Target Practice: Society (1989) & Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

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Welcome to “Target Practice”, where we here at Shock take a look at the output of Arrow Films. Arrow has brought the best in horror, cult and exploitation repertory titles into UK homes since 1991. Now they’ve finally crossed the Atlantic, delivering genre stalwarts and oft-overlooked gems via beautiful Blu-ray & DVD editions.

This third entry pairs two families with terrifying secrets in Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989) and Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)…

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The Films

Society was the end result of a project blowing up in Brian Yuzna’s face. Teaming up yet again with Stuart Gordon (for whom Yuzna famously produced Re-Animator, From Beyond and Dolls), the two were working on a screenplay titled Teeny Weenies – a Disney movie inspired by The Incredible Shrinking Man. Gordon was slated to direct, but after Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society) was brought in to re-write their original script, Gordon dropped off the project (and would be superseded by consummate sixth man, Joe Johnston). Yuzna, Gordon and Ed Naha retained a “Story By” credit on the final film (which was re-titled Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), but Yuzna felt betrayed by the studio. This was supposed to be the horror duo’s big chance to cross over and it was ruined. It seemed the producer was destined to remain a Hollywood outcast; alienated and relegated to working with mini-majors like Charles Band’s Empire Pictures.  

Keeping this collapse in mind, it’s no wonder Yuzna’s directorial debut would be a veritable ode to anti-establishment thinking. Made for a mere $2 million (with the help of Japanese and British ex-pat producers), Society embraces the concept that the upper crust are not just “born into it” snobs looking to keep any and all who illegally attempt to enter their domain out, but another species of flesh sucking mutants entirely. Espousing the surrealist sexuality of hardcore porn from the likes of FX Pope and Stephen Sayadian, Society is a lurid, politically charged fever dream that’s just as relevant twenty-five-plus years later. A punk rock middle finger to Reagan-era conservative values; the rich indulge in deviant carnality behind closed doors that ends in the consumption of those they deem beneath them. These fuck fests become Cronenbergian phantasms, complete with fluid conceptions of gender. In short, flesh becomes currency that these debutantes decide to guzzle and then dispense at an unknown later date. They spend our bodies.

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It’s no wonder Society struggled to find a foothold in the US, as it was hacked to pieces by the ratings board, only to still receive an X-rating upon initial theatrical release. For whatever reason, Yuzna thought the fantastic horror picture could be some kind of mainstream delight (he obviously still had Disney on the brain), but the raw sexuality it contains is closer to the neon perversions Gordon helmed in From Beyond. Fear and flesh intertwine, climaxing in the now infamous “shunting” that feels like the id of FX guru Screaming Mad George (who was suggested after his stellar work on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 & 4) poured onto celluloid. Most offensive to both the MPAA and early test audiences was the moment when our lost, confused hero (Baywatch hunk Billy Warlock) is kissed by his swanky alpha male nemesis (Ben Meyerson) during the finale’s mansion-hosted alien orgy. Yuzna’s rejection of heteronormative values during this grotesque set piece was the tipping point, as the filmmaker allowed the sex in Society to become just as transgressive as its class politics.

Setting this tale in what feels like “Beverly Hills as envisioned by a coked out John Hughes” only strengthens the movie’s uniquely subversive tone. In this arena, everything Yuzna presents is just slightly off-kilter, keeping us on edge as we wait for the worms to squirm from the center of an otherwise crisp American apple. While this EC Comics California never becomes “ordinary” quite like John Carpenter’s Haddonfield, Illinois (Yuzna’s melodramatic tendencies are far more heightened), we’re still presented with a universe we somewhat recognize as “safe” and “welcoming”. Yet these preening puppet masters quickly pull this veneer away, ready to whet their appetite for rough sex and underclass bodies. In a world where less than one hundred of the top earning individuals control most of the world’s wealth (and are undoubtedly eating up human lives to keep it that way), Society still feels remarkably fresh a quarter century after it first warped minds.

