DECEMBER 8 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE STUFF
Schlock-meister Larry Cohen satirizes a nation of capitalist consumers in The Stuff, a camp horror-comedy from 1985 mostly forgotten today, rarely played on cable and scarcely available to rent. Spoofing 1950s-era fright films like The Blob and Soylent Green, Cohen, as always, has more on his mind than just blood and gooey guts, although there’s plenty of those too. Everything from advertising to nutrition finds a place in Cohen’s crosshairs. And although a comparable message was delivered by George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead years before in a more entertaining and even-minded format, Cohen’s biting commentary on Reagan-era conformity in America has plenty to say, even if the plot isn’t all that interesting. Viewers today won’t likely buy into the corny horror elements, but its humor—both intentional and unintentional—makes for a fun late-night watch.
When miners find yummy-tasting white goo surfacing from beneath the earth in bubbling glob, it’s eventually packaged and sold to Americans as a yogurt-like treat. (Warning Kids: If you see white goo, or anything else for that matter, oozing from underground, do not eat it.) Marketed with the tagline “Enough is never enough” in silly commercials and on brightly colored cartons, high sales of this zero-calorie snack cause other dessert companies to shut down. But habitual eaters are subject to the film’s tagline: “Are you eating it? Or is it eating you?” Indeed, those who jump on the bandwagon become hosts to the seemingly conscious alien blob, which abandons the human body it’s inhabited when exposed. Effects used in such scenes have a low-budget charm about them and provoke catcalls.
Cohen introduces us to the film’s huckster hero in a hilarious scene: Michael Moriarty plays ex-FBI agent and now corporate saboteur David “Moe” Rutherford, who’s hired by struggling ice cream interests to discover The Stuff’s safely guarded formula. When they meet to discuss his plan of attack, this hysterically obnoxious bumpkin enters the room, complete with mumbling good ol’ boy twang, shakes the hands of executive types and says “Sweaty palm… Another sweaty palm…” You might ask, why does he go by “Moe”? And if you’re not curious, he’ll tell you anyway. “Because no matter how much I get, I always want mo.” Get it? (And this years before Damon Wayans popularized the phrase “‘mo money!” on In Living Color). Moriarty has a million priceless little quips like this throughout, his snarky comebacks delivered with stupid deadpan perfection. Some are genuinely funny; most are funny for the wrong reasons.
Elsewhere, youngster Jacob (Scott Bloom) witnesses The Stuff moving on its own in his family’s fridge. He tries to warn the others by launching an attack on a grocery store aisle, but it’s too late—his family has already turned into mindless crazies, or “Stuffies” as they’re called here, recalling pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Meanwhile, Moe’s investigation and pseudo-suave attitude earn him a few friends, Jacob included. First, there’s former cookie mogul “Chocolate Chip Charlie” Hobbs (SNL alumnus Garrett Morris, lampooning Famous Amos), whose random martial arts expertise affords more than one laugh. Marketing guru Nicole Kendall (Andrea Marcovicci) devised The Stuff’s successful campaign, but she’s riddled with guilt once she learns it’s brainwashing people to eat a mind-controlling organism. Regardless, Moe beds her without fail. This foursome teams with wildly racist militia nutso Colonel Malcolm Spears (Paul Sorvino), who agrees to save America and attack The Stuff at its mining center, and also broadcast about its dangers to the public on his private radio station. Danny Aiello appears briefly as an FDA executive.
Much of these throwaway plot elements and characters are difficult to suffer through, but Cohen’s sense of humor and no-holds-barred satiric edge makes up for a sloppy script. I knew that Cohen had stolen my heart when, after Americans learn The Stuff is dangerous, he depicts a mob blowing up a Stuff shoppe next to a McDonalds—the real enemy in Cohen’s mind. His none-too-subtle approach is apparent in several riotous mock commercials for The Stuff, including one where Clara Peller, face of the “Where’s the Beef?” campaign, appears with Abe Vigoda in a restaurant and asks “Where's the Stuff?” These moments force us to consider how food products are sold to us, what they’re made of, and what effect they have on our bodies. In this respect, The Stuff would make a nice inclusion in a marathon alongside The Informant! and Supersize Me and Food, Inc.
Much about Cohen’s plotting comes out of left field, and few of these elements work together in a congruous way that today’s audiences will appreciate. He never seems entirely sure if what he’s making is a comedy, horror movie, or satire, and we feel that in every frame. But the absurdly unexpected is part of The Stuff’s charm, and a recurring tonal quality of Cohen’s work. Consider the bizarro nature of his sophomore horror effort, It’s Alive from 1974, where a woman gives birth to a mutant baby who transforms the proceedings, albeit momentarily, into baby-slasher fare (Cohen made a whole trilogy of killer baby movies). God Told Me To is a procedural about a series of killings perpetuated by people who claim they were told by God to commit murder. In 1983’s Q: The Winged Serpent, Cohen follows an Aztec dragon that nests atop the Chrysler Building and decapitates New Yorkers.
