Blobs, Demons, and Dark Stars: Remembering Jack H. Harris

Blobs, Demons, and Dark Stars: Remembering Jack H. Harris

When producer Jack H. Harris’s The Blob (1958) screened at a “movie night” for my junior high class in the 1980s, the loudest reaction came during its closing shot, when the customary “THE END” morphs into a question mark.

“That was my trademark,” said Harris on the commentary for the Criterion release of the film, and it was potent, at once teasing a sequel—which came in the form of 1972’s Beware! The Blob—and planting the notion that a giant, carnivorous Jell-O shot might be right behind you. Moreover, it was a deft sleight of hand by a master showman, putting his audience on notice that he’d be back to scare them out of another movie ticket.

Harris, who died last month at the age of ninety-eight (ninety-eight!), began his showbiz career as a child performer in vaudeville and appeared in a two-reel Our Gang knockoff. In the late 1930s, he parlayed a teenage gig as a cinema usher into the profitable management of motion picture exhibition and promotion. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, the ambitious impresario returned to his native Philadelphia and moved into film distribution. A chance viewing of The Thing from Another World (1951) inspired him with the idea for a sci-fi story that would evolve into The Blob.

I was well aware of Jack’s films before that junior high screening, having read about them in publisher James Warren’s seminal Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Founded in 1958, the photo-filled periodical was on its last legs by the eighties, when Warren and editor Forry Ackerman struggled to sell classic creature features in a new world of chainsaw gods and knife-wielding monsters.

Harris’s career traversed two generations of twentieth-century fright flicks and directly influenced the cinematic landscape of today. Following his smash success with The Blob (the $240,000 production earned $4 million in 1958 alone), he unleashed a horde of sci-fi/horror programmers in the late fifties and sixties. If intriguing efforts like 4D Man (1959) and Dinosaurus! (1960) banked largely on older genre conceits, Harris’s release of the 1965 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation Master of Horror—dubbed and recut from the 1959 Argentine TV series Obras maestras del terror—signaled a new frontier for the producer.

Producer Jack H. Harris (center) on the set of The Blob with director Irvin S. “Shorty” Yeaworth Jr. (left)

In the seventies, Jack made the Master of Horror brand of creative recycling his specialty: purchasing, revising, and packaging unreleased features by promising young moviemakers. His acquisitions included future Animal House director John Landis’s ape-on-the-loose comedy Schlock (1973) and the “hippies in space” sci-fi satire Dark Star (1974), made by USC film students John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon. Within the following few years, Carpenter would direct his game-changing Halloween (1978), while O’Bannon developed a script with Ron Shusett that became Alien (1979).

“I consider it great kismet and a great pleasure of mine to have been able to cross paths with some very talented filmmakers at the beginning of their careers,” Harris wrote in his 2015 autobiography, Father of the Blob. “Hopefully, I gave them the sort of assistance or wisdom that I might not have had access to when I was starting out. When I look at their successes, and their excellent films, I can only hope that I had some humble, positive influence or effect on this creative Hollywood lineage and the wonderful tradition of cinema.”

“The impact of Harris’s fleet of  rebel films is ongoing.”

If some of those fledgling filmmakers disagreed with Harris’s executive decisions—Carpenter and O’Bannon were notably unhappy with the expanded scenes shot for Dark Star’s theatrical version—Jack nonetheless shepherded their work into worldwide release and history.

“I’m just glad that Jack was there to buy it,” says Dennis Muren of his rookie film, Equinox (1970), “and that it wasn’t left just sitting on a shelf somewhere.” Post-Equinox, Muren has collected nine Academy Awards for films like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Jurassic Park (1993).

The impact of Harris’s fleet of rebel films is ongoing. Doug Naylor, for example, has cited Dark Star as an inspiration for the Red Dwarf franchise he created with Rob Grant, and a new Blob, starring Samuel L. Jackson, has been announced (the film was previously remade in 1988). Innovative comic book artist, writer, and publisher Stephen R. Bissette (Saga of the Swamp Thing, Tyrant) found resonance in Jack’s oeuvre.

“There was a distinctive feeling and flavor to Harris’s releases,” says Bissette. “He was essential to the 1960s and early 1970s genre scene, and a vital force, however modest his means and reach. Harris’s films surely touched my creative path. Dinosaurus! alone (along with the Dell Movie Classic comics version, illustrated by the great Jesse Marsh) had me drawing those two dinosaurs in battle time and time again. After Dinosaurus!, it was probably Equinox that inspired sketching in my sketchbook. I loved those monster designs.”

Equinox was it for me, too.

Originating as an amateur effort called The Equinox: A Journey into the Supernatural(1967), the film boasts a Ray Harryhausen–style battle between teenagers and stop-motion demons for the possession of a magic book. Muren produced, and codirected with Mark Thomas McGee, the seventy-one-minute adventure for only $6,500. Harris liked the film’s “kids vs. monsters” scenario, which had echoes of The Blob, and bought the effects-laden film. He then hired John Cassavetes’s post-production editor, Jack Woods, to shoot new scenes and recut the picture. The expanded feature, with a truncated title, was another winner for Harris, who branded his famous question mark onto the film’s eerie conclusion.

My first glimpse of Equinox was a black-and-white still of stop-motion animator David Allen’s bat-winged demon, published in Famous Monsters. As a young fan of stop-motion, I just had to see the film. But how? I never seemed to catch it in the TV Guide listings, and though it received a home video release in the eighties, I couldn’t find a copy to save my life. Fortunately, the ever-shrewd Harris had struck a deal with home movie distributor Ken Films of New Jersey, and a thirteen-minute Super 8 digest of Equinox was just a mail order (and a month or two of allowance cash) away. With my family’s old Super 8 projector plugged in, Allen’s demon finally took flight.

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