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Takashi Miike was once possessed by the concept of the unit – both in how it congeals and dissolves. Visitor Q revolves around the perverse disbanding of the tribe, punctuated with a wanton, repellent glee that marks it as one of the notorious Japanese director’s most harrowing filmic endurance tests. Even his yakuza pictures (like the aptly titled Family I & II) would often lend themselves to examinations of blood bonds. Happiness of the Katakuris (which, along with Q and the two Family movies, made up fifty percent of Miike’s 2001 output) is the most optimistic of the filmmaker’s familial fetish, showcasing a newly minted hotel dynasty. Only this bed and breakfast (strangely named White Lover’s Inn) is situated at the base of a radioactive volcano, destined to raise the bodies of the dead guests the Katakuris hide in order to keep their bread and butter alive. All the while, they sing and dance their way through the most awful scenarios (this is Miike’s self-admitted plagiarizing of von Trier’s Dancer In the Dark, after all), scoring such awful traumas as suicide, grave digging and zombie attacks to karaoke-worthy jams.

There’s an absurd sweetness to Happiness of the Katakuris that takes the place of the filmmaker’s usual perversity. No semen is present and accounted for (though a Sumo wrestler does fuck a neon-clad schoolgirl), yet the movie is approaching the unsettling sideways. The musical numbers are almost always running perpendicular to what’s actually happening, plot-wise, on screen. So while Miike may not be splattering the screen with his trademark gore orgies and slicing the nipples off of perky sex objects, he is no doubt making light of the darkest subjects. This tongue-in-cheek tone may be a direct callback to the movie Katakuris is a rough remake of – South Korean superstar Kim Jee-woon’s 1998 directorial debut, The Quiet Family. That film’s humor is black as night, accenting an otherwise po-faced take on another family’s severe struggle to not let dire economic strife overwhelm them.

The financial subtext is really what strengthens Happiness of the Katakuris as Miike’s most audaciously hopeful movie. White Lover’s Inn is the product of the patriarch (Kenji Sawada) being laid off after years of dutiful service to a government institution (the post office). His son (Shinji Takeda) was a stock market trader, until some shady dealings made him dash back to the only people left in the world who would protect and love him. “Let’s live here. Start here together,” the movie’s most joyous number invites us to join these two downtrodden males and their lovelorn female counterparts (not to mention a cutie pie daughter [Tamaki Miyazaki] and family terrier). “Happiness is made by all. By the whole family,” the song continues, and they lock hands, offering their tune to a sky that is soon clouded by soot from the looming volcano. This is very much Miike’s portrait of what it means to stay together. The unit endures; rich or poor, thick and thin – you find happiness amongst those you love unconditionally, even during the most harrowing of times.

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The Discs

Society might be the home video release of the year, as not only do the transfer’s colors pop in a way they never have before (the reds during the sticky, icky shunting sequence are all-consuming in their fire), but the supplements again help to place the movie not only within the time in which it was made, but our own as well. Alan Jones (who first presented the movie’s world premiere at London’s ‘Shock Around the Clock’ Fest in 1989) pens what is unquestionably the definitive essay on the film. It’s a detailed love letter to a movie that many may have wrongfully forgotten.

Yuzna contributes an all-encompassing commentary track, as well as a brand new interview on the film titled “Governor of a Society”. “The Masters of the Hunt” featurette includes interviews with actors Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Ben Meyerson and Tim Bartell, while “The Champion of the Shunt” profiles FX masters Screaming Mad George, David Grasso and Nick Benson. Rounding it all out is a 2014 Q&A with Yuzna, recorded at the Celluloid Screams Festival, as well as a vintage conversation backstage at the Society world premiere. Wrapped around it like some kind of sickening bow is the Digipack boxing (and a companion graphic novel!), which again elevates Arrow to their rightfully earned status as the “Criterion of genre labels”.

The Katakuris set is really no different (though the shiny transfer sometimes highlights the flatness of the film’s possibly too bright photography). Miike offers up a delightfully dry commentary (not to mention a re-printed interview with Sean Axemaker). An original documentary from the film’s production (“The Making of the Katakuris”) highlights the Japanese icon’s speedy creative process. “Animating the Katakuris” allows the audience to thoroughly understand how the movie’s eye-popping stop motion sequences were crafted, while “Interviews with Katakuris” sheds some light on what it takes to perform in one of Miike’s bizarre picture shows. Rounding it all out is a stellar contextualizing piece of writing from Johnny Mains, who adeptly places the movie within Miike’s intimidatingly massive body of work. Both of these discs are must buys for two totally different sets of cult film fans, as we’re yet again treated to illuminating editions of some of the strangest cinema ever crafted.

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Jacob Knight is an Austin, Texas based film writer who moonlights as a clerk at Vulcan Video, one of the last great independent video stores in the US. You can find find him on Twitter @JacobQKnight.


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Weekend: Oct. 18, 2018, Oct. 21, 2018

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