Thursday, March 25, 2010

Larry Cohen Week: The Stuff

We continue our look at the work of Larry Cohen by discussing one of his most commercially-viable films to date.  I would have discussed Q: The Winged Serpent, but I've already done so on my old site.  This one involves a brand new substance coming on the market and promising to be a bigger thing than Crystal Pepsi and New Coke combined!  Of course, given that this is a sci-fi/horror film, you just know that there is more to it than that.  Fortunately, we have Michael Moriarty on the scene, making one of his first appearances in a Larry Cohen film.  For those not 'in the know,' Moriarty is to Cohen what Depp is to Burton, at least in the last twenty years.  Their work together includes Q, this film, Return to Salem's Lot, It's Alive III (future review) and tomorrow's M.O.H. review.  In the audio commentary for It's Alive, Cohen jokes about his Irish-American acting troupe, of which Moriarty would become the figure head of.  If there was any doubt to the closeness of the two, let this film be your example.  This is...
The film begins with some pretty blatant marketing for this new product.  What is it?  It's The Stuff.  What's The Stuff?  Well, I can tell you what it's not: colorful, solid or full of fat.  That's right- this yogurt-looking stuff has 0 fat and 0 calories, making it the perfect treat for any meal.  Hell, the only thing that it's missing is the functionality of a floor cleaner!  Certain groups don't trust this, however, and hire our hero (Moriarty) to find out the source of it.  For those who keep track of the weirdest jobs ever given to a film hero, add The Stuff to that list.  In a nutshell, Moriarty is a corporate espionage agent whose job it is to find out the secrets that slip by the FDA and that the food companies want to hide.  Unfortunately, our hero is a complete and total jerk too.  I guess that comes with the territory, but it doesn't exactly make him the most likable guy in the world.  The narrative jumps suddenly to our other hero: a young boy.  Much like the young man from Troll 2, he suspects that something is up with the food that his family is eating.  Fortunately, his plan to stop them does not involve targeted urination of food!  He does all he can to stop his family from eating the goo and actually smashes up a display of it at a store.  That's not how you make friends!
The trail of the bizarre and mysterious food leads Moriarty to the South and brings him to a very unlikely ally: Garrett Morris.  Morris plays the former owner/figure head of a cookie company who went out of business thanks to The Stuff.  Who's going to eat the weird, fatty fluff on cookies when you can eat weird, non-fatty fluff on everything else?!?  The duo try to find out what's going on with this crap in the area where it appears to have come from.  The pair run into some trouble from some...zombies?!?  Um, okay.  This apparently has something to do with The Stuff and it makes people lose their damn minds.  A big chase ensues and Moriarty makes his escape in one direction while Morris makes his in another.  Back at home, the kid continues to avoid eating The Stuff and finds that his family is starting to get kind of freaky.  They try to force-feed him The Stuff, but he escapes.  This leads him to a big open, strip-mining area which has truckloads of The Stuff coming from it.  Okay, I'm beginning to suspect that maybe this is not food that I should eat!  Some zombies try to get him, but he is aided by Moriarty.  Thanks for joining the two stories, Larry!
Things only get weirder from here, folks!  Once they escape, the pair meet up with a woman who can help them out.  This proves useful when a batch of The Stuff latches onto Moriarty's face!  Fortunately, she has the perfect cure: lighting his head on fire!  Yeah, I'll just deal with it on my own, lady.  Thanks but no thanks!  Things are getting really bad, so there's only one thing left to do: call in the military...which is somehow run by Paul Sorvino.  Fun fact: his daughter has a cameo in the film since, as Cohen works, she showed up one day to visit.  We get a mini-battle between some military and some zombies, but let's not focus on that.  Instead, let's focus on the big showdown at a radio station.  The plan: to transmit a warning message to the American people a la the end of War of the Worlds.  While Moriarty goes into the studio, Garrett Morris shows up again and transforms into a crazy monster.  The girl is nearly killed by him, but the day is saved.  In the film's epilogue, the company heads behind the release of The Stuff are confronted with their creation and forced to eat it. To drive home the anti-Capitalist motif, we get two scenes for the ending.  First, a company makes something called The Taste, which is a mix of The Stuff and a bunch of ice.  Second, a group of people shown selling The Stuff on the black market.  Dun dun dun!
This film is good and really epitomizes the kind of film that Cohen makes- good or bad.  The characters are weird, the setup is strange and the whole thing plays out in a very odd manner.  The whole concept of killing alien yogurt is only something that he could have come up with.  As a bonus, you get Moriarty doing his usual, great performance as a character that you really should not like, but can't help it.  For example, his character in Q is best described as a mix of 'Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and The Cowardly Lion.'  Of course, this film lacks a scene of Michael playing the piano, which is a downside in my book!  The effects are pretty good and work as part of the story.  Fun fact: one big effects scene makes use of the same spinning room used for Johnny Depp's death in A Nightmare on Elm Street.  If you can accept the silly idea of the plot, you can have a good time here.  Does it break the mold or redefine cinema as you know it?  No.  Is it good fun?  Yes.
Next up, we jump ahead about 20 years to a modern Cohen film.  This one involves serial killers, Michael Moriarty and that chick from Return to Oz.  Stay tuned...


  1. I love this shit, its a fun and biting little Blob take-off and the FX really are awesome considering the budget. You gotta love Cohen's unique approach to character and storytelling, who else would have made a movie called The Stuff about killer ice cream??

  2. Honestly, if I were going to expose someone new to a Cohen film, I would pick 'Q: The Winged Serpent,' but this is definitely a close second.

    For me, Moriarty sells the whole thing. I wish both him and Cohen would have/will do more stuff. They make a great pair.