“Substance” (2014): Alien Substance and Alcohol Make for a Deadly Mixture

superScaryShortsSaturdayHorror films are often morality tales with timeless or current messages, and Barbara Stepansky’s thrilling science fiction/horror short Substance provides a few life lessons, including (1) always check the labels on medication bottles, (2) always answer the phone when your mother calls, and (3) if you spike someone’s drink, karma can come back to bite you.

Scientist Julia (Camillia Sanes Monet) sends up a weather balloon with an attached camera that returns to Earth with a mysterious, gooey substance on it. She takes it to her home lab and bottles it, where her daughter Mallory (Stephanie Lovey Underwood) mistakes it for her Melatonin. Mallory flies out the door with it to start a road trip with her friend Summer (Najarra Townsend) to a winter music festival.

Summer (Najarra Townsend, left) and Mallory (Stephanie Lovey Underwood) enjoy some music and dancing together before things go horribly wrong in Substance.

The girls arrive at the concert venue and Mallory makes Summer promise that it will be a girls’ vacation with no boys. Meanwhile, Julia notices the bottle mix-up and tries calling Mallory, who ignores her mother’s phone calls. Soon enough, Summer breaks her promise and meets a guy named Parker (Andy Earle). While she goes to the bathroom, Mallory lets Parker spike their drinks with the supposed sleep aid. Only Summer winds up drinking the stuff after accidentally spilling Parker’s beverage. The alien substance mixes with Summer’s human biology and causes her to undergo deadly changes.

Substance is full of energy, from its expeditious pace to  its crisp editing by Cyndi Trissel and its high-energy score from Dana Niu and Antone Proler. The performances by Stephanie Lovey Underwood and Najarra Townsend are another reason for that energy, as the two actresses have great onscreen chemistry and come across as friends who truly know and like each other.

Parker (Andy Earle) has only one thing on his mind when he gets Summer (Najarra Townsend) alone but Summer soon has different, stronger desires.

Barbara Stepansky does a marvelous job directing from her own screenplay, from a story by Stepansky and Elliott Watson. She keeps the pace flowing surely and steadily. Trevor Wineman’s cinematography is sensational, capturing the beauty of the snowy landscapes, the vibrancy of the music festival, and the bewilderment of Summer’s hallucinations. One hallucination sequence during the festival blends Wineman’s  camera work and Trissel’s editing splendidly. Some brief but impactful gore effects are on display, courtesy of special makeup effects artist Elissa Ruminer.

Substance (barbarastepansky.com) is a highly entertaining, great-looking short that tells an exciting story as is, but that is also prime material for being expanded into a feature-length film. It is currently making the festival rounds, so keep on the lookout for it at a screening near you.

Substance screened at the Scream Queen Filmfest Tokyo tour event in Nagoya, Japan, in February 2016.

Substance: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.