The Stuff is a 1985 science-fiction-horror-comedy written, directed, and executively produced by Larry Cohen. If you’ve never seen this film, I can only describe it as an 80s update of a 50s sci-fi B-Movie. It’s a mixture of The Blob and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and although it’s influenced by these science fiction classics, it has in turn become a classic “monster-cum-alien” B-Movie in its own right. Aside from the obvious filmic influences however, the most original and unique aspect of The Stuff is the central satire which has a dig at consumerism and advertising.
The film opens with a mysterious white foamy substance bubbling up from the floor of a quarry. Upon tasting the sweet substance a mine worker says to his colleague “there might be enough so that we can sell it to people”. We then cut to a boy named Jason going downstairs into his kitchen and opening the fridge, we see the gooey matter which is now a popular product, it is packaged and sold as “The Stuff”. But as Jason peaks into the fridge, he sees The Stuff move.
We then cut to some rich men on a yacht talking about industrial spying, they’re all CEOs of ice cream companies who are now in competition with The Stuff, they hire an ex-F.B.I. agent named Mo Rutherford (played by Michael Moriarty from Q: The Winged Serpent). Mo’s constant catchphrase is “when people give me money I always want Mo’” (which he keeps saying to everyone he meets) he then begins his investigation into The Stuff; where it comes from, what it is, and who is profiting from it?
Jason, the young boy from the first scene, is one of the few people who sees The Stuff for what it really is. He tries to convince his family that it’s wrong to eat it, “it moves around all by itself, I saw it moving around in our refrigerator” he says but nobody pays attention. Knowing that The Stuff is alive the kid becomes enraged, and when he sees everybody buying and eating it in supermarkets, the shelves of which are filled to the brim with the product, he knocks the displays over and runs down the aisles smashing The Stuff yelling “it’s gonna kill you, it’s gonna kill you all!”.
Meanwhile the quarry becomes a full-time mine and factory for The Stuff, the substance is a huge success and everybody is consuming it. Then, slowly, Jason’s family start to talk like they’re in a commercial, his mother says she’s “lost five pounds” because of The Stuff. His family even become defensive about The Stuff being alive, Jason’s father says “there’s something alive in yoghurt and in bread… what’s the difference?”. But after making this point he adds “[it] kills the bad things inside us” adding a little sense of sci-fi dread.
One of the best parts of the film is the fact that it includes advertisements for The Stuff, and Cohen does a great job showing the adverts intermittently on the TV or the ads being shot in a studio. The first one has a model describing The Stuff to the camera; “something I like better than ice cream… it’s called The Stuff… enough is never enough”. A second advert is shown and it features some sexy ladies, scantily dressed, feeding each other The Stuff, making a point about the “sex sells” concept within advertising. There’s also a TV ad which contains a song “Can’t get enough of The Stuff” at the end of which a voice-over in a typical 80s style says “The Taste That Makes You Hungry For More!” (possibly referencing Coca Cola’s tagline in 1985 which was “We’ve Got A Taste For You”).
The advertising is one of the best elements of the movie, it looks believable and even appealing, yes it’s a pastiche of commercials in the 80s but the copywriting and the slogans are all very convincing. These are taglines that are brilliantly both a parody of 80s ad culture but at the same time believable and even useable in their own right, they’re so authentic that they echo many products not only from the 80s but subsequent decades too.
We’re also shown many examples of marketing for The Stuff; billboards begin to pop up reading “America’s Taste Sensation”, “Number One Across The Nation”, and the ever popular “Enough Is Never Enough”. There’s even a theme tune with the line “one lick is never enough” sang in a cheesy, jingle style. The song plays in kiosks which have sprung up across the nation selling The Stuff, and all these elements perfectly show the expansion of a new product as it makes its way into the market almost like a virus.
As The Stuff’s popularity grows, people begin to stockpile it in their fridges. The movie perfectly illustrates the hysteria surrounding a new product, with people literally buying into the hype of marketing. The film also makes a comment about addiction (to sugar, caffeine, or nicotine for instance) and even addiction to things such as prescription medication.
Mo at one point meets with an ex-FDA worker named Vickers (played by Danny Aiello). He approved The Stuff saying “if there’s no reason to forbid the use of a product we have to okay it” showing the mentality of The Food And Drug Administration. Vickers adds “In this case it was a pleasure, I love it! I love it!” he even feeds The Stuff to his dog Ben.
Midway into the movie and people start to act strangely, Ben, the dog kills his owner, and people become robotic and violent. We’re then shown that the Stuff not only takes over people’s minds but that it also leaves the human body on occasion and kills people à la The Blob. The Stuff consumes people’s insides and replaces their blood, exiting people’s bodies after feeding on them and leaving them hollow inside. This is perhaps a comment about products having a life of their own and how they suck the very life out of people as they rush to consume a new, popular product.
The movie ends almost perfectly with The Stuff getting banned, we see the public burning boxes and tubs in piles, blowing up the shops and the quarry where it comes from. This says something about pop culture backlashes, where the public violently turn against something once popular (Disco or The Beatles come to mind).
Following from this backlash, there’s plans by the rich suits in charge to re-brand and re-release “The Stuff” as “The Taste” (a diet version of The Stuff) but Mo seeing the harmful nature of the product turns the tables on the money-hungry executives. He forces them to eat The Stuff they’re selling, and as they’re force-fed the alien substance he asks them “Are you eating it or is it eating you?”.
Just as we think people’s hunger for The Stuff is over, just like alcohol during Prohibition or drugs in today’s society, an underground operation forms to sell it illegally. With people secretly buying an outlawed product, this makes for a great ending and a final comment on the yearning for something which the law says is prohibited.
The Stuff is unashamedly low budget, but like most of Larry Cohen‘s work, he cleverly places extras around the main actors (eating The Stuff in the background for example) thus saving money in every inch of the reel. Larry has always been a master of low-budget filmmaking, being able to stretch a buck and make it look like something much more expensive. Apart from The Stuff itself (which resembles shaving foam or whipped cream) and its packaging, the film was, I assume, relatively cheap to make. There’s miniatures, a little green screen, some upside-down trick photography, but all of these FX elements are used sparingly and to great effect. And let’s not forget the marvelous ads which for me are brilliant stand-alone visual pieces like the adverts in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop or the recruitment videos in Starship Troopers.
The Stuff is very much an extension of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, it’s an alien being but it comes from deep under the Earth as if this world can churn out something which would not only appeal to mankind but also enslave it and eventually kill it (a comment on fossil fuels perhaps?). There’s also a quick cameo by Brooke Adams at the end of the credits, Brooke says the product tagline to camera (“enough is never enough”) and her appearance is possibly a reference to the 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.
The Stuff is also very much in the vein of John Carpenter’s Halloween III: Season Of The Witch as a satirical comment about commercialism and the power of advertising a product, the feeling of wanting and needing something and becoming a slave to the corporations (Carpenter later expanded on this idea with the fantastic They Live). The Stuff for me, is also a precursor to films like Society where a lone protagonist sees something wrong with society and the public: the world isn’t the way most other people see it.
This film does go off on a bit of a tangent with the military plot toward the end, which had me pondering whether this picture should score a 5/10 but once you get to the last five or ten minutes you come back to enjoying the subtext of the piece. Overall The Stuff is a well-constructed and satisfying watch and there’s enough subversive content to warrant a 6/10 (almost teetering on a 7/10). The film sports a brilliantly light-hearted tone, it’s very 80s and very tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time it’s message is very pertinent and in some ways brave, especially when it comes to mocking consumerism. The aesthetic and tone coupled with the opinion is something only Larry Cohen could pull off.