The Stuff Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Young Jason seems to be the only one who doesn’t love The Stuff – in fact, he won’t go anywhere near it, after having seen the pudding crawling around the fridge one night. What’s more, everyone who eats The Stuff has started acting really weird... Now, teaming up with wise-cracking industrial saboteur “Mo”, Jason must put a stop to The Stuff and the organization behind it or face a gooey, gloopy demise. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
At the risk of downplaying his value as a writer and director – to read my more substantial thoughts on his earlier career, see my reviews of Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) and God Told Me To (1976) – I think it’s pretty safe to say that The Stuff is Larry Cohen’s last really great and really Cohen-esque movie. It’s usually described as his version of Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958), due to similarities between each film’s globby monster (as well as the single word titles, I suppose), but The Stuff is more of a ‘50s B-movie catchall filtered through a satirical lens. It actually has significantly more in common with Invasion of the Body Snatchers – both the 1956 Don Siegel and the 1978 Philip Kaufman versions – and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). These films carry multiple metaphors, including key components Cohen himself borrowed to fit his specific concerns for the mid-1980s, specifically loss of identity and obsessive consumer culture. Cohen pokes fun at the serious consequences of unchecked Capitalism, creating a consumer-driven conspiracy that mirrors the establishment cabals of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers films (Siegel’s original can be read as anti-Communist or anti-Communist blacklist, depending on one’s point of view). In Kaufman’s film, the protagonists have to stifle their emotions to hide among the pod-people – in Cohen’s film, the protagonists have to pretend to enjoy a popular dessert treat.
The ‘50s B-movie components also fit because 1980s America had more in common with 1950s America than the two transformative decades in between. Renewed interest in Capitalism once again cast Communists as the default villains in Hollywood, instead of the more internalized establishment threats that spurred Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The United States and the USSR stockpiled munitions, rattled their sabres, and Hollywood reacted with steroid-soaked, heavily militant action movies. As a result, some of the best horror and horror/sci-fi hybrids of the era – John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Carpenter’s They Live (1988), Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), and Chuck Russell’s Blob remake (1988) – were built on paranoid reactions to their warmongering mainstream counterparts. The Stuff follows suit and directly spoofs the new brand of ‘mutually assured destruction’ action hero when it introduces Paul Sorvino as a platitude-spouting ex-Army colonel and his right-wing fringe militia group. These characters are ‘heroes,’ since they battle zombies and help the protagonists transmit messages across the nation warning people of the dangers of the Stuff, but their victory is stained with irony, as Cohen clearly paints them as xenophobic, violent creeps. The film’s real heroes have merely exploited their fanaticism and aimed them at the problem, like a weapon.
The Stuff’s biggest problem is its lack of focus. Almost all of Cohen’s movies have a tendency to meander between plot lines, set pieces, and characters. This was often due to the speed at which they were filmed. Shots were stolen on the streets of New York and limited budgets meant that he only had single takes for special effects. There’s also an impression that he was really making these movies up on the fly, developing narratives based on what worked best on set. Add Michael Moriarty’s penchant for ad-lib into the mix and you end up with a very uneven movie. Unlike God Told Me To and Q, which improve greatly on subsequent viewings, The Stuff’s narrative wheel-spinning constantly stifles its momentum. Not to say it ever sags into genuine boredom, but it flirts with the possibility and ends up feeling a lot longer than its brief 87-minute runtime.
The Stuff has been released on North American Blu-ray at least three times. Alongside two official, anamorphic 1.85:1 discs from Anchor Bay and Image Entertainment (Midnight Madness Series), there was a grey market, 1.33:1 version that was repackaged as part of various ‘budget’ DVD collections. Arrow released the first Blu-ray version in the UK in 2014. That 1.85:1, 1080p transfer was scanned in 2K from the original camera negative and has been recycled here, despite the use of the word ‘new’ on the advertising materials. The results are a massive upgrade over the already decent anamorphic DVDs. Besides correcting the slight zoom, it features more even-handed contrasts, revealing loads of fine detail that was shaded in SD. Some scenes are perhaps a bit over-lightened this time, but The Stuff is such a cartoonish movie that I can’t imagine it was supposed to appear particularly sinister. The 2K scan sharpens lines without creating enhancement haloes and exposes plenty of complex texture and patterns. The digital touch-up is subtle enough to have not smoothed over the natural grain texture. Colors are punched-up a tad from the DVD (especially the more vivid neons and pastels) and show few signs of banding.
The Stuff is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio and its original 1.0 mono sound (again, there has been no update since the UK release). It’s a relatively simplistic mix and mostly dialogue-driven, so my expectations were low and real complaints are minimal. Everything is clear and relatively well-balanced, outside of some of the location-shot sequences, which are a bit rough. This is largely due to stuff like wind and ambient noise overwhelming the performances a bit. The single channel treatment is also sometimes overstuffed, leading to some minor distortion, but the more effects-heavy ‘monster’ sequences have decent bass and elemental separation. Anthony Guefen's musical score could be a little louder, I suppose, but it is rarely overwhelmed by effects or dialogue.
This Blu-ray includes the exact same extras that were created for Arrow’s UK release (they did not secure the rights to Cohen’s commentary from the Anchor Bay DVD) and include:
Can’t Get Enough of The Stuff: Making Larry Cohen’s Classic Creature Feature (52:10, HD) – This Arrow exclusive documentary features interviews with Cohen, producer Paul Kurta, actress Andrea Marcovicci, mechanical makeup effects artist/tech Steve Neill, and critic/author Kim Newman. Cohen discusses his inspirations (it seems that his discomfort with cigarette company ads were a major factor) and the filming processes, Kurta and Neill break-down mostly technical anecdotes, Marcovicci offers her personal slant on the cast, and Newman offers additional insight and context. An entertaining and informative doc all-around.
Trailers from Hell with Darren Bausman (1:50, HD) – The director of Saw II - IV lavishes The Stuff with praise over video from its trailer in an episode from the ongoing web series.
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