Sunday 17 January 2021

Article: Giving The Shunt a Punt


During this pandemic, the wish of many has been revisiting films which bring about comfort and losing oneself in safety. I, however, found myself routinely absorbed in more disconcerting material. I have gone back to reading Pet Semetery and re-watching warped texts such as Society. Escaping the bleak into the realms of cheerful escapism does not make it go away. Staring at the abyss may not bring warmth but it has helped me push away that sense of complacency which can arrive in the face of uncertainty.

Society deals with one teenager’s deep pit of uncertainty. Billy is unsure of his parents. On the face of things, in the eyes of those without certain privileges, it is difficult to see why. Growing up amongst Beverly Hill’s upper class, Billy’s increasing worries over his parents and sister should come across as the kind of growing pains one expects to face if your hill has one tree, or your creek has a Dawson in it. Billy’s fears deepen as he slowly uncovers indications that suggest his family are not what they may seem. As a horror film, it is best to keep quiet on the gory secrets, however, Bill soon learns the price of privilege can cost more than an arm and or a leg.

There is a somewhat twisted pleasure in watching Brian Yuzna’s cinematic attack on the ruling classes. Even now 32 years on, as a sickly satirical horror film Society is still notable for slapping its social commentary right in the face of those who watch it without a hint of subtly. The rich are different from you and me. They see the world almost as if they are a different species. By the much-commented end of the film, we find how just how different they are. This is a film with no room for subtext.

It is easy to dismiss society as a film because a lot of the film's runtime would not look out of place in a bland 80's teen romp. The film has so much wrapped up in its outrageous climax that the rest of the film can feel off. A little forgettable. Save for some of the other more absurd visuals and hints which keep prodding us to the grand reveal. Charlie Lyne writes about the film’s ending as an extraordinary yet laments the films first hour as tedious. An unfortunate response as while the film’s opening hour rolls at a deliberate pace, it is peppered with crude and surreal clues. Contorted spines are witnessed through shower screens. Bodies disappear and are quickly covered up. The impassive reaction to the death of a school colleague by Bill’s parents is ominous, made bleaker in watching the current events at the time of writing in which a global pandemic has had politicians and talking heads make blasé comments about fatality percentages. Often because of their desire to kick start the economy. But Society is also a film about building to a crescendo. Its finale is a fountain of viscera, yet it means nothing without the build-up. The reaction to the apparent death of Blanchard is grim. His actual demise is a fate worse than death. 

At the time of writing this global pandemic has highlighted how labour outside the ruling classes has kept our current system functioning.  Elsewhere people have weighed up the economy in comparison to the health of others. Placing terms such as underlying conditions under disturbingly vague terms. Only recently Conservative MP Esther McVey made comments regarding “tolerable levels of death".  Referenced in comparison to costs in a way which would fit snugly into a rough draft of Dr Strangelove (1962). Such statements are stated with conviction to express seriousness, yet the blasé nature of such remarks come to be quite unpleasant when you consider the commenter to appear disengaged from the reality of the words. Something often stated about the comfortable class. The indifferent way those who do not worry look upon those that do. Something that Society enjoys toying within the most sweaty, gruelling way. Fuel for pleasure.

Society is so memorable because the metaphor is so blunt and yet so remarkably pure. Horror films are often great features to craft social-political subtext within them. Brian Yuzna does away with any idea of subtlety. Recent current affairs only seem to make the film more potent. Ryan Lambie notes in Den of Geek that the film’s title song is the Eton Boating Song. A piece of music associated with Eton College. A university is known for not only known for its elite standing, but also for the fact that both ex-Prime Minister David Cameron and current leader Boris Johnson were both educated there. Kieran Fisher remarks the dubious statements made by America's 45th President, Donald Trump about his daughter. They unwittingly mirror the incestuous nature of Bill’s parents towards their female offspring. 

Conversations over the one percent have been drawn into sharp focus in recent times. Billionaires made serious bank during a time of great trauma for many areas of the working class and a film like Society is not the first film to highlight the riches ability to feed off the lesser advantaged. But within the purity of the film’s message lies its relevancy.

Reaching comparisons aside, in the film’s text, the rich are just rich. You do not need knowledge of the Eton Boating Song. There are no party-political lines drawn, yet the incestuous aspect of the film brings around the feeling that it does not matter whose president or which party leads. Those who have can dominate those who have not. Despite more recent comparisons being made in this piece, the film still leans to the anti-materialistic cult films of its decade. Paired with John Carpenter’s They Live (1986) both make a potent double bill about the rich v poor era they inhabit. One of the most unsettling aspects lies in their protagonists discovering the hideous plot by the ruling powers, only to have their journey end in partial disruption, not completion. Both film’s climax with the secret world revealed, but not quelled. The film gives us a basic resolution to the plot but never imparts full closure.

The opening third features scenes which seem to imply that Billy paranoia is not false but has been blindsided by materialistic culture. His sister maybe favoured but he gets the flash jeep. There is an element of being bought into the culture. The film still resonates due to that point of view being still quite deep-seated in the current culture. As the western world glorifies billionaires while demonising lower-wage workers on social media platforms, ignoring the manipulation of labour which has allowed such an uneven balance between the rich and poor, Society still holds a sense of potency. We all have smartphones. We blast off whatever opinion about those we deem lesser than ourselves while those in the upper echelons feed off the exploitation. In Society, the antagonists of the film have been with us forever.  Still feeding and shunting. In the present, dark humour exists. Watching the space race between the Musks and Bezos’ of the world, it is as if we have modern-day shunters. Seeking a way back home after a long feed.

Do we need more films that play in the same satirical playbox as Society? I feel we have them. Both Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and US (2019) load themselves with similar sinister underpinnings. The death cult which inhabits The Invitation (2015) may not be as macabre in its dealings or as blatant with its targets, yet the film harbours elements of bizarre cult ritual which work well with Society as a double bill of the west of America losing its mind. One does hope budding filmmakers go back to films like Society and take notes. From its modest openings of late 80s cheese to its perverse ending. A finish which must be seen to be believed.  Society is a cult film for a reason. It is doubtful that a consensus will be willing to give the Shunt a punt. However, in a pandemic like which with the ongoing discourse of current events being what they are, it is quite possibly one of the perfect times to watch such a film.

Society is available on Blu-Ray

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