We interrupt this presentation with the following urgent message
If you see it in stores,
call the police...
If you have it in your home,
don't touch it...
THE STUFF is a product
it is addictive and destructive.
It can overcome your mind,
and take over your body.
And nothing can stop it.
Or another good introduction to writer-director Larry Cohen's 1985 tongue-in-cheek B movie can be found in the opening dialogue, where a quarry worker finds the white glop bubbling up out of the ground:1 "What the hell is this? Sure is smooth. That tastes real good. Tasty sweet."
In a flash of insight, the men finding The Stuff notice that there might be enough to sell to people. Which is exactly what happens. The arc of the story is foreshadowed by the cut to a boy's room with a skull on the table and the boy complaing about insects (being "eaten alive"). We realize that the product is now marketed (commercials are shown throughout the movie2) to the consumer when he goes for a midnight raid on the refridgerater and sees it moving around near a tipped over container.
So what is the stuff that The Stuff is made up of? (I imagine everyone had fun with that term: 'get that stuff over here,' 'where did that stuff go?,' 'is that your stuff?') It's never made clear. We later find that it is some sort of living substance that comes from the bowels of the earth that is addictive, making the consumers zombies, until it consumes them from within, leaving a shell. it can move on its own and even seems to have some sort of sentience. As for what its really made of, they used slightly melted Häagen-Dazs, Redi-Whip, and fire fighting foam for the scenes at the end (according to the director, the cast all gained a few pounds).
And the movie is all about consumption and consumerism. I'd hesitate to call it a true satire (perhaps only in the way Mad Magazine likes to claim its "stuff" to be "satire"), but it is a definite parody of mass marketing American consumerism. And part of the "scare" (while it actually is able to give a few sorta intense moments, this ain't a scary movie, it's a fun movie) is that this apparently benign foodstuff is eating you from the inside out, like some gooey virus. In fact, the boy's family seems to get along better after that become "Stuffies" (the term was especially used to refer to the men in yellow suits from later in the film3).
According to the commercials "enough is never enough" and it tastes better than ice cream. This concerns the ice cream magnates, as does the fast track past the Food and Drug Administration (members of who cannot be reached because they are deceased or out of the country), who resort to using an industrial spy/saboteur in order "keep the world safe for ice cream." Enter Michael Moriarty4 as David "Mo" Rutherford ("every time people five me money/something I always want mo'"), ex-FBI. His job is to get to the bottom of things.
Meanwhile the kid (who seems to be the only one in the country who finds The Stuff suspect) rebels against his family, refusing to eat it, even trashing displays in a supermarket (look for Eric Bogosian in a brief cameo; he also starred in Cohen's trully bizarre and twisted 1984 film Special Effects). The market being a perfect example of consumerism, something that The Stuff is using to its advantage to propagate or whatever the hell its agenda is.
Moriarty finally finds an FDA man (Danny Aiello) who assures him that "we all agreed it was a good product," stressing it is a dessert and not a drug. He even feeds it to his dog (a dog he seems apprehensive around). When Moriarty leaves, Aiello goes to a kitchen full of containers of the product where he shares the "treat for both of us. We deserve it, don't we?" Later the dog kills him, its mouth gaping larger and larger, showing the hollowed out head before the goo comes out after Aiello.
Shortly after, he visits a small deserted town (the inhabitants all work for the company "producing" The Stuff). There he meets "Chocolate Chip" Charlie (Garrett Morris, the token black cast member from the early days of Saturday Night LiveCohen wanted up and coming Arsenio Hall but the studio said no...hindsight), the ice cream king who got forced out of his business when The Stuff came around. They ask questions and discover a lot of mail going to Midland, Georgia (a nice "anytown" or "anywhere" name) but get no answers. Then, when Moriarty returns to the city, a The Stuff truck tries to run him down (yeah, the company's own truck).
Meeting with an executive (who attempts to buy Moriarty's silence and loyalty with cash and a job), he's told that no one can stop it, that the people that brought it to him initially were already addicted. He, of course, doesn't eat it, himself.
The boy's family is now completely taken by the product, eating it exclusively and upset that he refuses. When he says there is something alive in it, his father counters with "benign bacteria" in food products and that "we eat plenty of things that are still alive that are good for us" (meaing microorganisms)"they kill the bad things inside us." The boy is forced to eat it (so he can "become a part of the family again"). Taking it to his room, he switches it with shaving cream and eats that, until he gags and they chase after him as he flees the house. Outside Moriarty picks him up in his car.
Moriarty, Nicolea woman who was in charge of marketing The Stuff (he convinced her of threat the product poses and she helps him, partly out of a feeling of responsibility for promoting the item), and the kid fly to Midland to see where it was made. Waiting in the plane for the adults to return, he is attacked by the white glop and flees, evenually reaching an "abandoned" factory where the trucks that transport The Stuff are. He hides out in the tank of one necessitating a rescue later on.
