Thursday, October 15, 2015

Film Review: THE STUFF (1985, Larry Cohen)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 87 minutes.
Tag-line: "It's smooth and creamy. It's low calorie and delicious. And it kills. It's The Stuff!"
Notable Cast or Crew: Michael Moriarty (TROLL, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY), Andrea Marcovicci (THE HAND, THE FRONT), Garrett Morris (SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, MARTIN), Paul Sorvino (GOODFELLAS, ROMEO + JULIET), Danny Aiello (DO THE RIGHT THING, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA), Patrick O'Neal (UNDER SIEGE, THE WAY WE WERE), Abe Vigoda (THE GODFATHER, LOOK WHO'S TALKING), Brooke Adams (THE DEAD ZONE, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS '78), Eric Bogosian (TALK RADIO, SUBURBIA), Patrick Dempsey (CAN'T BUY ME LOVE, GREY'S ANATOMY).
Best One-liner: "Ever'body has to eat shavin' cream once in a while."

Behold... THE STUFF.  (Or IL GELATO CHE UCCIDE––"the gelato that kills," according to the Italian poster.  You know, I think we should just go with that title instead!)  Technically, I already reviewed THE STUFF over six years ago, but a film as deliciously delirious as THE STUFF deserves more than a simple capsule-review.

THE STUFF is essentially THE BLOB for the 1980s, which is to say it's a "corporate" Blob, fully deregulated, and ready for the voracious consumers of the THEY LIVE generation.



Note the EYES OF LAURA MARS-chic: fur coats n' bathing suits!

The premise is simple: a taste sensation is sweeping the nation––it's called "The Stuff," and it's low in calories and high on tastee flavor.  The only problem is, eating it might transform you into an alien monster, equal parts THE BLOB, THE THING, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.


It's tough to get people to care about side effects, though, cause The Stuff is so goddamned delicious and low in calories and did I mention how inexpensive it is?

Sure, the commentary is a little heavy-handed, but writer/director Larry Cohen was butting heads with Reagan-era consumerism, an age of such colorful greed that it's no stretch of the imagination whatsoever to have Abe Vigoda and the "Where's the Beef?" lady hawking The Stuff from the comfort of a yuppie eatery.

"Where's... the STUFF?"

Indeed, that is actually a scene from the film.  And that's why I love Larry Cohen––he's never afraid to take a Grand Guignol or MAD Magazine-style gag way too far.  My only complaint is that there was (so far as I know) no movie tie-in with a marshmallow fluff manufacturer.  Though obviously it would have clashed with the film's philosophical sensibilities, that has to be one of the major missed opportunities of our times.

In any event, here's some of my favorite stuff from THE STUFF:


#1. THE STUFF wastes no time.  In the first fifteen seconds of the film, we have an unlucky nightwatchman discover The Stuff and seal his fate by eating its fluffy goodness.


If this were actually a remake of THE BLOB, the run-time would probably be less than five minutes.  In short, I really appreciate a horror movie (see also: SLUGS) that really cuts to the chase. 


#2.  Michael Moriarty, playing an industrial spy named Mo ("The name's Mo Rutherford. They call me that 'cause when people give me money, I always want mo'."), delivering yet another one of his multifaceted method performances in the context of a B-movie.

He plays Mo as a likeable, easygoing Southern politician who puts a great deal of effort into making his extremely calculated, "aw shucks" persona feel spontaneous.  He's sort of a proto-Kevin Spacey from HOUSE OF CARDS, and it's the kind of work that might have garnered an Oscar nod if it didn't happen to be in a movie about killer marshmallows.


#3. SNL's Garrett Morris as "Chocolate Chip Charlie."

For about twenty-five minutes, THE STUFF becomes a buddy movie as Moriarty's industrial spy teams up with Garrett Morris' "Famous Amos"-inspired cookie man in order to battle The Stuff.  I swear Morris is improvising everything he does, from his dialogue to his karate moves.  I wholeheartedly approve.


#4. The Kiddie Element.  There's a reason THE STUFF is remembered fondly by so many thirty and fortysomethings, and it's because it enabled so many childhood fantasies––namely, that evil food is crawling around in your refrigerator unattended,

and that all the things your parents want you to eat are actually part of a BODY SNATCHERS-style alien conspiracy.

