June 14, 1985
“Are you eatin it? Or is it eatin you?”
I have a hard time putting my finger on the exact tone of THE STUFF. Its entire subject and premise clearly satirize consumerism, fads and greedy corporations making money from unhealthy products. The opening scene is laugh out loud funny, and definitely a parody of THE BLOB. The score by Anthony Guefen (DEADLY EYES) is often comically overblown for the scenes it accompanies, and sounds like library music. The characters often say and do odd things in the manner of accidentally funny low budget movies, but we know from his other work that writer/director Larry Cohen knows what he’s doing. Still, it doesn’t come across to me like a spoof, like it’s deadpan in order to be funnier. It seems more like yeah, we know this is a goofy idea, but we’re treating it seriously, just go with it.
I don’t feel like I quite understand its intentions. But that’s okay. Whatever they were going for, they came up with something unique.
“The Stuff” is the name a marketing firm comes up with for a white foam that an old man finds bubbling out of the ground. People like to joke about the guy in THE BLOB poking the meteorite with a stick, but this guy goes swiftly from “what is this weird substance?” to “hmm, let me taste it.” And it’s so delicious it just turns into snack time for him.
The story then jumps to a time when The Stuff is a phenomenally popular packaged food product. It comes in a beautifully designed one-pint ice cream container, but does not need to be frozen (or even refrigerated?). In some scenes it looks like vanilla ice cream, other times marshmallow Fluf or marshmallow flavored ice cream sauce.
A bunch of rich ice cream company executives drinking champagne on a yacht are very concerned by news that the entire Chocolate Chip Charlie ice cream chain has been bought out to exclusively serve The Stuff. They hire notorious ex-FBI industrial mercenary guy Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty in his second movie with Cohen, after Q) to find out how to make a knockoff. But as soon as he gets to talk to one of the FDA commissioners who mysteriously approved the product (Danny Aiello shortly before THE PROTECTOR) he realizes there’s something bizarre going on here. The guy starts acting like a weirdo, has a huge stockpile of The Stuff in his kitchen and his dog attacks and turns into a Stuff-spewing monster.
Meanwhile there’s this kid named Jason (Scott Bloom, FBI Agent #3, SMOKIN’ ACES), about two years younger than The Goonies. He kind of seems like Turtle from D.A.R.Y.L. if he got absolutely no support from anyone. Getting into the refrigerator at night, Jason notices a blob of The Stuff crawling out of the container, so he tries to stop his family from eating it, but they all make fun of or yell at him. So he takes vigilante action and goes to a grocery store to try to spill as many containers as he can from the dairy cooler, the aisle display, even out of a little kid’s hand. An uncredited Eric Bogosian plays a stocker at the story who jumps onto the pile of containers to shield it and tries to grab Jason.
Mo teams up with various interested parties: Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci, THE HAND), the woman behind the marketing, who feels guilty for her part in it and also becomes Mo’s girlfriend; the actual Chocolate Chip Charlie (Garrett Morris five years after his five years on SNL), whose family sold his company against his wishes; and Jason, who he learns of from a newspaper article that says he “went bonkers in a local supermarket.” By this point the poor kid’s family have basically turned into pod people, trying to force him to eat The Stuff. It gets so bad he eats a bunch of shaving cream in front of them to fit in. When he’s running away Mo pulls up Kyle Reese style:
“Get in the car!”
“Who are you?”
“I saw it move too – get in the back!”
They figure out where The Stuff is being manufactured – or rather taken directly out of the ground and packaged for sale – but they’re gonna need some fire power to stop them. Mo manages to recruit Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino, his follow up to the Wes Craven TV movie CHILLER, which had aired in May) to lead a private army against the Stuff zombies by riling him up about commies and comparing this to the conspiracy theories about fluoride in the water.
It’s a little less of a reach than it might sound to some of us. Much of the discussion of The Stuff is clearly inspired by the rising popularity of yogurt at the time, a food that had long been popular with hippies but was starting to be marketed to the mainstream for its reported health benefits. Jason’s family talks about The Stuff being all natural and having good bacteria that “kill the bad things inside us.” If the Colonel connects The Stuff to yogurt, he might also connect it to the Soviets, thanks to some of Dannon’s promotions in the ’70s:
Sorvino puts his usual intensity into a satirical Jack D. Ripper type who tells a guy, “No more of your liberal remarks” and when he finds some people already killed by The Stuff complains, “They took their own lives – commie bastards, you cheated me!”
He turns out to be racist, too. He owns some radio stations that they’re going to use to try to get out the message to destroy The Stuff with fire, but when Mo wants to put Chocolate Chip Charlie on the air the Colonel turns all pig-headed. You already know what’s up before he refers to Charlie as a “colored man” and then threatens to blow his head off if he says “one word in code.”
There are a wide variety of FX to enjoy, often crude, but I don’t mind. The best are the animatronic heads getting stretched or busted open, and there are lots of different types of foam pouring out of walls or mouths or miniatures. There’s a scene where foam shoots out of a bed onto a wall and ceiling that’s reminiscent of two different effects from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (both done with the revolving bedroom). And then the foam on the ceiling catches on fire. Upside down flames!
(As I expected, this is reported to be filmed on the same revolving room built for ELM STREET, which also means it the same one from BREAKIN’ 2.)
According to an article in the July 1985 issue of Cinefantastique, most of the FX for the end when The Stuff turns giant were done by David Allen, who had been an assistant on WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH and did stop motion for LASERBLAST, THE HOWLING and Cohen’s own Q. He was expected to do animation, but Cohen didn’t like his test shots of the blob walking on “amoeba legs,” so he devised miniature models that rotated to move fluids around, with the camera locked so it would look like the sets were stationary. They also used some rubber puppets composited over other footage, but had to farm out to some other companies in order to get everything done. Cohen was so unhappy with the work of one of the companies, Effects Associated, that he only paid them half of their fee, which led to a lawsuit.