The tour of the factory is well-controlled and nothing is learned that doesn't follow the corporate line. The company puts them up in a motel in town, where there is another attack that they escape by burning the The Stuff (apparently flammable) and stealing a pickup truck. from there they visit one of the quarries where a vast pool of The Stuff is bubbling up, in fact small amorphous columns rise up as if some sort of animal is trying to peer around before collapsing into the pool.
Workers are given what seems like a sermon over the loud speaker: "be grateful for its plentiful supply" and "soon the hunger in the world will be a thing of the past. The earth is giving off a food that will nourish us all and guide us to a new order in life." In a sense, "buy buy buy" and "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." As long as everyone is concerned with purchasing and consuming the product, no one will realize what it's doing to them: "are you eating it or is it eating you?" As long as they buy and eat, eat and buy, no one cares or notices the trade of humanity (and life) for peaceful, mollified complacency.
That leads to another idea in the movie. Later, when a group of "Stuffies" are found dead at the factory, their bodies shells, all hollow and brittle, Moriarty asks the commandos "you think you can shoot anything you don't like? Well, what if what you don't like is inside you, how you gonna shoot it?" While The Stuff is causing the control and zombification and eventual death (following the "cleanup" the news report lists casualties in the thousands), it is also people's pacified acceptance of what is marketed to them and their willingness to "buy" all the ad lines. And like the family, it seems to fill something missing inside, making them more close and loving. Before it kills.
Moriarty manages to bomb the quarry and steal a truck, along the way saving both the boy and Nicole who gets attacked by someone completely under control of the food. Since no one is going to believe this crazy thing, he goes to someone who is more fringe and "crazy" than anyone elseCohen's intention, the character seems a bit less insane, belligerant, and bigoted than intended, despite paranoia about the government and fluoride in the water5 and first refusing to let "Chocolate Chip" Charlie into the radio station because he's black (allowing it as long as he doesn't spout the "commie party line or one word in code"then he'll "blow his head off).
His man is Colonel Spears (played by Paul Sorvino), head of an independent militia, working out of a castle in the countryside. Playing on his paranoia and prejudice, Moriarty convinces him to launch a raid on the factory, where everything is destroyed. Then they go to one of his radio stations where they can broadcast a warning about The Stuff.
There, Charlie is revealed as having succumbed to The Stuff and has to be killedbut the message gets out, and as Nicole explains (in a news report): "And the people did believe. in the weeks that followed, The Stuff was withdrawn from distribution and the nation mobilized to collect it and destroy it." The last part is visualized by a franchise resturant being burned and blown upright next to a McDonald's (probably the consummate representation for American cosumerism and marketing).
But is it over? Has mankind saved itself from The Stuff and from itself? Moriarty visits the executive and finds him partners with the beaten ice cream mogul. They are prepared to launch a new product called "The Taste"it only has 12% of The Stuff so it'll make people "crave" it but it won't get control of their minds. When asked how they know, it's revealed that it was tested on a small town in Illinois (like a certain small town in Georgia). Moriarty, Nicole, and the kid then proceed to force them to eat their own product.
Of course, being "natural," it can't really be stopped. As soon as someone else discovers a place where it seeps out of the ground the potential is still there, as is the potential in people that allowed it to addict and gain control.
The final scene shows a Stuff "junky" buying an illicit batch of The Stuff from a street dealer.
A triumph of marketing and consumerism.
1it takes a mining quarry during a snow storm. thing is, we later find that, though all locations were in the New York-New Jersey area, the quarries where it was found are supposed to be in Georgia. The snow storm was unexpected but the director thought it looked good.
2One being a take-off on those sort of everyone singing and dancing around ads that Dr. Pepper used to run. Another has Abe Vigoda and Clara Peller (of "where's the beef?" fame) in a resturant where she demands to know "where's The Stuff?
3Mira Sorvino, daughter of Paul Sorvino who plays Colonel Spears in the movie, visited the set and was asked if she wanted to be in the movie. She apparently is one of the "men" in the yellow suits. Cohen had forgotten and can't find her in the film but she informed him of this. If true, it was her first film appearence.
4Actually an acclaimed actor who did a great stint on NBC's Law & Order (1990 to 1994) before going a bit "nuts." He worked with Cohen on four occasions. Interestingly, Sorvino was also a cast member on the show 1991-1992.
5An allusion to Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
(Sources: The Stuff DVD and director's commentary; special thanks to my brother who loaned it to meapparently he paid attention when I rented and we watched it years ago; some dates were verified through www.imdb.com)
12 February 2002. A note on the above write-up. The taxi sceneone of the funniest in the film and played intentionally for comedic effect (he orders his men to pay the drivers and authorizes a 10% tip), which takes place about 70 minutes into the movie is incorrectly describedprobably misremembered. In fact, Moriarty, Nicole, and the kid ALL ride to the station with the militia in the cabs. The line comes when Garrett Morris barges into the station. Though he doesn't have time for a "long, drawn-out story," Moriarty is curious how he found them since Morris had been told to contact the FBI and we don't know what happenedif we did, then his later attack would be no surprise. Moriarty's line is "no, I don't, but I never did hear from the FBI."