Forget Caltiki and forget The Blob: ‘The Stuff’ doesn’t eat you, you eat it! Larry Cohen takes a page from Professor Quatermass for this satirical slap at blind consumerism and unregulated commerce, in a thriller packed with ooky glob-monsters and people hollowed out like Halloween pumpkins. It’s the smart side of ’80s sci-fi: Cohen knows how to make the genre sustain his anti-establishment themes.
Arrow Video (US)
1985 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 87 min. / Street Date April 19, 2016 / Available from Amazon / 39.95
Starring Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Scott Bloom, Danny Aiello, Patrick O’Neal, Alexander Scourby, Harry Bellaver, Rutanya Alda, Brooke Adams, Laurene Landon, Tammy Grimes, Abe Vigoda, Clara Peller, Patrick Dempsey, Mira Sorvino, Eric Bogosian.
Cinematography Paul Glickman
Makeup Effects Ed French, Michael Maddi, Steve Neill, Kim Robinson, Rick Stratton, Craig Lyman
Editor Armond Lebowitz
Original Music Anthony Guefen
Produced by Paul Kurta
Written and Directed by Larry Cohen
Larry Cohen takes the prize for minor league independent stamina and endurance. A successful and prolific TV writer, he started making his own films in the 1970s, many of them packed with the kind of dangerous ideas that were once motion picture anathema. His films voice contrary opinions about organized religion, the medical profession, the F.B.I., through exploitative stories about killer babies, Aztec monsters, and even a hermaphrodite alien horror that turns out to be God.
I think if Cohen had no film talent, he’d be out picketing something. 1985’s The Stuff is a frontal assault on consumerism and unregulated industry. Not a month goes by without news of a recall or an admission that some food or drug wasn’t properly vetted and tested before being foisted on the public. Accidents happen but the profit motive blurs the boundaries between good faith and reckless endangerment. Cohen’s It’s Alive movie might have been a comment on Thalidomide — the horrors of that drug are worse than what Cohen imagined. This movie is at least partly a tongue-in-cheek comedy.
The sci-fi horror conspiracy thriller The Stuff reveals that a widely popular yogurt-like dessert has been packaged, marketed and sold to Americans without anybody finding out that it’s (a) addictive, and (b) makes you into a Pod Person-like minion of the Stuff Consciousness, and (c) kills you the moment your usefulness is finished. In established paranoid conspiracy form, corporate spy, saboteur and dirty tricks specialist Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty of Cohen’s Q The Winged Serpent) is hired by a rival corporation to steal the formula for The Stuff. Looking for a way in, Mo discovers that most of the original makers of the product and the scientists that developed it are dead or missing. Everybody at the FDA that knows about it is dead as well. On the road he meets “Chocolate Chip” Charlie Hobbs (Garrett Morris), a cookie franchise entrepreneur whose empire was bought out from under him by the corporation behind The Stuff. He also enlists the aid of Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), an advertising whiz who helped sell The Stuff to the world, with sex-oriented tag lines like, “Enough is never enough.” Nicole doesn’t know what it is either. Meanwhile, little Jason (Scott Bloom) is convinced that the containers of The Stuff in the family fridge are bad news — he swears he’s seen the white substance move of its own will. Jason’s parents and brother eat The Stuff night and day and pressure him to eat it too — but he rebels and destroys large displays of the product in his local supermarket. Meanwhile, the demand for The Stuff nationwide is so great that the distributors can’t get enough of it. Mo and Nicole trace The Stuff to a mysterious plant in the South… and discover that it’s much more horrible than they could have believed.
Larry Cohen is in good form with The Stuff. He moves the story quickly and communicates essential points with great efficiency. The makers of The Stuff get to keep its contents secret, just as the Coca-Cola Company can keep its formula secret from the public. Cohen asks, how do we know that a company isn’t putting something funky into the brew, something that, say, makes it more addictive? Cigarette companies did that. Cohen models his witty, intelligent show after conspiracy-oriented 1950s sci-fi movies. But it also aligns with present concerns. Governed by the motive to increase profits, businesses of all sizes routinely sidestep environmental laws. A giant car company was recently caught defrauding consumers with fake emissions equipment. Oil companies leak out millions of gallons that kill entire ocean ecosystems. They then spend millions on public image repair, and lobby for less regulation.
In other words, although The Stuff is crazy sci-fi about a blob monster that eats you from within, Cohen has managed to make it relevant to our lives. The movie isn’t as cogent or prophetic as, say, Network, as the message that Americans will eat any mystery food put before them isn’t big news. Yet the movie makes its point well – who will sit through a docu about evil food additives?
I give Cohen’s achievement in The Stuff a B+, however. His filmmaking skill is better than ever, but the movie tries to go one parody too far. Paul Sorvino enters in the last act to lead a paranoid private army. Cohen needed a military force for his finale but his lampoon of armed right-wing loonies isn’t welcome. They’re really out there, and they aren’t harmless and amusing like this movie’s Col. Malcolm Grommet Spears. No faulting Paul Sorvino, though, he nails the role.
The other sticking point is the special effects, which are outrageous and gross, but never as convincing as they might be. The rubber faces look like Halloween masks, and after the exploding heads of David Cronenberg pictures, only a few of these work. Rubber masks vomiting white goop don’t do much for me either. The giant Garrett Morris head is just too cartoonish, as are most of the “I didn’t think a person could open their mouth that wide” effects seemingly inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing. The best of them make it look as if the Stuff has ‘hollowed out’ the people who have eaten it. This isn’t fully explained.
