The Stuff has such a beautifully vague, utterly daft title, one finds it impossible to scroll past it when perusing the lower bowels of Netflix (other movie streaming sites are available). It begs to derail all attempt to be a ˜proper’ cinephile. Maybe you planned tonight to finally get to the end of There Will Be Blood (let me save you the trouble: There Was Blood). Or maybe you feel guilty for not yet watching that Oscar-nominated foreign language drama about the gay nuns who all contract tuberculosis. You know the one, had a massive twist at the end, and takes five viewings to understand. It doesn’t matter: forget those films. See The Stuff instead, and give your brain a far greater workout.
It is, essentially, an ultra low-budget, b-movie horror, the likes of which director Larry Cohen has quite the track record – one of his biggest hits was the cult monster flick Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), in which a flying lizard beast terrorises contemporary New York. The Stuff is no less high-concept, not least with its wonderful title.
The Stuff is about some stuff that causes some stuff to happen – stuff which happens to some people on account of the stuff that bad people did with the stuff. And then some people try some stuff in order to stuff up the bad stuff that has happened as a result of everyone else’s involvement with the stuff. Following me so far? Of course you’re not. You’ve just experienced the text-based equivalent of watching The Stuff.
Okay, so there is an actual plot here. The titular ˜Stuff’ is a mysterious, otherworldly white goo which one day begins seeping out of the ground. It tastes delicious and has highly addictive qualities, so predictably it is quickly mass-marketed by entrepreneurs unknown. An ex-FBI agent, David ˜Mo’ Rutherford sets out to discover the source and secrets of the Stuff, after some terrible side effects become apparent – the main ones being violent herd behaviour, unexpected facial explosivity, and terrible terrible acting. Mo isn’t the only person to have his suspicions about the Stuff, as he soon crosses paths with Jason, a young runaway forced to flee his family due to their Stuff-related homicidal tendencies.
At this stage, saying any more about proceedings would give too strong an impression of a coherent film with a functioning narrative. That would miss the point entirely of The Stuff, because the strongest appeal of the film is its ability to confuse the viewer with endless moments of what?, why? and is that Paul Sorvino?. By the end of The Stuff, you will probably find yourself howling madly at nobody in particular, all the while bashing your hands against your skull like a chimp in a microwave. You will feel that you have either forgotten entirely how films work, or that your brain has somehow learnt to fart.
I decided to make notes during my first viewing of this masterpiece. Not for reasons of journalistic or critical integrity, but because I was genuinely worried that my flatmate would come home and find my bedraggled corpse on the sofa, literally confused to death. At least this way she’d be able to pick up the notepad and find in big letters, LARRY COHEN DID THIS TO ME. And below that, she’d see the following notes, the proof of the cinematic bludgeons that had done me in:
- ˜Mo’ Rutherford talks like a bad James Stewart impersonator, but one who is simultaneously drunk, stoned and having a screwdriver pushed into one of his frontal lobes.
- Mo just said to someone, ˜No-one is as dumb as I appear to be’, with a facial expression that suggests he has misunderstood this line on at least three different levels.
- The kid, Jason, has the massive, piercing eyes of a crack-addicted werewolf.
- There is a man in this film called Chocolate Chip Charlie. I know this, because he keeps mentioning, loudly and repeatedly, that his name is Chocolate Chip Charlie.
- I like to imagine the actor playing Mo had to be woken up by a runner every time he was in a scene, and then gently shuffled in the direction of the set (or pretend-corner, as he no doubt calls it)
- Jason has just fled his murderous family, having leapt into the passing car of a complete stranger, but is almost exclusively concerned with the fact that he earlier ate a load of shaving cream.
- Mo’s perfect response to Jason’s worries? Well, everyone has to eat shaving cream once in a while.
- Chocolate Chip Charlie wants to punch everything, ever.
- I think Mo and the female lead are meant to be an item now. I hope there is not a sex scene coming up, because she looks like she has eaten nothing but minus-pies her entire life. I do not need to see Head-Broken Jimmy Stewart humping a skeleton.
- Is that Paul Sorvino?
- The film-makers must have got a deal on camera dollies, because every other scene involves unnecessary panning and swooping. Any more of this and I’m going to get spatially confused and end up sliding across the room involuntarily.
- That is Paul Sorvino! Does he know where he is or what he’s doing? OH MY HE WAS JUST RACIST TO THAT MAN.
- This film makes me want to eat melted marshmallow and then punch things.
The list would have gone on much longer, if laughter hadn’t constantly interrupted note-taking. Therein lies the dilemma. The Stuff should be an awful film, it should cause anger and upset for wasting your time with an inconsequential plot and terrible characters. Liking a film because it’s so bad it’s good has become such an irritating ironic pastime these days, but it’s hard to knock when a film like The Stuff shuffles into view. It’s like the mad friend of a friend who shows up at your party, sicks up on the cat, knocks over the telly and wanders off. It’s stupid, badly put together, and often infuriating, but yet – somehow – oddly engaging and, well, entertaining. Watch it, and stuff.