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Enough is never enough
An alien invasion can take many forms, but how about as your favourite dessert? Larry Cohen's 1985 cult classic THE STUFF lands on UK dual format from Arrow video and looks better than ever says long-time fan Gort.
 
"Yes I suppose we do have to keep the world safe for ice cream."
Corporate executive on the prospect of hiring David 'Mo' Rutherford

 

If you were drawing up a list of dangerous materials to make a horror film about, what would you put on it? Deadly nightshade, perhaps, or hemlock. Or that old favourite, chemical waste. How about ice cream? No, of course not, that would be silly. Even horror fans are likely to snigger at that one. So try telling someone who claims to find horror movies daft in the first place that a low budget 1985 film about killer ice cream is one of the smartest and most enjoyable Blu-ray and DVD releases of the week and watch what face they pull. Far be it from me to incite violence, but while they're pulling that face, try punching them in it. If they hate horror movies they're unlikely to come round to your point of view even if you sit them in front of the film, so get your satisfaction any way you can.

Having said all that, the behaviour of the first character we encounter in The Stuff doesn't exactly help my case. He's an old miner and he's out in the snow when he spots something white bubbling out of the ground. So what does he do? He tastes it. Then again, movie characters are fond of doing things like that. They'll taste anything from blood to heroin to confirm its identity. Whatever this gooey white matter is, our boy seems to love it. "You know, if this stuff is bubbling out of the ground like this," he tells his companion, "there might be enough of it here that we could sell to people!"

As the main titles unfold (Helvetica, no frills), young Joey wakes in the middle of the night, bothered by the heat and pestered by mosquitoes. He wanders downstairs and opens the fridge, and the white goo discovered in the opening scene is already on the market and in the family fridge. It's called The Stuff, and it's not just delicious, it's calorie free. No wonder people love it. The only thing is, when Joey opens the fridge he sees a spilled gloop of it trying crawl back into its tub. Dad then shows up, pissed off that his son is poking around the kitchen at this hour. Joey tells him what he saw but Dad's having none of it and sends him back to bed. The next morning Joey tries to stop his brother from eating The Stuff by knocking a tub from his hand and splattering all over a cabinet door. His father is angry but his Mom is just delighted that it doesn't leave a stain.

Meanwhile a group of corporate bigwigs have hired industrial saboteur and ex-FBI man David 'Mo' Rutherford to steal the formula that has made The Stuff such a success. He kicks off by busting in on the shoot of the product's latest ad campaign, which is being overseen by pretty marketing whizz Nicole. Mo charms his way into her good books by telling her he's an oil man looking to buy her company. She seems awfully keen to sell. He then drops in on ex-Food and Drug Administration man Vickers to press him for details on how The Stuff is made. He's not much help, but confesses that it's so tasty that he feeds it to his dog, a dog that turns on him shortly after Mo departs. A chance meeting teams Mo with an excitable dude named Chocolate Chip Charlie, whose business was stolen by the very same people that Mo is investigating. It doesn't take long before the intrepid pair discover that if you eat enough of The Stuff (and as the ads proclaim, enough is never enough), it will devour you from the inside and transform your body into a host for this subterranean invader.

In one of the film's quantum leaps of narrative progression, the next time we see Mo and Nicole together the couple are an item and she is convinced of the truth of everything he's told her. By now Joey has been grounded for destroying all the tubs of The Stuff at the local supermarket and his family have binned all their regular food and are chugging this calorie-free delight like it's going out of fashion. They are also creepily keen for Joey to do likewise. "Why are you talking like you're in a commercial?" Joey asks them with good reason. They try to force feed it to him and he fools them for a short while by eating shaving foam, but runs from the house at the first opportunity and is rescued by Mo, who has read about his supermarket exploits in the paper.

Mo, Nicole and Joey then fly down to Georgia, where Nicole's position as the head of The Stuff's advertising campaign gets her and Mo a tour of the factory where it's made, or at least where it's pumped into brightly coloured tubs. But when the lives of all three are threatened by The Stuff and its human hosts, Mo calls on the help of right-wing survivalist Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears and his private army to expose to the world the true nature of their favourite dessert.

