“THE STUFF” (Arrow Video Blu-ray Review)
Like all movies by the great Larry Cohen, the logline for The Stuff sounds hopelessly stupid, while the film itself is surprisingly intelligent. It is of course, a film about sentient alien goo that becomes America’s most popular snack food. Pitched somewhere between THE BLOB and a satirical McDonalds advert, there’s really nothing else like the movie that works far better than it has any right to. Even though he’s long been a cult figure in the genre community, writer/director Larry Cohen is one of those filmmakers who has never quite attained the respect he deserves. His finest movies like THE STUFF are wholly unique, surprisingly intelligent, cleverly written, well-acted, messy, campy, and endlessly entertaining. Those are the qualities that tend to breed cult film and over the years THE STUFF has steadily built a fanbase of loveable lunatics who share Cohen’s uniquely cracked worldview.
THE STUFF opens with an elderly man discovering white goo that’s bubbling up from the earth in an unspecified factory. Inexplicably, he decides to put a handful of it into his mouth (hey, why not?). Surprisingly, that goo turns out to be absolutely delicious and a few months later it’s being marketed as a new delicious treat called The Stuff. We then meet a young boy (Scott Bloom) who sees The Stuff move on it’ own and becomes concerned for his family as they become increasingly addicted to the tasty, tasty alien. At the same time, we follow “Cohen’s DeNiro” Michael Moriarty as a southern-accented ex-FBI agent hired by a rival snack manufacturer to discover what makes The Stuff so addictive. Andrea Marcovicci co-stars as an ad agency owner who feels guilty about successfully marketing an evil alien as a tasty treat; SNL vet Garrett Morris plays a character as goofy as his name Chocolate Chip Charlie suggests; and Paul Sorvino is a right wing nutjob with a private army determined to take The Stuff down. As you might imagine, pulling all of those disparate characters and plotlines together in a single 87 minute romp proves to be a messy and episodic affair. It’s far from Cohen’s tightest or most coherent script, but it’s also one of his deliberately silliest and most purely entertaining. With a tongue jabbed deep into his cheek, Cohen gets away with most of the film’s failings in the name of camp comedy.
What’s most impressive about THE STUFF is how many movies it manages to be at once. It’s Cohen’s stab at the 80s rubber monster movie, filled with disgusting melting head set pieces. It’s also a clever satire of American consumerism, with some pointed attacks on manipulative marketing and poisonous junk food that eats users from the inside that’s only grown more relevant with time. Then, with the film hitting in the midst of Cohen’s 80s collaboration with the great/delightfully insane Michael Moriarty, it’s also an improv-centric character comedy filled with a hysterical turns from Moriarty, Sorvino, and others. Something about the improvised acting mixed with stylized B-movie storytelling manages to ground Cohen’s insane 80s genre yarns in a way few movies from the era managed.
So, somehow the THE STUFF is a horror movie and a comedy, a serious bit of social commentary and a campy genre parody, a character piece and a special effects vehicle. It’s a film of contradictions that Cohen pulls together into a singularly entertaining B-movie in a surprisingly ambitious way. At his best, Cohen made B-movies with easily marketable loglines that delivered on the poster while also being filled with unexpected plot twists and an unexpectedly ambitious subtext. THE STUFF falls into his formula perfectly and the genre could sure use more ambitiously independent artists like him these days.
The Stuff debuts on Blu-ray in a gorgeous little disc from Arrow. The film’s aesthetic is as bright, colorful, and glossy as the TV commercials it mercilessly mocks, making it well suited to Blu-ray. Arrow’s transfer bursts off the screen thanks to the garish colors and production design that have never been this well served on any previous home video release. Sure, the cheapo effects also suffer from added HD detail, but the film has dated in a way that only adds to its camp comedy appeal. Sadly, Arrow didn’t manage to port over Cohen’s excellent audio commentary from the old Anchor Bay DVD, but they’ve more than made up for it with a spectacular, new hour long making-of documentary featuring contributions from Cohen, Marcovicci, and a number of the director’s behind-the-scenes collaborators. Everyone who signed up for the doc clearly have fond memories of the shoot and share hilarious anecdotes with surprising candor (in particular, stories of Cohen allowing equipment to explode to get some shots in the snow, his attempt to launch a Stuff tie-in ice cream, or the ways in which he and Moriarty deliberately toyed with Marcovicci through improvs are guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face).
On top of the fantastic doc and transfer, you’ll get a Trailers From Hell commentary from Darren Bousman, a hefty booklet with a clever essay by Joel Harley, and a pretty damn great new cover by Gary Pullin. THE STUFFmight not be Arrow’s most loaded disc, but it is easily one of their most satisfying releases for a deeply underrated film unavailable from any other company. Hopefully, the release will be the first of a string of Arrow/Larry Cohen Blu-rays. If there’s any forgotten genre filmmaker who deserves resurgence, it’s Larry Cohen and no company is better suited to highlight the charms of his work than Arrow.