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Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Every year at this time in Pennsylvania there is a festival celebrating one of the formative motion pictures of my childhood. For this post of The Quantum Blog, we're going to look back at that movie with an essay that I wrote for its 50th anniversary on September 12, 2008.

Fifty years ago tonight (September 12, 2008) on movie screens across the country, a meteor fell in the forest outside a small Pennsylvania town. A teenage boy named Steve and his girlfriend Jane--not “Janey Girl,” just Jane--went to investigate and found an old man writhing in pain by the side of the road, with a strange gelatinous mass attached to his hand. A recluse living in a small house in the forest, the old man had found the meteor first and unwisely poked at it with a stick, releasing the shapeless organism inside, which slithered down the stick and turned from transparent to blood red as it began to assimilate his hand. Steve and Jane took the old timer to the town doctor, where the red mass completely consumed not only the recluse, but the nurse and the doctor himself--this latter being witnessed by a horrified Steve. Now it was up to Steve and Jane to warn their unsuspecting friends and neighbors of what was loose in their town, and growing bigger with every new victim it claimed. Only their little town stood between mankind and the menace of the Blob.

Yes, tonight is the fiftieth anniversary, if you can believe it, of the debut of one of the great Hollywood movie monsters. Released in 1958, The Blob starred 35-year-old Steve McQueen as teenaged Steve Andrews and Aneta Corseaut (who went on to play Andy’s girlfriend and eventual wife, Helen, on The Andy Griffith Show) as Jane. It was the first starring role for McQueen, who had been in several films already by this point. He would grow to regret taking only a flat fee for his part in the picture instead of a percentage of a film that grossed $10,000,000 in 1958 money and become a cult classic that would never go away. (Not that McQueen did all that badly after The Blob, of course.)

The Blob is not, by any standard, a masterpiece of filmmaking. Its dialogue ranges from excruciating to laughable, and to say that it was produced on a shoestring budget is generous at the least. But that doesn’t matter; the power of this film has kept it alive and kept it being rediscovered for five decades. The Blob is one of the few movies with an annual festival devoted to it. Shot in Downingtown and Phoenixville, PA, the film is honored every July in Phoenixville with a “Blobfest” that includes screenings at the actual cinema that the creature attacked at the climax of the film. The height of the festival is the annual reenactment of the scene in which the filmgoers come running, screaming, from the cinema to escape the monstrous Blob that has flooded the auditorium (and devoured the projectionist). This being the fiftieth anniversary, I only wish I could have been there for this year’s Blobfest. One of these years I have got to go to this thing.

Why does a film that many people don’t take seriously rate such longevity and such a following? There can be only one reason, and it is a very obvious one that people completely overlook exactly because of the laughable script and the cheesy production. The Blob is simply a deeply, viscerally terrifying idea. Look past the way the picture was made and think of what this thing is and what it does. Think about a nearly liquid life form that can go anywhere that water can flow, and even crawl up and down walls as water can’t do. Moreover, it does not announce its presence; it is completely silent. It can be practically on top of you, or have you surrounded or cornered, before you even realize it’s there. And once it has you, you’re gone, melted into the growing, pulsating mass without a trace. You may not take the Blob seriously, but the American Film Institute does. The Blob is included on AFI’s list of the all-time greatest movie villains. Granted, it ranks only in the 300s, but that is because the Blob is not so much a proper antagonist with a personality as it is a shapeless expression of limitless hunger. It is more a force than a character. But people who look past the production and get the concept, especially if they were introduced to it when they were children, understand what an utter nightmare the Blob truly is.

One such person is a gentleman named Wes Shank, who actually bought the Blob from the director of the film. Somewhere in Pennsylvania there is a man who keeps a mass of killer protoplasm from outer space (actually a barrel full of red-dyed silicone, but still...) in his basement. I’m glad Mr. Shank bought it and has preserved this classic piece of film memorabilia, much like the gentleman in California who bought the actual stop-motion animation maquette of King Kong. I’d like to visit him sometime and see it. But I couldn’t have that thing in my house. Intellectually, I’d know it wasn’t real, but the dreams... I’d never get any sleep.

