MOVIE REVIEW: The Stuff (1985)

A new dessert sensation is taking the country by storm. Something like a cross between whipped cream and marshmallow sauce, “The Stuff” tastes great and is low in calories. Needless to say, a consortium of business owners want to find out exactly what it is so they can come up with their own version. After all their attempts at analyzing it fail, they hire David “Mo” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty), a former FBI agent, to do some industrial espionage.

Mo meets up with a young boy, Jason (Scott Bloom) whose family has been acting very strangely after he saw a glob of The Stuff moving of its own accord, and Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), an ad agency executive who created the initial ad campaign for it.

It’s off to Virginia and then Georgia to unravel the mystery. The Stuff is more than what it appears to be; and the trio’s lives are increasingly in danger as they get closer to the source….

Another offering from noted schlockmeister Larry Cohen, The Stuff doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be. For a horror movie, it’s not scary enough. For a dark comedy, it’s neither dark nor funny enough. For social commentary, it swings too hard and whiffs completely. It’s also painfully dated. Aside from the style, there are at least two cultural references that fix it firmly in its time.

Oh, as to people wondering what would make someone actually taste a strange goo bubbling up from the ground? First, it’s clear that The Stuff has mind-altering properties and might actually be sentient in a way. One can leave room for the possibility that The Stuff got control of the simple mind that discovered it and compelled the worker to taste it. Second, it wasn’t unusual for chemists in the past to taste substances as part of their analyses – that’s how saccharin was discovered. Anyway, just suspend your disbelief a bit, OK?

Given the nature of The Stuff, it’s easy to think of this as a revised and updated version of The Blob (1958). But it’s a lot closer to X: The Unknown (UK, 1956) in the origin of the menace: a goo welling up from somewhere underground. Actually, the movie is a lot closer to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978). The original version is widely recognized as an allegory for the Communist Menace, but it could also be seen (especially now that the Red Scare has faded from the scene) as being about the dangers of suburban conformity. You will be like everyone else, or the Neighborhood Homeowner’s Association will have something to say! The later version, with Donald Sutherland, moved the setting to San Francisco and changed the focus to being about urban isolation and alienation. How much do you really know about the other people in your apartment building? For all you know, they could be mindless worker drones in the great hive organism that is the modern City.

The connection here (the menace being Mindless Consumerism, of course) is obvious in the scene where young Jason is confronted by his family when he refuses to eat The Stuff. It’s clear they are under the control of some outside influence, and it’s no wonder Jason flees in terror.

The ending smacks of a deus ex machina. Rutherford suddenly remembers that he knows of one of those right-wing nut-job militia groups in the area, and he quickly convinces their leader that The Stuff is something they need to fight. It’s worse than fluoride in the water at sapping men’s personal essences….


Anyway, the practical effects are decent enough and Moriarty does an acceptable job as “Mo” Rutherford to make it watchable as a horror movie (even though “industrial espionage” isn’t much of a hook to hang your story on). It would take a few years for a much better movie commentary on Mass Consumerism to appear: They Live (1988).

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