‘It’ll change your life forever!’ promises one of the taglines used to promote “The Stuff” - Larry Cohen’s tasty mid-eighties satire on rampant consumerism and the junk food industry. As a purveyor himself of cheaply made, self-produced schlock horror, who, out of the necessities of surviving commercially in an over-crowded marketplace, had quickly been forced to develop a keen eye for the popular sell (the accompanying advertising campaign being often the most crucial factor in determining a small picture’s market visibility and in generating an audience for it) Cohen was better placed than many an independent filmmaker of the period to satirise the not so subtle intricacies behind big business’s capacity for selling muck to the masses. Not that any of Cohen’s own films ever fitted the dubious category of ‘so bad its good’ in any real sense, despite his taste for B-movie subjects aimed squarely at a mainstream audience. Whatever flaws his limited budgets and tight schedules might’ve introduced into the succession of largely self-financed pictures he wrote, produced and directed throughout the greater part of the 1970s and ‘80s (the most sustained creative period in this former TV writer turned producer’s lengthy and productive career), Cohen’s witty, imaginative scripts consistently took the most generic-sounding of material and infused it with an arch wit and an unpredictable waywardness that almost always made his movies more entertaining than the majority of their peers, no matter how fundamentally silly they might appear to be on the surface. Many of them have survived the test of time and gained a cult following thanks to Cohen’s ability to fuse straight thrills and gory effects with clever but lightly worn socio-political commentary, combined in such an effortless-seeming fashion that the results often, dare one say it, come to feel genuinely subversive.
1985’s “The Stuff” – which comes at the apex of this period in Cohen’s directorial career – offers an illustrative case in point: near the very end of the movie, as the powerful Fletcher conglomerate (which has been behind a money motivated conspiracy to addict the nation to a mysterious, sugary, mind-controlling gloop, discovered bubbling up from below ground near one of its mines) is shown being apparently defeated at last in what feels like a somewhat hastily assembled and unconvincing montage depicting its factories being destroyed and supermarket shelves across the land cleared of The Stuff’s attractively packaged dessert cartons as American consumers rise up en masse in revolt against the poison they’d earlier been shown queuing outside fast food parlours at two in the morning to purchase in bulk -- there’s a brief shot of one of the company’s stores being dynamited; a reassuring, short-hand image suggesting order is being restored and normalcy returned after a brief, anomalous period of alien controlled consumer madness. And yet, conspicuously placed right next to the exploding multi-coloured Stuff parlour, and filling most of the shot, is an even bigger McDonalds takeaway restaurant … Presumably, this ubiquitous fast food company would have had to have paid handsomely for this bare-faced piece of product placement, just like other companies which appear, or are prominently mentioned, in the film such as Pepsi and Coca Cola. But after having watched eighty- plus minutes of a movie in which the environmental degradation, deleterious health effects and highly addictive properties intimately associated with a particular mass produced food ‘product’ shown being waived through a regulatory system deeply in cahoots with big business interests, are ignored and obscured behind popular marketing campaigns, ad slogans (‘Enough is Never Enough!’) and colourful child-friendly packaging, surely not even the most oblivious viewer could fail to pick up on the mordant irony being expressed by such a juxtaposition? It’s hard to see anyone getting away with using the real name of a prominent company in such a scathing way nowadays, let alone actually using the money of the very company being satirised to make the movie in the first place! Cohen manages it, though -- probably because the message never overshadows the sense of fun and the pure unadulterated B-movie-style mayhem packed within its frames, taking the form of rubbery, now rather vintage 1980s era effects and a blatant homage to that insane gelatinous-monster-on-the-rampage flick of the 1950s “The Blob”.
“The Stuff” starts with a scene that depicts an elderly workman at a snowbound mining quarry scooping up a handful of the yogurty white goo from a crack in the ground and becoming instantly addicted. ‘That tastes real good!’ he declares, already sounding like a cheesy TV advertisement: ‘it’s tasty … sweet!’ By the next scene, the goo has become a widely marketed ‘taste sensation’ that’s 100% free of artificial additives; and its brightly adorned purple and pink cartons occupy large areas of supermarket floor space right across the land. The only person not convinced of the sagacity of this state of affairs is tweenager Jason (Scott Bloom), who gets the jitters about The Stuff when he opens his family’s fridge in the middle of the night after suffering an attack of the midnight munchies, only to find the contents of one of the cartons has vacated its container under its own volition and is happily crawling about inside the refrigerator by itself, only hurriedly rushing back to resume posing as an ordinary pot of family dessert when the fridge light unexpectedly comes on. But by then it is far too late not to have aroused Jason’s suspicions, much to the annoyance of the rest of his family, who become puzzled and hostile to his extreme phobia in relation to a product that not only tastes so good, but doesn’t leave a stain on the kitchen unit when he hurls a carton of it across the room in disgust!
