I fear sounding like a broken record, but Larry Cohen’s films contain themes that stay timeless, regardless of when they were released. Take The Stuff for example — consumerism, corporate greed, celebrity culture, junk food — none of the theme in this film have gone away. If anything, they’ve only increased in importance.
The Stuff — a yogurt-like white dessert — is discovered coming out of the ground like black gold to Jed Clampett. It’s sweet and addictive and quickly gets sold like ice cream. It’s all natural with no calories and incredibly filling, so it helps people lose weight. Of course, sales go through the roof and destroy the ice cream industry. Along with junk food mogul Charles W. “Chocolate Chip Charley” Hobbs, these purveyors of sugar hire David “Mo” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty, who also appears in Cohen’s Q) to get to the bottom of The Stuff and then destroy it.
The more he learns about the product, the more horrified he becomes. The Stuff is actually a parasite that takes over whoever eats it, taking over their brain and gradually transforming them into zombies as it consumes them from the inside out — the very inverse of how people consume products.
A young boy named Jason is learning the same lesson the hard way. It’s ruined his family, so he destroys a supermarket display.
David also meets Nicole, the ad exec who learns that the campaign that she created for The Stuff has only led to death and destruction. As someone who has worked in the ad industry for over twenty years, the battle between craft and commerce has never been so beautifully illustrated than it is here. The film is packed with fake commercials of celebrities hawking The Stuff, including Wendy’s pitchwoman Clara “Where’s the beef?” Peller, who yells, “Where’s The Stuff?” to Abe Vigoda.
Everyone that consumes The Stuff eventually turns into a gooey white substance and those under its grip do everything they can to kill our heroes (Nicole and David become lovers; they rescue Jason just as the police arrest him). The corporation that makes The Stuff claims they are trying to rid the world of hunger, but the possibly extraterrestrial substances is really being created to take over the world.
They work together with retired United States Army Col. Malcolm Grommett Spears (a perfectly cast Paul Sorvino, Goodfellas) to destroy the zombies and a lake of The Stuff before sending a civil defense message to the country — the only way to destroy The Stuff is to burn it with fire.
David then visits the leader of The Stuff Company, Mr. Fletcher, who reveals that they haven’t destroyed all of the ways they can get the product. Now, they’re working with the ice cream industry –including Mr. Vickers, who originally hired David — to make The Taste, a product that is 88% ice cream and 12% The Stuff. They believe that it will be much safer and still as addictive. However, David brings in Jason and the two force the CEOs to eat The Stuff at gunpoint. David asks, “Are you eating it or is it eating you?” as the cops arrive to arrest the corporate con men.
You know how you should never leave the credits during a Marvel movie? Cohen was again ahead of his time here, as the final crawl also has moments showing smugglers selling The Stuff on the black market and a woman in a bathrobe saying, “Enough is never enough” while holding a container of The Stuff.
From its inventive gore and special effects to its wry social commentary, The Stuff is sheer delight. It moves fast, it’s packed with action and it has plenty to make you laugh, too. It may make you avoid ice cream for awhile, too.