The Thin Blue Line: A Radical Classic By Charles Musser
Inside the Pink Stable By Chuck Stephens
The Blob is somehow perfect—as a movie, and as a monster.
This well-paced, serious 1958 science fiction horror film, featuring one of the simplest yet most effective aliens in cinema, arrived at a time when monsters from outer space were firmly established in the movies. (The high seriousness of early fifties major studio productions like Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World and Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still had given way to scurrilous, half-in-jest Poverty Row monster quickies like Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World and Edward L. Cahn’s Invasion of the Saucer Men.) But in many ways, The Blob was atypical for its era. It was made in lurid color, the better to show off the rich red of the gelatinous creature, at a time when most efforts at its budget level were in grayish black and white. It top-lines an authentic star of the future in “Steven” McQueen, exuding a teen-rebel cool (at twenty-eight) that aligns the film with the wild youth concerns of the decade and sets it on the side of the kids in the audience, who had endured years of studio monster pictures in which square, pipe-smoking elder cops, docs, and military men represented the prevailing wisdom and teenagers, if present at all, just got in the way. And it was filmed in Pennsylvania, far from the Coast, by a group who’d built a studio to make inspirational religious films but were persuaded by the canny producer Jack H. Harris to start off with an unashamedly commercial project. When you know that, you can even detect a sincerity and bedrock decency underlying the endeavor that sets it apart from the hipper, snarkier, more casual approach of the cool kids over at American International Pictures. This pays off, in that the film is fun but also takes the pain of its characters seriously. It’s even frightening, which was all too rarely true of 1950s creature features.
A final unique element is the Burt Bacharach–Mack David title song. In retrospect, informed by The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Purple People Eater (1988), we tend to think that all 1950s monster movies had novelty record tie-ins, but this wittily silly ditty (“It creeps and leaps and glides and slides . . . A splotch, a blotch”) was actually a first. Only a few later films—Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), The Lost Continent (1968), and The Green Slime (1968)—followed suit and tried to wring out a pop-hit title song. Those films, and others starting as early as Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)—which also features teenage protagonists at odds with grown-up authorities—dilute terror with parody, but once the song is out of the way and the somehow comical title absorbed, The Blob plays out dead straight. McQueen is almost existentially earnest as the decent, charismatic teen whose story of an impending monster invasion isn’t believed. Boy-who-cried-wolf stories like The Window (1949) were commonplace in the period, and the dreamlike Invaders from Mars (1953) had already melded the premise with science fiction, but the protagonists were usually children. Here, the film plays to the frustrations of the teenagers who it assumes constitute the audience. The monsters are coming, and the grown-ups—the squares, the old people, the teachers—just won’t listen!
Scripted as The Molten Meteor, which groups it with such tales of runaway mineral menaces as The Magnetic Monster (1953) and The Monolith Monsters (1957), the film benefited from the retitling. “The Blob” sounds archly absurd, yet without the hyperbole of The Monster That Challenged the World or Attack of the Crab Monsters (both 1957), and perfectly describes its villain—a mass of ooze from outer space that absorbs every living thing it comes into contact with. No one wonders whether the blob is animal, vegetable, or mineral, and it’s up to the viewer to decide whether the alien has a malign purpose or is just a natural threat like the weather. There had been blobs before in popular culture: the muck creature in Theodore Sturgeon’s story “It,” the Chicken Heart from radio’s Lights Out show, and the comic-book character the Heap (a forerunner of Swamp Thing), while the infected astronaut of Britain’s television series The Quatermass Experiment (1953) is in the process of devolving into such an all-devouring organism. As The Blob was in the works, similar menaces were starring in films in the UK (X the Unknown), Japan (The H-Man), and Italy (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster). However, after The Blob, these kinds of creatures mostly dropped off the radar—films ranging from The Creeping Terror (1964) to Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) mimic the structure of The Blob, as well as such conventions as the old alcoholic derelict who’s the first victim of the monster and the hard-ass cop who makes life difficult for the heroes, but their creatures are different.
Even Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake of The Blob and the 1950s monster rally homage Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) don’t really feature the classic, simple version of the blob (though Larry Hagman’s witty 1972 sequel, Beware! The Blob, does). These latter-day blob movies try to give the creature internal organs and a personality, which is all well and good but somehow beside the point. The blob isn’t a character—it’s a blob. Viscid, formless, translucent, and cherry red. The makers of the 1988 Blob, working in an era when rubber change-o effects were king, gave their creature elaborate, tentacular appendages and deadly mouths. It’s a good job, but it’s like a lot of other monsters (it’s especially like the one in 1982’s The Thing), whereas the original unadorned mass of rolling goo is somehow more powerful and remains uniquely pleasing. The key to the trickery was gravity, with the clever manipulation of models and camera placement using the laws of nature to make the blob seem to roll and ooze. It’s a fascinating, childish effect, and far more successful as an illusion than the giant Gila monsters or revived dinosaurs of other movies.
Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. (1926–2004) was a professional filmmaker, but his background was in religious films—he worked with Billy Graham for a time—that were distributed by church groups rather than through the picture-house circuit. After the success of The Blob, Harris and Yeaworth made a couple of other odd, interesting science fiction films—4D Man (1959) and Dinosaurus! (1960)—but this was just a blip in the director’s real career. Though the idea for The Blob is credited to Irvine H. Millgate and the script was cowritten by Theodore Simonson, the primary writer on the film was Kate Phillips, who had enjoyed a long career as an actress, billed as Kay Linaker, mostly in B pictures like the Charlie Chan series, with the odd bit in such A features as Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Blood and Sand (1941). She takes stock characters and writes them with a level of conviction unusual in the genre at the time. The prime mover of the project was Harris, who would later show a knack for picking up, completing, and distributing semi-amateur films by promising talent: Jack Woods’s Equinox (1970), with effects work by such key figures as Jim Danforth and the legendary Dennis Muren; John Landis’s Schlock (1973), which features Rick Baker’s first ape suit; and John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star (1974).
It’s a singular coincidence that Harris sought and found backing for a science fiction horror film from a religious group just as Edward D. Wood Jr. did for Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Evidently, science fiction and horror were slipping from the regular Hollywood schedules, even along Poverty Row, and filmmakers from outside the mainstream were taking up the slack. In this, The Blob was the forerunner of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which abandoned Los Angeles, despite its easy access to the prime SF location Bronson Canyon, in favor of odd pockets of heartland desperation. When the blob invades a cinema in the climax—paralleling an attack in William Castle’s The Tingler (1959)—it’s serving notice that while the movies might be changing, the amorphous monsters will no more be shut out of cinemas than the necking, seat-staining, upholstery-tearing teenagers who love them.
A final chill, unintended by the makers, comes in the ending—as the frozen blob is deposited in the Arctic, where it will be harmlessly inert for all time. Though Steve, skeptical and prescient, comments, “Yeah, as long as the Arctic stays cold, huh?” The end?
Kim Newman is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster. His books include the Anno Dracula series and Nightmare Movies. He is a contributing editor to Sight & Sound and Empire magazines and writes for Video Watchdog.