Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Monster Serial: THE STUFF, 1985


Originally, I was also writing about the 1978 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS as well as THE STUFF. And THE THING. But there are only so many shapeshifting alien invader/political commentary movies made between 1978 and 1985 that one man can write about unless he’s working for McFarland and is hired to do an entire book about it.  INVASION ’78, tonally, falls somewhere between THE THING and THE STUFF, so let’s enjoy the extremes and jump right in to the gooey delights of THE STUFF.

I was thrilled when I saw that a deluxe blu-ray of the movie was coming out. Wallace sent me that news several weeks ago.

My elation was partially because I love the movie and partially because it’s clear that I have company. The only company I had previously in relation to THE STUFF were the people who’d leave the room during screenings before they had time to get the joke.

Larry Cohen’s movies feel like no one else’s. Because his voice is so unique, it can take some getting used to. It’s a voice of 1970’s paranoia that just kept going, and seeing that in an Eighties setting is jarring (and to me, delightful — see WRONG IS RIGHT as an example.) Cohen is making horror movies … maybe? There’s so much humor in them, it’s very hard to tell. Are they political satires and social commentaries in horror drag? That’s more like it. But if you tell friends, “Hey, it’s really funny,” you may end up being the only person in the room laughing. Cohen’s wit is at once bone dry and wildly obvious, which is a mix intended for select tastes. CADDYSHACK, it ain’t. In fact, it’s like nothing else, and it may be my favorite “Larry Cohen Movie” in the Larry Cohen Movie canon.

In THE STUFF, a strange, creamy goo bubbles up from a massive sphincter in the Earth. Discovered by enterprising nabobs who immediately stick their fingers in and taste the newest, greatest food in the world, the oozy goop is labeled The Stuff and rushed onto shelves. It is an immediate success. Low calorie. Healthy. Tastes great. The problem is that it moves on its own, shows a diabolical hive intelligence, can take over the mind of anyone who eats it, and eventually corrodes them from within, especially when making a hasty escape from its host. Seemingly dopey corporate spy and ex-FBI agent Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) has been hired by The Stuff’s dashed competition to find the secret recipe. On the job, he stumbles upon the true threat. Luckily, he’s teamed up with a witty ad agent (Andrea Marcovicci), a crazed, right wing General and media magnate (Paul Sorvino), and Cohen’s riff on Famous Amos, played by the always missed and terribly underused Garrett Morris.

And there’s a kid who won’t get on your nerves. They are a team which uses logic and common sense in a way that’s all too uncommon in today’s films. And the ending is — and I really mean this as no pun — just desserts for two of the manufacturers. They, of course, refuse to eat The Stuff. Until Mo incentivizes them. At first reluctant, they are reduced to drooling addicts in one of the most bloodlessly grotesque endings I’ve seen. It’s grotesque merely due to the infantile behavior it shows.
Special props to Michael Moriarty for holding things together. His character has a great sense of irony, and appreciates the threat’s goofiness while being being equipped to kick its… well, it doesn’t really have an ass. But he can electrocute the hell out of it. Mo is not really charming, but rather communicates a self-aware send-up of charm. When one of his bosses remarks that he’s not as dumb as he appears to be, Mo drawls that no one is as dumb as he appears to be.

That’s a great line. It’s not only funny, it’s emblematic of both the sweet-tasting threat they face and of the movie, itself. With zany characters and outlandish effects, it’s on the edge of being a romp… except when it becomes very quietly sad or threatening. Still, it seduces you into watching this vicious attack on consumer conformity and lapping it up like The Stuff, itself. And is the prior sentence supposed to mean that they’re lapping up The Stuff or that The Stuff is lapping up them? Yes!

This column is among those featured in
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Thinking about it, we see a lot of vicious attacks on consumer conformity — often by things for which I have to buy tickets, order from Amazon, or are sponsored by commercials. Is it hypocrisy? No, I think it’s the only way to get a more specific message out. THE STUFF is not necessarily telling us that consuming things is bad. Larry is out to sell tickets, after all. I think it’s more aimed at the issue of overconsumption. In a time when micro purchases and ebay and one-click-ordering make mindless consuming an everyday habit (just in time to replace cigarettes), I think the warning of THE STUFF is more pointed than ever. And cigarettes are a good analog. These buggers are engineered to be addicting. It’s one thing to like something. It’s another thing to be surreptitiously forced to like it. 

But how often does that happen? Ultimately, we are usually the ones who must take responsibility for wanton consumption. And the compulsion is not from without, but within. And where does The Stuff work? Very clever, Mr. Cohen. Again, no one is as dumb as Mo appears to be. As fans, it’s our job to surround ourselves with tchotchkes that are emblematic of our loves. Where do we head first at a con? The Dealer’s Room. Caveat Emptor. I know that many of my fellow fans and I are now drowning in it. The slogan for The Stuff is, “Enough is never enough.”

Although I saw the movie in 1985, I wish that I’d paid more attention to that.   
PATRICK McCRAY is a comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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