All of which may sound a little daffy (who am I kidding? It even sounds daffy to me and I've seen the film a number of times), but as it plays out on screen it's an absolute blast. It helps to know that the film is the work of Larry Cohen, a prolific and inventive television writer in the 60s who by this point already had a number of cult favourites under his belt as writer-director. If for some strange reason the name still doesn't ring a bell, check out It's Alive, God Told Me To, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover and Q: The Winged Serpent for starters. He was also the creator and chief screenwriter on the science fiction paranoia TV classic The Invaders and cult western series Branded, and has since penned the stories of screenplays for the likes of Maniac Cop, Phone Booth and Cellular.

Cohen's best films as writer-director are among the most enjoyable exploitation works of the 1970s and 80s, inventive, tightly constructed and character-focussed movies that worked logistical and technical wonders on usually minimal budgets. They're witty as hell and Cohen has a real eye for casting and making even the smallest roles register by giving them interesting things to do and actively encouraging actor participation. His four-film (and one Masters of Horror TV episode) partnership with Michael Moriarty was without question his most fruitful. The two seemed to genuinely inspire each other, and Cohen describes their relationship as akin to two jazz artists crossing paths on a film and throwing ideas at each other and improvising, sometimes to the bemusement of Moriarty's fellow actors. Those of you who delighted in Moriarty's eccentric turn in Q will be happy to know that he's every bit as entertainingly offbeat here, greeting each of the corporate execs by checking their sweaty palms, assuring them that "No-one is as dumb as I appear to be," and comforting Joey after he throws up in Mo's car with the claim that, "Everybody has to eat shaving cream once in a while."

As ever with this director, the supporting cast make almost as big an impression as the leads, and Cohen scores a couple of real coups here, with ex-FDA man Vickers and Colonel Spears played by the imposing duo of Danny Aiello and Paul Sorvino. Sorvino especially appears to be having a ball and it's he who gets some of my favourite lines. When he first meets with Mo he calmly threatens, "I could toss you off this tower – you'd land just about there," and reacting to the sight of The Stuff escaping from one of its victims he retorts with a wince, "I kind of like the sight of blood... but this is disgusting." My favourite Spears moment sees him and his men arriving in town in a fleet of taxis, emerging with guns waving and shouting in that way that movie soldiers always seem to do when leaping into action, then brought to a sudden halt by Spears so he can issue the order: "Pay the drivers. Issue a ten per cent tip. Get a cash receipt."

Cohen knows his genre cinema, but his work isn't borrowed from the films he admires, but informed by them. Thus while Q was effectively his 'Godzilla Takes Manhattan' movie, it also scores as a domestic drama, a police procedural, a serial killer story, a black comedy and a socio-political study of opportunism and monetary exploitation. And it's fun. The Stuff draws its initial inspiration from the paranoia-driven alien takeover films of the 1950s, particularly William Cameron Menzies' Invaders From Mars, which also kicks off with a young boy witnessing something that his family won't believe and having to flee the when his parents are taken over by aliens. As a critique of modern consumerism it's as potent as Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and its digs at amoral corporate greed and our addiction to products that do us no good are even more relevant now than when the film was made. This is a fast food that attacks the consumer from within, which in essence is exactly what fast food does. And it's completely natural!

Coming back to The Stuff after a break of several years it played even better than my rose tinted memory had convinced me it would. There's not a wasted shot here, and Cohen regular Paul Glickman's colourful cinematography makes us feel at times as if we've fallen into a commercial for the film's titular product. Its budget may be small, but its low rent physical effects are surprisingly neat, a feisty blend of matte work, models, prosthetics and goo. Cohen even puts that rotating room that sprayed Johnny Depp up the wall in A Nightmare on Elm Street to good use.

It rounds up in a bit too much of a hurry (another quantum narrative leap), but rallies with a finale that turns the tables on the corporation that is still planning to make millions from a product that its bosses wouldn't eat, and an ending that reminds us that banning something will not make it disappear, just change its mode of distribution. The Stuff is a film that actually justifies that too often misused cult classic label. It's one my favourite works from a talented but too often overlooked filmmaker who always leaves me with the impression that making films is more fun than just about anything else around.