Deservedly panned by critics, The Stuff has not bettered with age. Unlike many ‘80s horror fare, from Fright Night to Night of the Creeps, there’s not a resurgence of affection for Cohen’s movie, at least not a significant one (don’t expect a Hollywood remake). But no matter how mish-mashed it feels at times, it worked for me on a level of pure satire. My positive review and recommendation come with a few qualifiers, of course, as viewers expecting a greater concentration on comedy or horror will feel let down. This is a movie to be cherished with a grain of salt, watching with a detachment toward the events to examine Cohen’s commentary and the often humorous ways he executes it. It’s an absurd movie, a sometimes thoughtful movie, but also a fun one when a small group of friends get together and let the riffing begin.
DECEMBER 8 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE STUFF
DIRECTED BY: Larry Cohen
FEATURING: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Scott Bloom, Danny Aiello, Patrick O’Neal, Laurene Landon
PLOT: An investigator makes grim discoveries when he searches for the formula of a dangerously addictive, malignant new taste sensation
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Stuff is a classic example of disgusting exploitation horror about a living parasitic desert that oozes up through the ground “like a bubblin’ crude.” Gooey creme that is. White gold.
COMMENTS: Eleven year old Jason (Bloom) just can’t understand his family’s strange, compulsive behavior. They are going nuts over a weird new dairy-like confection. What starts out as a treat that mom brings home a couple of times a week becomes their constant craving. As his brother and parents increasingly hunger for more of it, The Stuff soon becomes the primary staple in the house, replacing all of the other food in the fridge. When Jason sees the dessert literally crawling around the icebox late one night he goes on a one man campaign to warn people—but will anyone listen?
The dessert is pretty weird. It’s deposited in thick white pools and man, is it ever tasty! It’s The Stuff, a bizarre white globby substance that percolates up through earth from God knows where. When a mining company finds a lake of The Stuff in their lime quarry, they mass distribute the product and it becomes the new consumer passion.
Fluffy, uncommonly smooth, satisfying, low calorie and more addictive than heroin, it also makes a good wood polish. The ravenous public just can’t get enough. Its mysterious composition has become a trade secret, so there’s notelling what the hell it is.
There’s one nagging lil’ ol’ problem, however. The insidious Stuff has a plasma-like animal mobility and a mind of its own. There seems to be a self-promoting collective consciousness to the Stuff supply that turns everyone who eats it into a vapidly mindless, Madison Avenue product placement spokesman—for The Stuff.
Like stampeding fans at a Who concert in Cincinnati, enthusiasts will literally walk right over you to get some. And they will knock you to the ground and shove it down your throat to get you to try it, too. Once you do, The Stuff begins to parasitically eat you inside-out, as you gorge yourself until your head pops like a champagne cork, The Stuff gushing forth from every bodily orifice.
When an ice cream company hires a corporate spy (Moriarty) to discover the formula, he stumbles onto a huge conspiracy focused on addicting the world population. There are a lot of secrets to protect, and even the state police are hopeless Stuff junkies.
The Stuff starts out intriguingly enough, and the script is a textbook example of how to hook the viewer and move the vehicle along with concise, punchy dialog. Moriarty gives a really fun, skilled performance as the enigmatic corporate saboteur. There are elements of consumer satire and the movie looks like it will be a suspenseful mystery. Two thirds of the way through, however, the story becomes quite weak, as if the original writer left and his replacement wasn’t sure how to tie up loose ends. The plot degenerates into a typical comedy and the movie staggers toward an overly convenient and unlikely ending.
The main reason camp fans might want to watch The Stuff is to get a laugh from the idea of a mysterious, addictive treat with an equally mysterious trade secret formula; nobody knows what the hell they are eating, but they all want much, much more and you had better try some, too. The film is reminiscent of Saturday Night Live‘s “That’s Not Yogurt” sketch with Phil Harman—everybody is eating some new treat that looks and tastes just like delicious yogurt, but it isn’t yogurt. The ingredients are a mystery because the manufacturer will only tell buyers “that’s not yogurt!”
That fact that The Stuff fails to rise to the potential of its premise is disappointing, because the basic concept offers a solid opportunity to make a truly horrifying thriller. With a higher budget and a more committed producer, The Stuff could have been slick and creepy with some indicting Orwellian observations about marketing, consumerism and addiction.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I seem to have a compulsive craving for some marshmallow creme.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Cohen tries to keep time with Moriarty’s inspired weirdness, teaming him with a lethal-fisted competitor named Chocolate Chip Charlie (SNL‘s Garrett Morris) and inserting mock commercials, including one with Abe Vigoda and Clara “Where’s the beef?” Peller… But the director buries these gems under reams of expository dialogue, haphazard staging, and shock effects that aren’t even remotely shocking.”–Scott Tobias, The Onion AV Club (DVD)