There’s a perfectly serviceable streamlined plotline right here, which is centred on young Jason’s lone battle to be taken seriously, as first his family and then the rest of the nation start to succumb to the malign influence of this ubiquitous mind controlling substance. But Cohen’s screenplay thereafter goes off in all sorts of crazy unrelated directions during the course of the following, snappily paced eighty-six minutes. In some ways the movie can tend to feel wildly disjointed and undeveloped as a result, despite its ambition; we do get some great scenes of Jason going ape shit in a supermarket when he sees men, women and children – even babies—slurping merrily away on cartons of The Stuff, and starts smashing up stacked displays of the gloop and sweeping rows and rows of the product from the shelves in helpless agitation; and Cohen also stages a nice “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” tribute sequence set in the family home, when, having realised that his entire family is now under the control of the sentient goo from the fact that they’ve all begun to talk like they’re in a TV advertisement the whole time, he has to eat shaving cream in order to try and pass himself off as one of them and avoid being force fed the real thing.
If the film had been aimed at a younger age group and centred exclusively around Jason and his family, then this worrying idea of seeing the people you love and depend on as a child, suddenly being taken over by a malign force and becoming devoted only to ensuring that you follow suit, would have been an enormously evocative and creepy one on which to base the entire plot. Instead Cohen reduces that storyline to just the key scenes needed in order to convey the gist of it and then adds Michael Moriarty (in the second of his five appearances in Larry Cohen films, after “Q - The Winged Serpent”) into the mix as a Southern ex FBI agent turned corporate spy and industrial saboteur, who gets employed by an alliance of Ice Cream manufacturers to infiltrate the secretive conglomerate behind the making and distribution of The Stuff in order to discover its secrets and hamper its business. Moriarty is allowed pretty much free rein to mould his own rather eccentric characterisation for his role, and according to fellow co-star Andrea Marcovicci, speaking in the making of documentary accompanying the movie for this release, was also encouraged to improvise his lines with Cohen’s blessing. Wearing cowboy boots with his corporate suit and affecting a southern drawl, the character of David ‘Moe’ Rutherford (‘my friends call me Moe because when I get what I want I still want moe!’) should be unsympathetic considering his profession, but the bad jokes and easy charm humanise him enough to allow the viewer to get on board with the idea of having him as the hero, in a world where corporate greed and Stuff addiction have turned pretty much everyone else into much worse!
Initially, the Moe Rutherford plotline follows a similar template to the one Cohen developed for his 1967-68 TV series “The Invaders” in which architect David Vincent travelled from town to town investigating the takeover of the country by alien beings posing as humans. Rutherford takes a similar itinerant procedural approach to his investigation, which starts with his arriving to interview, at his home, one of the Food and Drug Administration employees (played by Danny Aiello) who originally passed The Stuff as being fit for human consumption, but who quickly turns out to be addicted to it himself … along with his dog -- whose normal diet has also been replaced with tubs of the lethal gloop. Rutherford is subsequently targeted by hostile Stuff street vendors who dislike his meddling; and later he briefly teams up with a disgruntled, jive talking marital arts moves-dispensing Ice Cream company executive known as ‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie (Garrett Morris): a black ex-company head (‘well I sure as hell ain’t the Kentucky Colonel’) ousted from his own business board by ‘Stuffies’ who’ve taken it over for their own purposes. They form a likable comedy double act as they explore an abandoned town used as a forwarding address to hide the disappearance of anyone who formerly opposed the sale and marketing of the 'Stuff' product. But even this relationship becomes just one briefly visited element in an ever shifting mosaic of approaches employed by Cohen’s script after Rutherford returns to the city and contacts the advertising agency responsible for coming up with the TV ads that sell The Stuff to the masses. He and ad campaign director Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci) subsequently take up together (although the romantic angle is discreetly underplayed) and become practically surrogate parents to the effectively orphaned young Jason when the trio come together to seek out the location of the factory, staffed by addicted Stuffies, that’s syphoning the goo out of the ground from a vast quarry, and storing it in giant silo stacks, ready to be packaged up and sent straight to stores.
