The Film: 3/5
**This review is based on a test disc provided by Arrow Video and may not reflect the final product. We will update the review if and when the final product is received.**
I miss the old Larry Cohen, the go-it-alone indie maverick who made some of the finest socially relevant action, horror, and sci-fi features of the 1970’s including Black Caesar, It’s Alive, and God Told Me To. Cohen didn’t mess around when it came to creating hard-charging B-movies that pulled no punches and weren’t afraid to use the trappings of genre cinema to address issues of parental paranoia, religious fervor, racial strife, and class warfare. Precious few of his films were good enough to warrant repeat viewings, but even the ones that fell short of classic status were still entertaining and refreshingly intelligent when weighed against their competition. After 1982’s goofy and gory monster romp Q: The Winged Serpent Cohen made the back-to-back thrillers Special Effects and Perfect Strangers in an attempt to briefly break away from creative bloodshed and stop-motion monstrosities. Neither film was able to find an audience (though Special Effects was pretty good), so Cohen hoped that a return to the thought-provoking horrors he churned out with gusto in the past would reverse his fortunes.
The result was 1985’s equally goofy and gooey The Stuff, a New World Pictures release that may not have found Larry Cohen at his absolute best but was worthwhile enough to endure with several notable VHS and DVD releases over the years. Now that The Stuff is one year away from celebrating its 30th anniversary Arrow Video has granted the film its very first Blu-ray edition, complete with a fully remastered picture and some new and vintage supplements. There’s no perfect time for this humble Cohen fan to check out one of the beloved master of the B movie’s grandest experiments.
“The Stuff” came from out of nowhere to captivate the country and finds it oozy way into the hearts and digestive tracks of willing consumers. It’s a creamy, plain white dessert treat that’s low in calories and insanely addictive. Like many a crude oil strike the Stuff came bubbling up from the very earth we walk on and was discovered by the night watchman of a rock quarry. The demand for the product is so great that ice cream stands have been set up to sell nothing but the Stuff. Naturally the company that sells it has competitors pissed off that the Stuff has caused them to suffer massive losses of profits and customers, and one of them hires former FBI agent and current industrial spy “Mo” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) to investigate the origins of this latest culinary craze and use that information to destroy the product. Rutherford’s investigation bring him into contact with Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), an advertising executive responsible for the marketing campaign that brought the Stuff into every American household, and guilt-ridden Food and Drug Administration official Vickers (Danny Aiello). He eventually discovers that the Stuff is a living orgasm that slowly takes over the minds of those who consume vast quantities of the product, turning them into violent zombies before the Stuff kills them by ripping its way out of their bodies. Suspicious suburban kid Jason (Scott Bloom) also realizes this horrific truth when his own family turns against him. Rutherford and Nicole rescue Scott from harm and must recruit the services of a right wing militia lead by the ultra-paranoid Colonel Spears to help them destroy the Stuff at its source and free the U.S. from its delicious spell.
Larry Cohen’s The Stuff, much like the unworldly dessert that you just can’t enough of, is an oddball confection you really want to love but isn’t really that good for your health. I’ve wanted to see this film for most of my life, and now that I’ve seen it I realized that my life would not have been all that bad if I had passed up that opportunity. It’s a pretty fun little monster movie but half the time it has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. The Stuff is either too goofy to be a horror film or too scary to be a comedy. Horror comedies have to employ elements of both genres equally and with care because otherwise one would simply overwhelm the other. Cohen realized this with his earlier films, particularly It’s Alive and Q. They had their share of amusing moments but never forgot to keep the audience on edge first and foremost. The humor in The Stuff undercuts any potential for creating effective moments of terror to a nearly suicidal degree; how can we take anything that happens in this film seriously if the people responsible for making it think it’s all just one big joke?
The central concept of The Stuff is very interesting and plays on our national obsessions with constant consumption of whatever mysterious food products we’re sold on an hourly basis from radio, television, and the Internet, regardless of the possible dangers to our health. Cohen (who also penned the screenplay) has a lot of fun satirizing those obsessions and the relentless marketing campaigns that create awareness of the products by showing how supposedly intelligent adults can be made into mindless consumers unable to communicate with each other except in Madison Avenue-approved advertising slogans. The faux television commercials promoting the Stuff are a droll hoot as well, with the best being the one where the (literally) immortal Abe Vigoda and Wendy’s pitchwoman Clara “Where’s the beef” Peller play an elderly couple bemoaning the lack of the Stuff in their choice of dining establishment. Cohen understands all too well the power these mind-bogglingly innocuous commercials hold over the minds of the weaker willed but his treatment of such mercenary marketing techniques barely scratches the surface. John Carpenter would mine similar territory with memorable results in 1988’s They Live, except that film wasn’t afraid to explore the cumulative effect of corporate advertising onslaughts with a level of clarity and depth Marshall McLuhan would applaud - or maybe it would make him cringe.
