The Stuff – Horror Revisited
Metaphors for American consumption of goods can be seen in the 1978 George Romero horror movie Dawn of the Dead. But, in 1985 Writer/director Larry Cohen, who is no stranger to low-budget horror movies that packs a “wallop” (a what?) with its social commentary, gives us another look at how the effects of another commodity with his “hold no punches” horror film The Stuff. The Stuff, much to my surprise, is billed as being a horror-comedy. Surprised for two reasons:
A.) It’s not scary and (horror)
B.) It isn’t really funny either unless you’re a fan of cheese (comedy)
Having fond memories of this, and an inexplicable quench for wanting to taste The Stuff, I was happy to see that it was available in the seemingly reliable source for forgotten “gems” of 1980s horror films, Netflix. I was excited to give it another watch with the hopes that it would still hold up to this day – sadly, it did not. ‘Ridiculous’ is a word I often found myself uttering as I shook my head in near disgust at times. No, not because of the film’s “gruesome-ness” but, rather, because many scenes were just flat-out laughable. For instance, the very start of the film opens with a man finding a strange, thick puss-like substance oozing from the earth below. Initial reaction? Scoop some of it with your fingertips and give it a taste. Really?! Maybe this was supposed to be one of the “funny” parts? The scene plays out in this manner, verbatim:
Old Miner: [finds the Stuff bubbling out of the ground] What the hell is this? Sure smooth.
[he tastes some]
Old Miner: That tastes real good! Tasty! Sweet!
Second Miner: Harry, what’re you doin’ down there, takin’ a leak?
Old Miner: No.
Second Miner: Want us to wait for ya?
Old Miner: No, you guys go on ahead. I’ll catch up to ya later.
[continues eating the Stuff]
Old Miner: I’ll be damned. Whatever that could be, it’s mighty good.
Again, the very first scene of the movie and the very first time (of many) I shook my head. Ok, so maybe “The Stuff” is really that good. So good that it seems to be the featured product in what appears to be the entire country. Never have I seen a product highlighted in every aisle and freezer in a supermarket. Just happen to discover the The Stuff is alive and moving in your fridge? No worries, go to said supermarket and go postal on the product! This is sure to save the day. Everywhere and everyone, and I mean everyone, seems to be eating The Stuff! Never have I seen such enthusiam for a delicacy since the opening of a Krispy Kreme just down the street! Let’s face it, the droves of sugar-thirsty people who waited in anticiaption to consume a 3,000 calorie donut was, much like this movie, ridiculous. But I guess that’s what “the stuff” is made of! Yes, I know, bad joke but I’m just trying to fall right in line with this supposed horror, er comedy film.
Harsh? Ok, maybe just a bit. But it’s hard not to be when I thoroughly remember liking this film as a kid – as thorough as I could have been at five-years old. Still, aside from what I would consider pretty bad writing and sub-par acting, especially from Michael Moriarty who only seemed to be on board with the film as a favor to a friend, the majority of the film seemed to play on a satire of the condition the country was in at the time in the mid-1980′s with Reagan’s acceleration of the War on Drugs and his ‘Just Say No’ campaign. I guess the message would be, according to the film, say ‘No’ all you want to the problem, The Stuff (drugs), isn’t going anywhere no matter what is done to abolish the product despite the horrific and life-threatening effects that have been clearly exposed. In the end, like all things these days, money-talks and bullshit walks which is portrayed at the film’s conclusion when the manufactures of the product are ready to go ahead and release a similar product after the effects of The Stuff are ousted. In cinematic fashion, our hero and his pesky, young side-kick “wonder boy” are vigilant and take matters into their own hands seeing to it that the greedy execs won’t get a second chance at manufacturing another dangerous product.
