While the name Larry Cohen is no doubt familiar to many a film fan, even those who are familiar with his better known works might be surprised by the range and sheer volume of projects he has worked on, as a writer on episodic television from the late fifties through to the sixties where he also created the Western show Branded and the paranoid science fiction hit The Invaders, both of which ran for two seasons, then on to a directorial career including It’s Alive (1974), Q, also known as The Winged Serpent (1982), A Return to ‘Salem’s Lot (1987) and The Ambulance (1990) before returning to screenwriting with Phone Booth, Cellular and Captivity.
Proudly independent and often functioning as writer, producer and director on his projects, Cohen’s control is total, allowing him to create subversive films examining aspects of society and big business that major studios tend to shy away from, afraid of alienating shareholders and audiences. While The Ambulance and As Good As Dead question medical ethics and health insurance, in 1985’s The Stuff he “wanted to do a movie about consumerism and the poisons in our society and about the people that make money from selling poison to people.”
Now released as a remastered Blu-ray edition, it was the second of Cohen’s five collaborations with actor and musician Michael Moriarty, now best known for his long running role on Law & Order, which critic Kim Newman describes in the accompanying documentary as “an actor/auteur relationship,” saying it “brings the best out of both,” and certainly it is clear that Moriarty delights in his role as David “Mo” Rutherford, a former FBI agent recruited to investigate a mysterious new food product which is cornering the market, known simply as The Stuff.
Approaching advertising executive Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci) on a fashion shoot, he finds that the woman who launched the brand is as in the dark about the origin of the yogurt-like dessert as the competitors who are trying to analyse the substance, nor is any useful information obtained from Vickers (a brief appearance by Danny Aiello) the Food and Drug Administration agent who may have been bribed to pass The Stuff, sheepishly explaining that “if there is no reason to forbid the use of a product, we have to okay it.”
Travelling to the small town where the manufacturing company was based, Mo encounters “Chocolate Chip” Charlie Hobbs (Saturday Night Live star Garrett Morris), a former executive ousted when The Stuff was launched, but the pair find that production has shifted to Midland, Georgia, with the few remaining residents acting strangely, at first erratic then aggressive. As Mo and Charlie attempt to escape they are attacked, and realise that the townspeople have been taken over by the Stuff, and that as the craze sweeps the nation, nobody will be safe.
While The Stuff itself reminds of The Blob, released almost thirty years before, the makeup effects remind of those created by Rob Bottin for John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing, though it is obvious mechanical makeup artist Steve Neill, responsible for what Newman describes affectionately as the “VHS era effects,” had only a fraction of the resources of that production, and also faced another more abstract problem for much of the narrative: “It was kind of a hard movie because there was no monster, no creatures.”
Other influences are 1982’s Hallowe’en III: Season of the Witch, with an attempt to attack the homes of America via ruthless exploitation of consumerism and Bryan Forbes’ 1975 version of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives in the servile conformity seen in those who have been infected, perfect happy families so long as they receive their fix, but there is also a feel of early Cronenberg in places, the confrontations with the elder men of industry, grey haired and keeping their hands clean so long as they can hand out money in lieu of apology or admission of guilt.
The scenes of Jason (a very young Scott Bloom, “a gorgeous boy with blue eyes” as Marcovicci recalls) watching his family (including an elder sibling played by his own brother Brian) change into automatons, particularly his confrontations with his father, reminds of Invaders from Mars.
It is unavoidable that the more expensive a film is, the slower it will date, and with less than $2 million to play with The Stuff is inescapably eighties, but joyfully so, with Return of the Jedi shower curtains and posters featuring Mötley Crüe and Culture Club adorning the walls, not to mention the leotards and legwarmers which grace one of the in-film commercials for the ubiquitous product. Despite this, the film is more intelligent than many of its bigger budget peers, even though the final scenes become shift towards a more generic action film setup. It may fail to achieve its full potential, but that it has ambition is praiseworthy.
Explaining the background of the film, Cohen says it was envisioned almost as a way of the planet fighting back against what had been done to it. “The human race has abused the Earth and poisoned the oceans and polluted the atmosphere and polluted the ground, and so perhaps the Earth is trying to fight back.”
Of the method of attack, he laughs “What can be more benevolent than ice cream? Let’s make them all scream for ice cream.”
Speaking of a key scene in the film where Mo and Nicole are attacked by The Stuff in a motel bedroom, the effect as the substance defies gravity to pin an assailant to the wall created by use of a rotating set of the same type which allowed Fred Astaire to dance up the wall in Royal Wedding, Broadway singer Marcovicci recalls “All my life I’d wanted to be a song and dance girl – little did I know I would be chased up a wall by a yogurt.”
For scenes of physical interaction with The Stuff, Marcovicci states “Sometimes it was whipped cream, sometimes it was shaving cream,” but for the scenes where larger amounts were required to threaten the cast, it was flame retardant foam made from fish bones. “Horrible, disgusting fish guts, unbelievably horrible.”
Fortunately Marcovicci is more positive about her co-stars, in particular Moriarty, unfortunately absent from the roster of interviewees, saying her leading man was “as eccentric as the day is long, a genius in his own way,” but that she “had no idea he was going to improvise everything,” but it is Moriarty’s character who lifts the film, instilling Mo with interesting quirks which make him watchable, dressed as a businessman save for his cowboy boots, ruffling feathers in meetings and playing by nobody’s rules but his own.
With producer Paul Kurta saying that “Larry is a wonderful actor’s director,” Cohen himself confirms that he and Moriarty had bonded on Q and wanted to work together again, with Marcovicci describing their shenanigans onset as being like “two naughty schoolchildren,” though being responsible for both the final product and managing the budget meant that Cohen, in the words of Neill, could be “a real hard driver as a director.”
Cohen himself states “Making a movie is a tough business,” but confirms his ethic: “Make the picture, finish the picture, everyone comes back with great stories to tell,” and Marcovicci confirms the camaraderie onset, despite what they were required to do, saying “the rest of the cast were varied and fun and knew they were along for quite a ride.”
Sorvino is singled out by Neill as “a great human being,” adding that “he was singing constantly,” and his young daughter Mira is an uncredited extra in the film.
With the design of the film as bright and cheerful as the product it featured, the financial backers who had expected “an old fashioned horror movie” were unsure when presented with Cohen’s vision, and were also resistant to his concept of the marketing campaign, using television to advertise The Stuff as a product, not a film, until the final trailer would reveal it as a horror movie. “Anything that’s original frightens them.”
Opening to great reviews from the New York City press, circumstance fought against the film, with a hurricane hitting the island and preventing those papers from entering circulation, with Cohen recalling that even their marquee banner was torn down, but the film is well remembered both by audiences and those involved. With The Stuff promoted as a calorie free diet food, Marcovicci, suggests that the subtext of body image, airbrushing and anorexia is one that has remained topical. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons this is a cult classic.”
The Stuff is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films