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MOVIE REVIEW : Shocker-Satire 'Society' Takes Raunchy Look at Upper Class

February 28, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the appalling climax of "Society" (selected theaters), we learn what the rich really want from the rest of us: to paralyze us, suck us dry and feed on us like crazed, slavering hell-hogs. It's a chastening notion--as much as Swift's "Modest Proposal"--and the filmmakers realize it with gruesome gusto and raunchy good humor. No one who sees the last half-hour of this movie will ever forget it--though quite a few may want to.

Directed by Brian Yuzna, the producer of Stuart Gordon's first three movies, it's a shocker-satire that tries to play laughs off against paranoia and gore. Its premise is that the rich are not only destroying America with their greed, amorality and political clout--something a PBS documentary might have established more easily--but that they are actually a perverse alien race who want to eat us alive.

"Us" is a relative concept here. The villains are the local WASP establishment, but the victims and sympathetic characters are rich kids too: classified as "different" because one of them is Jewish, and one, hero Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock), may have been adopted. So the movie is as much a nightmare about not belonging to your own environment as it is a gory assault on privilege.

The first part plays like the usual teen/sex comedy of the '80s, a little more awkwardly shot. Big, balloony images of beaches and bikinis, TV ad surrealism, school-hall fights with bullying snobs, hints of incest and incessantly smiley family scenes: It almost seems like a John Hughes imitator trying to do soft-core porno. Writers Woody Keith and Rick Fry aren't particularly good with dialogue and they have only one interesting character, a psychiatrist (Ben Slack) who resembles Charles Addams' evil bald man.

But, luckily, the writers also have Screaming Mad George, a genuinely unbuttoned special effects artist from Osaka, Japan, to realize their meanest, craziest jokes.

In a movie that carries credits for Foam Technician, Shunting Puppeteers and the unforgettable Eyeballs by Tech Optics, Mad George, who designed Yogurt and Pizza the Hut for Mel Brooks' "Spaceballs," is the real star. There's a spirit of playfulness in his monsters and obscenities that keeps the movie's horror scenes from being merely revolting.

Obviously influenced by Salvador Dali, Mad George likes to melt and distort reality, distend faces and objects. In the orgy scene, when the feeders develop anteater-like snouts and gorge themselves, it isn't the gross-out it could have been. The puppets are obviously puppets; that's the key to the movie's style. It finds the rich cute as well as spooky and evil.

The long-shelved "Society" (MPAA-rated R, for bizarre sexuality, violence, language) carries a 1989 copyright date; its current release was prompted by a recent three-month run in London's West End, where it became a surprise hit. And perhaps that fits. The British may be a little less touchy about class. After all, they know what happened to their Empire.

'Society'

Billy Warlock: Bill Whitney

Devin Devasquez: Clarissa

Ben Slack: Dr. Cleveland

Evan Richards: Milo

A Wild Street Pictures presentation of a Keith Walley/Paul White production, released by Zecca Corp. Director Brian Yuzna. Producer Keith Walley. Executive producers Paul White, Keizo Kabata, Terry Ogisu. Screenplay by Woody Keith, Rick Fry. Cinematographer Rick Fichter. Editor Peter Teschner. Special Effects Screaming Mad George. Costumes Robin Lewis. Music Mark Ryder, Phil Davies. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (Bizarre sexuality and violence, language).

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