The Stuff itself is just various white substances, like fire retardant foam. Although not as laughable as the soapsuds monster in the vintage sci-fi thriller The Unknown Terror, the creamy white goop rarely looks all that menacing. The best effects in the film show the blob-like Stuff oozing through convincing miniature settings. I was once a regular visitor to the effects shop Dreamquest, where I saw some of the excellent miniatures, and a screening of the successful miniature shot of a gush of Stuff smashing through a brick wall. Ted Rae may have engineered part of that; the miniature concrete blocks are beautifully detailed. It’s too bad that a weak optical composite to add live action people spoils the shot. Although it should get full marks, the rotating room gag just looks like what it is — it’s spectacular enough, but obvious too. At least Larry Cohen planned for his effects properly this time out. On Q all the elaborate stop-motion had to be concocted almost completely in post production, with no money.
Cast-wise Cohen just misses the mark. Michael Moriarty is fun to watch doing his Southern swagger as Mo Rutherford, with his jokey intro line that the ‘Mo’ means, “more money.” Rutherford’s venality is as upfront as his fake smile. He has so much fun intimidating and insulting the corporate suits that overpay him, that Cohen must have been channeling his experience as a writer for hire in Hollywood. Moriarty’s bigger than life character is a good action figure, making instant decisions and goading others into following him. Even though he proves to be a good guy, at least until the next crooked job offer comes along, he’s not very likeable. Not helping is Andrea Marcovicci’s advertising consultant. We never get a good reason why Nicole is tagging along. Because she is also charmed by Mo Rutherford, we have little respect for her. Marcovicci is bright and attractive but not used particularly well.
The real star of the show is little Scott Bloom, who is very good at communicating levels of doubt about that white gook in the refrigerator. The levelheaded and altruistic Jason goes through the same nightmare as David McClane in Invaders from Mars, with his parents transformed into zombies. If he’d gotten the part, Scott might have saved the Invaders remake. Elsewhere Cohen’s casting is hit and miss. Paul Sorvino is okay, but we can tell that Danny Aiello, Patrick O’Neal and others have been hired for very limited scenes. Garrett Morris is unfortunately directed to play as if the show is an outright comedy. Audiences surely approved of cameos by the likes of Brooke Adams and the late Abe Vigoda; but nowadays one must explain the relevance of Clara Peller and her line, “Where’s the Stuff?”
Others have spotted the connection, but a particular thrill in seeing The Stuff is examining its connection to several classic sci-fi pictures. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is certainly referenced, what with Jason’s family transformed into happy-faced Pod People, the brainless consumers that American business depends on and tries to create more of. (Tell me about it, I’d like to kick a Diet Coke habit.) But Cohen really follows the contours of Nigel Kneale and Val Guest’s Quatermass 2 aka Enemy from Space, with an additional fillip from Hammer’s X – The Unknown. The conspiracy of The Stuff has indeed infiltrated both government and industry, using the insufficiently regulated FDA to mask a mass-distributed product that nobody knows anything about. The source of The Stuff is a giant industrial plant that our heroes eventually infiltrate, and then attack with the aid of a small army, a setup identical to the Hammer film, where the cover story is that the plant is manufacturing synthetic food. Like Professor Quatermass, Mo Rutherford disguises himself as a zombie worker to get up and close to where the Stuff is being pumped into trucks. Cohen is hip to the fact that viewers are conspiracy-savvy. He doesn’t play every sinister reveal as a big surprise, and Mo takes it all in stride too. It’s a smartly played genre concoction, like a vampire film that assumes that viewers know the basics of vampire lore.
(spoiler, maybe) The X-The Unknown connection comes into play when it is revealed that the Stuff isn’t manufactured, but only gathered from an underground source. It starts coming up out of the earth on its own, and it’s ready to eat. All the company must do is pump it into trucks and put it in colorful plastic serving containers. In one of his interview bites on Arrow’s disc, Cohen closes an exposition gap left open in the film — like the radioactive glop in X – The Unknown, the stuff is a living thing from deep below ground. It has chosen this time to come up and wipe out mankind because we’ve despoiling Mother Earth. The idea is that, from the first guy who tried a bit of the Stuff (Harry Bellaver) forward, the subterranean intelligence has been possessing everybody who eats it, and perhaps changing their physical insides too. Is each part of The Stuff an independent alien creature, as in Carpenter’s The Thing? Or is it a telepathically-linked monster with a trillion units, as in Quatermass 2? That Larry Cohen keeps his movie on a satirical plane is a good idea, as one would think it not difficult to analyze The Stuff and discover its nature.
Cohen has a wicked sense of humor, but The Stuff’s satirical tone is a departure from his usual straightforward approach. We see clever TV spots for The Stuff complete with jingles and dancing. The humor is a welcome change from paranoid sci-fi thrillers that take themselves far too seriously. Cohen even gets a stab in against the War on Drugs… the profit motive is so central to human behavior, that black marketers will continue its distribution on a smaller scale. Two years later, RoboCop would vault sci-fi satire to entire new level.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of The Stuff is a domestic release of their Region B disc from 2014. The excellent transfer has good color and is so sharp that we can study every special effect in detail. For a small film, it looks pretty big. One sequence sees Mo, Nicole and Jason traveling by Lear Jet and Cohen gets in some good action with the large tanker trucks transporting our favorite chilled dessert.
The exhaustive hour-long docu Can’t Get Enough of The Stuff gathers director Cohen, his producer Paul Kurta, Andrea Marcovicci, effects expert Steve Neill and critic Kim Newman for a full discussion of the show in all aspects. Also included is the Trailers from Hell episode with director-commentator Darren Bousman, and a straight version of the trailer.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good +
Supplements: Long-form making-of docu, trailer, Trailers from Hell trailer with commentary.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 3, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson