Monday, February 26, 2018

The Stuff (1985)

I've never really given much thought to The Stuff, but this artwork gave me a flashback to seeing its VHS cover as a child and feeling repulsed and fascinated - a vibe I still chase to this day, within the genre!

Anyway, The Stuff, written and directed by Larry Cohen, is a satirical, campy, if slightly untidy B movie sci-fi/horror/comedy.

The "stuff" in question is a mysterious creamy dessert that's taken America by storm. The pink and purple signature colours and neon are seen everywhere: billboards, delivery trucks, street vendors... as well as sexy TV commercials and its claim of "Enough is never enough!".

A few people are rightly convinced that something sinister is going on, though. We have David 'Mo' Rutherford (Michael Moriarty), an industrial espionage expert hired to find out about this enigmatic product; Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), an advertising executive who up until now has been peddling it to the masses; 'Chocolate Chip' Charlie (Garrett Morris), the face of another once-popular snack whose business got swallowed by the Stuff grabbing so much market share; and a young boy by the name of Jason (Scott Bloom) distrustful of the creamy goo after witnessing it moving around his fridge on its own, then being forced to run away from home when his parents and brother (played by his real brother: they both have crazily striking blue/green eyes!) all go nuts and try to attack him.

At one point Jason comes home to find all other food in the house tossed in the rubbish, and his mother serving a huge dish of Stuff to the family, in a bizarre take on a family dinner. 

Where did this delicious and dangerous treat come from, though? We're never told. The closest we get is in the opening scene, with an old geezer finding it oozing up from a hole in the ground. He tastes it(!) and decides that it's delicious enough to sell. Then it's back to present day (in 1985) with the immersion of the dessert into everyday culture and Stuff-induced mind-control of the population well underway.

We follow the aforementioned group of level heads as they travel around trying to uncover what the Stuff actually is, and then attempting to get the word out about its dangers. Their adventures even have them crossing paths with Paul Sorvino, chewing the scenery up as a military dude.

Effects are either goo or body-horror based, taking the form of practical (upside down and miniature sets, crazy fake heads, and just plain ol' pumping the stuff into and through things) and CGI (now laughably dated looking green screen). There are some inconsistencies with exactly how the Stuff affects a human body; sometimes people appear to bleed it when attacked, and others appear to be empty vessels after the alien pudding has left them. This isn't the worst thing in the world (this is a B movie after all) but it's a bit confusing.

I'm pretty sure I used to conflate this and The Blob, for obvious reasons, and it's not unlike it, of course. But the 1980's Blob brings nastier gore and a sense of its substance being actually dangerous. The Stuff, despite clearly turning people into zombies and occasionally (and far too seldom) oozing its way out of bodies, never really feels like a palpable threat in the moment. Everyone is obsessed with it, but ultimately the tide turns in public opinion and we're even shown riots against it, by the end of the movie?! It got one thing right: humans are fucking fickle.

The slightly chaotic plot seems to be the result of edits made from the original cut. Formerly longer than its now 87min runtime, edits were demanded to help with pacing. And help the pacing it did... only, it sacrificed anything the film ever had in the way of the art of crafting a story. Whereas presumably the longer cut fleshed out character decisions and actions, this version bounces speedily from one sequence to another with no time to lose!

According to Cohen the studio still wasn't too happy with the finished film, despite the cuts:
"New World wanted a straight-up horror film, and, in retrospect, The Stuff had more comedic aspects to it than the executives were perhaps expecting. They thought they were going to get a flat-out horror movie with a lot of gore and scares, and we made a film that was more satirical and had a lot of humour and commentary in it."

He's right, this definitely plays as a silly satire with occasional nasty moments, rather than an all-out "let the bodies hit the floor" horror movie. And that's cool! It's perhaps better viewed in company rather than alone, as it's so nonsensical it'll have you exclaiming out loud as it all plays out. Even the score sounds like it would be more at home on a chirpy Spielberg movie than this.

Streaming on Shudder at time of writing. Watch while eating something creamy!


  1. Seeing this movie is always a surreal experience for me, because a lot of it was filmed in the area where I grew up/currently live, again. The two ice cream stands that served as "Stuff" stands in the movie are still open and operational, (I visit one at least once a year), and several sequences were shot on the main street of the town where I spent my early childhood. When this was made, my parents were part of a local theater troupe, and many of their actor friends appear as extras.

    1. That is so cool! I was swooning over those kind of 'atomic' looking angular stands. Such a sucker for those.