“Enough is never enough.” So goes a key advertising tagline featured in The Stuff, a bracingly contemptuous critique of consumer culture from Larry Cohen–a man who knows a thing or two about exploiting mainstream tastes. Well regarded among B-movie buffs as a master of high-concept screenwriting coupled with low-budget execution, Cohen was, in his 1970s and 1980s heyday, what auteurists call a smuggler: a writer-director who embeds subversive social commentary in otherwise innocuous genre storylines. The Stuff‘s science-fiction scenario offered some bare-bones corporate intrigue along with a few opportunities for the special make-up effects team, but it also lampooned the businessmen who hawk goods of dubious quality and the haplessly credulous populace that lines up to buy them. The film’s eponymous grocery product is a mysterious but plentiful and apparently tasty substance that burbles up, unbidden, from beneath the earth’s surface. Capitalism being what it is, the distinctive white gloop is quickly productized and monetized by a corporation that doesn’t realize (or doesn’t care) that The Stuff seems to move with a mind of its own.
Michael Moriarty plays ex-FBI agent Mo Rutherford, now a freelance industrial spy hired by Big Ice Cream to figure out what’s in The Stuff and how the company makes so much of it. One of Mo’s strategies for getting inside the factory is to woo marketing mastermind Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci) with phony promises of purchasing her agency. (Not only does she fall for his line, but she’s inviting herself back to his hotel room within minutes of meeting him–you’d think an ad exec would be savvier, but strong female characters have never been a Cohen forte.) Meanwhile, 12-year-old Jason (Scott Bloom) gets Mo’s attention by embarking on his own little suburban anti-Stuff crusade, demolishing in-store displays of the substance. Together, these three make up a surrogate family working to save the world. The supporting players include Garrett Morris as “Chocolate Chip” Charlie, a cookie mogul losing market share to The Stuff, Danny Aiello as a former FDA agent with a guilty conscience, and Paul Sorvino as an armed-militia leader who’s stirred to action when Rutherford reveals that The Stuff, not fluoride in the water, is the deadly contaminant threatening the American way of life.
In addition to the obvious, amorphous model of The Blob, one of the key forebears of The Stuff is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both versions, but especially the 1978 Philip Kaufman remake), with its burgeoning army of calmly persuasive pod people insisting that their anxious friends and neighbors should simply relax and go to sleep. This film calls them “Stuffies”–people who’ve eaten enough of The Stuff that it lives in their bodies and can control their minds. Sometimes it leaves their bodies, too, resulting in a handful of eye-popping if unconvincing gross-out scenes that add just enough shock-value to qualify the generally comic proceedings as a horror movie. (“I kinda like the sight of blood,” grumbles Sorvino’s Colonel Spear as he watches the white goo issue from various fissures in a fresh corpse, “but this is disgusting.”) As a matter of fact, The Stuff is hard to get a handle on — it’s part conspiracy thriller, part creature feature, and part outright farce.
If The Stuff seems awfully simplistic at times, it’s hard not to admire its grace notes. For instance, Cohen shot phony TV commercials for The Stuff (one of them stars Abe Vigoda and “Where’s the Beef?” pitchwoman Clara Peller), and they add some tongue-in-cheek flavour. And when Cohen has Sorvino’s Jack D. Ripper/Rambo hybrid leading a raid on The Stuff factory, there’s the hint of a joke somewhere about the irony of an inveterate right-winger going Marxist by taking control of the means of production, although it doesn’t really cohere. So let’s not give Cohen too much credit simply for exhibiting a social conscience. John Carpenter sent a similar message a few years later in They Live, but his critique explicitly and satisfyingly targeted Reagan-era policies, implicating consumerism on a greater scale and with more working-class conviction than Cohen could muster.
One of Cohen’s talents is his instinct for casting, and The Stuff got him working again with Moriarty, whose idiosyncratic performance had elevated the earlier Q: The Winged Serpent. Moriarty plays Rutherford as a crafty and competent hustler who’s arrogant and fearless. In his first scene, he greets his new cadre of old, white bosses with a passive-aggressively hilarious “Hello, sweaty palms!” He has beady eyes and a poker face and delivers his lines hesitantly, like he’s thinking them up as he goes. (Moriarty is indeed a fan of the ad lib.) His ersatz southern accent is less impressive; just assume he’s from the same county where Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards character supposedly grew up. No wonder Cohen went on to make a total of five films with Moriarty: the guy energizes the director’s work in a way that other actors can’t quite manage. There is one more truly fine performance in this film, and it’s by Robert Frank Telfer, playing Jason’s father. Though Jason’s parents are clearly addicted, it’s his dad who takes it upon himself to convince the boy to stop worrying and love The Stuff. He does this in weird, affectless speeches delivered directly to the camera with a chillingly insincere “hey, slugger” smile on his face. I don’t know if Telfer is a great actor, per se, but those scenes are very effective and he’s great in them.
