Saturday, October 12, 2013

Society + Spontaneous Combustion

(Unrated, Republic Pictures, 99 mins., theatrical release date: June 11, 1992)

(R, Taurus Entertainment Company, 97 mins., theatrical release date: February 23, 1990)

Brian Yuzna, producer of 1985's Re-Animator and director of its first sequel, aims low at the upper crust with what was his inaugural filmmaking bow, Society. Shot over five weeks and completed in 1989 for entry in that year's Cannes Film Festival, the movie never got an official American theatrical release until three years later, which feels like an injustice considering this is many ways a transitional film, one of the last in both the body horror and teen comedies of the 1980s, but bold enough to fuse both genres in a deliciously perverse fashion. If you ever wanted to see an amalgam of Gary Sherman's Dead & Buried (1981) and Michael Lehmann's Heathers (1988), Society will shunt itself right up your alley.

What exactly is "shunting," you might ask? Well, if I could try to put this as mildly as I possibly can, it's got something to do with the Beverly Hills nouveau riche asserting their privilege in ways that suggest a Salvador Dali nightmare of Caligula. And given that the man responsible for bringing this indelible image to life is Screaming Mad George, who handled Brooke Theiss' cockroach disintegration scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, you might want to lay off the munchies given that the entire third act of Society involves a mass shunting party held for the indoctrination of teenage lead Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock, Baywatch star and son of stuntman Dick Warlock from Halloween II & III).

Society has been waiting for Billy, but he's been left wanting. Despite his affluence presenting him alpha male status as both a basketball jock and senior class president, Billy still visits a shrink, Dr. Cleveland, confessing to a home life plagued by "incest and psychosis," and that there is something dubious about his privilege that he's afraid to explore. Enter David Blanchard (Tim Bartell), the chunky ex-boyfriend of Billy's pampered sister Jennifer (Patrice Jennings), whose planted tape recorder unveils references to "copulation" in regards to the girl's coming out party that frighten Billy even more. Blanchard turns up dead, and the unctuous taunts of elite preppie Ted "The Tycoon" Ferguson (Ben Meyerson) force the reluctant Billy to scratch the surface of society.

You see, in this particular posh upper-class paradise, the emphasis on "good breeding" in regards to jockeying for position is a sick joke Yuzna is all too happy to push to its extreme. Billy feels the pressure to become more of an elitist from not only his family but also his cheerleader girlfriend Shauna (Heidi Kozak from Slumber Party Massacre 2). The obvious twist in Billy's infatuation with frisky free-spirit Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez) might just lead him further astray given that she tools around with the contemptible Ferguson. The only loyal friend Billy has is the comparatively nerdy Milo (Evan Richards as Corey Haim), who feels betrayed enough to play a couple innocent practical jokes yet sticks by Billy when he realizes his suspicions may be valid.

Woody Keith and Rick Fry's screenplay refashions all of the teen movie tropes of its era into something that rivals the later Robert Rodriguez/Kevin Williamson collaboration The Faculty. Here, the John Hughes lineage is played less self-congratulatory and is treated like gospel, thus making the satire much more fun to decipher. Coming across like a beefy Michael J. Fox doppelganger, Billy Warlock is relaxed in the role to the point where one gets the impression that Bill Whitney is like a periphery Hughes character, e.g. Jake Ryan or Amanda Jones, pushed to the forefront. The usual concerns about class you'd expect from a Hughes screenplay are given a more anarchic, outrageous frame of reference, even if the love story doesn‘t fully break from tradition. The ways in which peer pressure and status quo mould our personality are played straight only to get twisted into Guignol macabre as is the kind of common mistrust of the 1%. All of these anxieties, both in thematic and physical manifestations, play on the kind of "plastic reality" Yuzna once used to describe the grisly, dreamlike practical effects work found in horror movies from A Nightmare on Elm Street onward.

Society packs plenty of unforgettable images involving the goopy, ghastly contortions of flesh. Early on, a voyeuristic glance at Jenny in the shower hints at shapes of things to come, and Billy's sexual encounter with Clarissa, in which she is found in a rather "funny position," is shrugged off with a "pissing in the tea" joke. It all culminates in a finale that gives Yuzna and Screaming Mad George (credited with not merely special, but "surrealistic make-up effects") the chance to one-up the methyl cellulose monstrosities of Stuart Gordon's From Beyond. To arrive there, though, we have to consider the notion that Bill might potentially paranoid, a bit of character detail that doesn't particularly shine through in script or performance. It really isn't a matter of whether or not Bill might be too self-absorbed in his angst, but of waiting for someone to recognize the shady goings-on involving (dis)appearing corpses and incestuous sexuality are not detritus of the imagination.

