The Substance review: "Demi Moore delivers arguably a career-best performance in outrageous horror"

the substance
(Image: © Mubi)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Packed with ideas, blood-curdling FX, and a full-on Demi Moore, The Substance is a movie you’ll want to mainline.

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The Substance had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Here's our review...

Incredible prosthetics and a fierce performance from Demi Moore are the stand-outs in feminist body horror The Substance, the thrilling second film from French writer/director Coralie Fargeat (2017’s Revenge). 

Moore plays Elizabeth Sparkle, a fitness guru who is about to be ousted from her TV show by oily executive Harvey (Dennis Quaid) when she gets the chance to become a “younger, better version” of herself. Injecting herself with a mysterious liquid, it causes her to immediately collapse on the floor; her back then splits open and out comes another persona (played by Margaret Qualley). 

Reinventing herself as Sue, Qualley’s youthful character is soon making a bid for TV fame, but swiftly fails to heed the instructions of ‘The Substance’, which demands that she tends to her original body and every seven days  (“without exception”) switch back, reviving Elizabeth. When Sue gets greedy, overstaying her week in charge, Elizabeth’s body reacts adversely. What follows is a battle for control, one that sees Fargeat let rip with some unhinged practical effects, lashings of gore, and a nod to Brian Yuzna’s Society.

Precision-tooled from the off – the antiseptic white and blood red design scheme is particularly effective – this is a smart, savage look at ageing, beauty, and the male gaze. Quaid and Qualley are excellent, but Moore delivers arguably a career-best performance, nailing Elizabeth’s sense of regret over the reversal process. 

To be nitpicky, the film’s final act could’ve been more judiciously edited and the fountains of blood get tiresome. But this is an assured, blackly funny, and outrageous horror that will leave you roaring with approval.  

The Substance's release date is currently TBC. 

Stay updated with the great upcoming horror movies coming your way with our guide.

Freelance writer

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.