This week’s descent into the darkest depths of Internet video streaming is a two-for-one holiday special: Society and Parents, a couple of family-centric, coming-of-age horror-comedy flicks released in 1989. These two stories of “normal” families hiding depraved secrets tanked at the box office (despite being absolutely amazing), and both feature stylized visuals, black-as-tar humor, and gallons of gore. In other words: this is a perfect palate-cleansing double feature after your own depraved family’s Thanksgiving feast.
Hemingway said “The rich are different from you and me,” but In Society’s Beverly Hills, the rich are really different from you and me. Like really, really different.
Directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, Society stars Billy Warlock (a sort of a second-rate Michael J. Fox type best known for playing the little kid in Baywatch) as Billy Whitney, a rich kid who has everything. He’s got looks, a cool-guy mullet, a hot cheerleader girlfriend, and a sweet late-’80s Jeep Laredo… but he also seems to have serious psychological problems. During a visit to his therapist, Billy claims he doesn’t actually belong to his family… and worse, he believes they’re sexual deviants, getting it on with each other and everyone else.
The truth, it turns out, is even creepier than that. Way, waaay creepier.
A lifetime of watching schlocky horror movies prepared me for a discouraging ending in Society; the build-up is uneven but effective, featuring some truly unnerving scenes that poke around in sensitive sexual areas… combined with scenes that look like they came from a different, more boring teen movie. I was already prepared for that feeling of cinematic letdown that comes when you finally get to see the monster in a mediocre flick – when the dread and mystery suddenly evaporate, and you think “It’s a vampire. Great.” Or “Oh right, aliens.”
But let me tell you, the ending of Society is anything but disappointing.
The film’s last 20 minutes or so are an overflowing feast of delightfully stomach-churning body horror – a grand guignol from horror’s heyday of latex-and-goo effects that takes things as far as it seems possible to take them… and then goes further still. Major kudos to make-up genius Screaming Mad George, who created some of the most full-on disgusting effects ever committed to film, and to Yuzna, who managed to craft a vaguely coherent movie from an unholy witches’ brew of black humor, teen-movie tropes, Cronenberg-style body horror, and comic book social commentary.
Yeah, so the plot doesn’t make much sense, the acting is uneven, and there’s nothing even close to subtlety here… but Society is a minor classic for that ending alone.
I don’t want to give away the finale with screenshots… so instead, enjoy the greatest dialogue ever written, in which our hero starts to think something is weird about his new girlfriend:
This is an altogether more restrained, carefully crafted and coherent movie than Society. Directed by the great Bob Balaban, this 1950s-by-way-of-the-1980s flick mines horror gold (and dark laughs) from the deep mineshaft of childhood paranoia. In essence, Parents is all about the nasty things your mom and dad do when you’re asleep.
Michael is the only child of a pair of middle-class crackers in suburbia. They live in a post-war dreamscape: Dad wears ties and sweaters, Mom wears pearls at dinner. Everything is shiny and everyone smiles with white, straight teeth. But Michael has nightmares… and is starting to suspect there’s something wrong with mom and dad.
“We’ve had leftovers every day since we’ve moved here,” Michael says at dinner, while eyeing a plate stacked with unidentified charred flesh. “Leftovers from what?”
His mom replies with a bland grin: “Why, from the refrigerator, dear.”
“But what were they before they were leftovers?”
Dad answers with a wry smile: “They were leftovers-to-be!”
Parents perfectly captures the powerlessness of childhood, and the primal fear that maybe our parents don’t have our best interests at heart. Could it be that everyone and everything in this world is corrupted, and even the people closest to us are so depraved we don’t even have names for the things they do?
Worst of all is the fear that we’ll grow up like that too… and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.
Unlike the hero of Society, Michael doesn’t get righteously indignant at his parents’ behavior; he doesn’t engineer a confrontation or try to save anyone. He’s just a little kid, and no one would believe him anyway. Even the hippie therapist at his school (played to perfection by the great Sandy Dennis) doesn’t buy his story… and when she tries to help, it goes terribly, murderously wrong.
Like all children, Michael is as trapped in his suburban split-level as a convict in a supermax prison, forced to watch and try to make sense of the things grown-ups do, puzzling equally over drunken antics at a bridge game and his dad pureeing a corpse’s liver at his job at a research laboratory.
Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt are perfectly cast as Mom and Dad. Quaid exudes a deep menace in every scene, and Hurt effortlessly portrays a chipper suburban mom whose interest in cannibalism is equal to her interest in protecting her son from the truth about how dark things really are.