This part of the film is indeed very reminiscent of “The Invaders”, and also brings back happy memories of Nigel Kneale’s scenario for “Quatermass II”, with its air of paranoid distrust centred on the practices of vast factory complexes and dystopian images of giant industrial storage towers full of seething alien goo. An effective compromise is struck between good natured satirical monster movie mayhem with a tinge of comedy, and the implied threat of body invading horrors, which are brought in to spice things up most noticeably in a hotel room scene during which pillows full of suffocating white Stuff attack Rutherford while he and Nicole rest up. Although the rubbery special effects -- in which unconvincing fake animatronic heads expel the alien gloop or explode in the process etc. – and the use of primitive blue screen process shots have dated the movie heavily, it is saved somewhat by the generally cartoony comic tone employed throughout, which effectively ensures the lack of realism doesn’t really hamper enjoyment. A number of ingenious means are successfully made use of at certain points, though, in order to make the gloop look like it has gravity-defying alien powers of movement -- notably the effect, that was also memorably seen during Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” during Johnny Depp’s death scene, that is created by having the set made on a rotating stage with the camera attached at a fixed point, so that viscous liquid goo can appear to travel up walls and across ceilings.
In the last act of the movie, just when one thinks that things have settled into a comfortably discernible groove, Cohen takes the movie down an even more outlandish and unexpected route by introducing a survivalist militia led by Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino) -- the sort of crazy right-wing nut who thinks water fluoridisation programmes are a communist conspiracy to poison the nation, and who broadcasts his paranoid theories on his own local radio station. Rutherford & co team up with Spears’ unit (who appear to live in a remote castle on the outskirts of Georgia) to battle the conglomerate and fight back against its factory full of addicted workers, with the aim of restoring order to America and returning it to its former alien pudding-free state of grace. Bizarrely, despite making it quite plain that Spears is a screaming racist from the hostile reception that he offers Chocolate Chip Charlie when the black businessman turns up at the Colonel’s radio station just before Spears is about to broadcast his alert to the nation (‘Attention: we are under alien attack from a threat that represents itself as a popular dessert known as The Stuff!’), the character is in fact written in a light-hearted fashion, and played by Sorvino as though he’s a likable fellow who we should somehow come to accept as a heroic figure. The film becomes a weird sort of right-winger’s wish-fulfilment fantasy in which the nation finally wakes up and starts to listen to the paranoid conspiratorial rantings people like Spears routinely dispense in real life; one in which these sorts of fears are proved justified and in which the right at last finally gets to take over large chunks of the country by military force -- all in the name of patriotism of course. Anthony Guefen’s score starts to parody John Williams’ triumphalist theme for Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie” during this part of the movie, as Spears’ armed forces move in to take over small towns or blow up large chunks of alien-controlled infrastructure, and one realises that Cohen’s satire has now switched focus and become a broad parody of that brand of 1980s right wing paranoia that was being expressed by gung-ho propaganda movies such as “Red Dawn” in the era of Reagan and his hatred of ‘the evil empire’ otherwise known as The Soviet Union. “The Stuff” is a movie that is very much of its time in many respects, then: when taken out of the context of its political and social grounding in the mid-eighties, much of the second half of it can seem quite perplexing. Yet the satire on the food industry, big business and advertising still seems relevant to people’s fears in an increasingly deregulated age, and a lot still hits the mark, while the film never ceases to maintain its fun tone and engaging cartoonish action throughout.
This film has been beautifully restored for Arrow Video’s new dual-format release, with the Blu-ray transfer offering a nicely cleaned up look that’s been sensitively handled by the restoration team so as to deliver an acceptable compromise between preserving the grain for an authentic film-like feel and substantially improving the clarity and depth of colour in the image. The main extra is an extensive and entertaining 52 minute documentary “Can’t Get Enough of The Stuff” directed by Calum Waddell for High Rising Productions, in which director, writer and producer Larry Cohen is joined by producer Paul Kurta, mechanical makeup effects artist Steve Neill, actress Andrea Marcovicci and critic Kim Newman for a discussion of Cohen’s oeuvre, memories of working with Michael Moriarty during the shooting, the challenges of working with such a demanding director as Larry Cohen on movies that are always restricted by their tiny budgets, and what it was like for Marcovicci ‘acting opposite yogurt’. Here we learn that everything from rendered fish guts to shaving cream were used to make The Stuff, and Cohen also reveals some of the ingenious marketing ideas he came up with to publicise the film, all of which were ignored by the distributors. The original theatrical trailer is included, and can also be played with a ‘Trailers from Hell’ commentary by Darren Bousman. Also included with the package is a colourful booklet containing an essay by writer Joel Harley about the role of food in cult horror.
“The Stuff” is an enjoyable, if disposable, cult item that always slides down a treat without leaving any nasty aftertaste. Yum!
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!