Larry Cohen is a name known in film for very off-beat projects, often blending in old-school elements updated with a sense of modern satire. From the notorious killer baby movie It’s Alive, to the insane areas God Told Me To goes into, he carved out a very memorable niche for himself. Now one of his cult titles, The Stuff, is here on Blu-ray, and while it’s satirises the mid-eighties, a lot of the areas Cohen focuses on are still topical and thought provoking today. Not bad for a film with what sounds like the most ludicrous high concept premise ever; carnivorous desert!
The Stuff is the new fast food sensation spreading across America. Advertised as All Natural, with no artificial flavours, people can’t seem to get enough of it. So much so that several major food companies decide to hire corporate spy David “Mo” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) to find out what is the secret of the Stuff. He soon discovers a lot more than he bargained for, as with the help of an advertising exec (Andrea Marcovicci), he meets a boy (Scott Bloom) who once saw a carton of it moving in his fridge. It seems that the stuff is all natural and organic after all. It’s also mind altering, alive, and highly parasitic…
One doesn’t need to be an expert in film theory to see where this film’s satirical intent is. Like George Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead, The Stuff is an all out assault on consumerism in the guise of a genre movie. Having worked in television, Cohen knew too well the power and insidiousness of advertising, especially in selling stuff that’s not good for you at all. (In an interview, he said that the film was inspired by cigarette advertising.) This is reflected in both the adverts we see for the Stuff, and the way that those infected by it behave and talk. There are wonderfully unsettling scenes where the kid’s family are all blandly eating the Stuff, with Stepford Wives-esque smiles on, that show just how weird and inhuman the way adverts portray the world are. It also covers a lot of areas, including swipes at corporate culture as a whole, issues with organisations like the FDAA, the portrayal of “ideal bodies” in the media and more. There’s a lot of food for thought (pun fully intended) to consider.
But none of this actively gets in the way of the fun; like all good satires, these points come across through the plot, it never stops to make speeches. It’s remarkable in this film how well it manages to present its absurd idea. Yet as it goes on, we do get a good idea of how the lifecycle of “The Stuff” works, from the way it first gets consumed, to when it leaves it’s hosts, ready to consume more. Most of this is done through an impressive selection of special effects techniques for a lower budget film (Miniatures, moving sets, stop motion, prosthetics…) . While they don’t all work as well as they should, they are all memorable and have a charm entirely CG-ed ones wouldn’t have. It also builds well on ideas from many a B-Movie. Scenes with the kid’s family are very Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the industrial setting is straight out of Quatermass II, and the gelatinous Stuff itself is an obvious homage to The Blob (which got a decent remake not long after this film).
The rest of production is good too. While there are some issues, including some slightly awkward edits that might have you wondering what exactly just happened, the whole thing is extremely engrossing. The cast is a lot of fun, with the always somewhat eccentric Michael Moriarty a blast to watch perform as Mo (“Because when I get given money, I always want mo’!”). Other stand-outs would include Garrett Morris as ice cream icon “Chocolate Chip” Charlie, and Paul Sorvino as Col. Spears, a paramilitary leader who gets some of the film’s best lines. (“America’s never lost a war!” “What about Vietnam?” “We lost that at home son.”) As for this Blu-ray, the film, which really found its audience on VHS, has never looked better. A very neat, natural looking restoration, it brings everything to life, especially many of the little details of the effects scenes. The extras are a fifty minute talking heads “Making Of”, a booklet focusing on how the film features into the history of horror involving food, and the trailer, with a commentary by Saw II-IV and Repo! director Darren Lynn Bousman.
The Stuff isn’t quite a true eighties creature feature classic, but it is a lot of fun, while showing how well you can make a premise as far out there as killer low-fat yogurt. In fact, in times when alternative medicines, fad diets, organic foods and the like are on the rise, The Stuff is perhaps more relevant than ever. Recent issues like the horsemeat crisis mean that we are more suspicious than ever about what exactly is in our dinners, so it’s appropriate for the film to get the release it deserves now. In fact, it’s actually surprising, given the recent trends of remakes, that this one hasn’t already had a movie reboot as a result. Still, we have the original that’s just the thing for any video night. Just be careful what snacks you have during it….