Oddball industrial spy (and former FBI agent) Michael Moriarty is hired by a food company to investigate a new rival product called ‘The Stuff’ (which looks somewhere in between whipped cream and shaving cream), which has become all the rage. In fact, people just can’t seem to get enough of it. What Moriarty finds, however, is that if you have too much of ‘The Stuff’, it could end up taking over you, ala “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. He hooks up with a businessman named Chocolate Chip Charlie (Garrett Morris), a Col. Kurtz-esque militia guy (Paul Sorvino), and an attractive advertising exec (Andrea Marcovicci) to infiltrate the corporation making ‘The Stuff’.
Meanwhile, a young boy (Scott Bloom) sees the eerie effect ‘The Stuff’ has on his entire family, and tries his best to avoid eating it himself. Patrick O’Neal plays the head of the corporation that makes ‘The Stuff’, Danny Aiello has a spooky cameo as an FDA administrator whose dogs apparently love ‘The Stuff’. Look for cameos by the likes of Eric Bogosian (in a supermarket scene), Patrick Dempsey, a young Mira Sorvino, and others.
Schlock writer/director Larry Cohen (“Q: The Winged Serpent”, “It’s Alive”) isn’t a master filmmaker, but he’s a great ‘high concept’ ideas man (he more recently had a hand in writing both “Phone Booth” and “Cellular”, essentially variants of the same ‘high’ concept). This 1985 effort isn’t the man’s best film (that would be “Black Caesar”), but it almost comes off. “Invasion of the Appetite Suppressants” perhaps? Certainly Mr. Cohen appears to have been a fan of the 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, when at one point Moriarty is forced to act like someone on ‘The Stuff’.
Personally, I think it works better as a serious sci-fi piece of schlock rather than a satire. I loved the ads for ‘The Stuff’, though, they’re cheesy as hell and not all that unrealistic, the best satirical element in the film by far. I also found the celebrity cameos quite hilarious, especially Abe Vigoda, Clara Peller (‘Where’s the Beef?’), and a post-credits Brooke Adams (from the aforementioned “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”). By the way, even without the ‘Stuff’ ads, this has more product placement than perhaps any film I’ve ever seen. But overall, I think it works best as a fairly straight piece of schlock, despite at least one prominent critic (Roger Ebert) having the opposite opinion. He’s wrong, it’s not consistently funny enough to be a satire.
My least favourite element of the film by far is the central performance by bizarro Michael Moriarty. I’ve never liked the idiosyncratic actor and his odd vocal inflections and accent. Here his performance suggests he was high on some ‘stuff’ during the shoot. I think he’s an appalling actor, and it carves a pretty damn big hole in the film. Replace Moriarty, and spend a few more bucks to improve some of the FX (anything involving fire is a dud) and ugly look of the film (except in the well-lit night scenes), and you might be on to a winner. Underrated “SNL” original cast mate Garrett Morris (who was essentially the token black amidst Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Gilda Radner, etc.) steals the film as ‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie, and the film is lesser whenever he’s not around. He’s involved in the film’s best and creepiest special FX moment. Danny Aiello, meanwhile, has a genuinely unnerving cameo that is the best thing in the entire film aside from the cheesy music score by Anthony Guefen. Speaking of cheesy, the title is hilarious, and one has to assume it was Cohen having a dig at “The Thing” (or at the very least “The Blob”). I also found Bloom’s father’s rationale for eating ‘The Stuff’ even if it’s a living organism, really bloody convincing. The entire family dynamic in those scenes is frightening, because it’s creepy when your whole family basically turn on you and chase after you.
It’s an OK film, but could’ve been even better, and is mostly ugly to look at thanks to the uneven work of cinematographer Paul Glickman (Cohen’s “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover” and “Special Effects”). It’s mostly a stale and unattractive film, almost Canadian TV-esque. I’m not sure when all those ‘World Vision’ type ads started appearing on TV, but imagine all those starving kids in Africa being given ‘The Stuff’. That would be daring and hilariously wrong. Still, it’s not a bad film at all, but like many Cohen films, it’s a great idea not quite capitalised on.