The main problems with The Stuff reside in its pacing and certain performances from a professional cast. Cohen could never be accused of not knowing how to make a fast-moving thriller that was able to maintain the pace of an accomplished marathon runner while still giving the viewer enough information to keep them engaged. The problem with The Stuff is that the story moves so fast the narrative gaps are appallingly visible with two primary bones of contention. The first being the popularity of the Stuff itself, which is depicted as having already taken the nation by storm directly after the scene where it’s discovered but right before the opening credits. I don’t always require a great deal of exposition to maintain my interest in the narrative, but since this part of the plot is crucial it could have used a better build-up. Then there’s the romantic relationship between the characters of Mo and Nicole. In one early scene they just meet and agree to have dinner that evening, and the next time we see them they’re acting as if they were just engaged to be married. That’s a plot hole I couldn’t leap over even if I possessed Matrix powers. Maybe Cohen didn’t believe Mo and Nicole’s love required much screen time to appear believable, but expecting his audience to buy the idea of two people falling into bed after practically just meeting is a major league insult to our intelligence. I didn’t fall for it when Tom Atkins and Stacey Nelkin did it in Halloween III: Season of the Witch (of which The Stuff seems awfully derivative) and I certainly wasn’t having any of it here.
Cohen’s often go-to leading man Michael Moriarty is pretty good, despite having to chew on an amateurish Southern accent and spit out a bunch of lame jokes - many revolving around his character’s nickname. He doesn’t seem to be fully invested in the story and sometimes come across with the ironic detachment of a modern day action hero. Marcovicci doesn’t get much of a character to play except in her first scenes showing Nicole overseeing the filming of a new commercial for the Stuff. After that she’s only in the movie to cuddle up to Mo and get into danger. Scott Bloom does what he can with a one-note annoying kid character who makes so many idiotic mistakes during the film that you might feel tempted to beat your television set with a belt. Paul Sorvino stands out as the racist militia leader whose private army and radio station he uses to broadcast his paranoid ramblings (which seem quaint and amusing now that America has seen the rise in popularity and profitability of right-wing talk radio) turn out to be the country’s salvation, a nice little subversive touch from Cohen. Garrett Morris gets limited screen time as an ousted cookie company tycoon who briefly teams with Mo to uncover the secret behind the Stuff and makes those fleeting moments worth the effort. Danny Aiello’s cameo as the nervy FDA official with some squishy skeletons in his closet might and one terrifying dog seem weird to his admirers accustomed to seeing him imposing tough guys, but his single scene is one of the more impressive in the entire film. The late Patrick O’Neal (Under Siege) and Alexander Scourby (The Big Heat) work well as the warring titans of industry, while actor-playwright Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio) appears uncredited as a supermarket clerk.
Using the original camera negative Arrow Video has produced a 2K high-definition restoration of The Stuff that is as sweet and gorgeous to behold as the titular tenacious treat itself. I couldn’t spot a speck a grain in the boosted transfer, but digital noise reduction was used to great effect in smoothing out and improving details in the rich Technicolor cinematography of Paul Glickman (Henry Jaglom‘s Tracks). The vibrant color scheme has never looked better on home video with special attention paid to increasing the warm flesh tones and the chalky white consistency of the Stuff. An uncompressed English 1.0 LPCM track replicates the original mono audio from the theatrical presentation and subsequent home video releases with fine results though the dialogue is occasionally mixed low enough to require manual volume adjustment. The blaring, unimpressive music score from Anthony Guefen (Alucarda) comes through with minimal distortion. English subtitles are also provided.
There is only new extra on this release, but it’s a good one. “Can’t Get Enough of The Stuff” is a 52-minute retrospective documentary consisting of interviews with Cohen, producer Paul Kurta, co-star Marcovicci, mechanical effects artist Steve Neill, and British horror author and film journalist Kim Newman. It covers a lot of thematic and production ground and everyone involved seems very pleased with how the final film came out. If you don’t care much for The Stuff this documentary will do nothing to change your opinion, but if you did then you might find the enthusiasm and respect the interviewees have for the film to be infectious. The final disc-based extras are the original theatrical trailer and a Trailers from Hell version with commentary from Saw II director Darren Bousman. Shame that Arrow wasn’t able to secure the rights to use the Cohen audio commentary from Anchor Bay Entertainment’s 2000 Region 1 DVD.
The Blu-ray will also include a reversible cover art featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin, a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film and archival poster art and stills, and a DVD copy containing a standard-definition presentation and the accompanying extras.
Hardly one of prolific genre great Larry Cohen’s best films, but The Stuff is no slouch either. Among the candy-colored goo bag cinematic nightmares of the 1980’s it has enough wit and ingenuity to stand on its own two feet. The acting is solid throughout and even the slower patches are handled well with panache. The film’s Blu-ray debut courtesy of Arrow offers up a fantastic upgrade in picture quality and an informative new documentary fans of the film will heartily enjoy. Now all of a sudden I’m hungry for yogurt. Recommended, but for the love of God read the label first.