I’ve watched the classic trailer for Larry Cohen’s The Stuff so many times on VHS & DVD rentals of other schlock over the years that I felt like I had seen the film before, but it was entirely new to me. Well, not entirely new. Not only had I been exposed to the film’s most sensational images over & over again (if not just from that trailer, then from horror genre docs like King Cohen and Horror Noire), but I also feel like I’ve seen its exact behind-the-curtain corporate villainy satire before in more widely canonized titles like They Live! or Halloween III: Season of the Witch. As a result, it wasn’t the goopy practical-effects gore or cynical parody of Reagan-Era capitalism that bowled me over while finally watching the movie for the first time, as delightful as both those elements are. Instead, it was actor-director duo of Larry Cohen and Michael Moriarty that really distinguished The Stuff as something phenomenal – the same chemistry that distinguishes Q: The Winged Serpent as one of Cohen’s very best. There’s just something explosively entertaining about watching those two dialed-to-11 knuckleheads collaborate on a shared commitment to excess that Cohen struggles to match in his other works. They’re perfect together.
While Q: The Winged Serpent sets Moriarty loose as a proto-Nic Cagian madman, completely untethered from good taste or reason in his go-for-broke Acting Choices, The Stuff finds him uncharacteristically reserved – although just as bizarre. He stars as a deceptively laidback Southern Gent, stunning his corporate-asshole opponents with a mixture of affectations borrowed from Columbo and Foghorn Leghorn. Moriarty declares himself to be “an industrial saboteur”. He’s hired to investigate and disrupt the production of a mysterious health-craze food item known simply as The Stuff, which has quickly dominated the marketplace with seemingly no FDA regulation. In essence, The Stuff is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers update with the sinister aesthetic of 80s television commercials for overly processed foods. The titular, yogurt-like substance is essentially an alien being that takes over and oozes out of its consumers’ bodies, turning world domination into an inside job. Moriarty is humanity’s only chance for survival. He takes down the evil corporations behind The Stuff’s production & distribution with an “Aww shucks, I’m just asking questions” Southern Charm that never stops being bizarre in the context of this otherwise aggressively modern horror comedy. Whereas all the goopy gore gags and by-the-numbers plot points of the film are predetermined by the genre, every one of Moriarty’s Southern-fried line deliveries lands as a total, expectation-subverting surprise, and it’s his performance that keeps the film electrically engaging between the shocks of budget-busting gore.
While Moriarty can be counted on to keep The Stuff‘s faithful genre beats surprising from scene to scene, it’s Larry Cohen’s furious efficiency that allows that performance to shine. The Stuff clocks in well under 90 minutes, and wastes no time jumping into the thick of its 80s-specfic corporate greed parody. The seemingly alien substance of The Stuff is immediately discovered, consumed, and declared delicious in the first minute of the runtime. A modern version of this film would feel the need to explain the step-by-step plotting how that substance landed on grocery shelves, and then to backtrack to detail its exact origins lest it be ridiculed for its “plot holes” on the dregs of YouTube. Cohen wastes no time on such buffoonery. He immediately jumps to the good stuff: the alarming omnipresence of the villainous product in people’s homes and the complete disregard for those people’s safety from government regulators. By jumping right into it, he leaves way more room for his sinister TV commercial parodies and for specific potshots at real-life evil corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonalds. More importantly, he also leaves plenty more room for Moriarty’s absurd Columbo Leghorn performance, of which there could never be enough.
The beautiful thing about watching Cohen & Moriarty collaborate here is that they seem to be working in two entirely different speeds. Q: The Winged Serpent offers unhinged, sweaty excess from the two madmen from start to end. Cohen’s still operating at that breakneck speed in The Stuff, seemingly because he can’t help himself. Meanwhile, Moriarty has slowed his own lunacy down to a molasses-esque trickle, and it’s just as delectable as any of the film’s ooey-gooey practical effects. I greatly enjoyed The Stuff as an efficient, vicious genre film with a fearless commitment to throwing punches at the worst offenders of Reagan Era greed. I enjoyed it even more as a showcase for Michael Moriarty’s off-kilter excess as a deranged leading man. Larry Cohen happens to be the best possible filmmaker to maximize both of those indulgences, and this one still lands as one of his best even if you feel like you’ve been overexposed to its broader details.
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