Why Larry Cohen’s The Stuff is a work of scruffy 80s genius

Feature Ryan Lambie 12 Mar 2014 - 06:35

The 1985 B-movie The Stuff is out on Blu-ray today. We explain why Larry Cohen's horror comedy is a work of scruffy 80s genius...

Like fellow exploitation auteur Roger Corman, writer-director Larry Cohen has an uncanny ability for making a low-budget films with big ideas, and for resorting to mischievous tactics in the process of getting them made.

For the ambitious 1977 expose The Private FIles Of J Edgar Hoover, Cohen shot the film in Washington DC without even worrying about getting official permission to do so - for some scenes, Cohen even managed to cunningly film inside Justice Department buildings and even J Edgar Hoover's actual house, all without a permit.

"It was pure, brazen gall," Cohen later recalled in an interview with Alt Screen, "guerrilla filmmaking at its craziest."

During the production of the batty 1982 monster movie Q: The Winged Serpent, Cohen reportedly slipped a few dollars into a security guard’s hand to gain access to the Chrysler Building, only to have the police turn up when residents complained about the machine gun fire emanating from its roof.

In 1985, Cohen managed to stretch a low budget (of about $1.7m) to make The Stuff. It was a freeform horror comedy about a naturally-occurring, possibly sentient killer dessert, with a great cast (including Michael Moriarty and Danny Aiello) and some inventive special effects. Cohen even managed to save a bit of money by recycling a set from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street. It's a clever, funny and surprising film, and if it's a bit rough round the edges and in some places not fully developed, then that only adds to its scruffy 80s charm.

The Stuff’s central premise is undeniably outlandish, but Cohen makes it work by cheerfully embracing its absurdity. The Stuff has a distinctly 50s B-movie atmosphere, with a blue-eyed nuclear family gone bad and a cute kid who nobody believes (straight out of Invaders From Mars), gallons of goo (see 1958's The Blob) and even a spot of reds-under-the-bed mind control (as in Don Siegel’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, or again, Invaders From Mars).

This time, however, the goo and mind control comes not from outer space, but from a hole in the ground. In an eye-catching opening scene, we see a Stetson-wearing prospector stumble on what will later be called the Stuff: a white, ice-cream-like substance that, he discovers, tastes absolutely delicious. The Stuff is also calorie-free and apparently in bountiful supply, having bubbled up from a pocket in the Earth like an oil reserve.

The Stuff is swiftly piped into tubs and sold to the American public, which greets it with eager spoons. Fast-forward several years, and The Stuff dominates not only the dessert market, but the entire culinary landscape - The Stuff's so addictive, it's become a dietary staple. But then all-American schoolboy Jason (Scott Bloom) happens to notice a dollop of the delicious goo moving around in his fridge of its own accord, while on the other side of the country, industrial saboteur David 'Mo' Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) is on a mission to discover exactly where The Stuff comes from and what it contains.

Moriarty, who’d collaborated with Cohen before on Q and would do so again several times in the director’s future career, is on superb form as the rambling, confidence trickster anti-hero. He’s joined by Bloom as the gee-whiz kid, Garrett Morris as a disgruntled former ice cream manufacturer called Chocolate Chip Charlie, and Andrea Marcovicci as Nicole, a marketing executive whose advertising campaign has made The Stuff a phenomenon. (On a related note, you can tell Cohen's had a great time creating his own delightfully cheesy TV ads for The Stuff. Look out for Brooke Adams in a blink-and-you'll-miss-her cameo.)

Cohen gave Moriarty the freedom to improvise many of his (extremely funny) scenes in The Stuff, and the plot has a similarly stream-of-consciousness atmosphere; the story doesn’t so much build to a climax as ebb and flow from place to place and from scene to scene. The nature of the title goo isn’t fully explained, either; it often displays an alarming intelligence, springing from its victims and heading for a window when alarmed, or even attacking people when cornered. Is The Stuff a sentient substance intent on enslaving mankind, or is it just a parasitic animal that preys on humans (not to mention dogs)? Is it naturally-occurring or was it left behind by mischievous aliens? Cohen never provides the answers.

The Stuff is at its strongest when it satirises advertising and a post-war consumer society. Inspired by the way cigarettes were advertised before anti-smoking legislation kicked in towards the end of the 20th century, Cohen creates a wry comment on how things that are bad for us can be made to seem appealing through the use of a catchy jingle or a colourful logo. It looks at how cheerfully we’ll collectively consume things without necessarily thinking about the harm they’re doing to us.

“With The Stuff, I told how cigarettes and alcohol were damaging, but I took it to an extreme," Cohen said in a 2010 interview with Horror Society. "Did you know in World War II that the cigarette companies gave the soldiers free cigarettes? They addicted a young generation of men - they’ve probably killed more people than all the wars combined. But the corporations don’t care who they kill. They just want to make a buck. That’s The Stuff!"

Just as advertising manipulates, so the Stuff controls the bodies of its victims, turning them into grinning apostles of the goo’s nutritional value before leaving them behind as dry, empty husks. In one late scene, we see a shop dedicated to selling the Stuff blown up with dynamite - that it’s situated between a McDonalds and a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet is by no means a coincidence. The Stuff's a quite scathing attack on 80s American culture and how corporations had hijacked it so subtly - like The Stuff itself, their products had worked their way into a nation's bloodstream.

Satire aside, The Stuff also functions as a fast-paced and entertaining B-movie. Although the film’s low budget means that some of the effects are better than others, one or two scenes really hit home. There’s a great, very strange sequence where The Stuff comes oozing out of the mattress and pillow of a bed, before launching itself violently at a luckless chap who’s run into the room at that precise moment.

It's a scene so creative - and in its own goofy way, nightmarish - that we don't immediately question its lapses in logic. Why are Michael Moriarty and Andrea Marcovicci almost fully clothed when they leap out of bed, and why didn't they notice that their pillows and mattress were filled with gallons of gloopy, very angry Stuff?

This is the scene that borrows the rotating set from A Nightmare On Elm Street, and was originally used in the bit where Johnny Depp’s character is eaten by his own bed and vomited out all over the ceiling in a geyser of blood. In a way, Cohen’s scene has the same startling impact.

Other sequences get by on charm alone, such as the rubbery effects when Stuff-possessed people are hit over the head, leaving them split open like ripe fruit (there’s more than a hint of Philip Kaufman’s Body Snatchers remake to these scenes). The Stuff’s effects and filmmaking style mark it out as something from a bygone age of Atari consoles and fur coats, but its themes remain strikingly current: The Stuff’s jabs at advertising and bovine consumerism still apply almost 30 years later.

Cheap, chaotic and sometimes illogical, The Stuff is nevertheless a great comedy horror curio from one of the great mischief-makers of 70s and 80s genre cinema.

The Stuff is out on Blu-ray now from Arrow Films.

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