Hell, I'm pretty sure this was the basis for most of CALVIN & HOBBES.  And then there's the catharsis of mounting a kiddie assault on a grocery store with a rake handle:


Note: Playwright Eric Bogosian is one of the stock boys!

It's all pretty fantastic, creepy escapism.


#5.  Patrick Dempsey (later known as "McDreamy" or "McSteamy" or something, on the basis of his faux-Clooney/Anthony Edwards levels of popularity on GREY'S ANATOMY) as a New Wave-y "Stuff Junkie."

Obviously, I get a kick out of this sort of thing.


#6. A pre-respectability Danny Aiello as a spooked FDA official.

He only has about five minutes of screen-time, but he delivers a labyrinthine, layered performance as a public official who is being manipulated by his evil pet dog.  It sounds silly, but I'm not kidding––he infuses the role with a true and existential menace; it's like we're watching ROSEMARY'S BABY or a Harold Pinter play or something.


#7. The commercials.  I've alluded to these already, but THE STUFF is filled with wonderful fake commercials for the titular product, and they run the gamut from the ridiculous (the aforementioned Abe Vigoda/Where's the Beef crossover) to the sublime:



which includes Cannon Films-style "urban" dance choreography, absurd pop jingles, and celebrity cameos (such as Brooke Adams, Tammy Grimes, Laurene Landon, etc.).


#8.  The absolutely vicious corporate digs.  I really don't think Larry Cohen could get away with this stuff today.  For starters, he delves into the particulars of FDA regulation and directly compares the killer secret formula of The Stuff to that of... Coca-Cola.

Later, top executives are force-fed insane quantities of their own toxic product.  I have to imagine every time somebody watches THE STUFF, the CEOs from Burger King and McDonald's and Taco Bell shudder in their mansions somewhere and don't know why.

THE STUFF has balls!


#9. Is it a James Bond movie?

Most of the film's latter half takes place at a factory for The Stuff, and the machine-gun-toting employees all wear yellow jumpsuits, like they're henchmen from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE or MOONRAKER or the like.  I can dig it.


#10. Paul Sorvino.  As a right-wing military man in the "General Jack D. Ripper" mold, Sorvino is frighteningly hilarious.
Whether he's screaming lines like "The Commie bastards took their own lives!" or commandeering a fleet of taxis (and commanding his soldiers to issue a ten-percent tip),

he's doing his best to steal the movie from Michael Moriarty.  He doesn't quite succeed, but it's a good showing.


In the end, THE STUFF is an irreverent, absurdist work of horror-comedy which frequently rings prophetic.  "Are you eatin' it or is it eatin' you?"  Four and a half stars.

–Sean Gill


2015 HALLOWEEN COUNTDOWN

4 comments:

Mike Bradley said...

Oh yeah! Now that's The Stuff! Nothing to add here, just diggin' the countdown. Say, have you ever thought of tackling Cohen's "Q: The Winged Serpent?" You wanna see some maximum Moriarty, that's your film. Maximum Carradine? The same. Perhaps the most genuinely perplexing special effects ever allowed on screen? You bet! It is positively INSANE, and I highly recommend it.

Sean Gill said...

Mike,

Thanks, man! I have wanted to tackle Q for a while; that indeed is maximum Moriarty! Big fan of the stop motion Quetzalcoatl, and all that jazz.

I've always liked Larry Cohen, and almost had a chance to work with him, too––I was hired as a crew member on an indie thriller he was working on in 2006 called SURVEILLANCE, but due to a variety of reasons, it didn't even make it to principal photography. Them's the breaks!

Mike Bradley said...

Those are the breaks, indeed. But here's an even sadder story of a brush with notoriety to cheer you up: Years ago I worked at a big record store in Memphis that was frequented by Liza Minelli's ex-husband David Gest. One day he told my old roommate that he'd pay him good money to come to his house and "organize his record collection." He thought it might be a fun adventure, or at least interesting, so he took the offer. It turned out that what Gest meant by "organizing" was just moving boxes from one house to another down the street. The guy had like thousands of cheap cutout CDs. My roommate basically did manual labor for 12 hours, and got paid a hundred bucks or so. He was so mad! That's neither here nor there, but still makes me chuckle!

Sean Gill said...

Mike,

Ha––that's pretty ridiculous!