The Eighties was big for remakes of sci-fi horror, as the directors who grew up with classic Fifties monster movies made their own versions of the originals. John Carpenter’s The Thing and Cronenberg’s The Fly are the two prime examples, vastly superior to their source material.
Larry Cohen’s The Stuff isn’t a remake, but feels like one, combining elements of The Blob, Invaders from Mars (both of which would also receive remake treatment after The Stuff’s release) and tweaking Body Snatcher style Red-under-the-bed paranoia to create an offbeat social satire about advertising and consumerism.
The story concerns a mysterious substance bubbling up through the snow in a remote mining outpost. In the classic horror tradition of sticking your face way to close to something you should be running away from, the prospectors taste it, and think it’s good. Next thing you know, the Stuff is the hot product on the market, the latest craze because it tastes great, is low on calories, and as one enraptured housewife beams, it doesn’t spot.
The country’s ice cream tycoons are incensed about being knocked off top spot as America’s number one dessert, and hire an industrial spy, former FBI agent David “Mo” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) to sneak around to find the secret behind The Stuff. (Why do they call him Mo? Because every time someone gives him money, he always wants Mo’) During his investigation, Mo discovers that The Stuff is a clinically untested product that has a life of its own, turning its consumers into smiling, dead eyed automatons. He teams up with the fallen entrepreneur Chocolate Chip Charlie (Garrett Morris), also determined to find out the secret of the new dessert which has muscled in on his territory.
Meanwhile, in the film’s creepiest sequence, a kid called Jason (Scott Bloom) suspects that his whole family has been taken over by the Stuff, which he discovers slurping around in the fridge one night of its own accord.
Danny Aiello crops up as an executive terrified of his Stuff-addicted dog, and Paul Sorvino chews scenery as a survivalist, xenophobic general.
The Stuff succeeds largely because of Moriarty’s irreverent performance as Rutherford. With his gangly frame, thinning hair and softly spoken manner, Mo is not a typical action hero leading man, and the film is all the better for it. Many critics have slated the acting, but I think that misses the point. While The Stuff is definitely not The Deer Hunter in terms of performances, Cohen has a particular sensibility in his films, and the off-the-wall turns by Moriarty, Morris, Aiello and Sorvino serves the director’s skewed vision well.
The effects, while obviously influenced by The Thing and the original Blob, are inventive and ghoulish. There’s something really perverse about the Stuff pumping out of horrified, gaping mouths that makes you feel queasy all the way down to the rectum.
While not as celebrated as other Eighties sci-fi satires such as Repo Man and They Live, The Stuff homes in on its target with broad efficiency. It talks about how products are sold to us, and how we largely consume those products without question. I’d like to see a remake of The Stuff focussing on social media. I’ve already got the tag line worked out: “Are you checking Facebook, or is it checking you?”