The Stuff (1985) Blu-ray Review: The Thing Nightmares Are Made From

As a screenplay artist, Larry Cohen has many a unique offering under his literary belt. The New York-born auteur first started writing mysteries for television when he was only in his early twenties, and his god (told me to) given knack for penning thrillers soon found him cranking out teleplays for cult airwave favorites such as Branded, The Invaders, and Columbo during the ’60s and ’70s. Then, during the early ’70s, Mr. Cohen was permitted to expand his filmmaking résumé with a directorial debut in the realm of a present subgenre phenomenon: blaxploitation movies. As a result, Larry was also able to helm a few features of his own bizarre devising, beginning with the legendary B horror tale It’s Alive (wherein an expecting couple gets more than they bargained for from their newborn baby) in 1974.

Since then, attempting to compare Larry Cohen’s commercial endeavors to that of his more personal projects is akin to noticing the differences between apples and demons. Whereas films based upon his screenplays may be more than a little wild at best (follow up your next viewing of Phone Booth with the Maniac Cop Trilogy and you’ll no doubt discover what I mean, his “private” cinematic worlds are ‒ at the very least ‒ bizarre beyond belief. His main characters are rarely heroic in the traditional sense; rather, they tend to be sleazy slimy bastards who, unfortunately, wind up being the only hope of others. Contrastly, his main performers seem to be given full reign to under or overact at their leisure ‒ often adlibbing their way through entire scenes much to the bewilderment of their fellow, “professional” performers.

And then there is Larry’s method of getting his faithful audience ‒ select, though it may be ‒ to suspend their disbelief purely by making them disbelieve. Often with revealing props and/or crewmembers in plain view of the camera ‒ to say nothing of his pitch black backdrops in cutaway or nighttime driving sequences, which often make one feel as though they have drifted off into the hoary netherworld just beyond the open matte frame ‒ Cohen keeps the camera rolling, knowing full well it’s his social commentary and comical delivery of said message that truly counts. At least, I think that’s what he was trying to convey. And even though his twentieth feature-length directorial effort in 1996 (the poorly distributed and just as well-received Original Gangstas) appears to have been his last, Larry Cohen still remains a captivating figure in B movie history.

One of Mr. Cohen’s odder attempts at mocking a seemingly doomed society was the 1985 New World Pictures offering, The Stuff. With its investors completely locked out of the production, the writer/producer/director was given full reign to make a tale about a gelatinous goo which consumes those who eat it. What could possibly go wrong, right? Well, for starters, the horror flick the movie’s financial backers had hoped for instead eventually turned out to be a wild, weird comedy wherein no one ‒ absolutely no one ‒ took their subject matter or themselves very seriously. A freak hurricane which rocked through NYC carried away with it all of the positive reviews for the film in print, leaving those who still appreciate the film ‒ select though they may be ‒ to discover the film via word of mouth and, ultimately, home video.

The story opens with a miner discovering a weird white gooey substance bubbling up from the ground. Who he is or what becomes of him is unimportant: it is a Larry Cohen film, after all, where people disappear and reappear randomly ‒ often in scenes the more lucid viewer attributes to being excised in post-production (but which were probably never even written or filmed in the first place, as Cohen’s style is most definitely that of “rogue”). What is important, however, is that this is the beginning of the end for a society obsessed with mass commercialism and advertising. Soon, the substance, mysteriously passed by the FDA with nary a hitch and released to supermarkets and restaurants everywhere as “The Stuff,” seems to take on a life of its own as it takes an eerily mesmerized public by storm.

And that is, of course, because “The Stuff” truly does have a life of its own (its true origin and purpose never explained because, well, this is a Larry Cohen film!) ‒ something the film’s adolescent co-star, Scott Bloom (younger brother of he who would star in those four bad Smokey and the Bandit TV spinoff movies in the 1990s, Brian Bloom, who also appears in the film as Scott’s older brother) discovers one fateful midnight stroll to the fridge, which sets him off on a Invasion of the Body Snatchers tangent. Meanwhile, a fully unrestrained Michael Moriarty takes the lead as an industrial spy who is out to discover the heavily guarded secrets about The Stuff, which takes him on a low-budget spy-fi crusade straight out of the second half of Luigi Cozzi’s notorious Alien ripoff, Contamination.

