B-movie veteran Larry Cohen (God Tole Me To, It’s Alive) could always pull a project together, it seems. The guy was just plain never out of work for long — and still isn’t, although he seems confined primarily to scriptwriting duties these days with projects such as Phone Booth and Captivity. In 1985 he was still a genuine low-budget auteur, though, writing as well as directing projects for the smallest-scale indie distributors, mid-size outfits like New World (who handled the financing for the subject of our — ahem! — “analysis” today), and occasionally even the big Hollywood studios. Working primarily out of New York, Cohen was usually able to put together a pretty decent cast to handle his uniformly well-written and well-executed, if a bit “old-school” horror in terms of their occasional less-than-complete originality, flicks.
Simply put, you generally knew what you’d be getting from a Larry Cohen film — nothing groundbreakingly awesome, but always better-done-than-it-felt-like-they-probably-should-be, some decent budget effects work, a fe laughs, and generally a pretty solid little story. And so it is with The Stuff, in many ways probably the quintessential Cohen flick.
It’s probably a bit ironic that ol’ Larry became best known for his horror (more precisely his horror-comedy hybrid) work, given that he got his start with blaxploitationers like Bone and the truly classic Black Caesar, but if there’s one thing Cohen has proven over the years it’s that he’s a movie industry survivor — when times and tastes change, he’s smart enough to change with them and go with the new flow enough to keep getting work. When blaxploitation started to slow down, it’s only natural that a guy with his keen survival instincts would gravitate toward horror, but one thing he didn’t lose along the way was his nose for making his stories stick with an audience by injecting just enough contemporary social commentary to give his films relevance. It’s never an overpowering element of his M.O., so to speak, but it’s always in there somewhere. Sometimes that makes his projects feel pretty dated, as the issues he’s addressing are no longer of front-burner importance in today’s world. At other times, though, it makes him look downright prescient, as the issues he’s tackling actually grow in importance from the time of the movie’s initial release.
That’s certainly the case with The Stuff, a movie about gelatinous goo oozing out of the center of the Earth and packaged as an ice cream-type dessert that eventually takes over and expels itself from the “host bodies” who are consuming it.
Okay, so the parallels to the horror classic The Blob are pretty painfully obvious here, but like I said, sparkling originality has never been a Larry Cohen signature. What’s remarkable is that the issues he’s tackling in this story — fake foodstuffs, slick marketing (the fake TV commercials for the The Stuff, with their scarily-catchy “Just can’t get enough of The Stuff” jingle are one of this movie’s highlights), and environmental disaster oozing from the ground are more pressing than ever in in 2010, when our grocery store shelves are full of genetically-modified “frankenfoods,” our airwaves (and the internet) are bombarded with with ever-more-aggressive ad campaigns for shit we don’t need, and oil is spilling out of an underwater hole into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 200,oo0 barrels (or something) a day with no end in sight.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Larry Cohen film without a plethora of fairly-well-realized characters. Our main protagonist is a corporate espionage specialist named David “Mo” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) , who;s been hired by a consortium of ice cream manufacturers to find out the secret of The Stuff and why it’s eating up their market share (and, quite literally, their customers). In his quest to find out what The Stuff is, where it comes from, and why people just can’t resist its appeal, he teams up with a wide variety of crackpots, independent sleuths, and various hangers-on, including PR-exec-turned-gal Friday (and sorta-love interest) Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), down-on-his-luck cookie magnate (and obvious Famous Amos stand-in) “Chocolate Chip” Charlie (SNL alum Garrett Morris, who meets and awesomely spectacular stuff-induced demise that you have to see to believe), and right-wing militia commander Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino), who basically functions as a cross between Rush Limbaugh and Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay (needless to say, he’s convinced The Stuff is a commie plot to destroy America and he’s determined to wipe every trace of it from the face of our fair land).
If all this sounds like a weird amalgamation of The Blob, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Soylent Green, well — that’s because it is. But goddamn if it doesn’t all work.
The effects, as mentioned, are terrific fun. The huge masses of stop-motion Stuff are well-realized and frankly look a hell of a lot better than most of today’s CGI garbage, and for smaller-quantity servings, they just used gobs of yogurt and soft-serve ice cream. Again, damned if it doesn’t work just fine. There are several impressive death-by-Stuff scenes, the just-mentioned one with Morris being the best, but truth be told they all look good, and I’ve watched plenty of flicks with ten, a hundred, or even a thousand times the budget of this one not pull off their supposedly “shocking” death sequences with anywhere near this much effectiveness and aplomb. All told, it’s a genuine visual delight.
And finally, on the trivia front, be on the lookout for appearances from Danny Aiello, the Brothers Bloom, Eric Bogosian, and a very young Mira Sorvino.
The Stuff is available on DVD from Anchor Bay. It features a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that’s been digitally remastered and looks great, the sound likewise has been remastered and is presented in a crisp, clear 5.1 mix, and as far as the extras go, while the overall selection is pretty light, there’s a feature-length commentary track from Larry Cohen himself that’s flat-out awesome to listen to.
Is The Stuff a classic? Nah. But it’s plenty good, about 50 times better than your first impression of it would lead you to believe, and a downright professional piece of work. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s incisive, it’s smart, and it’s well-acted, well-directed, and amazingly well-realized visually. It’s one of those movies that, if you own it, you find yourself watching it again three or four times a year just because — well, it’s so damn solidly done.
And with that, I’m off to the Dairy Queen for a heaping pile of soft-serve Stu —- errr, ice cream.