The Stuff is the kind of oddball concept typical of expect-the-unexpected director Larry Cohen. It satirizes consumerist culture using a food monster as a metaphor. Crazy? Maybe, but apparently anything was viable in the decade that brought us Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
The Stuff begins with the discovery of the titular stuff, a smooth, white substance that resembles marshmallow creme and bubbles from the ground. It is found to be delicious and is rushed to the mass market.
The Stuff's success bites into the profits of ice cream executives. Nobody can figure out what it's made out of, so a rival company hires an ex-FBI investigator named David "Mo" Rutherford, played by Michael Moriarty, to conduct some good ol' corporate espionage. Rutherford is a kind of downhome Columbo whose idiot act and country drawl mask a canny and effective sleuth.
A separate story thread follows a Long Island boy, named Jason, who won't eat The Stuff because he saw it crawling around in the refrigerator. Jason can't get his family to listen to his warnings, so he fights The Stuff by trashing the refrigerated aisle of the grocery store.
Rutherford's investigation leads to a small Virginia town whose residents have nearly all left for a town in Georgia. There he encounters Chocolate Chip Charlie, a cookie entrepreneur whose board of directors ousted him from the company and sold out to The Stuff. The lone visible resident acts strangely and leaves. He is found, apparently dead, and is discovered to be hollow inside.
Rutherford gains an ally in Nicole, creator of the advertising campaign for The Stuff. Nicole is remorseful over her role in getting America hooked on The Stuff, and she is attracted to David. Her position requires her to travel to Stuff headquarters in Georgia, so David poses as her assistant to get a tour of the facility. They stop along the way to pick up Jason, whose supermarket escapade drew national news coverage. Jason barely escapes his now-brainwashed family, and he tags along with David and Nicole.
The tour of the factory reveals nothing, as they see The Stuff packaged but not produced. They are attacked that night by The Stuff, which can move in mass like The Blob, but they escape and find the pit from which it is mined. Not only do we learn that The Stuff is not man-made, we learn that its motive is conquest, not profit. The mine workers are subjected to a constant stream of political propaganda broadcast over the factory loudspeakers.
David fights back politically. Discredited as an agent, he knows that the FBI will pay no attention to his story, but he knows of someone who's paranoid enough to believe. Colonel Spears, played by Paul Sorvino, is the head of a paramilitary organization and the host of a right-wing radio talk show that specializes in conspiracy theories. His group raids Stuff headquarters, and he broadcasts a warning message to the nation.
Colonel Spears presents a second opportunity for satire. His behavior is often buffoonish and his racism is offensive. Nicole can barely conceal her laughter, and his caricatured military stereotype is presented for mockery. Yet we need him on that wall, and he's good at what he does. He saves the day.
The Stuff has moments of tension and suspense, but it maintains a goofy and light-hearted tone. A child is one of its main characters, and it is generally a very kid-friendly film, though it is by no means juvenile. There is no gore to speak of, although there are a number of gross-out moments involving hollowed-out and smashed bodies.
This mainly functions as horror, although it has a vaguely science-fictionish tone. As a horror film it is unconventional, and the casting choices reflect this. Original Saturday Night Live player Garrett Morris makes a rare and welcome film appearance as Chocolate Chip Charlie. Nicole, who is played brilliantly by Andrea Marcovicci, is a high-powered and successful advertising director. That's a kind of character almost never seen in horror outside of something like Eyes of Laura Mars. Paul Sorvino rarely if ever appears in horror, and he is always fantastic when given a role like this that is so far removed from his usual typecasting. Veteran actors Patrick O'Neal and Danny Aiello appear as snack executives.
This is not the kind of satire that spews dire warnings and bitterness. The movie makes points about vapid consumerism and the corporate environment of the 1980s, but it makes them subtly and never takes itself too seriously. When Jason looks in his refrigerator, he doesn't see the containers of leftovers or off-brand products that would be present in a normal family's refrigerator. We don't even see movie-style fake product packages: That refrigerator is a Madison Avenue triumph stocked exclusively with brand-name products. It's as though that's what the American dream boils down to. The Stuff, with a cursive logo and Georgia home base a la Coca-Cola, ultimately takes over and displaces all of those other brand-name packages.
Maybe mindless conformity is the real American dream. After all, nobody in Invasion of the Body Snatchers asked to be assimilated. Here there are no victims: Everyone who eats The Stuff chooses to do so.