Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Stuff

Film, perhaps more than any other art form, is collaborative, and the history of cinema is packed with some of the most memorable, lucrative, and challenging of creative partnerships: Bergman and von Sydow, Herzog and Kinski, Kurosawa and Mifune, Cohen and Moriarty. Okay, maybe that last pairing is not held in as high of esteem as the others, but for genre fans, the teaming of writer-director Larry Cohen and actor Michael Moriarty resulted in its fair share of quirky, low-budget pieces, most notably in Q the Winged Serpent in 1982 and their episode of Masters of Horror, "Pick Me Up."

The Stuff was the second movie birthed from this pairing, following in the footsteps of Q. If you found ancient Aztec gods making a nest in the Chrysler building silly, wait until you get a taste of this one: killer dessert. Once again, Cohen packs in his trademark dark humor, social commentary, and quirky characterizations into a b-grade movie monster, and once again, he is ably supported by another fine performance from the inimitable Moriarty.

Former FBI agent David "Mo" Rutherford (Moriarty) is hired by ice cream executives to investigate a new, top-selling dessert sensation known as the Stuff that has customers seemingly addicted. "Enough is never enough" as the ads declare. Along the way, Mo romances Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), the advertising specialist who came up with the Stuff's marketing campaign, and teams up with "Chocolate Chip" Charlie (Garrett Morris), whose company was bought out from under him. They soon discover the Stuff is actually alive and taking over the minds and bodies of those who eat it, and it wants to spread.

This is a very silly, schlocky movie; I mean come on, killer dessert? It doesn't sound nearly as threatening as say a masked slasher, an alien from outer space, or even a flying lizard. The effects are low-budget and not particularly convincing. Even after just watching the movie, I'm still unsure about the nature of the Stuff itself: clearly it's addictive and alive, but we never learn much more about it like where it came from. Cohen's editing and staging are often a bit haphazard; certain shots and even plot developments seem to be missing from the final cut. By the third act, Cohen brings in a right-wing militia led by Paul Sorvino out of nowhere to attack the Stuff's factory and resolve everything.

But remember that scene in Apocalypse Now in which Chef asks the soldiers on the helicopter why they were sitting on their helmets, and they tell him it's so they "don't get (their) balls blown off?" He laughs, and then after thinking about it for a bit, he takes his helmet off and promptly puts it between his legs. That's the reaction I had watching The Stuff. Sure the idea of killer ice cream is transparently silly, but the notion of a corporation selling a product they know to be dangerous and addictive is certainly one no one has any trouble believing. Would the Stuff really be that much worse than cigarettes or Happy Meals?

Cohen takes shots at rampant consumerism and marketing, sprinkling in a number of glitzy, cheesy commercials for the Stuff throughout the movie (featuring the likes of Abe Vigoda and the "Where's the beef?" lady). Supermarkets become stocked with the Stuff, shops of it open up next door to McDonald's and Burger King, and families replace everything in their refrigerators with it. And why not? It's great tasting, low in calories, and all natural. The Stuff is just the latest pop culture food craze.

Moriarty is great. In Q, he played a nervous low-life with a taste of power for the first time in his life. Here, he's a deadpan good-ole boy, acting like the fool to conceal a sharp mind. "Nobody's as dumb as I look," he says. Later, when another character throws up in his car after eating shaving cream to make it look like he was eating the Stuff, Mo consoles him by saying, "Everybody has to eat shaving cream once in a while." Nothing fazes this guy.

There are also a number of nicely paranoid elements of the movie. It's only too believable that the FDA would approve for sale a product whose effects and ingredients they don't know. There's also a subplot reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars involving a young boy (Scott Bloom), who knows the danger of the Stuff but whose family becomes addicted to it and pressures him to "be a member of the family again." And in the probably the most believable bit, after the threat of the Stuff is exposed and Mo confronts the company's owner, the owner has the audacity to announce the next line of products: the Taste, now with only 12 percent Stuff, just enough to keep people coming back for more. Now, that's scary.

No comments:

Post a Comment