Thursday, September 17, 2020

It's Eating You

"Do you think you, with these guns you got in your hands, do you think you can shoot anything you don't like? Well, what if what you don't like is inside you? How you gonna shoot it?"

With Hollywood's death spiral currently unfolding before our eyes, those who enjoy cinema are a bit out of luck if they're in the mood for new movies to watch. That is a shame. However, there are decades of films yet to be seen by everyone, and many movie buffs are taking advantage of that fact. Streaming and torrenting are a reality now, so just about any film you've ever wanted to see from and time or place is available at the tip of your fingers.

Just one click is all it takes and you can watch anything that's ever been made. Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, it is. Some of them you won't even find via official channels and, one everything goes digital, will eventually be censored or flushed down the memory hole. The past must destroyed in order to shape the future, after all.

There are certain movies Hollywood wouldn't want you to see or know about these days, and we're going to talk about one of them today. This is a movie you've probably never seen, and if you have you probably only heard of it in passing or offhand, but never gave it much of a shot. This is a film that deserves much more attention than it gets.

I am referring to 1985's The Stuff directed by Larry Cohen (It's Alive!, God Told Me To, Q), which is a smaller, unknown film from the golden age of B-movies. It released right in the center of said golden era. Despite that, unless you're an '80s film buff you've probably never heard of this one, and that's a shame. The fact is that it's more relevant today than when it was first released, but not fully in the way you might think, and possibly not in the way the director intended. Unfortunately, Mr. Cohen died a few years ago so there is no way to ask him about his real intent.

In The Stuff, railroad workers discover a white foam and cream-like substance coming out of the ground. One of them tastes it, like an idiot, and finds it delicious. Not too long later, due to forces well beyond the scope of this movie's plot, the material ends up being sold on store shelves as a pseudo-ice cream and branded The Stuff. Everyone who tastes this food loves it. How can they not? It's tasty, it has no calories, and it gives you incredible energy. This is the exact thing we've been waiting for! Needless to say the Stuff quickly becomes a sensation.

However, there is more to this Stuff than meets the eye. One boy swears he's seen it move, though nobody believes him. Elsewhere, former fed turned industry saboteur, David "Mo" Rutherford, is hired to investigate this meteoric rise of new junk food by the negatively affected ice cream industry. What each protagonist finds ends up turning out to by much worse than they first thought it would be. The Stuff is alive, and it has sinister motives of its own.

By this point you're probably guessing The Stuff is a typical '80s horror movie, and you'd be partially right. There are a lot of horrific happenings to be seen on screen, and there is an obvious bit of satire that you certainly already caught. However, it is mainly an adventure story when it all comes down to it, based on old 1950s horror B-movies.

Going a bit further, there is something to The Stuff that is rarely discussed. While there is a satire element at play, it goes a bit deeper than you might think. 

"See this hole here? It's getting bigger and bigger, isn't it? So you better eat that, or you're gonna eat this."

The obvious element here is the satire of consumerism. It wasn't that uncommon for the 1980s to parody the absurd buy, buy, buy, nature of the era. Eat, devour, and swallow, everything we give you, but don't actually think about anything you're actually eating. We know this is a bad thing, and it was treated as such back when it was a growing problem in the 1980s, but what The Stuff actually ends up saying is that the root cause comes from something deeper than being tricked by slick corporate advertisement. The Stuff is able to thrive in a world were the hollowness of modern life is trumpeted as normality. The pit in your soul that you can't quite fill exists because something is missing. And what comes in its place? Well, it's what allows subversion to thrive. The main theme of the story is about how humans will consume anything to fill that hole inside of them.

The Stuff represents subversion, not consumerism. This film is actually about this poison and how it destroys a functioning society with empty promises, all stemming from a spiritual vacuum. We all know rampant consumerism exists because of a need for something higher and more fulfilling than what the world offers us, and the Stuff is the poor substitute for what you actually need and crave. But the Stuff doesn't care about you--it attracts you with dopamine hits and high promises before it ends up turning you inside out.

The worst part of the Stuff, is that every one of its victims welcomed it in. They will take anything to fill that pit in their soul, even if it is willing to kill them to do it. It's a higher cause, isn't it? That's more than modern life offers. This is what makes the Stuff far more dangerous than most threats in a horror movie. It actually will give you what you want.

You see, this isn't quite like Invasion of the Body Snatchers where your neighbors are involuntarily being replaced with strangers. Nothing is being forcefully taken--at first.

In The Stuff your neighbors are consuming because it gives them a good feeling, a perfect, healthy high, one they will fight for the death for, even though it is subverting their own lives and warping their insides, turning them to dust. They are fine to give themselves over to some higher cause because the high they achieve from obeying it is the best they can hope to get. This is all they have, and the promises of the Stuff are worth dying for.

To drive the point home, there is a obvious parallel with communism in the movie. Some have tried to state that both the original Body Snatchers and the Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street were parodies of the red hunting going on in Hollywood at the time (even though the writers have said they were not), and at first glance you might be mistaken for thinking this is the same. There is, after all, a good bit of satire ad goofy humor in the movie. But it goes a bit deeper than to say The Stuff is parodying McCarthy. If anything, it's the opposite.

You see, the film is actually about subversion as a whole. It is not shown how the megacorp got its hold on the Stuff to sell it, but the process is mentioned in passing a few times. This might have seemed unbelievable back in the '80s, but seeing how many megacorps actually hate you these days makes it far clearer how something like this could happen. Greasy palms, back alley dealing, and buttering up the right government stooges allowed the untested substance to slide by with minimal checking or deep study. There are no known chemicals or diseases, so what's the problem? It's not like it's being sold as medicine! It isn't poison, so what's the big deal?

