Monday, December 10, 2012
The Stuff (1985)
The Movie: A new dessert called “the Stuff” has hit the markets and become extremely popular. It’s a white, creamy substance served in pint containers like ice cream. The Stuff is delicious, and is very low in fat or calories. As the ad campaign says, after the first bite you literally can’t get enough.
The Stuff is so popular that the industries that make other desserts are worried. The heads of the ice cream industry gather together to take matters into their own hands. Their plan is to hire the notorious industrial spy and saboteur, David “Mo” Rutherford (the extremely prolific Michael Moriarty), to discover the secret behind the Stuff for them.
And boy does good old Mo have his work cut out for him. The corporation behind the Stuff is notoriously secretive about their product, much like Coca Cola. Attempts at lab analysis fail utterly to reveal the ingredients. But the worst part is probably when Mo gradually starts to discover what the Stuff really is.
You see, the Stuff isn’t so much a food product as it is a parasitic organism, possibly with some sentience. It’s not just great tasting, it’s addictive; and if you eat it for a certain period of time it will start controlling your brain. Finally, those pounds you’ve been losing since you started eating the Stuff aren’t due to it being low in calories; it’s due to the fact that it’s eating you from the inside, gradually hollowing your body out into a shell that can be controlled like a puppet.
Mo has exactly three allies in his fight to put an end to the Stuff: Chocolate Chip Charlie (the equally prolific Garrett Morris), another dessert mogul who’s been put out of business by the popularity of the Stuff; Nicole (singer-actress Andrea Marcovicci), the woman behind the ad campaign for the Stuff; and Jason (Scott Bloom), a young boy who stumbled onto the Stuff’s true nature when he was witness to what it did to his family. Unfortunately, Mo’s rather checkered past has ensured that it’s near impossible for him to bring in any outside help. How to four people put an end to an extremely popular product, and one that has the backing of a major corporation at that?
“I kinda like the sight of blood, but this is disgusting!"
-Col Malcolm Grommett Spears
Tis the season yet again; and while the Stuff is definitely not a Christmas movie, it sure does tap into the spirit of the holiday. The Stuff is technically labeled a horror movie, but it is also a satire; and like all good satires the truly horrifying parts of it are where it’s hard to tell the difference between movie plot and real life. It is scary how little corporation driven consumerism has changed in the past three decades.
This is especially so in how many truly dangerous products are legally sold to us every day. You can probably think of the obvious ones, such as tobacco and alcohol. However, if you look closer you’ll notice that it also applies to things we take for granted as being safe, such as our food. I know a lot of people who regularly consume sugary snack foods like soda; or fattening items such as potato chips. Worse, corporations like Monsanto have so defanged any food regulation that they’re able to load down supposedly healthy foods like bread with more sugar and calories than any of us need; all just to shove more money into the already bulging pockets of a small handful of individuals.
I’m not being self-righteous here; I will freely admit that I love to eat, have a major sweet tooth, and am a caffeine addict. It’s just so scary that these days few of us know or care where our food really comes from, and unscrupulous individuals are able to take advantage of that to make money. There are always people who will do anything they think they can get away with for money. I honestly don’t find the idea of a parasitic organism being mass marketed as a dessert to be far beyond the realm of possibility at all.
Note how the villains of the movie work. They don’t eat the Stuff themselves, being well aware of what it is. However, they are more than willing to sell it to the public anyway. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just business, so it’s perfectly legit. And even in the end, when the true nature of their product becomes publicly known; they plan a way that they can continue to sell it.
One of the elements I find fascinating about the Stuff is the nature of its protagonists; they’re not only a major part of this corrupt system, they’re examples of the people who arguably make it so screwed up. Nicole is behind the ad campaign and corporate branding for the Stuff; she even gave it its name. ‘Mo’ Rutherford can be seen as even worse; his entire living is made off the infighting, sleazy tricks and dirty deals that the corporate world runs on.
I find Mo to be a particularly intriguing character, both due to the script and to Moriarty’s playing of the role. He can probably be summed up best in a line that he delivers at the very beginning of the movie. When one of his new employers makes the observation that he doesn’t think Mo is as dumb as he appears to be, Mo just smiles sweetly and answers “no one is as dumb as I appear to be.” Nearly the entire movie, with only a rare few moments when he lets the mask slip, Mo acts like an amiable dufus. He’s the kind of guy who is constantly making stupid mistakes and majorly insulting social faux pas. However, it’s impossible to be offended because he’s obviously too stupid to know any better; in fact it’s kind of charming much of the time. Yet, even while his words and physical cues mark him as a charming idiot, all of his actions and decisions show the truly competent and ruthless individual he really is.
These two are obviously nobody’s idea of heroes. And yet, when the time comes where they realize just what is at stake, when they need to do the right thing; both of them rise to the occasion. And it’s not just putting an end to the Stuff either. Mo picks up Jason for purely mercenary reasons; he read a newspaper article about the boy’s rampage at a grocery store, puts two and two together, and figures that he’ll be useful to his task. However, it’s notable that throughout the movie, even when Jason is no longer of any practical use to Mo, Mo still goes out of his way to take care of the kid. The amazing thing is, this seeming contradiction is played out smoothly and convincingly. There’s no Hallmark moment marking a change of heart, Mo and Natalie just show that despite all the warts on their character, they are still capable of doing the right thing. For a rather cynical satire on corporate consumerism (try saying that five times fast), the Stuff displays a surprisingly positive view of human nature through its heroes.
There is a third character who plays to the movie’s recurring theme of unlikely individuals thrust into heroic roles; except that this one is more an antihero. Once Mo and Nicole have seen the facility where the Stuff is produced, their only option for outside help is one Col Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino of Repo! The Genetic Opera), a former military man and Right-wing militia leader. Now, Spears fits pretty much all of the stereotypes for the extreme Right; he’s a bigot, a racist, a Commie baiter, paradoxically uber-patriotic yet rabidly anti-government (I never got that), and he displays that remarkable mixture of extreme arrogance and paranoid insecurity we see so often with the Right. It just occurred to me, this character type is something else that hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the past three decades.
The Stuff is obviously not sympathetic to Spears or his views; the character is played for a combination of laughs and derision. Still, Spears is almost entirely responsible for the heroes prevailing in the end. Also, it should be noted that he goes out of his way to help Nicole and Jason when they are in trouble.
In all, for a fun little movie with a premise that could be seen as ridiculous; the Stuff, like any good satire, gets so much that’s right on the nose, even decades after it was made. The commercials for the Stuff that we see throughout the movie, while obviously very 1980s, are not at all different from the commercials we are shown today. The basic message is the same: ‘be one of the crowd by buying this product.’ The villains are not at all dissimilar from the corporate heads you can hear about in the news. Even the inevitable kicker ending is something I find all too convincing, based on what I know about human nature. Think Prohibition, or the War on Drugs; which is essentially Prohibition mk2.
Finally, the element I probably love the most about the Stuff is its characters. The heroes are very flawed individuals, and the movie makes no bones about that fact. However, they come through in the end, and in a very believable way. I find believably complex, flawed and quirky characters to be remarkable in any more or less mainstream movie, never mind a low-budget horror flick.