Once upon a time, during the middle period of the Reagan Administration, writer-director Larry Cohen—the B-movie machine behind Q, The Winged Serpent and the It's Alive! trilogy—devised an idea for a satirical horror masterpiece worthy of the best work of George Romero. A creamy white goo, sweet and tasty (and low on calories!), bubbles up like oil to the Earth's surface, where it's discovered, slickly packaged and promoted, and sold at every grocery store in the country. More than just a dessert, it's soon the only product in America's refrigerators, turning families into blissful zombies while slowly eating away at their insides. With apologies to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Cohen came up with a brilliant answer to the noxious excess and conformity of the Reagan '80s: a product that consumes the consumer. But when it was time to actually make the movie, the execution was left seriously wanting, which is the only reason 1985's The Stuff isn't mentioned in the same breath as Dawn Of The Dead. Always a better idea-man than a director, Cohen has a knack for killing surefire premises, yet he leaves plenty to salvage from the twisted wreckage. His wildcard is Michael Moriarty, an underappreciated character actor with Christopher Walken's otherworldly aura and an offbeat, mush-mouthed delivery all his own. As a former FBI agent hired to infiltrate the secretive company that distributes the insidious goo, Moriarty greets his employers by shaking their hands and telling each of them that their palms are sweaty. Later, after rescuing a suburban boy (Scott Bloom) who has just downed a carton of Barbasol to fool his zombified family, he muses nonchalantly, "Everybody has to eat shaving cream once in a while." Cohen tries to keep time with Moriarty's inspired weirdness, teaming him with a lethal-fisted competitor named Chocolate Chip Charlie (SNL's Garrett Morris) and inserting mock commercials, including one with Abe Vigoda and Clara "Where's the beef?" Peller. (On the DVD's commentary track, Cohen said Peller was paid $15,000 for one line and "it was hardly worth it.") But the director buries these gems under reams of expository dialogue, haphazard staging, and shock effects that aren't even remotely shocking. By the time Cohen gets around to introducing a right-wing militia group (led by an embarrassed Paul Sorvino) to sabotage Stuff headquarters, he's lost track of his satirical agenda. Aside from a few great moments, The Stuff remains memorable for a biting tagline ("Enough is never enough") and cultist fantasies of what might have been.
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