Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Stuff (1985) Film Review
Legendary B-movie auteur Larry Cohen’s last true classic, The Stuff’s premise is as ridiculous as it’s proved prescient, following up Dawn Of The Dead’s chew on consumerism by taking the ‘you are what you eat’ mantra to horrifying extremes. It’s Alive skewered the pro-life movement and post-hippy parenting, while Q The Winged Serpent combined hard-boiled NYC detective tropes with monster movie mayhem; The Stuff mixes Eighties media satire and social commentary with Invasion Of The Body Snatchers-style paranoia, resulting in a gloriously gooey confection. It’s as wilfully messy as all of Cohen’s work but his wicked sense of humour, budget-enforced ingenuity and ability to draw off-kilter performances from unlikely actors shines through.
There's a new craze sweeping the nation, and people just can't get enough. The Stuff is a 100 per cent organic, non-fattening alternative to ice cream, that's delicious and filling - and addictive. Young suburbanite Jason starts to suspect it may be harming those around him, his family quickly turning into blank-eyed, Stuff-obsessed automatons. When they try to wean him onto it, the youngster goes on the run and bumps into industrial saboteur Mo, who's been hired by The Stuff's ailing competitors to get to the bottom of its fiercely-guarded secrets. Soon they're up to their necks in conspiracies and being chased by The Stuff's foot-soldiers wherever they go, realising that the truth behind the substance may be more frightening than they could conceive.
The conceit of a furiously-marketed junk food turning consumers into zombies is undeniably genius (the fact it's posing as 'healthy' adds another layer of indictment that's even more pertinent now), but where Cronenberg might have gotten twistedly po-faced or Romero would have added genuine pathos, Cohen is content to throw all his B-movie nous at the wall and let the audience see what sticks. Aside from the intense - and often hilarious - meltdown sequences, this is the closest the auteur came to a kids' movie, which works for an idea so outlandish. It's highly reminiscent of Fifties classic Invaders From Mars - itself to get an Eighties makeover courtesy of Tobe Hooper the following year - with the focus on a child protagonist both opening the film up to a wider audience and making the central idea something we can all relate to. Who didn't suspect their parents of being something 'other' at some point?
The parody of advertising and branding is spot-on, with cheesy Eighties jingles and spoof commercials (check out the breakdancers and catwalk models, who'd obviously never go near the product they're selling) predating Verhoeven's similarly satirical approach to Robocop's future world. Cohen even shows balance and insight with his skewering of big business, depicting head honchos living in blissful ignorance of the real world problems they're symptomatic of while their companies try desperately to sweep anyone who makes an objection to their practices under the concrete carpet. There's also an element of eco-horror, given that the Stuff is completely natural, a substance that could well be the planet's response to what we've done to it.
Following on from his characteristically jazzy, out-of-place performance in Q, Michael Moriarty is even more of a joy here as the unashamedly sleazy but sharp as a tack Mo. He's backed by some unexpected acting heavyweights: Danny Aiello has a committed cameo, while Paul Sorvino is an unbridled delight as a gung-ho colonel chewing up the scenery, but it’s Garrett Morris who gets the juiciest lines as ‘Chocolate Chip Charlie’, a junk-food mogul with an axe to grind and a nifty flying kick. Scott Bloom is also a far better child hero than the Eighties usually allowed, being both less irritating than his peers and believably defiant – his mega-destructive supermarket sweep still pleases the snotty anti-corporate punk in all of us. The whole ensemble is obviously in on the joke, and their variety adds to the overall flavour immensely.
The special effects are obviously cheap but they’re also highly imaginative, as well as being ingeniously derivative – Cohen found another use for A Nightmare On Elm Street’s infamous rotating room gag, while the frequent shots of what looks like shaving foam menacing the characters are a fond tribute to (or rip-off from) The Blob. Meanwhile the regurgitating sequences overflow with rubbery prosthetic goodness – beating Street Trash by a good couple of years - and the sound design goes way overboard in hilariously knowing fashion. It's never actually scary of course - could it ever be? - but Cohen taps into a few inexplicable phobias that most viewers will recognise, whether it's that irrational disgust of a certain foodstuff (everyone's got one) or just the general fear of being watched.
If you dig the work of Frank Hennenlotter or appreciate George Romero’s subversive side you'll definitely find a lot to love here. The pacing is patchy and it’s not aged as well as some other Eighties faves but it remains relevant, and a hell of a lot of fun to boot. Drawing on the legend of Coke's secret recipe and playing on the practices of unscrupulous fast-food chains, Cohen has a ball sticking it to the man, while the sense of paranoia portrayed is even more palpable in these days of horse-meat scandals. At nearly 30 years old, this Stuff still has plenty of bite to it, a tasty treat for Eighties die-hards that will hopefully find plenty of new fans too.Reviewed on: 10 Mar 2014
If you like this, try:Body Melt