Sub-Cult 2.0 #6 The Stuff (1985)
Death can be a stone cold bummer. The exception? When someone like Donald Trump dies, very tardily answering the prayers of untold millions, even billions. But the death of artists and musicians and filmmakers and oddball icons can serve a useful, productive purpose in affording us a priceless opportunity to plunge into the work of someone we might not having given enough of a chance during their lifetime, or to circle back and fall back in love with an artist in the gloomy, romantic aftermath of their passing.
This is particularly true for me, since I have a column over at TCM Backlot where I write about the first and last films of major filmmakers called First and Last. The filmmakers only need to be dead to qualify for the column, and have first and last films I can watch. You’d think I would never run out of excellent candidates for the column. You would be wrong.
The first and/or last film of many filmmakers are unavailable legally or otherwise in the United States so I find myself writing up the debut and cinematic swan songs of the newly dead on a regular basis for the column. I feel a little ghoulish doing so but I figure there are much worse ways to mark the death of a beloved filmmaker than by using their first and last film as a springboard to discuss what made them so singular and special and important.
I just pitched Larry Cohen for the column, for example. Cohen is a filmmaker I should be obsessed with. He’s an intense, larger-than-life Jewish eccentric who uses luridly commercial genres to comment satirically on American society, hopping around manically between blaxploitation and horror, monster movies and thrillers, bringing a lot of oddball intensity and personality to everything he does.
Yet for some reason I have not seen that many of Cohen’s films despite them being very much in my sweet spot, none more than Cohen’s demented 1985 cult classic The Stuff.
I love The Stuff in part because it feels so in line with what American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic was doing musically around this time. Imagine a vintage “Weird Al” Yankovic vehicle from the 1980s that took its cues from “Nature Trail to Hell” instead of the inmates-running-the-asylum vibe of The Dr. Demento Show and you have a sense of The Stuff’s warped satirical sensibility.
Al is our preeminent satirist of the supermarket, where The Stuff’s titular menace can be found. Al has returned over and over again to the themes of consumerism, consumption, over-consumption (for Americans and the gluttons in Al’s songs, the two are fundamentally the same), television and television advertising, all of which Cohen takes gleeful satirical aim at here.
In The Stuff, television won’t just sell you things you don’t need, things that cost too much and will make you fat and lazy and stupid and apathetic. No, the stuff being sold on television here will kill you and eat your brain and take over your town and replace humanity if given an opportunity. Sure it tastes great and is low-calorie but is it ultimately worth it?
As Americans, we have a sacred right to aggressively pursue things that are bad for us, from alcohol to too much sun to impossibly decadent desserts. In The Stuff, however, we aggressively pursue our own destruction with the contented smile of someone overjoyed to experience the ultimate consumer sensation, a product so irresistible that once you’ve acquired a taste for it nothing else matters beyond consuming more.
The Stuff was sold unsuccessfully as a horror movie not unlike The Blob about evil Kool Whip when it’s really a wacky satirical comedy with an ingenious science-fiction/horror premise that’s as irresistible as it is ultimately unfeasible.
Michael Moriarty enjoyably devours scenery as the film’s asshole anti-hero David “Mo” Rutherford, an ex-FBI agent with a honey-dripping Southern accent who acquired his name because “Every time people give me money, I always want Mo!” He’s a charismatic creep who immediately commands every situation he’s in. Moriarty shows up and starts ordering people around authoritatively and they just accept it because he’s a confident white man in a suit.
Mo is hired by the sinister forces of Big Ice Cream to find out just what makes The Stuff, the low-calorie, highly-addictive, unbelievably delicious new snack sensation, so impossible to beat. Mo joins forces with Nicole (Andrea Louisa Marcovicci), a hard-charging advertising guru who falls into bed with Mo because that’s what female leads did in the 1980s: they fucked the male lead no matter how creepy he was, or how little he had to offer either them or the world.
