The Darkside Of Society


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Darkside Of Society
"Occam’s razor is badly needed here." | Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

Ever since its release in 1989, Brian Yuzna’s Society has attracted a lot of attention. It’s a film whose special effects work continues to impress audiences today, and is astounding in light of the tools available at the time. It took on what was then highly controversial subject matter, and its focus on sexuality caused apoplexy in American censors. As such, it has received extensive critical appraisal, but one area which hasn’t really been covered in the past is what it meant to its writer, Zeph E Daniel (then known as Woody Keith) – both as he understood it at the time, and later.

Taking on a lot of difficult issues, The Darkside Of Society is a film which some viewers will find hard to watch, and which one might consider exploitative were it not for Daniel’s evident passion for telling his story and the degree to which documentarian Larry Wade Carrell lets him take the lead. One suspects that it found its way to Frightfest partly by way of narrator Julian Sands, who was a longstanding friend of the festival. It’s also likely to attract more general interest because it was one of the last films he worked on before his tragic death earlier this year. Sands seems to have regarded Daniel as a friend, and at one point in his narration states that it doesn’t matter whether or not his story is true because his belief and his suffering certainly are.

There’s truth in that statement, but also naivety, and that’s the case with the film overall. Has Daniel suffered? Undoubtedly, and one feels for him. He absolutely deserves the space to heal in whatever way works best for him. When that becomes a public matter, however, more complicated issues arise, and neither Sands nor Carrell seems to have been equipped to handle them. So let’s get to the crux of it all. It’s this: Daniel believes that much of the plot of Society (presumably minus the parts about elastic flesh and turning people inside out) actually happened to him.

It’s a lot to take in. So much so that Daniel himself didn’t begin to process it until a couple of years after the film came out. He believes that he was actively brainwashed into forgetting it, and that the strain of trying to cope with the buried memories – together with those responsible wishing to silence him – is the reason why he was repeatedly institutionalised and given psychiatric treatment. He was able to express it in fiction before he could face it in reality, he says. Over the course of the film, which explores a number of pivotal events in his life and includes supportive statements from friends like Hardware director Richard Stanley, he speaks about it at length, though often in a rambling way which makes it hard to distinguish between what he believes is memory and what is hearsay.

That there is no attempt made to get clarity on this is frustrating, though it is perhaps understandable that Carrell did not wish to press. Nobody wants to make life harder for a survivor – and Daniel certainly is that, the only question being just what he is a survivor of. For the same reason, the film is difficult to critique, but one must needs do so because making some of these assertions publicly has an impact which goes beyond Daniel himself. First and foremost, it implicates members of his family in criminal acts. Secondly, it fuels a social phenomenon which has done significant damage to numerous innocent people, including children.

The issue of Satanic ritual abuse is raised here with reference simply to the number of allegations made during the famous moral panic of the 1980s and, notably, without reference to how small a proportion of those allegations were proven, nor how many of those convictions were subsequently overturned on appeal, nor the dearth of material evidence brought to bear by prosecutors. Are children sexually abused? Of course – shockingly, around 28% of US children experience it to some degree on at least one occasion. Might some abusers use Satanic trappings to scare victims into silence? In a country with sizable religious populations, that wouldn’t be surprising. The way this issue is handled in Carrell’s film, however, charges straight past that to take the most extreme position available, and that’s dangerous.

In light of this, one has to wonder about Daniel’s own tendency to seek the most extreme – and, at the time, popular – explanation for the situation in which he found himself. As he speaks to camera, he frequently evidences paranoid thinking, for instance thinking that he had been lured to a party so that a bad thing could happen to him; thinking that cars driving past a house were full of people watching him; thinking that some of the people institutionalised alongside him were planted there to spy on him. “One of the things that quickly becomes apparent is that these people are everywhere,” he says. Occam’s razor is badly needed here, but no effort is made at de-escalation.

Winding back from this kind of thinking is generally not something which people can do for themselves, as every bit of contrary evidence is routinely turned on its head. Zeph believes that his mother agreeing to be an extra in Society proves it’s all true because she was choosing the perfect cover. In other words, he makes it impossible for his theory to be disproven, even in his own mind. It’s unsurprising to find that his wife, who seems calm and reasonable until she uses the term ‘plandemic’, not only believes he was abused (which may be true) but accepts this as evidence that a secret paedophile cult is running the world – rather less likely, to say the least. One is happy for them, that they have found each other, but worries about where the reinforcing of such thinking can lead. On the other hand, the simple fact that Zeph is clearly loved and in love and getting a lot out of life provides a beacon of hope for survivors of all kinds.

The Darkside Of Society raises a lot of questions about the ethics and responsibilities of documentary making which are, in turn, complicated by the fact that there does need to be room for socially difficult beliefs to be aired, and this is not a case of hate speech, nor is there any evidence of ill intent. Despite the efforts of the #MeToo movement, survivors still have very little opportunity to contribute to public debate. The really difficult question here is whether this documentary will help to change that or will, due to its clumsiness and lack of context, make it harder for others to be taken seriously.

Reviewed on: 29 Aug 2023
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The Darkside Of Society packshot
The story of the Keith family in Beverly Hills and the reality which inspired cult film Society.

Director: Larry Wade Carrell

Starring: Julian Sands, Brian Yuzna, Screaming Mad George, Richard Stanley

Year: 2022

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: US


Frightfest 2023

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