Monday, September 28, 2009

The Wrong Stuff

by Jason Pyles

Maybe the mysterious cream filling inside Twinkies is The Stuff.

Actually, according to the Internet Movie Database’s trivia page for this movie, The Stuff was portrayed with various products, depending on the scene, such as Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream, yogurt, and fire-extinguishing foam. Other scenes used superimposed images and animation. (My guesses were Cool-Whip and sour cream.)

Among the innumerable unwise decisions made in planning this movie, it was wise to vary the look of The Stuff’s consistency by using different products. This variation helps to enhance the intrigue of our guessing game, where we, the viewers, try to figure out what the filmmakers used.

I guess that’s part of the fun of this movie — trying to figure out what The Stuff is — both within the context of the film and in terms of the prop itself.

Above all, this film is a mystery, more than a horror movie or a comedy. It follows an investigation into defining the bizarre product, and regardless of how ridiculous the movie becomes, we are committed to sit through it until the end, in hopes of finding out the big revelation. Unfortunately, the revelation isn’t that big. We find out it comes from the center of the Earth, and maybe a few other details, but The Stuff remains largely unidentified.

I appreciate the absence of a tidy resolution in this way, because it allows the mystery to linger. For example, one masterstroke of “Cloverfield” (minor spoiler ahead) is that the monster is never explained — not what it was or where it came from. I love that. It makes it a little more real; we probably wouldn’t have very many answers about such a monster attack, if it happened in reality.

Movie properties (ideas) are recycled just about every decade. Clearly, “The Stuff” is a variation of “The Blob” (1958), which was remade outright three years after “The Stuff,” in 1988, and is slated to revisit us again in 2011. Similarly, “The Blob” is about an inexplicable substance that “eats” anything and everything and grows bigger the more it consumes.

(By the way, even the “G.I. Joe” cartoon put a spin on “The Blob.” It was fairly ingenious how the Joes killed it: They led it to eat an apple orchard, because apple seeds contain a tiny bit of poison.)

But “The Stuff” doesn’t stop with one borrowed concept; it’s a “Blob” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” hybrid.
Even though it’s built from scraps of semi-successful 1950s B-movies, “The Stuff” just doesn’t sound like a good idea on paper. I mean, a horror movie about an attacking food item surely must have been a difficult sell. We can plainly see how challenging it was for the filmmakers to make the white, creamy substance seem scary.

Obviously, “The Stuff” was intended to be satirical, made with a wink and a smile, something like the recent “Drag Me to Hell.”

I don’t believe all movies are designed to have some kind of “message,” but I believe that just about all movies can be assimilated to parallel prevalent social concerns. Filmmaking usually at least subconsciously reflects the moods from its era of creation.

Andy noted in a previous post that The Stuff may have been a commentary on an ice cream boom of the ’80s, which may explain the plot and the use of Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream. But I’m not so sure.
I wondered if it was intended to be a metaphor for drugs, in general; pop (soda); or fast food. I say pop specifically because Coca-Cola is often described by its lovers as addictive. Indeed, I’ve heard that many soft drinks contain some degree of addictive additives (but don’t quote me, I’m no chemist). For just a moment, abide my baseless speculation: The pop idea rings true when considering the ending of the movie, where The Taste would contain only 12 percent of The Stuff.

Alas, after some research, it seems that maybe Andy and I need not pinpoint one particular product but consumerism at large: Scott Tobias of The Onion A.V. Club thought “The Stuff” was writer-director Larry Cohen’s “answer to the noxious excess and conformity of the Reagan ’80s: a product that consumes the consumer.”

And Scott Weinberg from the Apollo Movie Guide interpreted this movie similarly, calling “The Stuff” a “none-too-subtle statement about the state of consumerism in America.” He also called it a “tongue-in-cheek social parody that pokes fun at a society that simply must devour the latest craze on the market.”

“The Stuff” has some genuinely fun moments: I particularly enjoyed seeing the cameo of the old lady from the “Where’s the Beef?” commercial. Remember that?

And I also thought it was humorous how Stuff fans are called “Stuffies.” And I appreciated the set where the room turns in order to produce the effect of The Stuff pouring “up” the wall. It turns out, according to said trivia page noted above, the turnable room was recycled from “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Along with Andy, I wonder about this movie’s R-rating. It was released in June of 1985 (a summer blockbuster!), which means it was rated after the MPAA added the PG-13 designation that began in 1984. Obviously, the MPAA, infamous for its inconsistent and arbitrary rating system, must have found “The Stuff’s” violence/gore enough to merit an R-rating, though I’d think that considering its silliness, the PG-13 rating should have been considered.

But then again, watching this film in 2009, with 24 years of special effects advancement informing us, it’s difficult to imagine how troubling these scenes might have looked back then. Nevertheless, the heart extraction in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (which is credited as one of the sources that brought about the PG-13 rating) looks much more convincing than anything in “The Stuff.” So, yeah, PG-13 would probably be most appropriate.

I enjoyed “The Stuff,” despite its dumbness. What’s best about watching a movie like this is the way glimpses of it will someday flicker again as fleeting memories in your mind, and you’ll remember watching it, with some degree of fondness, but you won’t know when, why, where or what is was.

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