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Entries in Stuff/The [1985] (1)

Tuesday
Feb282012

The Stuff (1985)

Allergic to Scary

Though movie studios had a solid run of remakes, sequels, and found-footage shriekers in the mid-2000s, mainstream horror is, once again, dead. The Law of Diminishing Returns guarantees that not even the upcoming 3D Texas Chainsaw Massacre spin-off* will put asses in seats like it might have, say, seven years ago.

That's unfortunate. There's a wonderful, little movie from 1985 called The Stuff that's as deserving of a modern-day upgrade as any of the name-brand franchises to undergo the "re-imagining" knife. If you haven't heard, this is the cheesy, killer-ice-cream movie starring Paul Sorvino as a crazed, racist army colonel and Michael Moriarty as the slimy, industrial saboteur--and they're the heroes!

To be fair, it's never established that The Stuff is ice cream. It's white, puffy, and heavily whipped, but doesn't spoil in warm temperatures. Not surprising, considering a contractor first discovers it bubbling up from the ground. That's how the film starts.** In the next scene, this alien goo has become a branded, mass-marketed, global sensation. You might think it strange that people would latch on to a weird, quasi-food called "The Stuff", but keep in mind that 1985 was the era of the "McNugget".

The corporation behind The Stuff is so committed to secrecy that a rival company hire a spy named David "Mo" Rutherford (Moriarty) to infiltrate it. He's a smarmy good-ol'-boy who charms like a personal-injury lawyer and sweats snake oil, a classic movie villain hired by bigger villains to inadvertently save the planet. Rutherford cozies up to Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), the head of The Stuff's marketing campaign, and befriends a Stuff competitor named "Chocolate Chip" Charlie Hobbs (Garrett Morris). Together, they realize that the latest treat craze is actually an alien life form that devours those who eat it from the inside--while also taking over their brains.

As bizarre as this mash-up of The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers might sound, The Stuff is sort of based on real science. Thanks to Marc Maron's WTF Podcast, I learned about toxoplasma gondii a couple weeks ago. These microscopic parasites' life cycle, in simple terms, involves infecting a host organism's brain and diminishing its fear response. The host becomes more susceptible to getting into scrapes with other animals, who then ingest the parasite. The Stuff has the added advantage of being instantly addictive, compelling its victims to binge and entice as many people as possible to do the same--when enticing doesn't work, the meat puppets go into full-on attack mode, vomiting marshmallow paste from every orifice (adding The Thing to the film's expansive homage family).

I don't know if writer/director Larry Cohen had any of this in mind when making the movie, but he definitely had an agenda. The Stuff is packed with anti-additive and anti-marketing messages that would be far more effective today than they were in the mid-80s. Of course, if someone were to remake this thing, they'd have to start by settling on a tone.

The Stuff begins as a goofy horror movie and ends as a coked-out-of-its-mind family adventure. Mo and Nicole team up with a young boy named Jason (Scott Bloom), whose family has been taken over by the creature. We get plenty of chases, narrow escapes, and exploding heads, but the story goes off the horror rails in the last act and plows into a bubbling ravine of insanity.

When the gang meets Colonel Spears, The Stuff becomes the last act of Blazing Saddles by way of 28 Days Later. Spears leads a small army of heavily armed soldiers to the main distribution plant, spouting anti-Communist rhetoric every step of the way. Mo, Nicole, and Jason make a series of terrible decisions to propel the story forward, and everyone acts as if they're the hero of different kinds of movies. In short, it's a beautiful mess.

If none of the above has convinced you to watch this movie, please allow me to share a selection of quotes from The Stuff:

"Everybody has to eat shaving cream once in awhile."

"I suppose we do have to keep the world safe for ice cream."

"I will permit this colored man to speak. But speak one word of the commie party-line, or one word in code, and I will blow his head off."

Still not convinced? Why not check it out for cameos by Abe Vigoda, the Wendy's "Where's the Beef" lady, and Danny Aiello as an FDA official? And don't forget the creature transformation effects, which look like they were done by Rob Bottin's less-talented, cheating classmate.

Oddly, The Stuff is at once a terrible but highly entertaining movie and fertile ground for a dark, serious-minded remake. I doubt anyone could perfect--or even recreate--Cohen and Moriarty's special blend of lunatic, macho strangeness, so that's best left in the past. But if someone were to bring The Stuff into the mass-media/food-paranoia culture of the early twenty-first century, it could revolutionize--or maybe just reawaken--mainstream horror cinema.

Who am I kidding? That'll never happen. My advice: grab yourself a vat of Haagen-Dazs, pull up The Stuff on Netflix Instant, and prepare to shoot ice cream out of your nose. Just make sure it's not moving when you go to wipe it up.

*This is not a joke.

**Not opens--starts. This is the rare movie that skips studio logos and jumps right into the action; an odd choice that may have you wondering if you've skipped a chapter in the DVD.