“I kinda like the sight of blood,” declares Paul Sorvino’s Commie-hating Colonel. “But this is disgusting!” The Stuff, from B-movie legend Larry Cohen, packs plenty of gooey horror into its 90 minutes, but fans of the writer/director will tell you that attempting to fit any of his films into one subgenre is to do them a disservice. Like the very best of Cohen’s work, it’s a cultural and political satire, but this one happens to have killer ice cream in it.
A new dessert is taking America by storm: The Stuff. No one knows what it’s made of, but everyone wants it. Eager to find out the secret, rival food companies hire industrial spy Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) to get inside and find out how on earth this stuff gets made. He soon realises that eating the Stuff isn’t a one-way street…
Although The Stuff doesn’t rank with Cohen’s finest films, it’s possibly one of his most crowd-pleasing, putting his sense of humour front and centre. He sets out his satirical stall in the film’s opening minutes, filling the screen with the Stuff’s garish marketing campaigns and establishing it as part of the modern American consumer landscape. Rutherford interviews FDA authorities who tell him they can only work to needs of the majority, while his own scientist compares the Stuff’s secret formula to Coca Cola’s. Cohen’s society is unquestioning, naïve and, above all, hungry.
The film’s funny bone goes beyond satire, as regular Cohen star Moriarty fleshes out his slightly sleazy hero with his inimitable off-key delivery and deadpan wisecracks. While it’s not the strangest of his performances for the director, it’s the perfect fit for a film about killer goo, teetering between disaffection, outrage and broadly comic. The film is at its best during the first half as Mo traces the source of the Stuff’s origins to sinister small towns, allowing Moriarty to play a weird spin on the Marlowe-esque private eye and Cohen to engage in some Invasion Of The Body Snatchers paranoia.
As with many of Cohen’s films, The Stuff has an excellent supporting cast who make the most of the colourful characters. Andrea Marcovicci plays it straight as the remorseful ad-woman, Paul Sorvino is a hoot as the right-wing military commander who appears late in the film as an unlikely ally, Garrett Morris (Saturday Night Live) works brilliantly with Moriarty as a cookie tycoon who wants payback for The Stuff stealing his business, and Danny Aiello makes a hilariously bizarre appearance as the FDA man who’s afraid of his dog (with very good reason).
The second half loses some of its momentum and focus as the mystery is solved and the fight back begins. The special effects work best when Cohen keeps the scale relatively small, specifically when the Stuff makes its dramatic exit from the people who ate it. Later on, as the Stuff cascades around as a sentient mass, everything looks a little more dated. Still, things do pick up with the introduction of Sorvino’s character, as Cohen makes fun of American military arrogance and better-dead-than-red paranoia.
It’s all fairly daft and lacks some of the impact and daring of some of Cohen’s finest work, but the first half is especially sharp and it’s one of his most accessible and straightforwardly entertaining films. The Arrow Video treatment is as impressive as ever, with a lengthy documentary examining the film and Cohen himself. There are plenty of hilarious stories from Marcovicci and the crew of the filmmaker’s eccentricities, including a naked Cohen passing the script for Q: The Winged Serpent to a producer through a crack in his front door.
If The Stuff isn’t Cohen’s best, it’s great, gooey, satirical fun that serves as a good introduction to one of American genre cinema’s most fascinating and subversive filmmakers.