Still, Yuzna's dementedly allegorical debut is part of the ruling class as opposed to Tobe Hooper's Spontaneous Combustion, the Texan filmmaker's return to features following his ill-fated tenure with Golan and Globus. Hooper's preoccupation with the "nuclear family" is taken literally when in 1955, all-American lovebirds Brian & Peggy Bell (Society nerd Brian Bremer, Stacy Edwards) withstand a hydrogen bomb blast beneath the Nevada Desert as part of "Project Samson," a government experiment involving underground bunkers and an anti-radiation serum that nonetheless proves fatal when the subjects burst into flames following the birth of their son. 30 years later, the Bell's only child is known as Sam Kramer (Brad Dourif) and working as a high school teacher in Trinidad Beach, although an escalating series of personal humiliations and deceptions unleashes a fiery temper which results in those close to him being afflicted with the titular fatality. When he learns that his life has been a set-up at the expense of friend o' the family Lew Olander (William Prince), Sam takes back his identity as David Bell and takes revenge on those who threaten him.

Once you get past the amusing faux-newsreel which touts the Bell couple as Atomic Age celebrities, know that the remaining 80 minutes is essentially an unfair trade-off in which Tobe Hooper demonstrates just how far he's fallen since Chainsaw Massacres, Salem's Lot and Poltergeist and where Oscar-nominee Brad Dourif gives a rare central performance, certainly his first most notable lead since his Hazel Motes of Wise Blood (1979), which goes beyond the call of duty. The perpetually-fevered, perennially-deceived David Bell is desperate for answers about his manipulated life and Dourif gives every emotion an urgent intensity and sense of palpable pain. By contrast, Hooper's storytelling ability is hindered by a morass of stilted exposition, poor editing and a numbing succession of badly-realized optical fire effects which inspire fits of derisive laughter, especially in the scene where a testy radio station techie played by John Landis shoots fire out of his mouth like he's Godzilla.

The constant plot similarities to Firestarter are hard to ignore, as is the feeling of immunity to Dourif's valiant over-acting, which often mistakes fanaticism for fear, and the sense that screenplay co-author Hooper, whose previous Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was the manna of gonzo B-movie heaven, cannot quite bring out the shock or the satire in this dated No Nukes screed. Sam/David's self-discovery coincides with protest over the midnight launch of a nuclear power plant, but Hooper cannot find a single provocative thought when you compare it to the era-defining grotesqueries of either Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels. It ends only with a bald rip-off of Wes Craven's Shocker in the ultimate show of misplaced priorities.

Spontaneous Combustion is just so frustratingly dumb, unable to explain away Sam's late-blooming pyrokinesis or the fate of his parents or the shady intentions of Sam's caregivers in a way that is in any way gripping or the least bit satisfactory. Shouldn't Sam have been treated like caged rat in a top-secret facility a la Martin Brundle in The Fly 2? Or shouldn't the outside world be so exaggerated as to suggest a real life sense of being sheltered? The sudden revelation of Sam's bland love interest Lisa (Cynthia Bain) being a similar product of nefarious deeds could crack your skull in its face-palming thoughtlessness, and it's resolved just as poorly.

But what bugs me the most is that Tobe Hooper could've sincerely made a return to form with this movie and kept his name from slumming any further as it eventually did. Instead, Spontaneous Combustion just shows up how mercenary mainstream projects like The Funhouse or any of his three Cannon Group endeavors demonstrated more inspiration and entertainment value. The only reason I have allowed this movie to endure in my memory banks for so long is that Brad Dourif was its big name star, the principal reason I sought this out on tape as a boy, and it's simply not enough anymore. The sad truth is that Hooper himself flamed out, and Spontaneous Combustion isn't so much kino as it is kindling.

Anchor Bay issued both Society and Spontaneous Combustion as separate entities before joining them on a flipper-disc "Drive-In Double Feature" which would've made more sense had the former actually been released in 1990, too. Brian Yuzna explains the reason for this as well as points out autobiographical details in Woody Keith's script and the retrofitting of GMT studios, a privately-owned facility with a hugely Christian clientele, for the film's ungodly climax in a solo commentary track which is the only notable extra included for either flick. At least they included their original trailers...

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