistent flashes of the horrors to come planted intermittently which, often, come out of nowhere. Aside from the horror there is several weird bits in apparently normal scenes. A particularly good example of which is when Billy’s love interest Clarissa (Devin DeVasquez) offers him a cup of tea and asks him if he wants milk or sugar “Or do you want me to pee in it” this line is somehow said without any affectation and is not commented upon at all as right after that we meet Clarissa’s strange hair eating mother which somewhat gazumps the bizarreness of the aforementioned line. Also weirdly it kind of works that a lot of the acting is slightly wooden making the film feel that bit weirder and detached from reality and making easier to believe the community may be something “other”.
As mentioned in the intro it all ends in lurid, disgusting, crazy fashion and even although the film was released 28 years this reviewer is not one to give away spoilers, so you will simply have to find out for yourself. What I will say though is major credit for the ending need to go Screaming Mad George for his truly amazing practical effects.
Verdict: A blackly comic take on the teenage experience, a (not so subtle) class satire and a gross-out body horror rolled into one. It also pretty daft at times and very, very 80’s but is thoroughly deserving of its cult classic status.
Words By Scott Murphy