When the troubles of the world start weighing me down, it’s nice to take refuge in the absurd. For me, absurdity is best consumed in one and a half hour chunks. Senselessness in real life is depressing, senselessness in movies; pure entertainment. It’s the only time I enjoy being completely baffled. There are no right or wrong answers with movies, they are there to interpret as you will. I find the most absurd movies lead to the wildest, most inventive interpretations. Pound for pound (or pint for pint), it doesn't get any more absurd than Larry Cohen’s 1985 horror satire, THE STUFF.
A slack-jawed rube discovers a spring of thick white paste bubbling up from the ground of the quarry where he works. Like any reasonable person in that situation, he tastes it. The stuff turns out to be quite yummy, so he takes the next obvious step of collecting it to sell to other hungry goo lovers. An undetermined time later, the stuff—now cleverly branded as The Stuff—is a nationwide success. So successful, in fact, that the powerful ice cream cartel hires industrial spy David “Mo” Ruthaford (Michael Moriarty) to steal the secret ingredient. With the help of ousted cookie king Chocolate Chip Charley (Garrett Morris), guilty marketing head Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), and child anti-Stuff terrorist Jason (Scott Bloom), Mo uncovers the real secret. Far from being an innocent, highly addictive desert, The Stuff is really a sentient, mobile life-form that slowly takes over the body and mind of the creature who eats enough of it. Mo and his band will have to act fast to expose the truth before The Stuff obsessed country literally eats themselves into oblivion.
This parable of dangerous fads and blind commercialism could only come from the mind of director Larry Cohen. The ballsy independent filmmaker was the king of the premise. A monster baby slaughters everyone in the delivery room and escapes into the city! An ancient, winged dinosaur bites the heads off New Yorkers and roosts in the spire of the Chrysler Building! A reanimated cop roams the city streets imposing the death penalty for even the slightest infractions! He sold ideas so catchy and sensational that it didn’t matter that they made no sense whatsoever. More impressively, Cohen had the skill, vision, and confidence as a renegade director to turn those ridiculous ideas into massively entertaining movies. He laid it on at full speed, stealing shots wherever he could get away with it, hardly giving the audience a chance to breathe until the credits. Do you remember those old Roadrunner cartoons where the coyote would run across thin air until the moment he looked down, acknowledged reality, and plummeted to the ground? That was how Cohen directed movies, except he never looked down.
THE STUFF is Cohen’s most ludicrous plot by a mile. Intelligent yogurt seeping up from the earth taking over the country through effective marketing. Cohen’s nonstop, slam ahead pacing jumps over all the details of how this could have come to pass, with the clear message of “just go with it.” The thing is, when you think about it, the premise is disturbingly plausible. Tobacco and alcohol companies still do great business, even though we already know their products are addictive and dangerous. Effective marketing can popularize even the most worthless product (AXE Body Spray comes to mind). In the movie, all the members of the FDA who approved The Stuff (and legally protected it’s secret ingredient, just like with Coke!) have died or left the country. The assumption is they were all taken over by The Stuff, but that might not have even been necessary in real life. As long as the price was right, a Trump appointed FDA would have passed it in a second.
Another byproduct of Cohen’s “to hell with the details” style of directing is near the total disregard for names. In my notes, I referred to Scott Bloom’s character as “the kid” because no one, not even his family, calls him by his name until the last act. The company that manufactures The Stuff is never named, despite being the focus of the entire film. I just call it StuffCo. I extrapolated that the head of StuffCo (Patrick O'Neal) was named Fletcher just because he said he owned some mines, and later there is a partially covered sign that says Fletcher Mine and Quarry (plus, it's in the credits). Mo and Chocolate Chip Charley are the only people with often repeated names, which is probably just because they are used for reoccurring gags. Most of the other schlubs in the film are just credited as Postman, Waitress, or That Guy.
It hardly matters, though, because much like his previous Cohen collaboration, Q: The Winged Serpent, Michael Moriarty owns this movie. I’ll never understand why Moriarty didn’t become a household name. He brings an offbeat charm to even his lowliest loser role. Here, he plays Mo Ruthaford as something of a hayseed James Bond, confidently jumping into dangerous situations, thinking on his feet, and disarming people with his unassuming goofball act. As he says to the ice cream consortium after totally showing them up, “Nobody is as dumb as I appear to be.”
