Shudder continues to deliver up the bizarre and unusual, proving it’s well worth the price of admission for the streaming service. This last week saw the service bring the 1985 film The Stuff to the service.
It’s an unusual horror flick that combines elements of consumer protection advocacy, mass media advertising, consumerism, ruthless business tactics, and addiction into a blob of creamy terror.
Indeed, the film is something like The Blob (1958) and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) rolled into one: a greedy corporation knowingly sells a dangerous product, which turns out to be a goopy white organism that entire consumes the very people consuming it.
So, essentially, the entire flick is a metaphor for consumerism and corporate greed run amok.
That somewhat preachy message aside, it’s a fun, oddball movie. The greatest strength of The Stuff is the depiction of the ad campaign to sell the product, which a railroad worker discovers bubbling out of the ground on a snowy night. For some reason, he decides to eat the substance (my first instinct when finding a mysterious, bubbling substance on the ground is not to shove it in my mouth, and that’s coming from a fat guy), and discovers that it’s delicious.
Anyway, the in-film ads for the titular goop—marketed as a dessert—are very early 80s. In fact, I thought the movie was made in the 1970s while I was watching it, because it had that grainy, rundown look that everything in the 70s had. It’s a reminder that the 1980s we envision in our minds as a neon stereotype really didn’t begin until later in the decade. But the ads are just like what would have aired in the 1980s, and The Stuff‘s tagline—“Enough is never enough” is both ominous and memorable. One of the ads even features Clara Peller of “Where’s the Beef” fame, complaining about a fancy dinner with her husband (Abe Vigoda), asking, “Where’s The Stuff?”
It’s ominous because consumers of The Stuff soon find themselves craving more and more of it, to the point that they stock cases of it in their homes, and late-night ice cream parlors and snack stands are still open selling it to packed parking lots even at two in the morning.
Because the ice cream industry is hurting as consumers switch over to the delicious, low-calorie The Stuff, they hire David “Mo” Rutherford to find out the secret to stuff. Mo is a former FBI agent who now works in industrial espionage and sabotage, because he “always wants mo’ money” (thus his nickname). He’s a smooth-talking Southerner who, despite his slimy line of work, emerges as an unlikely hero as The Stuff begins hollowing consumers out from the inside, leaving them as nothing more than husks.
This flick is one of those where characters and plotlines seem to be introduced out of nowhere, and where some stuff just never gets explained. There’s a character named “Chocolate Chip Charlie,” a charismatic black man renowned for his “iron fists” and his junk food. He literally jumps into the movie attacking Mo, without much by way of introduction. He then assists Mo in tracking down the origins of The Stuff.
A better developed, but somewhat annoying, character is that of Jason, a young boy whose family becomes addicted to The Stuff. Jason won’t eat it because he saw it moving in the fridge, and goes on to destroy a display of it at a local grocery store. That brings him to Mo’s attention, and this wisecracking youngster spends the rest of the film getting into perilous situations (including locking himself inside the tank of a tanker truck that begins filling with The Stuff).
There’s also Mo’s love interest, Nicole, who created the “Enough is never enough” campaign, bringing The Stuff to national recognition. Once she learns of The Stuff‘s destructive intent, she joins forces with the ragtag band to undo the damage her advertising has wrought.
After a lot of ups and downs—and discovering that everyone, even an employee of the Food and Drug Administration who approved The Stuff for consumption, is addicted to it—Mo and Company resort to seeking aid from Colonel Malcolm Spears (played by Paul Sorvino, who portrayed Paulie in Goodfellas), a lecherous but ultrapatriotic militia leader. Using his radio stations in Atlanta, the team puts out word that The Stuff is a harmful, sentient substance that completely consumes those who eat it.
The film ends with Nicole providing voiceover for a televised update on the fate of The Stuff, showing Americans torching vats of it. Unfortunately, there’s also those who are selling it on the black market. Mo also encounters the distributor of The Stuff and the ice-cream mogul who hired him, forcing both to eat The Stuff at gunpoint, after discovering that the ice cream industry seeks to sell ice cream mixed with Stuff—just enough to keep consumers addicted, but not enough to destroy them.
The film is pretty transparently a satire exposing the excesses of consumerism and corporate greed. Even though the film hits the viewer over the head with that, and even with its constant leaps in plot, character development, and location, it’s an intriguing and fun flick. I found myself instantly drawn into the premise, and while we know there is something up with this product from the get-go, it takes awhile for its full, sinister effects to reach the screen. The character of Jason is super annoying, but it’s terrifying watching as his once-normal family completely isolates him—then threatens him with forced-feeding of The Stuff—and how he has to escape from them (by eating shaving cream and pretending it’s The Stuff).
The film pokes fun at Colonel Spears as an arrogant buffoon, but he’s also the hero who leads his militia mobilize Americans against The Stuff. He is meant to be a cartoonish portrayal of a right-wing nut—he constantly decries liberals and Commies, and is overtly racist—but his network of soldiers, preppers, and radio professionals gives him the clout and the know-how necessary to save the country at the critical moment.
Mo, of course, is the lovable cad who goes from being a greedy parasite on corporate America to becoming the dogged investigator who takes it all down. I appreciated that he was Southern, and approached every situation with a laconic ease and wit. His character arc is well-developed, and he’s fun to watch.
All in all, The Stuff is not the best thing I’ve seen on Shudder, but it held my attention and was fun. There’s something to be said for that. Just don’t binge too much.