Director: Larry Cohen
Stars: Michael Moriarty (David ‘Mo’ Rutherford), Andrea Marcovicci (Nicole), Garrett Morris (‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie), Scott Bloom (Jason), Paul Sorvino (Col. Spears)
Genre: Horror / Comedy / Science Fiction
In less than 2 minutes and before any credits have rolled, Larry Cohen’s superb 80s ‘B-picture’ The Stuff announces its shrewd, prescient ethos. During a flurry of snow, a man wanders into shot and tastes a strange gooey substance bubbling up out of the ground. Another man calls him on it, and our first man shares it with him – it tastes good! Our man immediately wonders out loud whether there’s enough for them to sell to people…
From the outset Cohen is laying in some scabrous social commentary, condemning our greed and stupidity. Not only is he calling out our inimitably foolhardy nature (of course we’d taste something spewing out of the ground without questioning it), but also our seemingly compulsive tendency to extort such a find. Welcome to the human race; dumb enough to eat itself into oblivion.
Of course these are but a couple of misanthropic observations hurled our way by Cohen during this delirious sci-fi yarn. Made at the height of the 80s, Cohen’s screwy fable takes potshots at the increasing tide of shallow consumerism sweeping society, as well as the corporate world’s manipulation of the public for its own interest. Chiefly Cohen wanted to address the vice-like grip of the tobacco companies, facilitating negligent homicides with persuasive ad campaigns for their addictive product… but who wants to pay to see that in its grim nicotine-stained reality?
So what if instead of cigarettes you made a movie about something benign – like a popular dessert – that consumes the consumer, turning them into zombie-like monstrosities?
Now that movie has the schlocky potential to be a hit, not least if you swirl the mixture with canny comedy and the kind of inventive physical effects work that’ll draw in the horror crowd. The Stuff belongs in that same stratosphere of respected (yes, respected) horror movies that reflect societal problems without sacrificing entertainment value (I’m thinking of the likes of, say, Dawn Of The Dead or The Thing – a film whose name Cohen’s movie practically echoes).
So it goes that The Stuff is a briskly paced joyride of building mania, the backbone of which comes, fittingly, in the initially spineless guise of ‘industrial saboteur’ David ‘Mo’ Rutherford (‘Mo’ because he always wants mo’). Michael Moriarty lays the ham on thick as Rutherford, bringing anti-hero charisma to a character who seems from the outset to be bereft of morals – the perfect foil for soulless gluttony – until he encounters the terrible truth about ‘the stuff’.
Nearly 30 years later, The Stuff‘s concerns manage to resonate more than ever. The horrific menace of our food threatening to kill us has not softened. Remember the ‘mad cow’ crisis or, more recently, the scandal of horsemeat working its way into processed ready meals? The paranoia of The Stuff is ongoing. Cohen may have intended to lambast cigarettes, but there are plenty of ugly truths in the foods we eat.
When suburban kid Jason sees ‘the stuff’ move of its own accord he refuses to eat it even as his family grows addicted. He is even exorcised from them as the gloopy substance makes faithful consumer automatons of his mother and father. “Why are you speaking like you’re in a commercial?” Jason asks them pointedly. It might not be subtle, but Cohen continues to explore the eerie nature of brand brainwashing, taking it to an extreme by imploding a family unit thanks to the mysterious, addictive product. The boy’s family become a genuine menace.
Cohen pitches the movie into sinister territory only to tip it with comedy at every opportunity, either with wacky plot turns or hilarious, quotable dialogue. Where else are you going to hear a line like “Everybody has to eat shaving cream once in a while”? This levity is Cohen’s own appealing USP to get his point across.
But The Stuff isn’t all about one man preaching a message through the removes of comedy and horror; chiefly it makes for a great ‘midnight movie’ experience. One to put on with a few friends and a few beers and a bowl of popcorn, from that special sub-category of films which are eminently watchable – and, thanks to Arrow Video’s superb remaster, rewatchable – for their sheer enjoyment factor.
The Stuff boasts two extraordinary supporting characters to bolster its wealth of pleasures. Firstly there’s ‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie; a fast-talking, iron-fisted blowhard whose demise is perhaps the film’s most famous moment, and then there is Col. Spears. As great as Garret Morris is as Charlie, Paul Sorvino practically steals the movie as Spears, playing deliciously bigger than anyone. In fact as the movie’s disparate characters coalesce, the film solidifies into a genuine romp worth placing beside other classics of the era (Gremlins etc).
A great deal of that fun comes from the imaginative effects created by Steve Neill and his team; even though you can work out how many if not all have been orchestrated, their very physicality adds a labour-of-love quality to the movie that modern-day CG methods fail to so successfully convey.
Cohen is sometimes perceived as a sort of guerrilla filmmaker, working cast and crew to the bone, eager to get coverage and move on. That sense of urgency transmits itself to celluloid. The Stuff feels energised and scrappy. Even at its most circumspect – Jason’s peril inside a tanker filling up with ‘stuff’ has not aged well – the film sails by on its endearing good graces and punky attitude.
Oftentimes it seems as though people find it hard to reconcile genre fiction shaking hands with knowing wit and as a result movies like this are lazily labelled “so bad it’s good” as people struggle to gauge the tone of what they’re experiencing. This does the films it is applied to a disservice. The Stuff is one such movie. Don’t think of it as ‘so bad it’s good’, think of it as ‘so mad it’s marvelous’. The terrifying thing is actually how sane one suspects Cohen is for so sharply calling out society’s failings.
Even at its end, our heroes’ supposed success is compromised by re-branding and bootlegging. I guess there really is no getting enough of The Stuff…