Thursday, October 13, 2016


Larry Cohen’s THE STUFF is a horror satire that somehow manages to be even more obvious than DAWN OF THE DEAD. Kim Newman once wrote that Cohen “still hasn’t received the critical attention he deserves” because he “makes monster movies”. Newman wrote that line in 1988 in the first edition of his wonderful Nightmare Movies. I’m still waiting for him to receive the critical attention he deserves. Cohen has a sharp, satiric wit capable of the kind of slight exaggeration necessary to make his bigger points work in a genre whose fans are more receptive to hyperbole than to subtle suggestion. Throughout his early works, we can see Cohen’s socially critical eye at work, but his work here seems to be more prophetic than usual. In a society where 36 percent of adults and 17 percent children are obese, what we are eating is killing us.

In THE STUFF, Cohen takes that basic idea and ramps it up to delirious levels. A popular snack treat is on fire all across the nation. People can’t bring themselves to stop eating it. A former FBI agent is brought in by the highly concerned CEOs of ice cream manufacturing companies and he launches an investigation, including visiting a FDA member who basically says that anything that couldn’t possibly cause harm (such as a snack treat) doesn’t deserve the kind of attention something that has health implications deserves. Except that snack treats DO have health implications and The Stuff of THE STUFF most definitely has health implications.

From calling this tasty, dangerous treat “The Stuff”, an obvious reference to what hard drugs were called at the time, to the commercial tagline attached to the product “Enough is Never Enough”, the very philosophical underpinning of the 1980s, Cohen’s re-imagining of our nation’s food obsession as a Pod People science fiction/horror/comedy never stops for breath and never stops being incredibly entertaining. Even though the special effects haven’t aged well (some of the process shots were bad enough in 1985; they look absolutely dreadful now), the story the film tells is much more salient today and is just as insightful as ever. Just like DAWN OF THE DEAD, another film whose satirical bent is every bit as on the mark now as it was then, the narrative implications in THE STUFF (in a way) ensures the film doesn’t age. Sure, the effects are wonky and the fashion is terrible, but what is written between the lines is always what matters most in a Cohen film. Here, he is spot on with his observations. 

THE STUFF is one of my favorite Cohen films, easily standing next to IT’S ALIVE, Q, GOD TOLD ME TO and BONE. It is probably the most fun of all those films. As an amalgamate of popular science fiction films of old (there’s all kinds of nods to films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE BLOB and INVADERS FROM MARS), it is incredibly fun. As a straight horror film, it definitely fails. But as an elbow to the face of the Reagan era mass consumerism of the 1980s, it’s damn near perfect.


The first key signifier of any genre is iconography and it is rather interesting how often the horror iconography appears throughout other genres. The “psychological thriller” is a relatively new subgenre that typically exists within the larger “thriller” or “suspense” genres, but the iconography associated with the psychological thriller is the same as we would find in the typical urban-set horror film. The real difference between the horror film and the psychological thriller seems to be intent. Horror, in all its forms, is designed around the idea of disturbing or frightening the audience. Its primary motive is fear and/or discomfort, usually centered on an external threat. The psychological thriller is typically more devoted to internal struggles and the possibilité dramatique that comes along with it, even though it can, when the occasion calls for it, call upon an external threat to level the dramatic playing field. In essence, the psychological thriller is actually a bit of a bricolage, something designed to play both ends of the field, taking bits and pieces from the dramatic and mixing them with bits and pieces of the horrific.

In the past, I have argued for a subgenre of horror that I called Urban Horror, films which deal with external or internal breakdown along the lines usually associated with horror genre, but which put more emphasis on the dramatic than the visceral. As such, TAXI DRIVER is a perfect example of an Urban Horror film. Usually the arguments against my including of films like TAXI DRIVER into the horror genre have to do with their privilege of prestige. It’s the very reason “psychological thriller” is used so frequently. A film like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS plays like a horror film, contains mutilation, abuse, frightening set pieces and (mild) gore, but because it is an Oscar winning film with an Oscar winning cast and an air of prestige about it, people stick the “psychological thriller” label on it, as if the attachment of “horror” to the film is an insult to the material.

I generally don’t receive much blow back when I refer to CRUISING as an Urban Horror film, probably because it doesn’t have the same kind of critical baggage that films like TAXI DRIVER have. It feels like an urban-set giallo film. It has the same kind of cynical oppression running through its veins, that feeling of misanthropy, that willingness to push buttons for the sake of pushing buttons. It is an incredibly uncomfortable film (more so if you’re a homophobe) and one that wallows in its exploitation instead of coyly flirting with it. William Friedkin is well aware of each and every leading question the film asks, well aware that he is presenting situations that can only lead to unethical outcomes. Everything about this film is designed for the maximum amount of discomfort. That Friedkin is a fan of Argento and Bava should come as no surprise, but what is surprising is how well he’s taken their lessons to heart. This is a cold film, unsparing in its misanthropic view of a hedonistic underworld and the dismissive, opportunistic cops that patrol it.

