I’m ashamed of myself. I’ve been writing this Schlock & Awe column for over four years now and I have yet to do a Larry Cohen movie. It’s a real oversight on my part. How could I have been so foolish?! Cohen is basically up there with Roger Corman and William Castle as one of the biggest makers of B-movie gold, except he always writes and directs his own movies as well as produces them.
Cohen always tackled modern-day issues through the lens of sci-fi or horror, and none of his movies are as on-point or still as relevant as his 1985 satire on consumerism, The Stuff.
While Cohen’s movies, like Q: The Winged Serpent, Black Caesar, and It’s Alive, looked at the modern world through the eyes of a genre movie, The Stuff exists strictly because of the modern world. Though it’s just as gory as any creature feature – pretty damned disturbing at times too – at its heart, it’s shining a mirror at the world of commercial-driven purchases and how anything can be sold as long as it’s got a catchy enough jingle. Even stuff that literally comes bubbling up from the center of the Earth. Oh, did I not tell you that?
A group of railroad workers find a white, yogurt-like substance bubbling up from the ground in a quarry. After tasting it (which is exactly what any sane person would do immediately), they discover it’s sweet and more delicious than any ice cream. Soon, they’ve patented the product, calling it “The Stuff,” and begin selling it, putting it in pint containers directly from the ground. It’s not only delicious, but it’s addictive and begins selling like the hottest of cakes, putting the ice cream industry completely out of business.
The world’s ice cream moguls, including Charles W. “Chocolate Chip Charlie” Hobbs (Garrett Morris), hire a former FBI agent and current corporate saboteur named David “Mo” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) to get to the bottom of The Stuff and put the company out of business. (Aside: why is he called “Mo?” Because if somebody gives him money, he always asks for mo’. Get it?) Mo quickly learns, however, that The Stuff isn’t just addictive and delicious: it’s alive. A parasitic, possibly sentient organism it slowly begins eating people from the inside when they eat it, creating zombie-like slaves before their bodies become nothing more than brittle shells inside of which the Stuff can move them around for its own bidding. Pretty nasty, really.
At the same time, a kid (Scott Bloom) has noticed The Stuff is alive, but his addicted family refuses to believe him. He even eats shaving cream in order to trick them into thinking he’s eating the Stuff. He gets arrested for vandalizing a supermarket display and that draws Mo’s attention, who comes and bails the kid out. They then team up with an advertising exec (Andrea Marcovicci) who has also learned the truth and decide to try to destroy every last ounce of Stuff, which is easier said than done. How do you destroy a product that makes people love it? After all, enough is never enough.
This movie succeeds at being both an effect sci-fi/horror movie – in the same vein as The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers – and a very pointed satire. The fake advertisements for The Stuff are among the best parts of the movie. They depict famous guest stars and pitch people hocking it, and the logo and jingle do exactly what they’re meant to if they were for a real product. You get the Stuff song stuck in your head, and you remember the packaging. It’s very colorful, and you for sure want to eat it. Something better than ice cream?! I mean, why wouldn’t you?
There are also some really great one-liners in the movie, many of them coming from Moriarty or Paul Sorvino, who plays a retired army colonel right-wing nut-job, but he’s one of the few who realizes The Stuff is turning people into zombies. It takes a very fine actor to deliver silly dialogue completely straight-faced and believably. Cohen’s movies are often dubbed as “cheesy” or “silly,” but he’s a master at satire, with a knack to know which actors can pull it off.
For the movie to be effective, the effects really have to be good, and luckily, they definitely are. A movie like this wouldn’t work today, because CGI just lacks the visceral, tactile element that makes these shots of the Stuff stay with you. You want to see it bubble, you want to see it flow, and you definitely want to see it burst from a fake head and start devouring people. It’s great! It does feel alive, it moves at once like things natural and synthetic, and it looks like it might actually taste pretty good. Dangerous combo.
The Stuff is coming to Blu-ray from Arrow Video and has a really lovely making-of documentary with interviews with Cohen and a lot of the behind-the-scenes people. If you want to know about how the effects were done, this is the thing for you. The movie looks and sounds pristine, and it’s exactly the kind of movie to throw on on a Saturday afternoon or at a movie night with friends.
Once you watch this, you’ll definitely want some mo’.
Images: New World Pictures