Having ended in this manner would have put a stamp on the classic Hollywood ending which was, for a lack of a better word, happy. However, Cohen acknowledges, as is the case in our reality, that there are no happy endings. This notion is further depicted on-screen by an overly-dramatic scene where a group of thugs unload a box of what appears to be something illegal deemed by the exagerrated up and down, left to right looks to make sure the “coast” is clear in a dark and grim urban backlot. Of course, when the box is opened, a shipment of The Stuff is revealed; a metaphor to drugs being on our streets no matter what. Could this have been a stab at Reagan emphasizing this his “war” on drugs was moot and pointless? Perhaps.
But, did so much of it have to be in your face? I don’t think so. In 1978, George Romero brought us his second installment in his zombie apocalypse ‘once upon a time’ trilogy, Dawn of the Dead where he was able to convey a similar theme of how America was being brainwashed and the stronghold consumerism had over this country by pinning our heroes inside of a mall while zombies roamed its halls. We were those zombies. Romero used the story of the zombie apocalypse to integrate his social commentary whereas Cohen makes his social commentary and tries to integrate a story around it – sort of a polar effect. The Stuff, in a way, used a more methodical practice that is still used today – advertisement. One of my favorite ads in the film had to be the The Stuff commercial that was a staple-like commercial of the 1980′s. Why did I like it so much, because it was what I considered, an epic-like commercial for a dessert/yogurt/ice cream or whatever the hell The Stuff is/was.
A few things that … perturbed me is the fact that no one really seemed to be, well, perturbed with anything that was hapening around them, especially David ‘Mo’ Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) – “they call me that ’cause when people give me money, I always want mo’!” Can you say, ouch?! Mr. ‘Mo’ dilly-dallied throughout the entire film, as cool as a cat, with little-to-no worry even after having punched a hole through someone’s face then sitting down for a meal at a local diner soon after! Really? Could this be the image of the American public? Not giving a damn about what was going on around them much importance? I don’t think so. I attribute this “attitude” to Michael Moriarty’s lackadaisy acting as seen in Troll and countless other films.
Fully comprehending Cohen’s commentary on society, he failed to deliver a story with the commentary being an under-toning element within the story. There simply was no coherent reason for The Stuff‘s presence nor any indication whatsoever. Could it be just to devour our insides while we savor its taste? Are you eating it, or is it eating you? Even The Blob, which one can make an argument that The Stuff can either be an ode to the film or a direct rip of it, it was explained that it was of extraterrestrial origin. The source of The Stuff seems to come from within the Earth and has some sort of hidden vendetta towards its inhabitants. In one scene, a young Danny Aiello seems to be a prisoner in h is own home by a dog who was clearly infected by the effects of having eaten The Stuff (yes, it is also a tasty treat for your pets). Of course, the element of “horror” had to be used for this scene when the dog ends up killing/eating his owner. What was the purpose of this scene? Well, it seems that Aiello’s character was divulging pertinent information on the makings/origins of The Stuff which, like treason, is punishable by death! Did this mean that it did have a secret agenda after all? I mean besides being eaten and using the human body as a host which, by the way, could also be an ode/rip to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Again, this seemed to emanate from the depths of the Earth and not from the deep confounds of space. So what was its end game? Who knows.
Final verdict? If you like 80s campy horror movies I say give it a watch. And, although it doesn’t hold up for me from initial viewing in the mid-80s, that doesn’t go to say that others may not enjoy this film, especially if you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s other films.
Jason slaps The Stuff away from his mother’s hand. It careens across the room and splatters over a kitchen cabinet. Jason dramatically hurriedly exits the kitchen, afraid he will be reprimanded by his parents.
Jason! You come back here!
I hope these stains come out!
What the hell is the matter with that boy anyway!
But he is too late, Jason is gone. Jason’s mother gets on her knees to wipe the mess, or rather, The Stuff from the kitchen cabinet. As she approaches, her face glows and eyes widen; she smile.
Look at that, not a spot! Low in calories, good tasting and it doesn’t even spot! (beat) And he doesn’t like it.
Disappointed, she shakes her head.