Ultimately, what really lets the movie down are the creature effects. I’m not talking about the serviceable miniatures work or even the make-up effects, which are transparently phony but deliver a gross-out in spite of their cheapness because of the lovingly sick imagination that went into their imperfect crafting. (One of the latex heads appears to have a bad case of acne on the inside of its mouth, which is top-notch squickiness in my book.) And some of the optical composites are clever and nearly seamless. Yet most of the shots involving The Stuff in motion are unconvincing. That would be fine were they unconvincing in awesome ways (like the ridiculous but endearing bird monster of Q), but instead they’re unconvincing in boring ways. Even busting out the old “rotating room” gag — as seen in Royal Wedding and A Nightmare on Elm Street — so that The Stuff can puddle up on the wall and ceiling doesn’t do the trick. Obvious time and budget constraints aside, it doesn’t help that The Stuff just isn’t a very compelling monster. Its soft, vaguely sticky white form suggests yogurt and ice cream gave birth to a marshmallow. And despite his considerable skills, Cohen doesn’t have quite the directorial chops required to make a marshmallow scary.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of The Stuff is, in a word, gorgeous. From the opening scene, an almost monochromatic chiaroscuro composition with strong diagonal lines (it was shot in an actual snowstorm), it’s clear that Arrow’s 1.85:1, 1080p transfer, sourced from a 2K scan of the original camera negative, is on the money. The picture has an exceptionally film-like texture and a tremendous sense of depth; it’s breathtaking. A very fine, organic layer of grain has been touched ever-so-lightly, if at all, by dust-busting algorithms, and the average video bitrate is a generous 35 Mbps. As a result, the image has a vibrancy and liveliness that’s rarely matched by transfers of indie genre pics, let alone big-studio Blu-ray titles, and the grain structure holds up, even when scrutinized on a frame-by-frame basis. Audio is only a centre-channel monaural track, reproduced here as uncompressed LPCM audio, but it’s crisp and clean and free of noticeable distortion, although the overall dynamic range is obviously limited. This is a model release.
Extras are limited to a talking-head documentary and a movie trailer. We get the trailer (it’s in 1080p though darker and grimier than the feature proper) twice, once with pithy commentary by director Darren Bousman (Saws II through IV) courtesy Trailers from Hell. The documentary, Calum Waddell’s “Can’t Get Enough of The Stuff” (53 mins., HD), is pretty good as these things go, offering plenty of face time with director Larry Cohen, who shares the spotlight with producer Paul Kurta, actress Marcovicci, make-up effects guy Steve Neill, and genre-savvy film critic Kim Newman. Cohen talks at some length about the idea for The Stuff, at one point tracing it back to cigarette giveaways during World War II. “The cigarette companies killed more American boys,” he muses, “than the Japanese and the Germans combined.” Kurta remembers that Cohen taught him “not to get too hung up on little things–like the screenplay.” He remembers getting scripts, worrying about how the crew would pull off the elaborate scenes required, and being told, “Don’t worry about it — I’ll change it.” Although Moriarty is not on hand, we hear about his on-set methodology, including a penchant for making up dialogue as he went along. Marcovicci calls the production “a hellzapoppin’ crazy scene.” And quite a bit of time is spent explaining what, exactly, was in The Stuff when it appeared on screen. “When we had huge masses of it,” Cohen says, “it was the foam that the fire department uses to retard flames, and that stuff is made of ground-up fishbone. And you can imagine what it must smell like.” Cue Marcovicci: “It was wretched. It was unbelievably horrible.”
While this piece probably delivers just as much information as an audio commentary would have (and Anchor Bay is in fact sitting on one from a 16-year-old DVD release), one might have made a nice complement. Too, it would have been nice to see some of the original in-film advertisements in their entirety, though Cohen all but admits in one of his interview segments that they’re lost. Completing the retail package is a “collector’s booklet” with an essay by Joel Harley that wasn’t provided for review.