Friday, October 20, 2017

A Carton Full of Crazy - THE STUFF

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.

The Capsule:
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 piƱatas 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.

C Chaka


Friday, October 13, 2017

Toddler Trauma - PET SEMATARY

Happy Friday the 13th, everyone.  And in October, no less.  Now, obviously, this would be the appropriate time to cover one of the FRIDAY THE 13th films, but let´s not be that predictable.  Plus, as usual, I didn’t look at a calendar and only realized it was Friday the 13th today.

I missed the boat on that one, but this week's movie ties in to another current event; the surprise success of IT and the wave of other recent Stephen King adaptations.  And yes, this also was entirely unintentional.  It was basically a random selection, forethought is not one of my strengths.  Everything worked out well, though, because I had forgotten how fantastic Mary Lambert's 1989 nihilistic gut punch, PET SEMATARY, really was.

The Capsule:
The Creed family, handsome doctor Louis (Dale Midkiff, star of NIGHTMARE WEEKEND!), wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), and toddler son Gage (Miko Hughes), trade the hassle of Chicago for the easy living of rural Maine.  Helpful neighbor Jud Crandell (Fred Gwynne) warns Louis not to let Ellie’s cat Churchill wander, since the road by the house, with its barreling trucks screaming by at all hours, is a notorious pet killer.  So many were lost over the years, the local kids made their own adorably misspelled pet cemetery.  When the beloved family pet inevitably buys it, a sympathetic Jud takes Louis beyond the kid-built graveyard to an ancient Indian burial ground, where anything laid to rest don't rest very long.  When the cat comes back the very next day, with a nasty smell and nastier disposition, Louis wonders if the lovable kitty he planted is the same beast that dug its way out.  But when a similar fate befalls baby Gage, better judgment does not outweigh the temptation to see his little boy alive again.  

Memory is a funny thing.  Between HBO and VHS, I’ve seen this movie at least a dozen times.  I've always held it in high regard.  Certain lines of dialogue consistently pop into my brain at random times.  So it came as quite a shock when I watched it again for this piece and realized that aside from the basic storyline, I’d forgotten almost everything else.  In a way, this rewatch felt like the first time.

Advanced warning: Since most of the really juicy stuff happens in the last act, I'm going to be more spoilery than usual.   

I was especially surprised by the tone.  I knew it was a supernatural story, the dead rising and all that, but I didn’t recall how pervasive it was.  Almost the entire cast experiences ghostly visitations, premonitions, or some type of otherworldly influence.  More significantly, the movie is much darker than I remembered.  I knew it was no picnic, but goddamn, these people are really put through the ringer.  

What makes it worse is that the doomed Creed family are genuinely decent people.  Rachel is compassionate, determined, and thoughtful, if a little uptight.  Considering her traumatic backstory, she turned out remarkably well.  Louis is a loving dad who's worst flaw is not putting up a fence (seriously, that would have solved everything).  The kids are cute and kind to each other, even if Elly gets a little whiny when she starts having dreams about her parent's violent deaths.  Director Mary Lambert does a expert job of twisting the knife, emotionally speaking, because no one deserves what is in store for them.  It is a travesty that Lambert didn't have more success as a director (she mainly does television now), because she handles the pathos of the characters so well.  She grounds every bad decision the characters make in relatable human weakness.

Take Jud Crandell.  With his warm smile and Pepperidge Farm Remembers accent, lovable Fred Gwynne plays Jud as the guy you wish was your grandfather.  As charming as he is, Jud is absolutely the worst neighbor ever.  His desire to be helpful and to save Ellie the pain of losing a pet (and to share a lifelong secret) might be the initial reason he shows Louis the Micmac burial ground, but he doesn't think it through.  It’s only after Churchill returns uncharacteristically vicious that Jud mentions how his own dog came back a foul-smelling hell hound when he tried that trick as a kid.  That seems like an important detail to leave out.  Jud continues to fill Louis’ head with bad ideas and does absolutely nothing to stop him from acting on them.  After Gage gets plowed over by a semi, Jud breaks down to Louis, claiming responsibility for the tragedy because he introduced the doc to the evil in those woods.  I used to think he was just being overly dramatic, but seeing the malicious force actually influencing the environment, FINAL DESTINATION style, in the third act, I realized, oh shit, it really was Jud’s fault!  He roused the evil and the Creeds paid the price.  Way to go, Herman Munster.

