With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
When you think of ‘80s creature features, a sentient yogurt-like substance that turns its devourers into a sort of zombie doesn’t usually pop in mind. But you can always count on writer/director Larry Cohen, known for his rule-breaking style of filmmaking, to think outside of the box. Taking aim at consumerism and corporate greed, and inspired by America’s affinity for junk food, Cohen came up with The Stuff; an ice cream like substance straight from the Earth with zero calories and deliciously addictive properties. The only downside is that its parasitic in nature, and destroys those who consume it from the inside out, mutating them in the process.
In true Cohen fashion, The Stuff is far more satiric in tone than distributor New World Pictures wanted. They expected a straightforward horror film with more gore and scares, especially after having released his much more serious sci-fi/horror film God Told Me To years prior. Even still, it was marketed as a straightforward horror film and didn’t fare well upon limited theatrical release in the summer of 1985. To be fair, Cohen never bothered to send dailies, so the distributor had no idea what they had on their hands until the film was complete.
The Stuff is worth the watch for frequent Cohen collaborator Michael Moriarity’s performance alone. As lead protagonist David “Mo” Rutherford, Moriarity brings his trademark eccentricities to the role. A former FBI agent turned professional industrial saboteur, Mo is one of the most atypical heroes to grace the screen. Pretty much the entire performance was improv. But another worthwhile reason to watch this film, of course, is for The Stuff.
A vast number of creature features of the decade involved a casting and molding process to create custom prosthetics to be applied on an actor. But what if the monster was a gooey edible substance? It meant the special makeup effects team had to get really creative with bringing The Stuff to life. The team, with notable makeup effects artists like Ed French (Blood Rage, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), Rick Stratton (Fright Night, Edward Scissorhands), and Steve Neill (Ghostbusters, Fright Night), used multiple techniques.
Some of the effects are obvious, like the use of yogurt or shaving cream in scenes where The Stuff went into the actor’s mouth. In scenes where The Stuff physically attacked a character, the artists would pour foam latex over the actor’s face to simulate the movement. For the scenes that involved mass amounts of The Stuff, firefighting foam was used. Or worse, a substance made with fish guts. It was cheap, and Cohen usually didn’t have much of a budget, so the actors had to contend with being doused in stinky fish guts. Manipulating large quantities of foamy goo often relied on gravity doing its job. A rotating room was built for the scene that has The Stuff shoot out of a mattress and pin its victim to the bedroom wall. The actor was actually on the floor, with the goo gushing down on him.
A not so subtle cautionary tale about mindless consumerism, The Stuff offers a different take on the ‘80s creature feature. It’s far more comedy than horror, but it works in the film’s favor in this case. For those unfamiliar with Cohen’s interesting body of work, The Stuff provides a good gateway. Come for the weird sentient people-eating dessert, stay for Moriarty’s performance, and leave with The Stuff jingle stuck in your head.