Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Larry Cohen’s The Stuff

Larry Cohen died earlier this year. He was 82-years-old and enjoyed a career which stretched from the earliest days of television and straight into the rough and tumble world of low-budget, guerrilla filmmaking in 1970s/80s New York where film permits were optional, or at least he seemed to think. For this year’s 31 Days of Halloween, it felt right to watch something in remembrance of the man Joe Bob Briggs’ once called “a real drive-in kind of guy.”

I am not going to lie, though: At the start of 2019, other than Maniac Cop 1 & 2 I had never seen a Larry Cohen movie before. I was vaguely aware of who he was (a 70s B-movie writer-director) and that he was the subject of a documentary (King Cohen: The World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen) which horror fans and exploitation filmmaking nuts seemed to like. But that’s it. I knew films like It’s Alive and 1985’s The Stuff existed, and I had seen both of the Maniac Cop movies ages ago. I didn’t know they were Larry Cohen movies – he wrote and directed the first two, was a writer-for-hire on the latter two.

Then Shudder added King Cohen, and my eyes were opened to this iconoclastic man who led a truly fascinating career. He started writing for television in the 1950s and had his first series – the western Branded, so memorably referenced in The Big Lebowski – on the air by 1965. The floodgates opened him for after that as he created three more shows – Blue Light, Coronet Blue, and The Invaders – over the next three years. That, for the record, means he created a western, two cop shows, and a sci-fi thriller, but he ran into network interference each time. That’s why he left TV for independent filmmaking, where he stuck to with his pattern of genre elasticity and moved from blaxploitation movies to slick thrillers to over-the-top horror stories about killer babies and blob-like yogurt.

After watching King Cohen, I caught one of the director’s lesser-known efforts, Special Effects, on Vudu Free and wrote about it elsewhere on the site. He died just a month later. A week after that, Joe Bob Briggs’ Shudder series The Last Drive-In tackled Q: The Winged Serpent, the famous horror host’s favorite Larry Cohen movie. Explaining his love for the director’s wider body of work, Briggs shared, “You can be half-drunk, just woke up, turn on the TV, and if it’s a Larry Cohen movie you instantly know it. I don’t what it is – his movies have a certain look and feel. They’re very bright, first of all, and the characters talk in this rhythm that’s just unmistakable. No matter what kind of movie it is.”

Later in that same season, The Last Drive-In took on The Stuff, but it somewhat pained Joe Bobb to do so because for as much as Cohen fans rave about it he regards it as a lesser-effort, a 2.5 stars out of 4 versus Q’s 4 out of 4. (Den of Geek, among likely many others, disagrees, dubbing The Stuff “a work of scruffy 80s genius.”)

I can’t really speak to the totality of the man’s career the way Joe Bob can. To this point, I’ve only seen Special Effects, Q: The Winged Serpent, and The Stuff. Of the three, The Stuff is my least favorite, but it still has Cohen’s razor-sharp writing and packs a fun, only-in-the-80s mixture of thrills, laughs, and “Is this really our leading man?” musings.

Michael Moriarty, no one’s idea of a traditional leading man

What’s It About?

Remember that Seinfeld episode where the gang becomes obsessed with a great-tasting, non-fat yogurt that turns out to actually just be regular yogurt with an entirely deceptive label?

The Stuff is exactly like that except the yogurt is yummy goo which oozed out of the ground and tasted so good it was packaged up and shipped around the country as a new, ice cream-replacing dessert sensation called the Stuff. Also, this particular yogurt just happens to brainwash anyone who eats it and occasionally explodes out of people and turns into a Blob-like monster.

Okay, maybe not exactly like the Seinfeld episode. Still, in 1993 Jerry and Larry David found some obvious jokes in our national obsession with wanting to eat healthier if only the healthy food tasted better. A decade or so before they got there, Larry Cohen was spinning out an anti-corporate horror parable about people turning into practical zombies after eating a mass-marketed ice cream substitute/yogurt which just happens to be sentient and hollow-you-out-from-the-inside destructive.

In the story, an ex-FBI agent named David Rutherford (frequent Cohen collaborator Michael Moriarty) and a kid named Jason (Scott Bloom) are the ones putting the pieces together and building to a final confrontation with the Stuff. In classic Cohen fashion, Rutherford is actually a fairly despicable figure, but a self-interested opportunist still registers as a hero when the villains turn out to be greedy corporate types who don’t mind a little death, mayhem, and mind control in the side effects of their prized product.

Why I Watched It

To honor the late Larry Cohen by watching one of his most famous films.

Did I Like It?

The Stuff definitely stands out as the kind of crazy, low-budget, practical effects 80s filmmaking where unlikely actors take the lead, barely thought out plot ideas carry the entire story, and effects sequences charm with their homemade feel. It’s not a movie I particularly love, but it works as a good stand-in for a man’s entire career of making his movies his way and sometimes poking audiences in the eye in the process. After all, other than maybe John Carpenter or Tommy Lee Wallace – see: They Live, Halloween III: Season of the Witch – who else would respond to the rise of the health food movement in America in the 80s with a movie about yogurt that fucking kills?

In the negative column, The Stuff is an aggressively unsubtle, slapdash affair with no real villain to serve as the exposition-spouting focal point. The effects are quite dated. (When “the stuff” attacks it mostly just looks like white latex foam.) As Joe Bob Briggs argued, this might be one of Larry Cohen’s best-known films, but it’s not one of his best. For better or worse, he always just made his movies up as he went along, and with The Stuff, it really shows.

Still, updating the 1950s Cold War allegory of The Blob into a Reagan-era commentary on greed and consumerism and having us eat the monsters instead of the other way around is pretty clever. Plus, the pod people-esque scenes with Jason and his newly brainwashed family do work, introducing uncomfortable questions like, “Is that kid going to have to kill his parents just to get out of the house alive?” On top of that, The Stuff undoubtedly still holds a fair deal of nostalgic charm for those who encountered it when they were young enough to be blown away that a horror movie could actually have, like, a message.

Did It Scare Me?

Once you’ve seen an entire motel room swallowed up by yogurt which quickly turns into some modern version of The Blob, you hesitate a second before reaching for your Yoplait.

Cohen’s Take

“With The Stuff, I told how cigarettes and alcohol were damaging, but I took it to an extreme,” Cohen said in a 2010 interview with Horror Society. “Did you know in World War II that the cigarette companies gave the soldiers free cigarettes? They addicted a young generation of men – they’ve probably killed more people than all the wars combined. But the corporations don’t care who they kill. They just want to make a buck. That’s The Stuff!”

Where to Stream

According to JustWatch: Currently, you are able to watch “The Stuff” streaming on Hoopla, Shudder Amazon Channel, Screambox Amazon Channel or for free with ads on Tubi TV. It is also possible to rent “The Stuff” on Vudu, YouTube, Google Play Movies, Amazon Video online and to download it on Vudu, YouTube, Google Play Movies, Amazon Video.

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: The late special effects wizard, sometimes director, all-time nice guy John Carl Buechler teams up with a young man named Kit Du Bois.

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