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Overall Rating
3.25

Awesome: 6.25%
Worth A Look56.25%
Just Average: 12.5%
Pretty Crappy: 6.25%
Sucks: 18.75%

1 review, 10 user ratings


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Stuff, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Entertaining Slice of B-Movie Schlock"
4 stars

Get ready for some serious unpretentious fun.

The starring role of David "Mo" Rutherford in writer/director Larry Cohen's The Stuff is played by Michael Moriarty, an actor who much prefers over-the-top shenanigans to straight-laced, restrained screen acting. Yet this isn't necessarily the worst thing considering just how damn entertaining this man can be when he gets off to a great start and is able to sustain his buggo interpretations from beginning to end. For anyone who remembers his embarrassingly emotive work in the ludicrous 1975 crime drama Report to the Commissioner knows that Moriarty is capable of anything, of taking the kind of take-it-or-leave-it chances most actors would easily shy away from in a heartbeat. His performances aren't always compatible to the material, mind you, as Commissioner no doubt proved, but when they are, he's magic. In The Stuff, Moriarty gets to let it rip as a truly goofy industrial spy who's hired by an ice-cream corporation to uncover the secret ingredients of a popular dessert called The Stuff. It's turned into a national phenomenon, selling millions of units, with customers turning up at stores and street vendors as late as four in the morning to get their daily fix. What Moriarty's Mo doesn't know, and what the audience does from the film's opening scene, is that this delectable dessert was discovered oozing out of the ground; and instead of processing it through some kind of filtration system, it's siphoned into tankers, brought straight to company factories, and immediately shipped to supermarkets.

It's later revealed that The Stuff is a most hostile substance: a living organism that addicts its consumer and starts eating away at their insides, turning them into zombie-like manifestations. Most become demented when threatened, and some are simply serene -- like a picture-perfect housewife who talks to her concerned son in the emotionally detached manner of a Florence Henderson doing a Wesson Cooking Oil commercial. With the help of an advertising executive, Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), and an ousted CEO who goes by the name of Chocolate Chip Charlie (SNL alum Garrett Morris), Mo sets out to halt the mass consumption of this lethal substance by tracking down its origin and destroying it. (Oh, why is Moriarty's character nicknamed Mo? As the man himself tells it, "Whenever someone gives me money, I always want mo'.") The Stuff is not a film out to set the world on fire; it's simply a piece of spirited schlock, the kind you can label as a "guilty pleasure" without feeling guilty for enjoying because it's so colorfully executed and ingratiating in spirit. Larry Cohen has been around the cinematic scene for quite some time (Q: The Winged Serpent and A Return to Salem's Lot, both of which starred Moriarty), and he seems perfectly at home with the witty screenplay he's whipped up for himself, mixing fright with fun and refusing to take much of anything overly seriously. While the film is unmistakably a social-minded mediation on the potential dangers of mindless mass consumerism -- the willingness of Americans to put just about anything in their mouths so long as it's marketed correctly -- but Cohen refuses to all-out preach. Rather, he opts to simply entertain, without ever resorting to pandering-down-to means to get his general points across.

It's not every day we get to see a satire targeting suburbanites and old schlocky films as well, with 1958's The Blob the most obvious reference. When The Stuff vacates its host, it flows out quite seductively, with its creamy-dreamy texture whetting the lips of the viewer even with the knowledge that it makes the Ebola virus look like the common cold by comparison. Instead of a black- or brown-colored, rough-textured substance, Cohen goes the deceptive route by making his villain totally disarming on the surface yet totally malicious in its underlying intent. He manages to get quite a lot of mileage out of unassuming scenes like a baby gobbling up The Stuff while sitting in a grocery cart, and a Norman Rockwell-ian family gathering around the dinner table with this dessert serving as their main and only entree. Suspense is more than adequately rendered -- as in a finely directed bit where a boy has to convince his father that the white substance he's eating is The Stuff rather than similar-looking shaving cream he's used to fool him -- while the action sequences are a bit too ragged to work as well as intended. Cohen has a lot of moviemaking spirit, but his technique, alas, isn't the best -- his films are some of the worst-edited I've ever laid eyes on. For instance, when an Army troop storms one of the factories housing The Stuff, the exuberant music score does a much better job of rousing us than Cohen's staging manages to; also botched is a scene of Mo barely escaping an attempted hit-and-run -- though the staging is considerably better with Mo's and Charlie's escape by rowboat from a horde of Stuff-infected country bumpkins.

