I have always heard that the mark of a good story teller is one who can convey everything they need to in as little time as possible. Seven Samurai, which clocks in at around three and a half hours is a spectacular movie, no doubt one of the greatest and most impressive outputs the cinema has ever seen. But more impressive I would say is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. In a mere 87 minutes Bergman’s mesmerizing and illusionary tale carries the emotional weight well beyond any epic and lengthy masterpiece.
In a similar way (though I must immediately add that this is certainly the only thing they have in common), Larry Cohen’s schlock horror piece The Stuff has a running time of 86 minutes. Does this mean it is a well-constructed, elegantly condensed narrative film like Persona? Of course not. This just so happens to be the kind of movie that refutes my prior paragraph.
As it begins, the movie wastes no time introducing its audience to “the stuff-” a creamy milky-looking goo found in the ground that suddenly becomes the most delicious and addicting dessert in America. The director finds no better way to communicate this information than by having the movie’s first speaking character make abrupt exclamatory statements out loud to no one. Of course, we have to assume that his Schizophrenic outbursts are “important information” geared towards the audience. This old man is the first person to discover “the stuff” seeping up through the dirt. And as anyone’s first instinct would be when finding a mysterious goo bubbling in the ground, the man immediately reaches down to taste it. In his favor, the substance was not some sort of hydrochloric poison that burnt his tongue clean off. Of course not, it tastes wonderful and from here enters The Stuff, a delicious dessert snack that floods the super markets and kitchens of every household in America even putting ice cream distributors out of business.
Enter David ‘Mo’ (“every time people give me money I ask for mo’”) Rutherford. That quote was not me trying to be funny. Mo is a former investigator of the F.B.I that due lack of competence was fired from the Bureau. Regardless of this fact, he is called upon by a large ice cream manufacturer looking to somehow attain the formula to The Stuff and add their own competing product into the dessert market place. This is a lot harder than it seems. For some reason, being that everyone in America is eating a goo found bubbling beneath the ground, the Food and Drug Administration decided to bend the rules and not test this product. There’s no reason explained by the former FDA councilman interviewed by Mo, that’s just the way it is.
As the movie abruptly shoves all of this “necessary introductory material” into the few minutes, one could assume in typical B-movie format that they must just be rushing over to get to the good parts of the movie where The Stuff becomes alive and floods the city streets terrorizing everyone and everything in its path. After all it is only 86 minutes long.
Unfortunately this is not the case.
It actually takes well over twenty minutes for something mildly entertaining to occur in this movie. I understand the need for creating a tense and suspenseful mood from which the audience can respond eagerly awaiting to find out what will happen with the Stuff and the people who addictively consume it every meal of every day, but this takes way too long and I could explain it all in a few words: The Stuff is alive and when one guzzles up a large enough amount it turns them into blood thirsty savages, or a loving family, or if you’re a dog it will actually make you smarter.
I’m not sure all three of three possibilities were in the intentions of the filmmakers, but this is a poorly crafted movie and from my observation they all happen at some point throughout the film. This mildly entertaining event that I was referring to is actually only a dog attack that takes less than one minute. After Mo leaves the former FDA worker’s house, his dog ripe of The Stuff decides to attack and brutally murder his owner. This occurrence goes along with Option #1: bloodthirsty savage, but what’s more interesting is that while the owner tries to phone someone for help, the dog pulls out the phone line [Option #3: making the dog smart enough to a). understand the principles of electric power and the operational use of a telephone and b). an understanding of what to do in an emergency situation where a telephone call would alert someone of the danger and thus blow the dog’s cover as the murderer.] This is an intelligent dog.
The dog's unusual behavior is the first side effect we see resulting from over-consumption of The Stuff, and thereby we should assume that everyone who eats The Stuff (which is everyone) will soon become overly savage and highly intelligent like the dog was. With that in mind, I then assumed the movie would play out a little like this: as people become smarter a cure for cancer would soon be discovered by various laboratories all hoping to the sell the formula to hospitals and pharmacies across the world. The seething competition for the profit, recognition and Nobel Prize will drive everyone crazy and fueled by The Stuff they will all kill each other. This could happen with any such invention, but I find the cure for cancer to be a probable and very lucrative opportunity.
But this is not the case either. The logical scenario mentioned above does not follow, which is a shame because it would make a killer movie.
Instead the movie throws at us another protagonist to team up with Investigator Mo that comes in the form of a 10 year old boy. After witnessing The Stuff move in his refrigerator one night, little Jason freaks out and refuses to eat it. This causes him to be grounded by his overly stern father. While the rest of his family eats The Stuff around the dinner table, we realize that his father is now much more relaxed. When Jason comes back down stairs, [I'm not even sure he father told him the time out was up!] the father only insisting his son eat the delicious, brain controlling treat together with the family. Jason fills an empty The Stuff cup with shaving cream and pretends to eat it. Afterwards, his family, now all finished with their delicious dessert movies in for a group hug, instigated once again by the now calm father. Here, we see Option #2 at play: the loving family. Not soon after though, the father realizes Jason was only pretending to eat the shaving cream and goes ballistic causing Jason to flee from his house, at which point he is picked up by Mo in a car.
Having the premise of such a basic “attack of the ‘whatever inanimate object you feel like inserting here’ type movie,” The Stuff is a hit and miss B movie, falling very short in all of its various attempts at creating suspense through meaningless character conversations, crafting exciting and gory action sequences where The Stuff eats people, alive and of course, displaying a social commentary about America’s growing susceptibility of consumer products forged by the media and greedy advertisement firms. I might have found a way to insert the latter point but still, what we have here is an “80s B-movie” that possess its typing because it is a crappy movie that just so happened to be made in the 1980s. There are no heart-pounding chase scenes, obnoxious amounts of fake blood or giant mice imploring humanity. Even when The Stuff does begin to move about the town and snatch people, the whole event lacks suspense and thrills of any sort. It is actually sort of boring watching The Stuff engulf helpless people and that's sad. If someone were to combine The Blob with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and have the intelligent dog from our movie take up the directing role, this is exactly what it would turn out to be- a cluster of bad ideas, unoriginality and false suspense that leads its viewers no where. I didn’t even mention the cracked out, former ice cream company CEO Chocolate Chip Charlie or the former ‘Nam vet Colonel Spears who suggests (insists, rather, based on no evidence) that the conspiracy behind The Stuff is the work of “yellow-necked Commi’ bastards.”
Don’t worry it wasn’t all that funny anyways.