The Stuff (1985)
Written & Directed by Larry Cohen
Paranoia has been a chief component of modern life since the Cold War. In the 1950s, Americans were told to beware of “Reds” in their midst while the Senate conducted a witch hunt against citizens. This inspired the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which took its novel roots and reimagined them as a commentary on the Red Scare tearing through the country. Ever since, the concept of the masses being overtaken by an insidious enemy has seemed enticing for many directors and writers. You often have one or two characters who are on to the ruse but seem helpless against the enemy’s scope and scale. This was the type of story that inspired independent filmmaker Larry Cohen to make his satire on the modern corporate food industry.
Jason is a young boy in Long Island, New York, who glimpses a strange sight in his refrigerator one night. The new ice cream substitute The Stuff is moving and crawling out of his container. Of course, when Jason implore his father to check it out for himself, everything in the fridge seems fine. Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarity), a former FBI has been hired to an ice cream mogul who has been run out of the business because of The Stuff’s exploding popularity. He wants Rutherford to find out why the FDA members who approved the food have all either died or fled the country. The mystery takes the investigator across the country, eventually causing him to cross paths with Jason and discovering the terrifying truth behind The Stuff.
The Stuff is a very ambitious movie that ultimately fails because of a lack of attention to detail. When you have such a creepy, intriguing premise, you must be mindful of establishing the rules and the world. Due to what appears to be sloppy edits made in post-production, the pace of the movie feels rushed and like significant chunks are missing. This doesn’t mean The Stuff is not an enjoyable view, it is immensely funny and has some really clever parts. Cohen knows he’s making the 1980s equivalent of a 50s B-movie and leans into that tone. There’s some unevenness there are Cohen veers between over the top comedy to quiet simmering paranoia horror.
Cohen’s intent with the movie is admirable. He wanted to tell a story about the mindless consumerism he saw happening in the 1980s and also the way food manufacturers were adding harmful ingredients that would have a longterm negative effect on consumers. Since this time, we’ve seen concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the consequences of all sorts of ingredients from corn syrup, to name a few. For the most part Americans just wolf down processed food without a second thought and Cohen was already imagining how this could harm people. I think you could easily remake The Stuff with a tighter script and some more thoughtful editing and have a contemporary horror masterpiece. While he hasn’t trafficked in body horror to date, I think someone like Ari Aster could handle this material quite well, balancing the horror and comedy masterfully.
The film began to go off the rails when a crazed military general (Paul Sorvino) is introduced in the third act. He’s a Cold War paranoiac who is played so broadly and hammy by Sorvino that the horror atmosphere of the movie gets sucked out of the room, and we’re left with near slapstick conclusion to the picture. I think Cohen didn’t want the kind of bleak and hopeless endings you find in the Body Snatcher movies, so he injected this element so that we could see the villains defeated.
The special effects are superb, especially the head models. Frequently in the picture, a human will expand their jaw beyond standard human ability and vomit up a shocking torrent of The Stuff. This is accomplished with some fantastic head models designed by Bret Culpepper, who also did effects work on The Re-Animator. For a low budget production, I was impressed with how well crafted these models were, and the gore was precisely what you would want in a movie on this subject matter. I would highly recommend The Stuff, it is a very entertaining picture, something like the themes of Neil Breen but with self-awareness and a sense of humor.