I make a lot of hay over what it was like growing up in the ‘80s to the point that any younger readers might assume it was halfway between The Road Warrior and that episode of Diff’rent Strokes where Gordon Jump molests Dudley. One of my long-running series on this blog is basically all about how there was sweet fuck all to watch on television, so we were often forced to waste time on bizarre morality plays, or even worse, read a goddamn book once in a while. I was luckier than many of my friends in that I can’t remember a time in which I did not have some form of cable. When I was little, there were four movie channels, Showtime (channel 15), The Movie Channel (17), HBO (20), and the Z Channel (99). With so few channels, you’d think you would never see the same movie twice, but the opposite was true. Certain films were played in heavy rotation without any apparent relation to their quality or popularity, and these have an outsized place in the specific pocket culture of my childhood. One of these that seemed to air every lazy Sunday afternoon is the 1985 Larry Cohen horror satire The Stuff.
The titular Stuff is introduced bubbling up in a field of ice, looking like what might happen if crude oil had semen. Yet, in the most baffling decision I’ve ever seen, the old man discovering it promptly puts some in his mouth. To his delight, he finds that it’s the tastiest thing to come out of the ground since he stopped licking dinosaur fossils. A single smash cut later and the new super dessert known by the descriptive name “the Stuff” has become the must-have food item of the mid-‘80s. It’s low calorie and delicious, but no one can figure out what’s in it. A group of plutocrats wants the recipe so they can start a Coke/Pepsi war and hire industrial spy Moe Rutherford (Michael Moriarty, Cohen mainstay and the man who thought the Law & Order franchise would collapse without him) to get it.
Moe first makes contact with Nicole Kendall, the young marketing whiz responsible for the Stuff’s ad campaign and earworm of a jingle, learning that the product was originally tested in remote Stader, Virginia. On his trip there, Moe finds that the majority of the townsfolk have picked up for Midland, Georgia, leaving behind only enough of a slack-jawed and dead-eyed presence to creep the living fuck out of anyone who pokes around. When Moe witnesses one of these troglodytes expelling several gallons of Stuff from his body like a bulimic Mr. Stay Puft, and the white goop then slithers off on its own, Moe realizes that something’s rotten in the state of Virginia. And Georgia.
Is The Stuff a delicious alternative to yogurt or a Lovecraftian colony organism? Turns out it’s a delicious low-calorie alternative to yogurt AND a Lovecraftian colony organism! As befits a truly alien entity, the motives and abilities of the Stuff remain somewhat murky. It eats its victims from the inside-out, while its addictive qualities insure its prey craves the very thing that is killing them. Eventually, it appears as though the Stuff becomes the animating consciousness of its Stuffies, although again it is unclear as to whether it is truly controlling minds or merely acting as a powerful addiction. This ambivalence works to the film’s advantage, leaving us with a bizarre and mouth-watering entry into the Cthulhu Mythos.
Larry Cohen movies tend to have brilliant concepts marred by so-so execution, and The Stuff is no exception. Intended as a ruthless satire of American consumer culture, there are times when The Stuff hits on all levels. The plutocrats pulling Moe’s strings are not interested in the possible negative health effects of the Stuff, they merely want to duplicate it. The slick ad-campaign proceeds apace without those involved even knowing that what they’re selling is actually some antediluvian god-mass from beneath the earth’s crust. They still manage to put together a jingle that’s still rattling through my head four days after watching the film and creating a logo so perfectly of the time you’d swear it was in your fridge. The product’s tagline could double for the entire philosophy of the go-go ‘80s: Enough is Never Enough.
The film fares well largely due to a cast of ringers led by Michael Moriarty, who might be the greatest b-actor of all time. His naturalistic delivery grounds often clunky writing, and he is adept at creating a character with a few careful choices. Danny Aiello and Saturday Night Live’s Garrett Morris have small roles. Paul Sorvino has a pivotal role as the leader of a right wing militia whose media presence helps get the word out about the danger in the Stuff. Sorvino’s character manages to be both the best part of the third act and also a bit of a miscalculation. His ur-Tea Party blockheadedness is largely played for laughs, though there is a troubling scene when his character’s boiling undercurrent of racism is laid bare.
Where The Stuff really falters is the ending. For the film’s apocalyptic satire to be truly effective, an addicted public should have ignored the warnings of Moe and his group, coming as they were from a single radio station commandeered by a militia, that would have made far more sense. The Stuff should have continued to fly off supermarket shelves, as America ate itself into oblivion. As it stands, the happy ending feels unearned, and would reek of studio meddling if a studio had ever given a single fuck about such a quirky orphan of a film.
The idea of the useless shit we as Americans accumulate eating us is a good one. That’s the Curse of Cohen, the consummate idea man betrayed by mediocre follow-through. While watching this film, I remarked to Mrs. Supermarket that there is a good career to be had in remaking the films of Larry Cohen. The man was a horror visionary, just not the greatest horror filmmaker.
Check out David’s favorite Stuff equivalents!