But it is poison. The Stuff is used as a weapon in order to get what the megacorp wants. It is even shown how these megacorps devour mom and pop businesses along the way to consuming what they want, which is iron fist control over the Stuff. They are subverting the entire system and the normal supply and demand process in order to get that high they want: mindless profit. They are filling a hole themselves.

However, the secondary effect is that the Stuff they are putting out to be eaten by the masses is turning into something that will usurp the entire system that got them rich to begin with. Those who consume the Stuff become a slave to it, devoted to its very whims. Stuffies won't fraternize with their own family members unless they too accept this pleasant high into their lives, but all they want is that feeling. If everyone is a Stuffie than everything will be alright. The megacorp has no idea what it has unleashed. Anything that gets in the way of the high is to be destroyed, and that includes the ones who let them in the door. Everything must be consumed.

To make the message clearer than a freshly washed window there is a moment in the movie where our heroes meet up with a retired Colonel who lives off the grid with his own platoon of soldiers. He is distrusting of the entire political system. He is spurred into action to help our heroes destroy the Stuff because Mo deliberately draws parallels to communist espionage in government to the way the Stuff is currently operating to destroy the system. This conversation before the climax of the movie really needs to be seen to be believed, because it is not one they would allow in a movie today. To drive the obvious intention home, the Colonel calls the consumer puppets "Stuffies" which is why I used the term above earlier. No, I didn't make that up. This is what the movie is really about.

It takes our heroes going to the Colonel and getting his soldiers together to storm the plant and take it out of operation. Mo and his friends simply can't trust anyone else to help them fight the subversion, and it turns out to be the right call. The Colonel then uses the radio stations he owns in order to broadcast his warning against this subversive infiltration across the country: Stop eating the Stuff because it is deadly and turning your insides upside down! Hurry up before it's too late!

You might be thinking that there is an obvious outcome here, especially if you've seen modern movies in this vein. Clearly no one is going to listen to the conspiracy nut warning them about what gives them fuzzy feelings, and the entire country, then the world itself, is going to be consumed by this unknown substance. This is a horror movie, after all, and what better way to drive home the point that it is all futile then by showing the Stuff winning over our empty material nature.

But that isn't what happens.

Instead, the message goes through and doubt seeps into the populace. There are riots and the masses eventually turn on the Stuff. Stores are blown up, factories demolished, and containers are burned in bonfires on the street. The people come together and turn against the Stuff. The scourge is eradicated. All because they listened to the crazy retired gun nut veteran who lives off the grid and was right about the subversion taking over. You really can't make this up.

To put a capper on it, Mo then travels to the home of the billionaire that funded this entire mess. You see, even though he was stopped, it doesn't matter. This fool will re-brand the Stuff and start anew, even though the last batch almost wiped out the world and would eventually consume him. He doesn't care what he sells, even if it will end up killing him, so Mo does the only thing he can do to stop this. He force-feeds the billionaire the Stuff at gunpoint. Only after the fool's own appetite is satiated on the same garbage he sold the masses will he understand just what he has done. The police arrive shortly after and our heroes walk out triumphant. The menace was defeated.

The final scene shows a black market sale of the Stuff, implying that as long as man craves something to scratch his itch this new drug will always be around. Emptiness asks to be filled, and the Stuff still promises to do it for you. Only when you defeat the deeper problem will the Stuff be truly eradicated for good.

And that's the end.

"Are you eating it, or is it eating you?"

The Stuff wasn't very successful at the box office, due to many reasons surrounding its troubled release, and it still doesn't have much in the way of a cult following today. The movie doesn't have the best effects or grossest horror, though they are effective at what they are trying to get across. Most just see the general concept and write the movie off as typical. Reviews were mixed at the time with some such as the Chicago Sun Times giving it a low score stating it had a lack of plausibility and no movie to house the ideas it had. This isn't quite true.

Being that The Stuff was very clearly a throwback to 1950s horror didn't help, as these were rarely successful at the time. See Tobe Hooper's underrated remake of Invaders from Mars for proof of that. In fact, aside from a handful of swears, you could put the movie in black and white and most people wouldn't be able to tell it wasn't from that distant decade. Mr. Cohen was very successful with his aesthetic and works for the movie.

The story itself is straightforward, which it needs to be since it is about subversion overturning the normal. The main character speaks like a snake oil salesman yet he ends up being the most honest man in the movie due to having a nose for liars. It is the normality of heroism that saves the day against the poisonous nature of subversion. The monster itself, the weird element, is never explained even after it is defeated at the end. All of this are marks in its favor as a true successor to the Weird Tales legacy. The Stuff definitely follows a tradition older than itself.

Technically it might not be the greatest movie, but as far as execution, ideas, and general entertainment value, The Stuff is easily one of the most overlooked B-movies from an era where they were at their best. It's a shame it is so passed over, because it has quite a lot of value and has dated surprisingly well despite its existence as a deliberate throwback to a now-forgotten age. It is in fact probably more relevant now than when it came out. In an era where subversion is seen as an unquestioned synonym for good, it speaks truth against it.

In this day and age the worst thing you can be is well. Healthiness is unhealthy. Wholesomeness is unwholesome. But there are still those out there who believe in something more than the mire of modern life. The Stuff celebrates the good at the expense of evil.

Eventually this will all pass and the truth will reclaim its place again. Just like in The Stuff, the junk that consumes you will one day fall by the wayside. Then what will you have left to show for yourself? Hopefully more than a dried out husk of a skeleton. Truth always wins, in the end. Be sure you are there to meet it.


  1. I thought I was the only person on Earth who actually saw that movie. I watched it in a theater, too!

    It was a fun little B-movie, as you said.

    1. Yes, it's an interesting little film. It's a shame that it's not more well known. But I suppose there's no shortage of good horror from this decade, so there's bound to be a lot overlooked.