In the world of horror movies, death can come from many places. Danger is all around, whether it comes from the axe of a masked serial killer, the claws of a rabid monster or the mouth of a mysterious alien. But what happens when the harm comes from something as seemingly innocent as desert? That was the question posed in 1985 by the horror/comedy film The Stuff.
The Stuff starts with a worker who finds a creamy, white substance oozing out of the ground near a mine. The man tastes the strange matter and finds it is delicious. The material is quickly packaged and sold as “The Stuff,” and becomes a wildly successful snack food. The Stuff sells so well that it severely impacts the revenue stream of the ice cream industry, whose leaders hire an ex-FBI agent/current industrial spy named David ‘Mo’ Rutherford (Michael Moriarty from television’s “Law & Order”) to find out the ingredients so that they can either imitate it or destroy it. While trying to get close to the company that makes The Stuff, the charming Mo seduces an advertising executive named Nicole (The Hand’s Andrea Marcovicci) who, sensing something is not right, agrees to help him uncover the truth. The couple teams up with Jason (Scott Bloom from “Who’s the Boss?”), a boy who has seen his family torn apart by the addictive treat, and ex-cookie mogul ‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie Hobbs (“Saturday Night Live” alum Garrett Morris), who has lost his cookie empire because of the tasty Stuff. Together, they discover that The Stuff is more than just a snack food; it is a parasitic organism that eats its victims from the inside out, leaving them a hollow shell of skin and bones. The group must fight both the Stuff and the company that mines it as they try to save the world from the deadly delicacy.
It should come as no surprise that The Stuff was written and directed by Larry Cohen; the man has become a horror legend creating offbeat, tongue in cheek schlock films like the It’s Alive trilogy and Q: The Winged Serpent. What is surprising is the thinly veiled social commentary that Cohen throws into the film. The plot makes light of the addictive qualities of junk food while calling attention to the secrecy of the manufacturers – in one scene, the film even mentions the confidentiality of the ingredients of Coca-Cola. While the film can never really be taken seriously as a hard-line social commentary, it definitely has something to say about American consumer excess and corporate greed.
As usual, Cohen’s go-to guy Michael Moriarty is great; his performance as Mo, the industrial spy is perfect. Initially, to disarm people and gain their trust, Mo acts like a dumb hillbilly – it’s only when he goes to work that they see the espionage professional in action. Mo is as smooth as James Bond, as bad-ass as Dirty Harry Callahan and as clever as Frank Columbo. Moriarty plays up every aspect of Mo’s confident personality and yokel charm, making the character one of the lesser-known but more effective saboteurs in movie history.
As great as Moriarty is, the real star of The Stuff is The Stuff. A white, marshmallow-like substance, The Stuff was portrayed by all kinds of different materials during filming, from ice cream and yogurt to fire extinguisher foam and rubber covered animatronics. Behaving a bit like the alien from The Blob, The Stuff is at times completely mobile and at other times totally still, giving the feeling that it can never be trusted whenever it is onscreen. In one scene, Jason witnesses The Stuff creep across a shelf in his refrigerator, only to turn back into an inanimate object when his parents look. In another segment, The Stuff attacks and drags its victim up a wall and onto the ceiling of the room, seemingly defying gravity in the process. This scene was shot with the same spinning room effect that was used in A Nightmare on Elm Street a year earlier (in fact, even done on the same set) with the same terrifying results; The Stuff comes off as unstoppable and relentless.
Made during the age of excess, The Stuff epitomized the soulless corporate greed that ran rampant at the time. The film deliberately asks questions about which is more dangerous, the substance or the company distributing it, and both answers are frightening.