It’s more of a consequence of the rapid-fire script, but Mo seems to have a serious commitment issue. He never spends more than a few scenes with anyone before coming up with some excuse to part ways. Immediately after fighting off a pack of StuffCo goons, Mo sends Chocolate Chip Charley off to contact the FBI, even though I’m fairly sure the FBI have telephones. He saves Jason from his Stuffed up family, only to stick him on a plane to Savanna in the next scene (he escapes the plane before it can take off, though). I didn’t realize Nicole was going to be a major character because after her flirty introduction to Mo, she disappears without a mention for the next twenty minutes. Even after everyone bands together at the end, Mo is still telling people to run to the truck, or go set something up. For such a social guy, he has a real lone wolf complex.
One grave failing of the movie is not giving Andrea Marcovicci’s character Nicole enough credit for coming up with the world’s best marketing campaign. She took what amounted to a carton of plain yogurt and turned it into the sexiest, must have product on the market. The purple, pink, and brown color scheme for the logo is as iconic as it is simple. You don’t even need the logo to recognize the brand. A lot of the company vehicles simply had the purple, pink, brown stripe as a designation. Which is good, since the company doesn’t have a real name.
The role of Nicole is an odd one, flip flopping between traditional and progressive. She heads a successful business, and she aggressively takes charge of the negotiations when Mo is posing as a high powered businessman in need of a good PR campaign. The next time we see her though, she is clearly involved in a romantic relationship with Mo, even after he lied to her face. Throughout the rest of the movie, she plays second fiddle to Mo, but of course, everyone plays second fiddle to Mo. She does get some good digs in, like when they are trying to con their way into a tour of StuffCo and she introduces him as her “male secretary”. Plus, her quick thinking saves Mo from suffocating when she uses kerosene to burn the glob of Stuff off his face. In retrospect, that idea is closer to “recklessly impulsive” than “quick thinking”, but it worked, so she gets the points.
The real treat of the movie is the dead on ‘80s style fake commercials for The Stuff. Just like real commercials of the time, The Stuff spots are all clean and upbeat, with pretty, smiling people backed up by a catchy score. Everyone is enjoying the product without ever talking about it. They seem like a prototype for the Mentos ads of the ’90s. Come to think of it, what exactly is in a Mentos?
The commercials also give the opportunity to sneak in a lot of cameos, like Cohen regular Laurene Landon and Brook Adams (giving an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS nod). The nuttiest, most definitively ‘80s commercial features a bickering old couple in a fancy restaurant, who are played by Abe Vigoda and Clara Peller, the Wendy’s “Where’s the beef” lady. And yes, she does ask “Where’s the Stuff?”
There is also a random, uncredited cameo by Eric Bogosian as the super pissed supermarket manager who finally tackles Jason after his anti-Stuff rampage.
I tend to get this blob mixed up with THE BLOB (1988), so I’m always surprised by how little blood is in THE STUFF. In some ways, the creatures’ behavior is completely opposite. The Blob eats its way through the flesh of its victim, the Stuff takes over from the inside, while leaving the shell intact. The Blob is a mindless eating machine, the Stuff is clever and insidious. The deaths in THE STUFF aren’t as spectacularly gruesome as those of THE BLOB, but they are much more fun. Since the Stuff’s victims (Stuffies) are hollowed out for maximum goo storage, their bodies are more fragile. Cohen comes up with all sorts of inventive ways to burst them apart like chunky red piñatas filled with melted ice cream. Additionally, when Stuffies have the urge to purge, their jaws stretch out to unnatural, and sometimes obscene proportions. It’s like a super unsettling live action Looney Toons cartoon.
One body is just as good as another to the Stuff, which leads to a great sequence where Mo meets with loose lipped FDA administrator Vickers (Danny Aiello) who is deathly afraid of his “pet” Great Dane. When Mo leaves, the pooch unplugs the telephone while Vickers is trying to call for help and corners him under a table. Name me another movie where Danny Aiello desperately negotiates with a dog not to barf up suffocating goo into his face. That alone makes this movie worth seeing. Regretfully, the Stuff dog never makes another appearance.
Things take a strange(r) turn in the final act when Mo suddenly enlists the aid of a renegade militia group lead by Commie hating nutball Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino, Moriarty’s soon to be Law & Order costar). It turns out that Spears is also a successful businessman and owner of several large radio stations. After the largely futile attack on StuffCo’s manufacturing plant, Mo and co. run to the radio station, where Spears reveals to America the truth about their favorite snack. The craziest part is, America instantly believes him. Mobs of angry citizens start burning all their cartons of the Stuff and blowing up the McDonald’s style Stuff restaurants. It's that simple. In real life, the idea that the country would readily support a sexist, racist, conspiracy theory believing egomaniac who offers no proof to back up his wild claims is totally absurd.
Oh…right. I guess there is something more absurd than THE STUFF.