The Stuff (1985)

*. 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.

8 thoughts on “The Stuff (1985)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    That good shot, bad shot ratio is something that I find myself thinking about. If a few bad shots ruin a film, then you’d have to dump pretty much every Bond movie until the Daniel Craig era. CGI has enabled consistent looking films, but at a loss of character. So yes, I get that Q The Winged Serpent has some terrible shots in it, but I’ve decided to just go with it from now on. Cohen worked with small budgets and would never expect a uniformly smooth film, particularly given the ambitious subjects he chose. Cool review!

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I find I can excuse a few bad shots. Hitchcock liked to experiment and he ended up with some howlers. What (sometimes) wrecks a movie for me is a point in the plot where a character does something unbelievably stupid just because s/he has to in order to advance the story. When that happens I just want to throw up my hands and be done with it. Though in the case of a lot of slasher films such moments have become so much a part of the “idiot plot” formula that you have to let them go. They come with the territory.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Good point, and yet both choices fit under the heading risk-taking. Irrational character decisions do sometimes come off; Ripley returning to save her cat, for example. But often, as you say, it just reveals that the characters have no real agency other than to drive the plot forwards.

  2. Tom Moody

    This may be my sole obit for LarCo but I want to toss in that he’ll be remembered as an Idea Man possibly even more than a director (although the four films you mentioned are good and his corpus abounds with eccentric gems — including a couple of “little movies” he made in the ’80s, Special Effects and Perfect Strangers).
    He developed two memorable 1960s TV series, Branded (featuring Chuck Connors having his cavalry stripes torn off for alleged cowardice at the beginning of every episode) and The Invaders (a body snatchers series where aliens are recognized by deformities in their little fingers).
    He seems always to have been pitching subversive plot ideas, including “Monster baby,” “Maniac cop,” “Food product addicts and enslaves,” “Sniper pins protagonist down in phone booth for entire movie,” “Ambulance picks up up victims and hauls them off to be killed rather than saved,” and (the MoH you mentioned) “Truck driver who kills hitchhikers picks up hitchhiker who kills truck drivers.”
    Rest in peace, Mr, Cohen… or at least keep pitching in heaven.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      He was definitely an idea guy. There’s a nice documentary on his career that came out in 2017 called “King Cohen.” Most of the people interviewed give him a lot of credit for the concepts he came up with. I think Joe Dante calls him an “idea machine.” What’s amazing is that for a low-budget, guerilla filmmaker many of his ideas were so high concept, and yet somehow he made them work.

      No lover for Coronet Blue among his TV work? I haven’t seen it but I’ve heard it was really interesting. Plus the fact that it got cancelled before it could provide a solution for its mystery probably helped. How much better Twin Peaks would have been without a second season .. . .

  3. Tom Moody

    I had forgotten Coronet Blue but I remember watching a few episodes. “He was actually a Russian spy” is so much simpler as a reveal than “Bob came out of the White Lodge and possessed Leland Palmer” or what have you.

  4. Tom Moody

    The Internet Archive has Coronet Blue episodes. I watched the first one:
    Very quirky and “sixties” and has some interesting touches. The cinematographer was Andrew Laszlo, who went on to work with Walter Hill. My main (minor) gripe is the TV convention of constant extreme closeups of the actors’ faces to tell the audience what to feel. These huge faces look almost freakish now, watching a digital copy.


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