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Creature Features in Review: The Stuff (1985)

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Tonight’s showing has to be one of the strangest selections within the sub-genre Creature Features. And it because it technically is very much a creature feature, its makes the very in your face metaphor all the more brilliant. Of course, I’m talking about The Stuff. Filmed with a 50’s sci fi B-movie in mind and with voice-overs worse than a Kung movie, we’re guided through a fairly simply story structure with a much complex core. Its a creature flick that begs the question, if we are consumers of the creature are we not in fact monsters ourselves? The Stuff, for all purposes, has lasted the test of time and remains one of the best 1980’s anti-consumerist flick. If you haven’t seen the movie, check out a trailer on YouTube and give it a chance. I’m not promising you’ll like it, The Stuff will require some patience, but if you’re a fan of horrible 80’s horror, or horrible horror in general, you might just enjoy yourself.

Are you eating it…or is it eating you? During the summer of 1985, director Larry Cohen introduced America to the discovery of a mysterious, yet delicious, white gooey treat. Found by a group of miners bubbling up from the earth, the Stuff quickly sweeps across the nation. Soon after, conglomerates pick up the Stuff and break record sales. Former FBI agent Mo Rutherford remarks, with some disbelief, that folks are willing to stand in line at two in the morning, just to buy some Stuff.  Another protagonist, a young boy  named Jason, refuses to eat the Stuff as he watches his family become addicted, turning into mindless drones– craving nothing to eat but the Stuff. In one of the oddest scenes (yes, there are a few) Jason is forced to watch his family slowly slip away from rationality and into…something else entirely. When an attempt to fool his folks into thinking he’s eaten some of the Stuff fails, Jason scarcely escapes, his father yelling out in the middle of the street, chasing after him, “It’s good for us, Jason…it kills the bad things inside us.”

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What…you’ve never heard of this movie, The Stuff? I’m not shocked; unless you’re a connoisseur (see what I did there?) of obscure horror, The Stuff is by far one of the most obscure-ee horror movies I’ve ever seen. This very low-budget does take on, as other classic horror flicks such as Dawn of the Dead (78), American consumerism and consumption during the 1980’s. Some of the other films during this era, and some of my personal favorites of glorified 80’s consumerism, include Evil Dead 2, Friday the 13th part 8, and Videodrome.

Film critic Brian Dillard had this to say regarding The Stuff:

“…another 1980’s horror flick… mixed wit and gore with anti-consumerist ideology. On the surface, The Stuff is just an exploitation flick — a jumble of The Blob [and] Invasion of the Body Snatchers… full of amateurish special effects and hammy performances.”

If that’s what’s on the surface of the movie, cheesy effects and a hammy attempt at saying something, is there anything beneath? I’d point out all the random commercials that pop up during the movie which I think are brilliant parodies to everyday life. It almost calls out the audience (we) and asks if we can tell the difference. Are we that conformed to commercials that even fake ones seem real to us? This aspect really reminds of the appeal in Invasion of the Body Snatches, more especially the 1978 version as it focused more on the characters and their doppelgangers. Its about paranoia, almost, and The Stuff really brings that paranoia into focus. Can we trust anyone to be objective regarding a product that they are bought into? Can we trust a representative or legislator to be unbiased toward a private sector entity when (s)he get’s campaign donations from private corporations? Not to get political, but…have we become like Jason, being told to “eat it” because its good for us?

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As the movie comes to an end, following the efforts of a few good men and women, and a boy, the public becomes aware of the vile intentions of the conglomerates pushing the fluffy white alien goo. People “wake up” and see how The Stuff is actually a living thing. Yet, as the credits roll, we (the audience) are left with the feeling that the profligate has been set back up as the company executives comment that “the Stuff seeps out from many places in the ground.” We are given a true nihilistic ending as anyone can get, that there will always be more Stuff.

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If you’re screening The Stuff for the first time, it will time some getting used to the low quality in which the film was shot, unless you are already a member of the 80s splatter zombie corp and uber-obscure VHS demon flick rentals from Italy club. If that’s the case, then the low budget shouldn’t throw you off. The story is there if you’re willing to follow it. Low budget doesn’t necessarily mean low quality. Just look at Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead as an example of how low budget films can become The Stuff of legend (oh man, I kill myself). 

