The age of excess produced several films parodying the American consumer of the times: Chopping Mall (1986 – read our retro review here), The Night of the Comet (1984 – read our retro review here), and TerrorVision (1986) come to mind. But none of them captured the true spirit of a 1980s fad craze quite like Larry Cohen’s The Stuff. Mind-controlling primordial ooze that is low calorie and delicious? Give us more!
Youngster Jason (Scott Bloom: Smokin’ Aces 2006) notices the new product, The Stuff, moving in his refrigerator and starts a grassroots movement to rid his small town of the devilish dessert. With a recipe protected by the FDA – much like Coca Cola’s secret syrup – corporate America is clamoring to capitalize on the wild success of the elusive sweet treat. Next thing you know, corporate spy Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty: Troll 1986) is hired to infiltrate the company for information. His investigation leads him to defeated cookie tycoon Chocolate Chip Charlie (Garrett Morris: Saturday Night Live TV series) who, along with a town’s entire population, has been mysteriously relocated to Midland, Georgia. With the addition of advertising agent Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci: Velvet Buzzsaw 2019), the unlikely quartet set out to discover the inner workings of The Stuff before everyone in America ends up with a very large mouth and an abundance of energy.
Though The Stuff is definitely campy and parodic, notorious schlock director Larry Cohen (Q the Winged Serpent 1982, Maniac Cop 1988) wrote the screenplay in response to the number of food and medical products marketed widely in America only to be recalled later, making this the most socially-conscious film of his career. Any of us who lived through the fads of Cabbage Patch Kids, the New Coke, Reese’s Pieces, and Rubik’s Cube will certainly spot the relevance of this groupthink culture. Here are some of the fun facts about this 1985 classic:
- One of the spokespeople for The Stuff is Clara Peller, famous for the Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” commercials. She is seen in an ad on a television asking, “Where’s The Stuff?”
- Larry Cohen’s original cut of the film contained several more commercials for The Stuff, but was cut for pacing reasons.
- The scene in the motel where The Stuff comes out of the bed to the ceiling was shot in the same revolving room as Johnny Depp’s death scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
- Chocolate Chip Charlie is a reference to Famous Amos, also a cookie “tycoon.”
- The Stuff was played by many things in the film including ice cream, yogurt, fire extinguisher foam, and a compound made of blended fish bones. The latter was used in the scenes where The Stuff comes to life, and was said to smell so badly that everyone on set immediately jumped in a nearby river after filming every scene where it was used.
- In Season 3 of Stranger Things, The Stuff was one of the movies playing at the Starcourt Mall movie theater.
- The company Effects Associated was hired for a sum of $16,000 to provide some of the more sophisticated exterior shots such as the factory exploding. When the footage was not satisfactory to Cohen, he paid the firm only 50% of the agreed-upon price. EA sued Cohen for the remainder of the money and copyright but the courts ruled in favor of Cohen.
Like so many subjects of our retrospectives, this film was not a success in its initial release, but has since become a beloved cult classic. Cohen attributed the failure to New World’s marketing of the film as straight horror instead of satire. Perhaps America wasn’t ready for The Stuff then, but thankfully, it has remained alive in our horror fandom with several updated releases and even mock recipes of the beloved treat.