Among the maddened protectors, infectors, and defectors within Cohen’s surreal universe here are an unhinged Paul Sorvino as a Commie-obsessed right-wing Army Colonel with a conservative talk show and private militia; the great Garrett Morris (from the first wave of SNL) as a lunatic chocolate chip magnate who has lost his business to The Stuff; and Andrea Marcovicci (Michael Caine’s suffering wife in Oliver Stone’s still-suffering The Hand) as the marketing guru who accidentally kills thousands of people with her (successful, just the same) campaign. Danny Aiello pops up for one incredibly weird, goofy scene as an FDA man who gets his just deserves just as soon as can be, and cameos by an eager-to-please Alexander Scourby (in his final film) and one truly befuddled Patrick O’Neal almost bring the house down.

Cohen’s passion for giving out of work forgotten actors a chance to have a little fun is also explored in a variety of tongue-in-cheek TV commercials seen throughout the course of the film, which feature (among others) the unbeatable pairing of Abe Vigoda and former pop culture phenomenon Clara Peller, and ‒ in a brief post-credit stinger ‒ 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers co-star Brooke Adams. (Eagle-eyed viewers may spot young Mira Sorvino and Patrick Dempsey in pre-fame bit parts). An arsenal of various special effects techniques employed (created by talented artists ranging Jim Danforth to David Allen) to bring The Stuff to life ranged from stinky foam rubber made from crushed fishbones to early CGI and even actual ungodly yogurt itself. A motel sequence makes use of the same rotating room Johnny Depp met his demise in in A Nightmare on Elm Street, complete with noticeable harness keeping Michael Moriarty’s noticeable stand-in in place.

Arrow Video USA brings this mid ’80s guilty pleasure (yes, I’m saying it in this instance, too, horror movie trolls!) from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures to Blu-ray. Though the very Corman company logo is nowhere to be seen before the film starts, the feature does include the ending scene that was (reportedly) missing from the original VHS release. The presentation itself is a wonder to behold, revealing composite shots and the fuzzy hairlines of crewmembers sitting below the front of the goddamn camera in glorious High-Definition 1080p. While the disc does not feature the audio commentary heard on the OOP Anchor Bay DVD from 2000, the Arrow BD ‒ which seems to be identical to the 2014 Arrow Video UK release ‒ does offer the original mono soundtrack in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 with optional English (SDH) subtitles.

Special features for this disc include a retrospective hour-long look at the making-of (and subsequent release) of The Stuff, aptly named after the movie’s in-movie advertising campaign ‒ “Can’t Get Enough of The Stuff” ‒ featuring reminisces by Mr. Cohen, producer Paul Kurta, actress Andrea Marcovicci, FX artist Steve Neill, and Britain’s own ascot-wearing horror movie historian, Kim Newman. The original theatrical trailer (narrated by the one and only Percy Rodrigues) is available with two options: once in its regular uninterrupted form, the other as seen on Trailers From Hell with filmmaker/fan Darren Bousman (who brought us the second and third installments of the Saw series) introducing and commentating. Lastly, Arrow Video’s disc sports reversible artwork from artist Gary Pullin, and an exclusive illustrated booklet featuring an essay by Joel Harley.

Unless you’re the ultimate Larry Cohen fan, I probably don’t need to point out The Stuff isn’t exactly what anyone ‒ save for the trolliest horror movie troll (the type of person who would criticize the branding of the 1988 remake of The Blob as a “guilty pleasure” in private Facebook groups) ‒ would refer to as high-grade art. I wouldn’t say it’s his best work (his previous collaboration with Michael Moriarty, 1982’s Q ‒ the tale of a hungry mythical Quetzalcoatl flying high in The Big Apple ‒ would rank much higher on my own personal list), but I also wouldn’t declare it his worst effort, either. The film is what it is ‒ whatever it is ‒ and that is that. But I will say this: long after my viewing had ended, and both the sunlight and I had adjourned, this comical horror parade succeeded in becoming The Stuff my nightmare was made of.

There can be no better praise than that. (OK, so it was indirect and backhanded, sure, but it’s a testament to the film just the same, right? That, or I have spent far too much time in Larry Cohen’s universe to truly know what is what anymore!)

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Luigi Bastardo

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