DIRECTED BY: Larry Cohen
PLOT: An investigator makes grim discoveries when he searches for the formula of a dangerously addictive, malignant new taste sensation.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Stuff is a classic example of disgusting exploitation horror about a living parasitic desert that oozes up through the ground “like a bubblin’ crude.” Gooey creme that is. White gold.
COMMENTS: Eleven year old Jason (Bloom) just can’t understand his family’s strange, compulsive behavior. They are going nuts over a weird new dairy-like confection. What starts out as a treat that mom brings home a couple of times a week becomes their constant craving. As his brother and parents increasingly hunger for more of it, The Stuff soon becomes the primary staple in the house, replacing all of the other food in the fridge. When Jason sees the dessert literally crawling around the icebox late one night he goes on a one man campaign to warn people—but will anyone listen?
The dessert is pretty weird. It’s deposited in thick white pools and man, is it ever tasty! It’s The Stuff, a bizarre white globby substance that percolates up through earth from God knows where. When a mining company finds a lake of The Stuff in their lime quarry, they mass distribute the product and it becomes the new consumer passion.
Fluffy, uncommonly smooth, satisfying, low calorie and more addictive than heroin, it also makes a good wood polish. The ravenous public just can’t get enough. Its mysterious composition has become a trade secret, so there’s notelling what the hell it is.
There’s one nagging lil’ ol’ problem, however. The insidious Stuff has a plasma-like animal mobility and a mind of its own. There seems to be a self-promoting collective consciousness to the Stuff supply that turns everyone who eats it into a vapidly mindless, Madison Avenue product placement spokesman—for The Stuff.
Like stampeding fans at a Who concert in Cincinnati, enthusiasts will literally walk right over you to get some. And they will knock you to the ground and shove it down your throat to get you to try it, too. Once you do, The Stuff begins to parasitically eat you inside-out, as you gorge yourself until your head pops like a champagne cork, The Stuff gushing forth from every bodily orifice.
When an ice cream company hires a corporate spy (Moriarty) to discover the formula, he stumbles onto a huge conspiracy focused on addicting the world population. There are a lot of secrets to protect, and even the state police are hopeless Stuff junkies.
The Stuff starts out intriguingly enough, and the script is a textbook example of how to hook the viewer and move the vehicle along with concise, punchy dialog. Moriarty gives a really fun, skilled performance as the enigmatic corporate saboteur. There are elements of consumer satire and the movie looks like it will be a suspenseful mystery. Two thirds of the way through, however, the story becomes quite weak, as if the original writer left and his replacement wasn’t sure how to tie up loose ends. The plot degenerates into a typical comedy and the movie staggers toward an overly convenient and unlikely ending.
The main reason camp fans might want to watch The Stuff is to get a laugh from the idea of a mysterious, addictive treat with an equally mysterious trade secret formula; nobody knows what the hell they are eating, but they all want much, much more and you had better try some, too. The film is reminiscent of Saturday Night Live‘s “That’s Not Yogurt” sketch with Phil Harman—everybody is eating some new treat that looks and tastes just like delicious yogurt, but it isn’t yogurt. The ingredients are a mystery because the manufacturer will only tell buyers “that’s not yogurt!”
That fact that The Stuff fails to rise to the potential of its premise is disappointing, because the basic concept offers a solid opportunity to make a truly horrifying thriller. With a higher budget and a more committed producer, The Stuff could have been slick and creepy with some indicting Orwellian observations about marketing, consumerism and addiction.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I seem to have a compulsive craving for some marshmallow creme.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Cohen tries to keep time with Moriarty’s inspired weirdness, teaming him with a lethal-fisted competitor named Chocolate Chip Charlie (SNL‘s Garrett Morris) and inserting mock commercials, including one with Abe Vigoda and Clara “Where’s the beef?” Peller… But the director buries these gems under reams of expository dialogue, haphazard staging, and shock effects that aren’t even remotely shocking.”–Scott Tobias, The Onion AV Club (DVD)