What prevents The Stuff from being a giddy classic is that it's wildly uneven in structure. Reportedly, Cohen was forced to trim at least thirty minutes off the running time, and it shows. My guess is that a good portion of the relationship between Mo and Nicole has been tampered with, because not only does it quickly jump from a friendly to a romantic one (they're all of a sudden sharing a motel bed like it's nothing) but Nicole offhandedly refers to Mo as 'David', which we partake to be his real name but are confused as to when exactly this tidbit of information was conveyed. There also seems to be some crucial minutes of screen time missing between Mo and the CEO of The Stuff; Mo pretends to accept a big payoff from the man to fudge his investigation early on, but then nothing comes of it, so when the two next meet near the end, you can all but see the splice marks on the celluloid. And I suspect the details on the life cycle of The Stuff has also been a casualty in the editing room, as well (a suspicion that was given credence with notes from imdb.com that stop motion animation of "baby stuff" was jettisoned). And while Cohen is good at not overstating his intentions, perhaps the cautionary consumer theme he took on doesn't vibrate as scathingly as it should; it breezes over implications a bit too blandly and inoffensively, as if he were afraid of offending the very same people who might be shelling out the money to see his film. Furthermore, if he was concerned with trimming extraneous bulk, he might have been wise to start with the suburban subplot involving the eight-year-old kid who evolves into an anti-Stuff rebel; the scenes are fairly fine, but the atrocious acting of Scott Bloom as the adolescent negates a fair amount of their persuasiveness.

Luckily, the film offers up considerably more pros than cons. The dialogue is loose and easygoing, with an occasional keeper uttered now and again (when someone tells Mo that he's not as dumb as he appears to be, he responds back in a slowly deliberate tone, "No one is as dumb as I appear to be."). The cinematography by Paul Glickman boasts the same gorgeous sheen of the tv commercials the film amusingly sends up, and reconfirms that the 35mm spherical cinematographic processing the film's studio, New World Pictures, was fond of using in the '80s resulted in some of the finest-looking films of its decade (other examples: Black Moon Rising and Crimes of Passion). And the colorful supporting performances help, too. Paul Sorvino is a hoot as a mad-as-a-hatter ex- military general brimming with uncouth paranoia (he still believes the American water supply is teeming with fluoride from the '60s), and Garrett Morris matches him in a super-duper turn as the CEO with dubious karate expertise. Danny Aiello and Patrick O'Neal make the most of their juicy cameo appearances, with Andrea Marcovicci suitably pluckish as Nicole. Then there's Michael Moriarty, the man himself, who's just as sensational here as he was as the sweatbrow con man in Q. Instead of one of those dreadful cardboard heroes, Moriarty has fun with his juicy part and makes him into a classic creation: a guy so seemingly spaced-out half the time yet incredibly resourceful that you never know whether he's going to save the day or make a mockery of things. Like the film he's starring in, Moriarty is unpredictable and positively bursting with imagination, two highly commendable traits that should be a lot more inherent in the kinds of films today that want to be taken seriously yet are no more dramatically complex than The Stuff, which at least displays the good common sense of knowing exactly what it is: Great, unpretentious fun.

--------------------------

The DVD

While the VHS version from New World Home Video boasted vibrant colors and consistent flesh tones, and being that Cohen shot this TV-safe with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the letterboxed DVD from the great Anchor Bay Entertainment still makes for a good purchase for fans of the film. Some grain and video noise are apparent during the nighttime scenes, but for the most part the transfer is fairly faultless. Good robust audio to be had considering it's only a 2.0 mix, with an informative and amusing audio commentary by writer/director Cohen included (he lays claim to possessing every hairpiece Moriarty's ever worn in his films). Note: Beware of the region-0, full-frame DVD of this that's been circulating through eBay and other similar sites for a while now. It's a totally different entity than this marvelous one from Anchor Bay.

Treat yourself to it.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=5295&reviewer=327
originally posted: 05/24/03 13:30:59
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User Comments

9/16/17 morris campbell goofy trash 1 stars
1/29/12 The Big D Good for a laugh if you want something to laugh at!!! 4 stars
7/17/11 Flipsider One of the best "bad movies!" Funny performances, memorable moments! 5 stars
7/30/05 Jeff Anderson A lively & spirited ode to 50's schlock & consumerism. Flawed yes, but very entertaining! 4 stars
5/26/03 Kyle Not too bad. 3 stars
3/06/03 Charles Tatum I wanted more edge 2 stars
2/01/03 Dani O. Interesting consumerist social commentary...with more than one screaming flaw. 3 stars
12/31/02 Jack Sommersby Wonderful horror/comedy schlock. Moriarty is terrific! 4 stars
5/17/02 Dark Barøn Very good concept, but Cohen messed it up somehow; he made the movie boring as hell. 1 stars
4/23/02 Monster W. Kung Do people eat ice cream or the other way around? So stupid it's funny. 1 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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  02-Aug-1985 (R)

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