The Cohen Case Files: The Stuff (1985)

Executive Produced, Written, and Directed by Larry Cohen

Sometimes Larry Cohen’s penchant for genre films mixed with social satire leads him into situations where those elements fail to gel.  Such is the case with The Stuff.  But despite the fact that the film doesn’t fully work as a satisfying whole, it’s still very entertaining and well worth a look for Cohen’s fans and anyone who enjoys a good laugh at the expense of corporations, health food fanatics, right-wing conspiracy nuts, or cheesy ‘50s horror and sci-fi flicks.

A strange concoction is found bubbling up out of the ground by two men.  The substance has a consistency somewhere between yogurt and ice cream and it tastes delicious.  The men get the idea to start selling the substance to the public.

The film then jumps ahead to a later date as the substance–named and marketed as “The Stuff”–has become all the rage, with people lining up outside of shops selling it at two in the morning.  Naturally, the ice cream industry feels threatened.  The heads of the ice cream companies come together to hire corporate saboteur Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) to gather information they can use against the company behind “The Stuff”.  Mo is a former FBI agent who plays the fool, but in reality is the smartest guy in the room.

At the same time, Jason (Scott Bloom), an adolescent boy living on Long Island, sees “The Stuff” move on its own, making him believe that it’s some sort of creature aware with devious motives.  Frantic, he destroys several cases of the substance at a local grocery store.  While he does this, his family begins eating it exclusively, leading them to take on a hive-like behavior as they try to force Jason to eat “The Stuff”.

With the help of Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), the commercial director who headed up the marketing campaign for “The Stuff” and Chocolate Chip Charlie (Garrett Morris), a cookie manufacturer who was put out of business by the company behind the substance, Mo starts his investigation.  What he finds is a bizarre conspiracy to enslave the human race using the substance as a mind-control agent that has the unfortunate side effect of eventually dissolving its host until they are nothing more than a puddle of fleshy goo.

Eventually, Mo teams up with Jason and an insane right-wing militia leader (Paul Sorvino) to declare war on the company selling “The Stuff” in a series of goofy scenes that barely cobble together the coverage to wrap up the loose ends.

There isn’t a serious moment to be found in The Stuff.  Sure, Cohen lobs some strong accusations at the secretive testing and approval process of the FDA, the dangers of allowing corporate conglomerates to become too large, and the empty promises of advertising, but he does so with his tongue firmly in-cheek.  After all, how serious of a satire can you make about a white blob that looks like marshmallow fluff as it goes about its diabolical plans to take over the human race?

The silliness of the execution isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Considering the typically slapdash feel of Cohen’s screenplay and choppy editing by frequent Cohen collaborator Armond Lebowitz, any attempts to tell a serious horror or dramatic tale would have forced the film into the realm of high camp.  While there are elements of the film that come across as campy–namely the charmingly dated special effects–Cohen mostly avoids the taint of campiness by letting his cast in on the joke.  Marcovicci, Sorvino, and Morris attack their roles with impressive comedic chops, never bothering to hide how much fun they’re having.

And, of course, there’s always a kind of special magic when Moriarty gets together with Cohen.

Moriarty is best known for playing a district attorney on the early seasons of Law & Order, but before taking on that role, he appeared in four (Q, The Stuff, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive, and A Return to Salem’s Lot) of Cohen’s films in the ‘80s.  Each one of his performances in these films contains bizarre choices in accents, speech patterns, tics, and physical appearance that Nicolas Cage would be hard-pressed to top.  What’s most impressive is the fact that Moriarty is able to continue using a ridiculous southern accent and smirking manner through the entire film and it starts to come across as normal.  He sells this behavior as the way his character would really behave.  It’s an amazing performance in its own skewed way.

While the targets of the film remain popular topics for satirists, The Stuff is dated with its use of pop-culture references (Clara Peller, better known as the “Where’s the beef?” lady from the Wendy’s commercials, appears in a commercial for “The Stuff”) and other mid ‘80s touchstones (TCBY franchises, Famous Amos cookies) to score easy gags.  This is unusual for Cohen.  In the best of his films (Bone, It’s Alive, God Told Me To), there is a certain timelessness to his handling of such sticky topics as racism, overmedication, and religious fanaticism.  But Cohen gave those films a seriousness that would have felt out of place with The Stuff.  Unfortunately, his overly light touch with the material only highlights the relative shallowness of the satirical elements this time around.

Despite my misgivings, The Stuff is still a fun watch.  Moriarty chews the scenery with aplomb and old school effects–miniatures, stop motion animation, and rear projection–are the order of the day.  It may not be Cohen’s best film, but after watching Guilty as Sin and Scandalous, it is a needed reminder that he’s far better at directing his material than anyone else.

Fun Cameo: Look for Brad Rijn and Eric Bogosian from Special Effects as employees at the grocery store that Jason trashes.

James Dixon Sighting: As the Stuff addicted postal employee in the small town where Mo meets Chocolate Chip Charlie.  Dixon sports a southern accent that might be more over-the-top than Moriarty’s.

Fair warning, while this trailer is hilarious in its attempts to sell the film as a straight horror picture, it does contain a spoiler about the fate of one of the main characters.

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