My Rating: 4 out of 5

Thomas S. Flowers creates character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest writers who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

Revenge is a dish best served with BBQ!

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Deathdream (1974): in review

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There is something very intimate going on in Deathdream. Something very personal is being shown to us. Perhaps this feeling has to do with the film’s low quality, the early 70s B-movie vibe, and dang near grainy steady-cam picture, or maybe the intimacy in question has to do with the atmosphere, the utterly believable world we’re entering as the movie starts, as it is likewise chilling and raw, in which a part of you doesn’t want to exist, but it does. Just ask your parents or grandparents, or maybe you know something yourself of this era of fear. Mostly, the credit of the realism is thanks in part to the incredible cast of actors and actresses, all unknowns, taking on the role of characters that are mirror images of people walking the streets in small town America, a place that very well could exist, because it probably does, somewhere out there. And this is the vibe, the feeling we get as the reel begins to hum. This movie is real. This is real life. And when the supernatural takes hold, turning our blood to ice, we’re caught off guard. These things that transpire cannot happen. The dead stay dead, those are the rules. But for Andy Brooks, the protagonist (or is he the antagonist?) in this story, those rules no longer apply. Andy has come home. And I think this is the root of the intimacy. Andy, by all accounts of the rules of reality, should not have come home, because sometimes, given differing situations, we cannot come home. The life we lived or the life we’ve known can no longer exist because the other self, the past self no longer exists.

Okay…before we get anymore metaphysical, lets talk about the movie in question.

Here’s a synopsis in case you missed out on watching:

“A young man killed in Vietnam inexplicably returns home as a zombie.”

Boom…

Jeez, you gotta love those IMDb descriptions!

In a nut shell, yes. This is the movie. But, for clarification, I don’t think Andy is a zombie. He’s something…else.

Lets take a look.

As the movie opens, we’re shown a quick clip of Andy’s supposed death in Vietnam and then movie pans to the second most important scene, into the kitchen of the Brooks family. Mother. Father. Sister. Everyone is merry, or as much as they can be with a loved one deployed to Vietnam. They make small talk. They laugh. Everything will be okay, this scene tells us, so long as they remain strong, for Andy’s sake. And then someone knocks on the door. Who is it? They don’t know. It’s awfully late for a neighbor to stop by. The mood drops temperature. Two uniformed soldiers are standing at the door. It’s a telegram, the worst kind, the one no one at home wants to receive. “I’m sorry to inform you,” the Class-A dressed solider announces, “but your son is dead. Killed in action.” Shock. Cold pricking goosebumps. “My son? Dead?” Its laughable, how could their son, brother, Andy be dead? These things don’t happen to them, they happen to other people, people on the news, people far away from the safety of the dinner table. No, not Andy. Not their Andy.

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The grief here at the dinner table is very raw and heartfelt. The mother weeping. The sister in shock. The father…doesn’t want to accept the news. I’m not sure how you are taking this scene, for me, this moment in the movie is very real. After serving almost 7 years in the Army, and having deployed three times to Iraq, watching the Brooks family is how I might imagine my own family reacting to the news of my death. I believe this is what the director and screenwriter wanted. Hence the name, Deathdream. Yes. It’s a horror movie. A 70s horror movie at that. But it is more. It’s real. And director Bob Clark wanted you believe as much. He wanted you to become one of the Brooks family.

Now, what happens next is where things get a little odd. There’s a knock at the door. The family, just getting to bed after hearing the terrible news, tread the stairs thinking, “What now?” The father answers. There’s a buildup of suspense, as if something really horrifying is going to be at the door. It’s Andy. “It’s Andy!” they all shout. Everyone is overcome with joy. There must have been a mistake. “Can you believe, they actually told me my son was dead?” the father says. Everyone is happy, and rightly so, but there’s something…wrong with Andy. Something he’s not saying. He’s pale and stoic. He doesn’t want to be around crowds, not even friends or family. Again, they recall the evening’s event, nearly hysterical, “They sent a telegram telling us you were dead.” And Andy answers with, “I was.” And here we get a glimpse of the horror to come, the Brooks family doesn’t know how to react. Andy is different

As stated before, the above is the second most important scene in the movie. The strange homecoming. As the film progresses, we’re given other little snippets of post-war life. Andy, though we’re not too sure (we weren’t privy to his life before the war), but we’re given the impression had been at some point a very happy go-lucky sort of chap. All the neighborhood is abuzz with the news of Andy’s return, even the local kids want to stop by and say hello. But Andy isn’t the Andy they remember. He doesn’t want to play. He doesn’t want to interact. And everyone is taken aback. They don’t know what to make of this new Andy, in fact, they don’t even want to see Andy as being different. The father gets mad, retires to the local bar, and gets drunk. The mother, keeps vigil, maybe Andy will get better, she promises herself. The sister hides amongst her friends. And the neighborhood kids? Well, they all run away screaming.

