Criterion Project #29: THE BLOB (1958)

The Blob

Spine #91

Year: 1958

Director: Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.

Here we have a heavenly slice of 1950s B-movie monster mania right in our very own Criterion Collection. I’m not sure I’ll have lots to say about The Blob, it’s a movie about Steve McQueen battling an amorphous blob from outer space as it wreaks havoc in his small town. It doesn’t seem to possess any underpinnings of social or political subtext in the way classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or Godzilla (1954) do. However, if you’re looking for some fun, lighter fare to spin on a Friday or Saturday night, look no further!

The movie opens with Steve (Steve McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corsaut) canoodling at some variation of Make-out Point when a shooting star appears to fly overhead and crash down not far from their location. An old man who lives nearby investigates the crash site and winds up with some parasitic goo on his hand, which will soon overtake his whole body and anyone else it can sneak up on. Alongside Steve and Jane are a few of Steve’s buddies, one decent cop, Lt. Dave (Earl Rowe), who gives the kids the benefit of the doubt with their crazy story, a no-nonsense war veteran cop, Sgt. Bert (John Benson), who despises the youth, and a host of townsfolk, parents, siblings, and public servants. Can the kids convince the town they’re going to be swallowed whole in time to stop it?

There are two cinematic connections to this film that must be pointed out. The first is the excellent 1988 remake directed by Chuck Russell (The Mask, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors). That film uses a similar framework but updates the formula to include a government cover-up and a far more terrifying visualization of a man-made blob created out of the Cold War. In the 1958 original, there’s an early scene in the doctor’s office where Steve and Jane have taken the old man after he’s begun being consumed by the goopy substance. Dr. Hallen (Stephen Chase) and his nurse, Kate (Lee Payton), are preparing to possibly amputate the old man’s inflicted arm when suddenly they notice he’s gone. Just then they see the larger iteration of the creeping substance slithering toward them and they infer the mass has fully consumed the old man.

These events occur similarly in the 1988 remake, with two young sweethearts on a date and the town outcast driving an old man to the health clinic. There’s tension between the characters stemming from differences in their socio-economic status, adding a tiny extra layer to the dynamic. The scene culminates in one of the kids being consumed, but instead of deducing his fate we’re shown a terrifying visual of the victim reaching for help from within the pink blob. There’s no way they could have shown such a graphic image in 1958. Needless to say, cinematic restrictions and the demands of horror audiences had dramatically shifted in the 30 years between films as this is perhaps the signature image from the remake.

But one of the elements I love most about the original is its inherent ’50s, B-movie charm. When Steve and Jane are rushing the old man to medical attention they hurriedly dash past a car full of fellow youngsters. Of course, this is an act of disrespect to the raucous lads and they follow Steve to the doctor’s office. What are they going to do? Well, it’s the 1950s and they’re demanding retribution, which vaguely happens in the form of a car race in reverse before Lt. Dave steps in to reprimand Steve for reckless driving. Nothing solves a youthful ’50s quarrel quite like a drag race.

The anachronistic touches stretch through the latter portions of the film as well. After the drag race we discover that the hooligans harassing Steve are actually his friends. Without much coercion, they tag along with Steve and Jane on their mission to find the crashed shooting star and check out the old man’s house at the behest of Dr. Hallen. They find the remnants of the space rock but not much at the house and the boys ask Steve and Jane to join them at a spook movie, aka the midnight monster movie! Man, I wish that was a tradition I was able to partake of as a teenager. Midnight B-movies sound like a blast. I just love when a movie self-reflexively includes itself within the narrative. More than likely there were many people who watched The Blob at midnight screenings of monster movies back in 1958, themselves becoming a part of cinema history.

The film even returns to this location for the climax. The townsfolk finally believe Steve’s story when a horde of patrons come screaming out of the theater, but of course by then the monster has grown exponentially and we get the signature image of the mass oozing out of the projection booth after rendering the projectionist a late-night snack. The remake similarly includes a memorable scene of an attack in a movie theater, this time placing disaffected children in peril. Both scenes are stand-outs and I think most any horror film that includes a movie theater in the mayhem is a winner (see also: An American Werewolf in London).

The second filmic connection that cements the influence of this film within the subgenre is another B-movie gem from 1988 – the Chiodo Brothers’ Killer Klowns from Outer Space, a film I deeply adore. Its premise of extraterrestrial beings consuming a small town is potentially even more echoic of The Blob (’58) than The Blob (’88).

The introduction is almost identical to the 1958 film – two youngsters up at some variation of Make-Out Point see a shooting star crash in the near distance and go to investigate. Meanwhile an old man does his own probing of the site and finds himself being consumed, in a manner of speaking. The similarities extend even further, with the integration of the sympathetic cop, also named Dave, and the no-nonsense war veteran cop, Mooney, who despises the youth even more than his 1958 counterpart. The scenes between Dave and Mooney, specifically Mooney’s distaste for young punks, are nearly ripped from the pages of the The Blob‘s script. This later film is certainly more outlandish than its predecessor, but it’s unquestionably indebted to the groundwork laid by the original monster classics.

If there’s any knock on this film it’s that there aren’t enough scenes with the actual blob in it, something the remake gladly rectifies. Keeping the monster in the background until it’s necessary is a strategy better suited for a killer shark or an atomic lizard, and less so for a creeping glob of jelly. But for influence alone, The Blob is a classic of genre cinema. Not to mention turning Steve McQueen into a bona fide movie star, though it’s worth noting he was 28 years old at the time of filming and he was playing a high schooler. If that isn’t a true staple of horror cinema, I don’t know what is.

And I couldn’t possibly finish this off without mentioning the insanely catchy theme song – The Blob by The Five Blobs. If you’ve never heard it before, you can thank me later.

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