The simple, appealing The Stuff logo, with its distinct purple, pink and brown on white color scheme, was designed by Larry Lurin, who had been production designer of BLACK CAESAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, but otherwise worked as an artist, including for movie posters. The ones I was able to find him credited with were PLATOON, RAGING BULL, DEATH ON THE NILE, THE NATURAL and HEAVEN CAN WAIT.
Satirizing consumerism seems a little old hat 35 years later. Yeah, we all get it, we’re slaves to buying products. But some of this really works for me. Though I can’t imagine this kind of widespread obsession with one mass-produced dessert product in the modern world, it’s not that different from whatever the fast food sandwich was that everybody was lining up for not too long ago. More than that, the scenes of Jason’s family trying to push The Stuff on him remind me of the more modern phenomenon of people feeling a passionate allegiance to corporations and “i.p.”s and shit. They’re all trying to sell him on The Stuff’s deliciousness and healthy properties and he asks, “Why are you talking like you’re on a commercial?”
The advertising stuff isn’t deep, but it’s funny. I didn’t spot most of these people, but some of the guest appearances in the ads include horror icons Anthony Perkins, Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs, plus Laurene Landon (HUNDRA) and Clara “Where’s the Beef!?” Peller.
I especially like the song they play in the ads, credited as a jingle, but it sounds more like a disco hit.
The thing holding all this together, in my opinion, is Moriarty’s performance. The character is kind of a cool idea, a sort of corporate black ops mercenary. His amorality has burned all his bridges, so he can’t get help from the FBI he used to work for but also can’t go to Ralph Nader, when it’s suggested, because he once took a job discrediting consumer groups. But it’s easy to imagine someone playing the character in an obvious way and being kind of boring. Moriarty plays him as this playful sort of hick, like an eccentric country lawyer with a dry sense of humor. It’s one of those rare performances where you just want to hear him talk, you don’t care what it’s about, you know he’ll make it interesting. For example, in his first scene he announces “sweaty palm” as he shakes hands with each of the executives.
Morris gets some laughs too, with more of a traditional comedic riffing. He seems like the comic relief, though the movie’s not quite serious enough to need one.
As you’d expect for a weird low budget genre movie from the director of IT’S ALIVE, THE STUFF was not a summer blockbuster, but a limited release. I couldn’t find it on any box office charts. Like WARRIORS OF THE WIND (also released by New World Pictures), I even question when it was released – IMDb and Wikipedia say June 14, so I’m going with that, but Variety’s review is dated December 31, 1984, Cinefantastique said it was coming in July, and Cohen said in at least one interview that its New York release was hurt by newspapers not being delivered because of a hurricane, which would put it in September.
Roger Ebert (in a review dated August 26) wrote:
“THE STUFF is a wildly ambitious movie that fails because it forgets to attend to its bottom line. Before you can make a clever, funny, satirical horror film, first you have to make a horror film. The groundwork in THE STUFF is so unconvincing that it sabotages all of the good things in the film…[it] has moments when it comes alive, because of the ingenuity of the actors and Cohen’s willingness to have fun with his material. But the story doesn’t work and The Stuff isn’t as interesting as, say, flying lizards; what we have here are a lot of nice touches in search of a movie.”
Variety was much more positive:
“What’s not to like? The film enjoys a larky sense of innocence, some hideous gaping mouths full of a curdling, parasitic menace, and a fey performance by Michael Moriarty… It also benefits from a hilarious performance played straight by Paul Sorvino as a self-styled paramilitary nut. The 11-year-old Bloom is appealing, while Garrett Morris as a chocolate cookie mogul and Danny Aiello as Vickers lend flavor in support.”
Get it? Flavor.
I think I’m somewhere in between those two, leaning toward Variety’s. While not Cohen’s best, it’s certainly something no one else would make, and unlike anything else we’ll be experiencing in this summer movie season.
I watched this one free on Tubi, but Arrow has a nice special edition blu-ray if you’re interested.
SUMMER OF 1985 NOTES:
Jason has a RETURN OF THE JEDI quilt, pillow case and (this seems weird, but I think) shower curtain. He has a poster of Darth Vader and one that I believe is Boy George. He has A-Team curtains. There’s a Motley Crüe poster hanging in his bathroom. He plays Zaxxon.
Summer of 1985 connections:
The scenes with Colonel Spears are very much making fun of the Cold War attitudes seaping unironically into GYMKATA and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. They even bring up the sore spot of “losing” in Vietnam when the Colonel rants about America losing a war and Jason (improbably for his age) asks, “What about ‘Nam, sir?”
Like FLETCH and D.A.R.Y.L. there is an attacking doberman. This one has eaten The Stuff though, so his face stretches out and oozes white foam.
Some people appreciate THE GOONIES and (to a lesser extent) D.A.R.Y.L. for being movies with kid protagonists that experience danger – hands in blenders, pursued by sinister government helicopters, etc. THE STUFF takes it further by being a gory R-rated movie but with a little boy as the arguable protagonist.
Richard Seaman, who is credited with writing the jingle for The Stuff, soon graduated from the New York University College of Dentistry and went into private practice. According to the Cambria Family Dental websight, “His hilarious and educational YouTube parody of Frank Sinatra’s ‘Come Fly With Me’ renamed ‘Come Brush With Me’ has received rave reviews around the world.”
I didn’t notice her, but Mira Sorvino is reportedly an uncredited extra playing a factory worker, making this the first film of an Academy Award winning actress. Similar story for SAG Award winner Patrick Dempsey, who is said to be “uncredited underground Stuff buyer #2.”