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I won’t get into all the detail, you really ought to watch this film for yourself, but speaking personally, this scene, among others, also resonates with me. Am I the same Thomas Flowers that existed before the war? Not at all. I’m different, and through the years have come to learn how my experiences have changed me, and I’m still learning, every day. Andy doesn’t have that luxury. Andy isn’t your typical veteran. He’s a ghost. A memory of a shadow, made of stolen blood that somehow keeps him whole, walking amongst the living. His character isn’t going to learn anything or develop or change. There is only one progression for Andy, the ultimate progression you might say. And so, you might be asking, “What’s the point of the story?” Well, being careful not to take the movie out of context, this is a 1972 (74 maybe?) story. Being drafted into the Vietnam War is a huge fear in the minds of most American families, especially for those with sons, brothers, uncles, and husbands already deployed in combat. But, there is also an ambiguous question clawing its way out the grave. What is it, you ask? What is the question?

Let’s talk about another important scene, though certainly not the most important one. When Andy’s father seeks outside help to discover what is amiss with his son, Andy ends up following Dr. Allman, the gentleman who had been working with Andy’s father, trying to solve the proverbial mystery of what was “wrong with him.” Andy confronts the good Doc in his office, stating, before draining him of his blood, “I died for you, Doc. Why shouldn’t you return the favor…? You owe me…” And then, in a scene mimicking the escalation of drug abuse common among combat veterans, Andy “shoots up” the drained blood with a hypodermic needle. This scene, for obvious reasons, is full of dark ambiguous questions. But it’s not the most ambiguous scene. This scene simply lays on another series of questions.

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Here we are. Finally. The most important scene. Before we move on, I need to mention the ending. I know, spoilers and all, but I need to talk about what happened. Throughout the movie, Andy is slowly decaying. He’s becoming what he already is, dead. After a few murders, the truck driver and Doc Allman, and I think perhaps one more (I can’t quite remember), the cops are now on to him. Delirious, Andy’s mother agrees to take Andy away, but during the chase, Andy directs her to the town cemetery. Cemetery? Why there? The sirens are wailing. Tires screeching. Guns drawn. Will there be a final showdown, man verses monster? No. We are denied such luxuries of simplicity. In the final moments of screen time, Andy, nearly dissolved of energy and flesh, crawls to a grave he had prepared for himself sometime previously. He lowers himself, clawing the dark rich earth, covering his body. His mother watches, in tears, protesting, “Why? Why?” And Andy, unable to speak, gestures to his impromptu tombstone. “Andy Brooks, born 1952. Died 1972.” Slowly she realizes that her son is in fact dead, and helps cover his body. The cops arrive on scene shortly before the final act, pistols in hand, ready to slay the creature. But the creature is already dead. They’ve been robbed this battle of archaic man, of Stone Age man, but their faces are not disappointed, their faces are full of question. And this is why the final scene is the most important scene in the movie. Why? Because it deals with a mother and her son. It deals with our children, the future generations and the things we’ll ask them to do. No. Deathdream doesn’t answer any of these questions. The answers to all these ambiguous questions are up to the viewer. As witnesses, we will have to answer for ourselves.

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With a face only a mother could love, Thomas S. Flowers hides away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can hide from Thomas by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

“This is an intense book, and it definitely doesn’t pull any punches. This is Flowers’s first foray into extreme horror but I have to say that his lack of experience does not show in the least bit. He manages to bring an expert balance of extreme, and restraint. The challenging moments happen at the precise moments in the story where I thought they were called for. And there was no point where I felt he was being gratuitous. What gross and disturbing scenes were there felt like they were serving a purpose” -Confessions of a Reviewer.

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