Mo joins forces with Chocolate Chip Charlie, a Famous Amos-like cookie magnate played by Garrett Morris. When Chocolate Chip Charlie was introduced I got excited about the prospect of this funky horror comedy becoming an interracial, mismatched buddy comedy about two very different men putting aside their differences for the sake of saving humanity from evil desserts. Then Mo sends Chocolate Chip Charlie off on a mission and he disappears for about an hour only to very memorably perish almost immediately upon his return, a move that epitomizes the way Cohen and The Stuff consistently usurp expectations.
Mo finds a more useful ally in the form of Colonel Spears (Paul Sorvino), a larger-than-life general and dedicated anti-Commie who seems more concerned with his image than he does protecting the lives of the American people.
Knowing Colonel Spears’ proclivities for skirt-chasing, paranoia and anti-Communism all too well from his days at the FBI, Mo cynically sells Spears a story he knows will resonate with his worldview: The Stuff is the brainchild of damned dirty Russkie Commies intent on taking over God’s own United States from the inside out. Communists hadn’t just penetrated American culture or the American military or the highest levels of the American government, as Senator McCarthy tried to warn us long ago: Mo convinces the suspiciously easily convincible general that the monsters behind The Stuff had somehow infiltrated the very bloodstreams of patriotic Americans.
There’s more than a little Jack D. Ripper in Sorvino’s delightful broad comic turn as a general, even a winking nod to Dr. Strangelove in talk of the nefarious effects of fluoride in the water of the American people.
The glory-mad general has his troops invade where The Stuff is taken from the Earth, killing anyone they suspect may be a commie Stuff addict. It’s a happy accident that the General actually ends up killing Stuff-addled bad guys when really all he wanted to do is murder Marxists.
The Stuff’s plot doesn’t hold up to the barest scrutiny. If The Stuff is so powerful that it turns people who consume it into “Stuffies”, brainwashed addicts who will do anything to get their hands on the sweet, sweet goo their brains angrily demand then why would the cynical souls behind it need to hire ad wizards to drum up public demand for their soul-consuming wonder product?
Then again, in today’s economy, even an evil, sentient, Miracle Whip-like dessert hell-bent on world domination can benefit from an inventive, outside the box marketing campaign.
In one of his best-sellers Malcolm Gladwell talks about “stickiness” as a catch-all term for that ineffable something that allows something to endure long after its contemporaries have been forgotten. Like so much of Gladwell’s ideas, it’s facile and broad to the point of meaninglessness but also annoyingly useful, even addictive in its own right.
It’s only fitting that a movie about sweet, sticky goo we crave even though it will destroy us possesses all manner of stickiness. There’s the irresistibility of the premise, for starters, which is absolutely genius as long as you do not expect a quasi-horror film whose villain is essentially whipped cream with a seriously bad attitude to be scary.
The Stuff reminded me a lot of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a movie more or less guaranteed to disappoint anyone expecting more Halloween but so gleefully bonkers in its disregard for genre and plausibility and expectations that it’s just as liable to thrill weirdoes. Plot and character-wise the movies have a lot in common, but they also share a go-for-broke audacity that is a wonder to behold.
The packaging for The Stuff is similarly inspired; watching The Stuff I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that in terms of color, style and vibe it is very similar to the logos for Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place and Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast.
That was not intentional. I wanted a 1970s/1980s West Coast vibe for my logos and The Stuff’s packaging and logo fits that aesthetic perfectly. The Stuff is fundamentally about consumer culture gone mad and monstrous, blood-thirsty and ghoulish. Cohen’s bold, misunderstood comedy is a sly allegory for drug addiction and alcoholism. The Stuff is certainly not the only thing we put in our bodies because it makes us feel good and we can’t control ourselves but where vodka and cheesecake and cigarettes might kill us slowly, gradually, The Stuff does the job quickly and efficiently.
But The Stuff is ultimately concerned with the addictiveness of consumerism, with the way it corrupts us from inside and makes us want things that aren’t just unhealthy but downright deadly.
Some movies endure because they are timeless. Others because they so thoroughly embody their times that they stand as fascinating cinematic time capsules capturing for posterity the fashions, food, style, commercials and entertainment of the era that created them. The Stuff is the second kind of film; it’s pure, unadulterated 1985 in cinematic form, a slashingly satirical comedy you’ll want to consume over and over again.
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