*. Larry Cohen died just a week after I finished writing up these notes. This lends what follows an air of retrospective. Where does he rate, based on his total body of work? For originality, intelligence, and commercial instinct (a rare combination) you have to give him high marks. In his first edition of Nightmare Movies (published in 1988) Kim Newman includes Cohen in a separate section discussing individual horror auteurs, and begins by complaining of how he hasn’t received the critical attention he deserves. At the time, Newman saw Cohen as “still a developing, surprising talent”: “all Cohen’s movies are lively, packed with off-beat and unusual ideas, well acted and laced with quotable dialogue.”
*. But by the time of the next edition of Newman’s book (2011) there was little to add. Cohen had basically stopped directing at the end of the ’80s. As it turned out, The Stuff would be his last important work. Though I thought his episode in the first season of Masters of Horror, “Pick Me Up,” was one of the series’ best.
*. There is another side of the ledger when it comes to Cohen. As a filmmaker he strikes me as having a level of competence below that of Roger Corman. Newman calls The Stuff “so haphazardly assembled that the director seems to be on holiday.” Editing and sound are sometimes so far out of whack as to be hilarious, and I don’t get the sense Cohen cared all that much. The Stuff would be followed up by It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive, which is one of the worst movies I have ever seen and that may be taken as further evidence of a growing indifference to the quality of his work. Might we also see in it the seeds of his getting out of the business of directing altogether? Perhaps all he really wanted to do was write.
*. I think we have to take the good with the bad. The Stuff is a mess from start to finish. The effects, and this movie is full of effects, provide the most striking range of incongruities. As a director Cohen’s reach always exceeded his grasp, but (surprisingly given his low budgets) he rarely falls on his face. Some of the special effects here are laughably bad, but others impress. You never know what you’re going to get from one scene to the next.
*. Overall, however, I enjoyed all the pre-CGI trickery on display, from the model work to the process shots to the prosthetics. Hell, they even threw in the upside-down room from A Nightmare on Elm Street. But at the same time there were a number of shots I wish they had left out. So like I say, you take the good with the bad.
*. The premise is typical of the paranoia horror that was the subtext to a number of movies in the ’80s. A possibly sentient yogurt bubbling up from the depths of hell proves to be addictive. In time, our addiction consumes us, leading to the deathless ad line here: “Are you eating it, or is it eating you?” We may say the same of many items found in the developed world’s diet.
*. Its main inspiration is taken from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the scene of Mo and Nicole looking down on the “mining” operation seems a direct quote), but we can also think of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and They Live (1988) for more contemporary satires of consumerism. It’s not something we see as much of these days, and I’m not sure why. Have we just learned to accept that the Market is always right, and that there’s something elitist or non-patriotic in criticizing consumer choices? Even when those choices have been manipulated by evil corporations? But note that even here we see the (black) market triumphant in the end. The Stuff doesn’t actually need Nicole’s marketing genius behind it. It sells itself.
*. Does this movie work without Michael Moriarty? I don’t think so. It’s odd, but after thirty years his performance stayed in my memory more than any of the big effects scenes. His low-key approach to the crazy proceedings grounds the film and stops it from becoming mere slapstick. This might have been a film that got out of hand without him. Even with him it comes very close. I’m not sure the introduction of the militia unit at the end really fits with the rest of the film, though they do make for curious heroes.
*. I mentioned that I still remember this movie thirty years after last seeing it, which is no small accomplishment for any film given the way I forget things. I even had the jingle still in my head: “Enough is never enough, of The Stuff!” Many of the details I’d forgotten, but the basic plot had stayed with me. So maybe Cohen wasn’t “still a developing” talent at the time. Maybe this was all there was. He made a handful of indelible films — It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q, and The Stuff — that are holding up just as well if not better than the work of his better-known peers, and the fact that there are so many calls for The Stuff, which was not a hit, to be remade is a tribute to its continuing relevance.