Oh, and if you want a quick glimpse of Brooke Adams, stick with the film until the final credits have rolled.

sound and vision

The film has been restored by Arrow under the supervision of the redoubtable James White at Deluxe Digital Cinema from the original negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, scratches and debris have been carefully removed on a frame-by-frame basis, damaged frames repaired and density and stability issues have been improved. Can you tell that I'm quoting? It's also nice to learn that throughout the restoration process, care was taken to ensure that the film's original texture, details and grain structure were not messed with. And it looks better than I would ever have expected. Like many of us I first saw The Stuff cropped to 4:3 on iffy quality VHS and watching this Blu-ray was like seeing it for the first time all over again. There's a lovely level of detail, nicely graded contrast and a rich colour palette that never feels over-saturated. Fine film grain is visible but always organic to the image and there is, as promised, no trace of edge enhancement. Intermittently, when all the elements are right, the image just leaps from the screen.

The Linear PCM mono 2.0 track has some inevitable range restrictions but is free of any trace of damage, distortion or background hiss.

Optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired are available.

extra features

Before we move on it might be worth mentioning what's not included here. On the US Anchor Bay DVD released way back in 2000 there was a commentary track by director Larry Cohen that we can presume Arrow were unable to licence for this release. It has its share of dead spots, but was otherwise an enjoyable listen, and included the odd bit of information not present on the extras here. Anyway, to business.

Can't Get Enough of The Stuff (52:10)
A typically entertaining look back at the film and its making by Arrow's resident filmmaker and cult film über-enthusiast Callum Waddell, one comprised of interviews with writer-director Larry Cohen, producer Paul Kurta, mechanical makeup effects man Steve Neill, lead actress Andrea Marcovicci and horror guru and Cohen fan Kim Newman. Paul Kurta explains how he first came to work with Cohen (the director, naked, opened the door just a crack, handed him a script and told him to read it) and describes him as a wonderful actor's director; Andrea Marcovicci recalls working with Paul Sorvino (always singing opera) and Michael Moriarty (eccentric, musical, forever improvising) and being covered in foul smelling fire retardant foam; Steve Neill talks about creating effects on a micro budget and being shouted at by Cohen; and Kim Newman offers some typically smart observations on the film and Cohen's cinema in general. Cohen, meanwhile, is brimming with jolly information, revealing that he has most of his ideas in the shower, that as a director he's akin to Charles Laughton in Mutiny of the Bounty, and that he wanted to market The Stuff as a real product as a tie-in to sell the film, an idea that was squashed by the advertising people. "People in the advertising, promotional end of movies," he assures us, "anything that's original frightens the hell out of them."

Darren Bousman Trailer Commentary (1:48)
Director Darren Bousman (Saw II, III and IV, Mother's Day), for Trailers From Hell,* compares The Stuff to Citizen Kane and Birth of a Nation and recalls how it helped to shape his filmmaking career.

Theatrical Trailer (1:25)
The same trailer without the commentary, a rather formless and panicky montage of shots from the film. I like the serious voiced intro, though.

Booklet
A nicely designed and lavishly illustrated booklet featuring a beefy and entertaining essay by Joel Harley on the relationship between horror films and food, with special emphasis (as you'd hope) on Larry Cohen and The Stuff. Futurama's Slurm and Popplers also get a pertinent mention. Full details of the transfer are also included. Where did you think I got them from?

summary

The folks at Arrow just keep on giving us cult cinema fans reasons to hug them. The Stuff was always a personal favourite, but one I never expected to see getting the sort of sparkly scrub-up it gets here. A shame we don't have the Larry Cohen commentary, but I'll happily trade that in for the retrospective documentary, which covers much of the same ground, and an HD transfer as impressive as this. Highly recommended, particularly for cult cinema fans who don't have a bug up their arse about low budget movies from the 1980s. There, I've said my piece. Now go enjoy the movie.

 


* http://trailersfromhell.com

The Stuff

USA 1985
97 mins
directed by
Larry Cohen
produced by
Paul Kurta
written by
Larry Cohen
cinematography
Paul Glickman
editing
Armond Lebowitz
music
Anthony Guefen
art direction
Marlene Marta
George Stoll
starring
Michael Moriarty
Andrea Marcovicci
Garrett Morris
Paul Sorvino
Scott Bloom
Danny Aiello
Patrick O'Neal
James Dixon

disc details
region B
video
1.85:1
sound
LPCM 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Can't Get Enough of The Stuff documentary
Darren Bousman trailer commentary
Theatrical trailer
Booklet
distributor
Arrow Films
release date
10 March 2014
review posted
10 March 2014

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