The Stuff (1985)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Body Snatchers (1993)

It turns out not every movie adaptation of the 1958 novel The Body Snatchers is Great; some are just Okay. The 1956 and the 1978 adaptations—both titled The Invasion of the Body Snatchers—are reputable sci-fi horror classics, but that streak apparently ended when the material was imported into the 1990s. Body Snatchers ’93 had ample talent behind it to match the reputation of its looming predecessors, including the same producer as Invasion ’78 (Robert H. Solo) and creative contributions from genre film legends Abel Ferrara (director), Stuart Gordon (co-writer), and Larry Cohen (story). Unfortunately, that deep talent pool doesn’t amount to much onscreen. This particular Body Snatchers is serviceable but forgettable, something that might be easier to overlook if there weren’t so many superior realizations of the same material to compare it to.

Whereas the first two Body Snatchers adaptations explored themes of Conservatism, conformity, and paranoia in American cities & suburbs, this 90s Kids™ update moves its action to a military base. A moody teen brat who’d rather listen to her Walkman than her parents is horrified when her family moves to the rigid, regimented confinement of a military base to accommodate her dad’s career. That horror over militarized conformity only worsens when alien pod people start replacing the humans among the macho brutes in her midst, eventually including the few burnout friends she’s made on the base and members of her own immediate family. The manifestations of that horror are familiar: alien tendrils invading sleeping victims’ orifices and already-converted pod people snitching on still-human holdouts with hideous shrieks. They’re just updated with a new backdrop location & updated 90s era effects.

Weirdly, the film that most makes Body Snatchers ’93 feel obsolete is not any of the preceding direct adaptations of its source material but rather a loosely-inspired work that arrived to theaters five years later. Between the film’s 90s grunge sensibilities and its moody teen girl POV, it recalls a lot of what Robert Rodriguez later achieved to greater success in The Faculty. Body Snatchers is dourer & less fun than Rodriguez’s film, though, which I suppose is the Abel Ferrara touch. As a result, it’s difficult to find much in this film worth recommending that hasn’t been bested elsewhere, except maybe in a few standalone scares: a deflated goo-filled skull here, an alien-infested bathtub there, etc. Still, it’s a moderately serviceable sci-fi horror that sneaks in a few effective chills & practical gore showcases in a tight 87min window – even if they aren’t in service of something spectacularly unique.

-Brandon Ledet

Cellular (2004)

There was a time recently when British action star Jason Statham started poking fun at his onscreen persona in projects like The Expendables, Fast & Furious, and Spy and I realized that, despite his rapidly growing fame, I had no real idea who he is. Statham was already a brand worthy of self-satire by the time he registered on my radar at all. I obviously didn’t need to be too familiar with his oeuvre for those jokes to land (any passing knowledge of post-80s Tough Guy action stars of any stripe would do), but I still felt like I was missing out on something. It turns out that the gaps in my Statham knowledge were mostly a string of mid-00s action vehicles like The Transporter, The Bank Job, and Crank, which I’ve been gradually catching up on in recent months while parsing out the persona of this muscly mystery man. Oddly, it wasn’t any of these starring roles for Statham that solidified my understanding of his screen presence. It was instead his minor role as a Tough Guy villain in the 2004 action goof-em-around Cellular that brought home my introspective search for who Jason Statham really is.

It turns out that Jason Statham is a dick, at least onscreen. He even looks like a penis, considering his closely shaved head’s throbbing veins and his penchant for mod-style turtlenecks. Once you grasp that he’s hired to be instantly detestable as screenwriting shorthand, his typecasting become so much clearer in retrospect. In The Transporter, he’s a selfish brute of a nerd who allows his heartless, rules-obsessed professionalism to prevent him from doing the right thing (until a victim of his thuggish clients melts his icy heart). In Spy, he’s a self-aggrandizing blowhard who steamrolls women in conversation and in the workplace. In the Fast & Furious franchise he’s a self-serving, cold-hearted killer who doesn’t know the first thing about Family (until, again, his heart is melted over time). It’s a tradition that stretches back to his bit roles as a growling toughie in Guy Ritchie’s early movies. The brilliant thing about Statham’s casting in Cellular is that he’s only there because of his instant hateability as a total dick. The movie’s plot contrivances are so absurdly over the top that it has no time to invest in fleshing out the character of its central villain, so Statham’s instantly recognizable dickholery is meant to serve as a shortcut. And it mostly works.

