I do not believe that a film has to be perfect in order to be enjoyable. In fact, I'm willing to live with major flaws in some areas if a film provides enough pleasures in others. The Stuff is a case in point. There are several rather important things wrong with The Stuff, but it has some interesting quirks that were enough fun to allow me to, if not overlook the flaws, at least enjoy the film.
The Stuff is a sf/horror/comedy/whatever film from the fertile brain of Larry Cohen. When last seen, Mr. Cohen offered us Q, a weird little number about a giant flying lizard which takes up residence in the top of the Chrysler building in New York City; that is, when it isn't flying around biting off peoples' heads. What gave that film the extra twist it needed was that it focussed on an ex-junkie's attempts to extort a million dollars from the city in return for his knowledge of the critter's whereabouts. In The Stuff, somebody is marketing a dessert product that is actually a parasite which takes over the bodies of those who eat too much of it. Since one of its early effects is to make you crave more of it, that isn't too hard. The perspective in The Stuff is from the point of view of an industrial spy hired by the ice cream companies to find out where the Stuff is coming from.
Since Cohen came up with the basic idea and wrote the screenplay, he receives both credit and blame for it. Credit is due for the dialog and some of the characters. Blame accrues for the poor plotting. Cohen has three or four really good ideas, but he doesn't develop any of them very well. Practically as soon as he presents one of them, he speeds off to the next, as if he expected the audience to fill in all the details for him.
Cohen's direction (and his part of the editing, which was substantial), show the same tendencies. He is very good with characters, but not too good with action or suspense. His editing style is peculiar. One of the great discoveries of early cinema is that one can cut within a scene and allow a time lapse between the two actions. The classic example is when someone closes their apartment door, then we cut to them entering their car. The great discovery was that you didn't have to show the person walking from the door to the car. Basically, the language of cinema allows shortcuts. You don't have to show everything. However, very little progress has been made over the years in compacting what still must be shown to prevent disorientation in the audiences. In other words, the same shortcuts used in the thirties are used today. Editors haven't found a way to trim even more, leaving greater proportions to the audience's imaginations.
Cohen knows this, but he doesn't care. He cuts out stuff you really have to leave in, anyway. The effect is a momentary pause in the viewer's mind while he wonders if the projectionist has shown a reel out of order. This happens four or five times in The Stuff, and there are lesser shortcuts which also give the film the appearance of having the hiccups.
Cohen's handling of the actors is generally good, though, particularly Michael Moriarty and Paul Sorvino. Moriarty played the twitchy ex-junkie in Q, and his role here, as the not-so-good ol' boy industrial spy, gives him a splendid chance to demonstrate what a good actor he is. At first glance, he is almost unrecognizable, and he is completely convincing as the self assured operative who, fundamentally, isn't very nice. Moriarty is an endlessly inventive actor, and his performance alone makes The Stuff worth seeing. Paul Sorvino, another underutilized actor (his last part was playing himself for a cameo in Turk 182), displays near-lunatic confidence as an ultra-right wing paramilitary leader, who is much worse than not nice. One of the films little ironies is that these two unpleasant people, who normally one would prefer to see locked tightly away in some prison, are the only ones capable of dealing with the bizarre threat of The Stuff. Garrett Morris is OK as a Famous Amos clone who is pissed off because the distributors of The Stuff stole his chocolate chip cookie company, but he disappears too soon to be really effective. Andrea Marcovicci has a rather poorly written role, that of the advertising director for The Stuff who is converted by Moriarty. Patrick O'Neal has too little screen time to make any impact as the amoral executive who distributes The Stuff, despite his knowledge of the danger.
The Stuff was made quickly and cheaply by a director who does not have a strong visual sense, so it looks rather like TV movies. The special effects are poor to mediocre. In addition to the great gaps in the story, the editing fails to provide even the slightest suspense or excitement. The score is forgettable, including the advertising jingles for The Stuff. There is relatively little gore, which is somewhat surprising, considering that Cohen was the man who gave us It's Alive!
The Stuff is worth seeing, though, for its weird sensibilities, some interesting ideas (not very well carried out), some good dialog, and fine acting. Many worse films have made a lot of money, so The Stuff might well have a chance of cleaning up. If not, it will undoubtedly be a staple of midnight movie circuits for years to come.
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