In fact, all the characters in the story could be seen as pawns in a larger struggle of good versus evil. In this case, the force of good is totally worthless and the force of evil is a real asshole.  This malevolence is solely concerned with bringing maximum anguish to any poor dope who encounters it.  Not only is Louis forced to see his son die in front of him, what returns from the unhallowed ground is only a shell for the vengeful spirit of Rachel’s long dead, demented sister, Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek).  It serves the Creeds a double shit sandwich.

You have to admire King’s audacity at putting the ultimate villain in the form a 3-year-old boy.  On the surface, a knee-high person you can lift with one arm doesn’t seem that threatening, but the unholy munchkin has a great deal more coordination and strength than your average rug rat.  The last act takes cues from CHILD’S PLAY, only showing quick glimpses of Evil Gage has he dashes by, building the tension that he could be hiding anywhere.  The comparison is even more apt during the action scenes, where Louis is clearly wrestling with a dummy.  I suppose there are guidelines against sparring with a real toddler in a fight sequence.  The most chilling moments are from the real pint sized actor, though.  Something about an adorable tyke waddling towards you with a scalpel and an evil grin is damned unsettling.  His line delivery is also creepy as fuck.  

As if that wasn't strange enough, I cannot fail to mention the most ludicrously bizarre image of all, Evil Gage appearing before his mom sporting a top hat and cane.  The kid’s body isn’t just a vessel for Zelda’s murderous rage, a ‘70s era pimp apparently snuck in there as well.

Another thing I had forgotten was just how gory the movie is.  Things only get bloody in a few spots, but those scenes shoot for the moon.  The Creed family’s spirit guide, Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), is introduced being carried into Louis’ office, post car accident, with a horrific head wound.  The camera practically dives into his exposed brain.  When Pascow’s ghost shows up periodically throughout the film to give unheeded advice, his bleeding, gaping skull is always prominently displayed.

The most punishing sequence is saved for poor Jud.  While he is hunting around his house for the freshly risen Evil Gage, the little dickens slices through his Achilles tendon with a scalpel and drops him like an old oak.  Now, the Achilles tendon is one of those super vulnerable spots on the human body (along with the eyeball, wrist, and tender bits) that is guaranteed to cause the average viewer to involuntarily squirm, so this alone would be enough.  It isn’t. Once he gets Jud on his level, the demon seed slices his cheeks open Heath Ledger’s Joker style.  As the coup de grace, Gage nuzzles up close to the geezer and BITES his fucking throat out!  Yes, a toddler tears a bloody chunk out of a senior’s neck, on camera. Lil’ Miko must have had one laid back set mom.  

The scene that most shook me up on this viewing is Gage’s death.  Not his first death, by semi; that was artistically implied with a stray rolling kiddy shoe, just like in MAD MAX.  I’m talking about when Louis has to put an end to the adorable abomination by injecting him with a hypodermic.  Compared to all the carnage that came minutes before, Evil Gage’s death is as gentle as a tickle.  It never bothered me the dozen times I had watched it before, but that was before I had kids.  Watching that needle go into a tiny little boy’s neck (no dummy for this one) was like a kick in the stomach.  So thanks, parenthood, for making it difficult to enjoy a decent child murder anymore.  Sheesh.

Being a father also made the theme of the desperation of grief stand out more clearly.  Now I get why the Creeds made many of their terrible decisions.  After Gage’s (first) death, when Jud tells Louis the cautionary tale of a young man buried at the Micmac site who returned basically a Frankenstein’s monster, all the despondent father takes away is that it is possible to have his son back.  Reason, caution, and good sense mean nothing to someone so overcome by loss.  Even after all the trouble Rachel goes through to get back to their house—and being psychically aware that Zelda is somehow coming for her—the first thing she does when confronted by her once dead, scalpel wielding baby is to hug him.  We parents be stupid about that shit.

I even understand why Louis, after putting an end to his evil, fake son, immediately hauls the mutilated body of his wife down the trail to the pet sematary, mumbling how this time will be different.  In a way, the moment when Louis is reunited with Picasso Rachel almost counts as a happy ending, because he is so blinded by love that all he can see is the beautiful girl he married and not the horrifying ghoul dripping pus on the kitchen floor.  It is simultaneously the most romantic and grossest kiss ever. 

So, to paraphrase the popular meme, go and find yourself someone who looks at you the way Louis looks at his oozing, eyeless, half faced wife.

C Chaka