Based on a story outline from legendary schlockteur Larry Cohen (who dared to ask, “What if I wrote Phone Booth again, but this time with cellphones?”), Cellular is the exact kind of obnoxious, high-concept nonsense that action cinema junkies are always looking for at the movies. Statham and his army of similarly dickish baddies kidnap a suburban high school biology teacher played by Kim Basinger and terrorize her in an attic for some reason or another. Desperate to call for help, Basinger uses her Science Knowledge to operate the only means of communication left in her newfound prison: a landline phone that Statham smashed to pieces. By tapping the wires of the broken device together to dial random numbers, Basinger miraculously connects to a nearby Nokia brick cellphone helmed by Chris Evans (in total bimbo dude-bro mode here). The original Cohen script was meant as a bitterly cynical social satire about the early days of cellphone obsession, but the version that actually got made is a goofball swashbuckling adventure in which Evans overcomes his carefree Beach Jock life of selfish hedonism to do something heroic for a change. As he gets involved in a series of escalating car chases, gun fights, and kidnapping crises in an effort to save a helpless stranger he has one clear mission: Don’t let the cellphone call drop or she’ll die. That’s quite a premise; classic Cohen.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a great movie, but it can be a lot of fun as a gimmicky time capsule of quickly outdated tech. The early scenes where Evans is bragging that his brick phone can take pictures is especially amusing, as are later action set pieces where he has to rob an electronics store for a charger or hijacks a stranger’s phone when his all-important call is transferred via a cross-connection mishap. There’s also a very amusing moment where William H. Macy, playing a one-day-from-retirement cop, gets to be heroic in full slow-motion splendor, which is a rare look for him. Even if this is the least interesting execution of a deliriously fun premise possible, it’s still got that Larry Cohen touch of a fully committed gimmick that could just about carry any dead weight you pile on top of it. That might explain why a movie this culturally insignificant somehow inspired international remakes in Bollywood, Tollywood, and Hong Kong. The “Drop the cellphone call and she’ll die!” premise is just that strong. Besides, it has the added lagniappe of seeing Jason Statham’s instantly detestable dickishness being employed for its full villainous potential, which I apparently needed to see to fully understand his deal in general, even if he usually channels that persona into gruff anti-heroes.

-Brandon Ledet

Special Effects (1984)

Brian De Palma wasn’t the only director who released a sleazy version of Vertigo in 1984 that used a film industry term as its title; everybody’s second favorite weirdo workhorse (after Roger Corman, natch) Larry Cohen also churned Special Effects, which takes all the debatable class of Body Double and wrings it dry. Unfortunately, what you’re left with isn’t much to write home about.

Andrea Wilcox (Zoë Lund) is having a merry time in sleazy eighties New York. It may be Christmas outside, but it’s Independence Day on the set of a fake Oval Office where she rides a rotating platform in a star-spangled top hat and not much else. Trouble brews at the arrival of Keefe (Brad Rijn), the husband that she left behind in rural Texas to care for their toddler son. He’s arrived to take her home, and he won’t take “no” for an answer; despite some chicanery and attempted escapes, he manages to catch her and they go back to her apartment. While he rests, she escapes through the bathroom window and flees. Unsure where exactly to go, she ends up at the home of Christopher Neville (Eric Bogosian), a hotshot young director whose most recent picture was a complete flop, leading him to consider moving into making high-end porn instead. After sleazily setting up a camera behind a one-way mirror, he sleeps with Andrea, then kills her. When her body is later found, Detective Delroy (Kevin O’Connor) immediately suspects the jilted husband, but Neville pays Keefe’s bail and hires an attorney, claiming that he saw Keefe’s arrest and is fascinated by his story. Although Keefe is initially reluctant, he allows himself to be convinced to sign over the rights to his and Andrea’s narrative to Neville in exchange for being a consultant on the film. Detective Delroy is similarly distracted by the allure of the silver screen and likewise signs on to production.

While trying to track down Andrea’s possessions, Keefe ends up at the Salvation Army, where he meets Elaine Bernstein (Lund again), a woman whose resemblance to Andrea is uncanny. Neville hires her to portray Andrea in the film; and after an on-set altercation between the actor playing Keefe and the real Keefe, brought on by the realization that Andrea had slept with the actor, Keefe ends up playing himself. After murdering one of techs who processed the film negatives of Andrea’s death “scene,” Neville recreates his own bedroom on set and even includes certain touches, like a white rose, which lead to the perfect emulation of the day he killed Andrea, apparently in an attempt to frame Keefe for her murder by splicing together the two films. Keefe becomes suspicious and manages to acquire the film on which her murder occurs, but is unable to show it to Elaine before the footage is destroyed. But when Elaine is lured to Neville’s home so he can recreate the original footage of Andrea’s death, Keefe must save her despite Delroy’s suspicions.

The plot of this one is as thin as the celluloid it’s printed on. Rijn is obviously doing his best with the script that he’s given, but there are moments where he seems utterly lost, and it seems like the confusion is more Rijn’s than Keefe’s. Lund manages to make Elaine feel different from Andrea at first, but by the time Elaine dyes her hair to look like Andrea, Elaine seems to completely lack the street smarts that initially made her a separate character. Bogosian tries his best to balance malicious menace with approachable eccentricity, but his motivations are so unclear that not only is he completely unsympathetic, he’s also generically nonthreatening. Ten years before making this film, director Cohen sold a few ideas to Columbo; given that this film’s primary murder happens near the beginning and there’s no mystery about who the perpetrator is,this film feels like a feature-length episode of that show, but with sleazy nudity and an overlong denouement. All of the sets are ugly, including Neville’s house, and the cat-and-mouse in the dark after Keefe figures out the truth is more tedious than thrilling. All in all, unless you’re a Cohen completist, this is one to avoid.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond