Monday, April 6, 2009

The White Stuff

The Stuff does to corporate food products what Gremlins did to Cabbage Patch Kids. In the same way Joe Dante’s wicked little Christmas carol was a cautionary tale of the dangerous nature of "must have" product pushing --an unheeded warning, as seen by the Tickle-Me-Elmo mania ten years later--Larry Cohen’s 1985 horror comedy satirizes the evil of corporate greed and the impressionable consumers it destroys.

Quick Plot: When a bubbling white substance begins to ooze upwards from the earth, a passerby naturally dips his finger in it, takes a lick, and declares it delicious. Soon after, the stuff is dubbedThe Stuff and packaged in half pints, advertised with catchy 80s theme songs that highlight its zero calorie content, and devoured by supermarket shoppers across the country. The ice cream industry, facing bankruptcy, hires former FBI investigator (and Cohen compadre) Michael Moriarity (playing a man whose friends call him Mo, “Because no matter how much I get, I always want mo’’) to dig up the dirt on The Stuff. Meanwhile, a spunky boy with a dangerous craving for midnight snacks comes to despise the gooey dieter’s dream dish as his family--and, we assume, most of the world--becomes more and more addicted to its guilt-free sweetness. Toss in Garret Morris as a kung foo enhanced cookie maven, Danny Aiello as a retired FDA operator with dog training problems, and an unrestrained Paul Sorvino as a militia maniac with a hatred of communism and you have a bouncy, surprisingly intelligent, and ultimately over ambitious good time.

I won’t lie. If a dessert with no calories or fat and loads of sweet taste was put out on a grocery shelf, I’d be one of the first to try it (witness some bad times with the Olestra-poisoned Wow! Doritos). There. I've said it.

The Stuff is not a scary movie, nor is it meant to be. It’s probably impossible to make a frightfest out of a killer ice creamish substance akin to Carvel’s Thinny Thin or Yoplait’s Whips. Cohen doesn’t try. Instead, the auteur goes for sharp humor with a game cast, all of whom take their quirks and run with them. Like a lot of satires, The Stuff's lack of discipline feels fun for a while, but finally gets a little too messy for the film to completely work. Still, despite some fairly weak special effects and the 1980sness of the look, Cohen's work holds up today. We're all too eager to believe something that's too good to be true and those with the power to tell us are usually all too eager to rip us off in the process.

High Points
He may be a loopy right winged bird in real life, but Michael Moriority sure can liven up a role

Spotting playwright/actor Eric Bogosian as a put-upon supermarket clerk is a minor thrill

Any theme song must be catchy, and I’ve been singing “Can’t get enough...of The Stuff!” for two days straight

Low Points
While the entire last third goes a little haywire, the very last five minutes make no sense.
SPOILER: Why would Mo and little Jason keep any tubs knowing the danger its hazard? Yes, the corporate jerks deserve their punishment, but isn't force feeding them The Stuff recipe for an unwanted (by the characters) sequel?

Dog attacks aren’t scary when the only vicous thing seems to be saliva

Lessons Learned
Children of Long Island are the future resistance

In the 80s, models were allowed to eat

Work jumpsuits are one size fits all, which is convenient when you’re 6’4

Everybody has to eat shaving cream once in a while

Much like Moriority’s Mo, The Stuff is far smarter than you would think. Yes, the bottom half is rather nonsensical, but the rest is an imaginative little piece of 80s satire completely applicable to the age of Atkins Diets and Obama t-shirts (and note how The Stuff’s logo is eerily similar to Target's marketing art). The DVD's extras are disappointingly scant, but there is a director commentary sure to entertain. Unless you're frightened by the life matter inside the Staypuff Marshmallow Man, The Stuff won't give you nightmares. It will, on the other hand, make you laugh, think, and read ingredient labels with more care.


  1. Interesting. Never heard of this one. Thanks for the review.

  2. I was almost disappointed by how not bad it was. I expected a long awaited Killer Ice Cream movie instead of a very smart satire on corporate marketing. It's funny how the killer ice creamish substance is nowhere near the best thing about this film. If the ending were a little tighter, I would be happier than Bill Cosby in a Pudding Pop paradise.