Next up in the Larry Cohen Spotlight is perhaps my favorite of all of his films: the campy consumerism satire, “The Stuff.”
“The Stuff” was written, directed, and co-produced by Larry Cohen, in cooperation with his production collaborators Paul Kurta (“Q,” “Perfect Strangers,” “Hell On Weels,” “Veronica Mars”) and Barry Shils (“Special Effects,” “It’s Alive III”).
The makeup effects for “The Stuff” are credited to a team including Ed French (“Creepshow 2,” “C.H.U.D.,” “Paul Blart Mall Cop,” “Dragonball: Evolution”), Michael Maddi (“The Blob,” “Saturday Night Live”), Steve Neill (“God Told Me To,” “It’s Alive III,” “Q,” “Laserblast,” “Full Moon High,” “Battle Beyond The Stars”), Rick Stratton (“Class of 1999,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Galaxy Quest”), and Craig Lyman (“Winter’s Tale,” “The Happening,” “The Cotton Club”).
The special effects work is credited to one Bret Culpepper, who worked on other productions such as “Re-Animator,” “The Beastmaster,” and “Back to the Future Part III” as a special effects worker and technical advisor.
The visual effects team for “The Stuff” comprised of David Allen (“Robot Jox,” “Dolls,” “Q,” “Laserblast”), Jim Danforth (“The Prophecy,” “Ninja III: The Domination,” “The Thing”), Jim Doyle (“Showgirls,” “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” “A Nightmare On Elm Street”), Paul Gentry (“Space Truckers,” “RoboCop 3,” “Predator 2”), John Lambert (“Soultaker”), David Stipes (“Real Genius,” “Night of the Creeps,” “Arena”), and Ted Rae (“Lawnmower Man 2,” “Jaws 3-D,” “Night of the Comet”).
The stunt coordinator on “The Stuff” was Jery Hewitt, who has worked on a diversity of films such as “The Big Lebowski,” “Fargo,” “Christmas Evil,” “Michael Clayton,” “No Country For Old Men,” and “Cop Out.”
The cast for “The Stuff” is headlined by frequent Larry Cohen collaborator Michael Moriarty, with additional roles filled out by Garret Morris (“Saturday Night Live”), James Dixon (“It’s Alive”), Andrea Marcovicci (“The Hand”), Paul Sorvino (“Goodfellas,” “Repo! The Genetic Opera”), Danny Aiello (“Hudson Hawk,” “Moonstruck”), and Patrick O’Neal (“Under Siege”). In the background, you might spot recognizable faces like Eric Bogosian (“Special Effects”), Abe Vigoda (“The Godfather”), Patrick Dempsey (“Loverboy,” “Scream 3”), Laurene Landon (“Maniac Cop,” “Maniac Cop 2,” “It’s Alive III”), Brooke Adams (“The Dead Zone,” “Days of Heaven”), and Mira Sorvino (“Mimic,” “Mighty Aphrodite”).
The story of “The Stuff” surrounds a mysterious dessert that takes the consumer world by storm, thus throwing the established dessert industry into a panic. They collectively hire a former intelligence agent named Mo Rutherford to investigate the product and discover the secret recipe via corporate espionage. As the covert investigation proceeds, however, “The Stuff” becomes increasingly eerie, suspicious, and dangerous. After a series of team-ups with a disgruntled mascot, a paramilitary organization, and an orphaned child, Rutherford decides to take The Stuff head on.
“The Stuff” features some really interesting effects work, including a bedroom attack by the stuff that pays homage to “A Nightmare On Elm Street,” even using the exact same effects room for the shot.
The Stuff itself was made up of an assortment of materials depending on the scene: ice cream, yogurt, fire extinguishing foam, and a wretched fish bone-meal concoction were all used at one point or another, and some of the shots are even superimposed animation.
There was an extensive copyright dispute over the effects used in “The Stuff,” which led to a lengthy legal battle (Effects Associates, Inc v Cohen) that set significant precedence for the ownership of effects work done for films, and is actually a pretty interesting read for anyone with a cursory interest in copyright law.
The reception for “The Stuff” was somewhat mixed: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 70% (critics) and 45% (audience), with an IMDb rating of 5.9. “The Stuff” was made on a $1.7 million budget, and received only a limited theatrical release with an undisclosed total gross. However, it has certainly become a cult classic thanks to effects, acting, and bizarrely humorous plot.
As with many of Cohen’s films, “The Stuff” provides a significant element of social commentary, particularly about consumerism and the food industry. There is even a specific call-out in the dialogue about the fact that the recipe for Coca-Cola is kept secret, and no one seems to care.
The effects work on “The Stuff” is often mocked for its ridiculousness, but I actually though that it was pretty impressive work given the low budget on the film. Sure, it is definitely squibby and cheesy, but it certainly got the job done on budget. Apart from some dated super-imposed effects, the film still looks pretty good, thanks in large part to the extensive use of practical effects.
The plot of “The Stuff” becomes very similar to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as it progresses, with many people being replaced or possessed by the nefarious dessert treat. Larry Cohen would later co-write his own version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” with 1993’s “Body Snatchers,” ultimately directed by Abel Ferrara.
The performances in “The Stuff” are distinctly and astoundingly over the top, particularly on the parts of Moriarty, Sorvino, and Morris. I absolutely adore Moriarty’s southern-fried pseudo-buffoon ex-intelligence agent, and even the child actor gets to go over the top with his infamous grocery store freak-out:
Overall, “The Stuff” is probably one of my favorite films, and is just about the pinnacle of what a good-bad movie can be. The performances, effects, and writing are all spot on, and create what is almost a Platonic ideal of a b-movie. It should go without saying, but “The Stuff” is a solid recommend from me for just about everyone. It is clever, funny, sharp, goofy, and just the right amount of gory.