My own introduction to The Blob was via the theme song. Oh yes, we need to talk about that theme song. It is an early work of Burt Bacharach. Yes, that Burt Bacharach. The Blob opens with a theme song that is, to say the least, unique: a 1950’s finger-popping doo-wop number that is another of the reasons that people think the picture is a lark. But that frivolous-sounding ditty is actually very sinister, in the way that things in Stephen King stories are sinister. You know how King is always turning mundane, innocent things into evil, macabre things. The theme from The Blob is like that, a 50s doo-wop song that is in fact a warning to beware of something both lethal and inescapable. “It creeps and leaps/And slides and glides across the floor/Right through the door and all around the walls/A splotch, a blotch, be careful of the Blob/Beware of the Blob...” When I was little, I heard my brother Jack singing this song one day and asked him where it came from, and he described to me this movie about a shapeless thing from space that consumed people and grew as it went along, and I thought at the time that it was the most horrifying thing I’d ever heard of. I also thought I had to see this picture. Sure enough, it came round on television, and in my little boy way I saw that I was right. It scared me more than Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon put together. To this day, in concept alone, I’m with the American Film Institute. Very few things to come out of Hollywood are as purely frightening in concept as the Blob.

The Blob has a sequel, released in 1972 and directed by Larry Hagman. Yes, that Larry Hagman. Son of Blob (or Beware the Blob) stars Robert Walker (Charlie X from Star Trek) as Steve McQueen’s Blob-battling successor. It has all the scares of the original, but was unfortunately written and played too much for laughs. (When Dallas caught on, Son of Blob was re-released as “The Movie J.R. Shot!”) It even has an excerpt from the original film in it. In an early, pivotal scene, Godfrey Cambridge gets up from his recliner chair to adjust the rabbit ears on his TV while The Blob is playing; it’s right at the scene outside the supermarket where Steve is trying to rally the town before it’s too late. A moment later, Godfrey sits himself back down--right in the Blob, which has oozed over the chair. Robert Walker’s girlfriend walks in just in time to see luckless Godfrey disappearing into the creature. The picture also has a remake, released in 1988 (the thirtieth anniversary of the original). In this one, Steve McQueen is a girl--Shawnee Smith, who sees her boyfriend (Donovan Leitch, whom we’ve been set up to think is going to be Steve McQueen) melting into the Blob, and sets out to stop her town from being devoured. The remake is truly disappointing. It turns the Blob from a living mass of Dunkin’ Donuts strawberry filling into an ugly wad of pink mucus, and is full of gruesome scenes of partially consumed victims. It also plays into a post-Watergate, Reagan-era sort of paranoia by changing the concept from an alien life form to a government germ warfare experiment. It’s a shame. A classic monster deserves better treatment.

And who knows, The Blob may get it. Yet another remake has been mentioned, though Paramount Pictures, which owns the property, has missed a sensational marketing opportunity by not having the new version ready in time for the fiftieth anniversary. Still, if they just restore the original concept and give us an update of the original mass of red killer slime (with state-of-the-art CGI, the classic Blob would be more terrifying than ever), and get a screenplay that does justice to the idea, we could get a film that shows the Blob for the right and proper horror that it is. This most original and frightening of Hollywood monsters, in whatever form, should be around for generations to come. The 1958 version will certainly continue to stand the test of time. This month is the fiftieth anniversary of The Blob. Sleep with a CO2 fire extinguisher by your bed; you never know...

1 comment:

  1. I first saw this as a kid on a black and white TV set. My sister and I would alternate between watching it in terror and then begging my Aunt to change the channel, followed a few seconds later by "turn it back on!" Finally she informed us that she was tired of this foolishness and we had one last chance so we had to gut it out.

    But you know, one thing that has bothered me--since I saw it in B&W the blob was a deep dark black, almost oily thing. When I finally saw it again, in color, it didn't have the same impact. Just wasn't how I'd remembered it.

    I rather liked the remake, though if I see one more movie where the goevrnement is the bad guy...yawn. Maybe it's my conservative streak but TV and film would have you believe that the person most likely to kill you is NOT that crazed crackhead looking for a fix but actually the CEO of a major Fortune 500 company. Please.