• The Blob

    By Bruce Kawin

    The horror and science fiction films of the 1950s were always in search of new monsters. A teenage werewolf was a compromise, targeting the new audience with a variation on an old idea. The original creations made their pictures unforgettable: Invaders from Mars (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), This Island Earth (1955), The Fly (1958).

    Unlike most monsters of the period, the Blob has no humanoid element. It has a will—to consume flesh—and it moves in search of victims; that is what passes for the Blob’s character, and the simplicity of the concept makes the Blob an especially formidable and memorable Thing. It came from the stars. It dissolves flesh on contact. As it absorbs people, it gets bigger and turns red with their blood. It can flow under or around any obstacle. It can’t be killed. It is a monster of appetite: an absolute consumer, voracious, growing. And it hates cold.

    But despite the Blob’s singular nature, there is as at least one cinematic rule it does obey: that of the First Victim. The First Victim is a standard figure in many genres, including the thriller, science fiction, and horror. If there is a deadly threat, this person is the first to know—too much—about it. A bit like Eva and Pandora, the First Victim ventures, intentionally or not, into dangerous territory and is punished forever. He or she knows—and often is used as a vehicle to show—that a killer is loose or the ancient curse still works or the funny-looking plant eats people.

    In The Blob elderly First Victim Olin Howlin finds a meteorite and prods it with a stick. It cracks open, revealing a sphere of goop. He gets the glob on his stick and watches it drip like mucous in the starlight. When the stuff gets too close, he turns the stick over, but instead of dripping back down it lunges up and surrounds his hand. That’s when he and we discover that the Blob is alive and hostile. Howlin is so effective at conveying the pain in his hand that we are allowed to imagine the pain of being engulfed entirely. His death prefigures all the others, and it is his curiosity about nature—trusting to gravity, and with it the known world—that reveals the unnatural thing from a world unknown.

    From the old man to the nurse, the doctor, the mechanic…victim by victim, the picture builds to the midnight spook show. When the Blob has seeped into the projection booth and killed the projectionist, the reel runs out and the audience gets restless, wants more. Then a real horror comes through the windows of the booth: not a beam of shadowy light but an amorphous monster. Surely the audience that saw this in a theater felt an extra twinge of danger during this reflexive sequence.

    They may also have felt threatened as consumers, not just as moviegoers, as they watched the hungry mass—comparable to if not incarnating the growing consumerism of 1950s America—devour their kind. If they had forgotten the War and wanted to live in a world of play, their complacent desire to stuff themselves with goods and good times had shown itself to be a monster. No wonder the Blob moves through an empty market and settles on a diner where no food is sold; the humans have had their fill. The kids know what’s wrong, but only the best of the adults will listen to them; the rest get the idea only when the problem is impossible to ignore, big as a house and gorging its way through downtown.

    As far from Hollywood as this independent production was made, its creators certainly were aware of Hollywood conventions, knew how to construct a star vehicle for Steve McQueen, and had seen Rebel Without a Cause (1955), another film in which something is wrong in town. If Rebel had been a horror movie, the monsters would have been the parents. While it is possible that the many echoes of Rebel were meant simply to link McQueen’s “Steve” with James Dean’s “Jim,” they complement the earlier movie rather than rip it off. Unlike Jim’s weak father, Steve’s dad stands up for him from the start. In both pictures, the central couple takes care of a vulnerable youth (in Rebel, Sal Mineo’s Plato; in The Blob, Jane’s obnoxious brother), and by the end it’s clear that the lovers, who have the makings of good parents, will stick together. Like a courtroom drama or a war movie, a horror picture offers an occasion to take stock of a culture, to identify and purge what threatens it—call it a monster, call it a social trend. Both The Blob and Rebel warn parents to listen to their upset, honest kids because the world they understood and controlled is over. Neither picture foresaw that the under-twelve audience would grow into a generation of protesters.

    Fighting the monster unifies the community in The Blob and validates the teenagers as well as the authority figures who paid attention. At the end of Rebel, the authorities kill Plato. Neither the Blob—which may be the only 1950s monster that could not be destroyed—nor the messed-up state of the American family can be dealt with just like that. Realizing they have a problem may help the people in Rebel communicate better, but no one can say for how long.

    As long as the Arctic stays cold?

    The Blob had a famously open, question-mark ending: the Blob could thaw if the North Pole did. Like the old man who found he could not trust gravity to keep the Blob away from his hand, the surviving characters’ trust in the natural world has been disturbed. Not everything is back to what Steve calls “good old yesterday.”

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