HORROR MONTH #14: The Stuff, by Larry Cohen (1985)

Type of Media: Film

There's a lot of concern these days over where our food comes from. Rightly so, with big factory farms revealed to have such deplorable conditions for their livestock and produce being sprayed with all kinds of pesticides. It's not always obvious what kinds of junk we're ingesting along with our meals. You think you're eating some delicious frozen yogurt, but it's actually a subterranean parasite that takes over your brain and eats out your innards.

That's the plot of The Stuff at least, a tongue-in-cheek horror movie written, directed, and produced by master schlock auteur Larry Cohen. If you want to know the kind of filmmaker Cohen is, the movie he made before The Stuff was Q, in which the Aztec flying serpent god Quetzalcoatl makes a nest on top of the Chrysler Building and starts eating people.

The Stuff stars Michael Moriarty as Mo Rutherford, an FBI agent turned corporate saboteur who is hired by the heads of the ice cream industry to investigate the titular Stuff, a new dessert that is sweeping the nation and cutting into their profits. It turns out The Stuff, marketed through flashy TV commercials showing women in bikinis and fur coats, is highly addictive and turns people into brainwashed slaves before killing them. We see the effect The Stuff has through the eyes of a boy named Jason, who distrusts The Stuff and resists his family's increasingly hostile attempts to make him consume it.

The Stuff is a fun watch, not only because of the special effects (if you've ever wanted to see a man have a fight with a sentient wave of yogurt, here you go) but also because of Moriarty's performance as Mo Rutherford. Rutherford's gimmick is that he puts on a front of being slow-witted so people will underestimate him, so he perpetually sports a carefree good ol' boy attitude even when his life is in danger. When an ice cream executive remarks "you aren't as stupid as you appear," Rutherford replies "no one is as stupid as I appear."

While Cohen is an unsubtle director, offering ridiculous characters and spectacle, what makes him more fun to watch than other B-movie directors is the social commentary he instills in his movies. The Stuff bears similarities to 50s horror sci-fi made during the Red Scare, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which contained anti-communist messages. However, the Stuff recontextualizes this fear of collectivism into an anti-corporate message. The villains of this movie are as much corporate greed and brand devotion as the parasitic dessert is, and whenever Cohen gets a barb in he draws so much attention to it it feels like the whole film is turning and winking at you.

The Stuff is best enjoyed with a big group of friends, befitting of its cult status. If you're hosting a horror movie marathon and need another addition to the lineup, one with a lighter tone and more cheese than your average scary movie, The Stuff is an excellent choice.