CRUISING has the ability to disquiet and disturb precisely because there is no heart beating beneath the surface. It wouldn’t feel out of place among Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER or Dallamano’s WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?. It’s very construct, a killer running loose in a world that the pursuers cannot understand but must immerse themselves in, something they do at their own risk, has been the backbone of many horror films. Friedkin’s film resists the politicizing and sociological bent that several of these films take and creates a work that draws largely on primal instinct. The dramatic elements of the film are all centered around an internal struggle brought about from external stress, allowing the film to straddle the traditional lines of demarcation between the horror film and the psychological thriller. By the time the credits roll, identities have shifted, perceptions have changed and ethics have eroded beyond repair.

The typical horror film ends with a coda that assures us that order has been restored, but that the balance is still teetering precariously on the edge. Friedkin rejects such hopeful notions here. In Friedkin’s world, there is no order to be found. It’s all an illusion. An impossibility. Pacino survive his ordeal in CRUISING and brings the psychopath to justice, but loses himself in the process. The ending assures us that no matter how many psychos we lock up, there will always be murderers wandering the streets. It’s a hopeless film. A disturbing film. And yes, an Urban Horror film.


Why do I enjoy some slasher films and not others? What is it about one slasher film that makes it stand out from another slasher film? Given that every single slasher film adheres to a very strict, very cardboard structure, what makes one seem fresh and the other seem stale? These are three questions I often ask myself when I’ve seen a slasher film I enjoy. The answers usually come down to characters. There seems to be an unwritten rule book somewhere that dictates that all slasher film characters need to be oblivious, sex obsessed and utterly vapid. Characterization comes down to little more than social standing (popular or unpopular) and/or high school cliché group (nerd, jock, cheerleader, weirdo, etc). That shouldn’t (and probably doesn’t) surprise anyone. These are films made to be immediately accessible to slasher fans, many of whom are either in their high school years or close enough to them to immediately recognize themselves in one of those prescribed roles. There is a notion among film studies of something called “vernacular cinema”. Vernacular cinema tends to stay within rigidly defined scopes, relying on familiarity to appeal to a specific group of moviegoers. Like slang, those who speak the vernacular are instantly comfortable. Those who don’t will obviously struggle to find their footing.

Slasher films fit perfectly into the vernacular cinema. There is a reason that producers, writers and directors don’t fuck around with the “rules” all that often. Doing so would risk alienating moviegoers who are expecting a specific kind of film. For all the dream sequences, mind bending reversals of the conscious and unconscious, and playing around with diegetic elements, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET still plays by those rules. If Craven had stretched his film more, he would have risked leaving behind the familiar (the vernacular) structure of the slasher film and that would have likely caused many ticket buyers to toss their popcorn. 

THE INITIATION doesn’t try to break through the vernacular. It doesn’t attempt any kind of originality in its story or presentation, but it still manages to be one of the better mid-80s slasher films. It presents a charming, interesting Final Girl with more baggage and personality than most (and it doesn’t hurt to have the cute-as-a-button Daphne Zuniga playing the role) and contains a little more subtext and subtlety than usual. It makes identity politics a key element from the get-go and is probably more concerned with its climactic reversal than most slasher films. There is even a smattering of symbolism throughout the film (notice the paired actions or the staging of events before mirrors) that adds a bit of replay value to the film. It is careful in its construction and earns its gotcha moments. Even though it is much more anemic than most of its brethren, it contains a few decent stalk-and-slash set pieces and its red herrings are actually tied into the narrative resolution than simply bolted on for the sake of confusing the audience.

In terms of characters, THE INITIATION is far less annoying than most and actually manages to contain a subplot between two characters that is kind of clumsily touching. Sure the film relies on the typical bitchy sorority sister and a pair of obnoxious jokers to pad out the victim checklist, but they’re underplayed in the film just enough that they never derail the film. If THE INITIATION has one major flaw it’s in the structure of the film. The wait to get to the central location (a shopping mall operated by the Final Girl’s father that they’ve broken into as part of a sorority initiation) takes place rather late in the film. The film feels lopsided. Much like HELL NIGHT or THE FUNHOUSE, we know the majority of the action will happen once the characters are isolated inside the location. Waiting to get there kills off some of the fun. Once the film moves into the mall, it speeds along at a good pace but I definitely wanted more, something to help balance the slow, methodical first half with the breakneck second half. But that’s a small quibble in light of how many things THE INITIATION gets right. In a subgenre full of absolutely terrible films, THE INITIATION comes across as entertaining, interesting and even a bit ingenious at times.