The Stuff begins innocently enough. A miner at a quarry finds some white goop that looks like a cross between yogurt and Elmer’s glue bubbling up from the ground. Whether invited by curiosity or an uncontrollable appetite, he reaches down, scoops some of it in his fingers, smells it, decides to try it, and discovers he really likes it.
I don’t know about you, but I did that a lot when I was a kid and then at some point, probably later than I’d admit, stopped that bad habit. Was it premature of this miner to taste it from the ground, given his expertise of what’s down there? Probably. But I’d be hard pressed to find a better opening to a movie.
The Stuff. It becomes a phenomenon, like Coke. It’s low in calories. It’s organic. It tastes great. No one seems to know exactly what’s in it though. And that’s where David “Mo” Rutherford comes into the picture. He’s on a mission to find out. David, or “Mo”, is played by the enigmatic and always underappreciated Michael Moriarty. His height is intimidating. He carries himself unlike most actors in films. There’s a looseness about him. A casual air of indifference that’s fun to watch. His hair and plain Canadian features might subtract from his potential sex appeal, but there’s also his Lone Star accent. In a different universe it might have propelled him to being an A-list star. But in that same universe we never would have gotten The Stuff or Q: The Winged Serpent.
When I first saw The Stuff in college, I didn’t know who Michael was. My friend had an appreciation for him and after we watched The Stuff and Q, I developed a good appreciation myself. I don’t think he’s so cult that people follow him like Bruce Campbell. For instance, he was in about 80 episodes of Law & Order (R.I.P.) but he isn’t known for playing ‘that guy in Law & Order’. If a retrospective documentary is ever made on Michael, Larry Cohen will be interviewed a lot more than Dick Wolf.
There are a lot of movies from the 80’s that could have only been made during that time. In that way, The Stuff is quintessentially 80’s. It’s an overt, on the nose attack on consumerism that mixes up its story with 2/3rds humor, 1/5th gore while the rest is just basically bad filmmaking. From its premise, you expect it to be a very ritzy, colorful affair as most 80’s movies tend to be. I love the lighting in 80’s movies. But because it’s so low budget, they cut some corners. A lot of the picture is really muddy and dark. Even the commercials that advertise The Stuff in the movie don’t look very vibrant. I think if the cinematography was handled with a little more attention to detail, this movie might have exploded into the mainstream.
There are a couple of interesting performances worth mentioning. Danny Aiello plays a guy who works for the FDA. Mo comes over to his house to ask questions about the ingredients in The Stuff. The whole scene is shot really badly. I mean, you could have asked some retired lady vacationing in Boca Roton to come in for a day and she would have done a better job. Aiello is a great actor. Everybody who’s seen Do The Right Thing knows this. But somehow they make him look totally incompetent. And I love it. It’s hilarious. The blocking is horrible. The actors don’t know where they’re supposed to be walking, and the DP doesn’t know where the camera is supposed to go. On top of that, Aiello looks like he forgot all his lines. He tries really hard to convey that he’s afraid of his dog (because the dog also eats The Stuff). As a viewer you’re not making the connection he’s afraid of his own dog until the scene is almost over. It’s really weird. I can’t even talk about this scene without sounding retarded. Just imagine how it must have felt to film it.
Another performance for the record books is from Paul Sorvino. I don’t know what it is about this guy, but he always looks like he’s just snorted five lines of coke. He’s always sweating. Always talking with that stiff upper lip. He’s an army colonel that Mo visits which sets up the climax of the movie. He convinces him that there is something far worse than communism in the U.S. that must be stopped: The Stuff. Why? It’s turning people into zombies! It really doesn’t take much to push him over the edge and get all his men together. It’s funny that he only has a half assed interest in doing it though. His other interest is women. For half the time he’s with Mo, he’s trying to steal his new girlfriend away from him.
One of the key ingredients to movie success in my opinion is logic. Even if it might not make sense in the real world, as long as the movie has its own interior rules and plays by them, I’m cool. But somehow, The Stuff evades both real world logic and interior movie logic.
Great example: there is a young boy whose parents and older brother pressure him to eat The Stuff. He knows it’s bad, because he saw some of it move in the middle of the night when he peeked in the fridge. He complains that it’s wrong, but they don’t listen. They’re “Stuffies” now.
So he asks his parents if he can finish The Stuff in his room. That way, you think, he’ll just throw it away and they would never know the difference.
Right? Except he doesn’t do that!! He goes to the bathroom, flushes it down the toilet, and then believes there’s an additional step to the process. So he fills the rest of it with shaving cream. Then returns downstairs, and eats the shaving cream in front of his parents to convince them he likes The Stuff. Your own parents already told you it was okay to finish it upstairs. And you’re coming back downstairs risking getting caught.
Some reviews of this film I’ve come across: “Delightful.”/ “Tasty schlock.”/ “Quirky.” / “80’s Time Capsule”. Let me add some of my own: “Retarded”./”Kind of darkly lit”./”Danny Aiello’s never funnier”.
I don’t think it is quite the 80’s time capsule many believe. It didn’t get mainstream enough for that. It never had the money to really go all out with the style, and even the gore. It’s still heavily edited. So the gorehounds might not be greatly impressed.
That said this is a great Michael Moriarty movie. Paired very nicely with Q: The Winged Serpent.
Eat up kids.