This week, Arrow Video released Larry Cohen’s The Stuff on Blu Ray. To mark the occasion, here’s an excerpt from the zine Physical Impossibility #1: The Films of Larry Cohen, featuring my exclusive interview with the man himself.
“The big studio films are like concert orchestras, philharmonics, and my movies are like jazz combos.” Larry Cohen
Upstate New Jersey, 1985. A refinery worker finds an odd white substance bubbling out of the ground. Inexplicably, he paws some into his mouth…and finds it delicious. Packaged and sold as a dessert, The Stuff is soon taking the nation by storm and the fat cats of Big Confectionary don’t like the new competition one bit. They hire oddball industrial saboteur David ‘Mo’ Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) to uncover The Stuff’s secret formula and protect their profits. Meanwhile, young Jason (Scott Bloom) is repulsed by his family’s addiction to the Stuff. After all, he’s seen it moving.
After Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), Larry Cohen directed two films back-to-back, Special Effects (1984) and Perfect Strangers (1984). Cohen, aware of the second life DVD has afforded some of his lesser-known works says, “I recommend anybody who’s interested to see those pictures.” Anyone could be forgiven, however, for first skipping on to arguably his finest film and a genuine absurdist masterpiece, The Stuff.
A satire on commercialism, The Stuff is also an unpredictable, free-wheeling fever dream of a movie which takes so many left turns it’s dizzying. “I don’t follow any rules and regulations about placement of scenes or arcs or anything else,” Cohen offers. “All the stuff that they teach you in writing class and all the stuff in screenwriting books, I don’t pay any attention to any of that. The people teaching writing classes have never sold a script.”
The kind of sparkling, strange moments of performance (Michael Moriarty acts less like he’s ‘in on the joke’ than he’s wondered with casual agency into someone else’s dream), staging and sheer filmmaking audacity that make curate’s eggs of many a B-movie are pretty much the substance of the entire film. Cohen here was firing on all cylinders doing what he does best – giving free reign to his imagination with an intriguing premise then supporting and encouraging his star performer to improvise freely, and all the while wringing his budget for all its worth. It’s jazz filmmaking, as Cohen explains. “We improvise as we go along, we change based on what happens to us while we’re making the movie, we incorporate things into the movie that happen to us.”
“At the beginning of The Stuff, we got to our location to shoot and a terrible snowstorm came. It was unseasonable but this huge blizzard came and everybody said, ‘Oh, now you have to go home,’ and I said, ‘Oh, no, we’ll shoot the scene in this snowstorm and I’ll write the snowstorm into it.’ And so that’s what I did. And it made a beautiful scene, beautiful production value. Of course, all the lights weren’t rigged for a snowstorm so they were exploding all over the place. But fortunately, nobody got electrocuted and we got the scene.”
The Stuff is also one of those strange films you stumble across 25 years after the fact and marvel at the audacity of what you’re watching. Pre-CGI, the low-budget practical effects are surprisingly effective – ambitious, charming and tactile – everything that modern horror or sci-fi generally isn’t. When it works best (the motel room sequence when Mo is attacked by his Stuff-filled pillow – seriously – which then engulfs the entire room, scaling the walls, before being killed with fire), the impact of the technical wizardry is enhanced by the growing sense that filming it couldn’t possibly have been safe.
“Oh, the flaming room?” Cohen recalls, “We did the same thing there that Fred Astaire did in Royal Wedding, where he danced on the ceiling.” The set was built in a room that could be rotated from the outside, with the camera locked in place inside. Therefore, when the set was spun, the camera turned with the room, capturing the seemingly gravity-defying effect of the Stuff emerging from under the bed, climbing the walls and carrying Moriarty with it. “And we wanted it to catch fire too, so that’s something Fred Astaire didn’t have to worry about, was fire.”
“The guys that built it, they had guys on both sides of it, clinging to the outside of the room and they would jump up and down and jump up and down and jump up and try to keep hold of the goddamn thing because it was turned on its side and then the force of their weight and the gravity of it turned the thing upside down. There were people clinging to the outside of it and on the inside, it was on fire! Nobody got hurt, thank god, and we got the scene, but it was quite a show to watch it in progress.”
Physical Impossibility #1: The Films of Larry Cohen is sold out at the source, although copies may be available from our international stockists (check details here).
The Stuff Blu Ray, which I can heartily recommend, is in shops now, or you can buy direct from Arrow here.