03rd Dec2018

‘The Blob’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Stephen Chase, John Benson, Olin Howland | Written by Theodore Simonson, Kay Linaker | Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr

the-blob-blu-cover

Alongside The Fly and The Thing, Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob was the third in the Holy Trinity of 1980s cover versions of 1950s sci-fi horror. Like David Cronenberg’s and John Carpenter’s films, it improved upon the original work in virtually every way.

If you’re familiar with the Frank Darabont-scripted schlocker, you’ll be aware from the first note of the ridiculously jaunty “Beware of the Blob” theme song (thank you, Burt Bacharach) that we are dealing with a very different amorphous beast with this, the 1958 original.

I’m a sucker for movies set over a single night, as well as small town settings, and here we have both. It’s Pennsylvania, and Steve (Steve McQueen) is at a kissing spot with his beau Jane (Aneta Corsaut). (He brings a lot of girls up here, and this is the only real evidence that he’s a cad.) A meteorite lands. An elderly local (Olin Howland) goes to investigate, and he finds some kind of an egg. The Blob is inside! It swiftly attaches itself to him. Steve and Jane take him to the doc’s house.

En route, Steve bumps into a gang of unruly teens. They race their cars. When they’re caught by the cops, the experience brings them closer together. But it doesn’t bring the cops any closer to the kids. So, when Steve sees the doc being absorbed by the ravenous Blob, the authorities don’t believe him. In fact, the cops suspect the kids of burglary. Steve knows what he saw, but the Blob tends to swallow up all evidence of its rampage. Can he and his newfound buddies warn the town before the ever-growing lichen consumes them all?

This was McQueen’s debut feature, and I’m fascinated by his miscasting. The esteemed man of cool – who always looked more grizzled than his years anyway – is 28 here, playing a teenager. It’s a strange and somewhat (understandably) nervy performance, which isn’t helped by the mildness of his character. Far from the tearaway Kevin Dillon would portray, the worst Steve dares to do is sneak out of his parents’ house after dark.

If Steve is bland, Jane is a walking cliché. She embodies a double whammy of sci-fi horror tropes: going limp in the face of danger and then becoming delirious. Instead, the most interesting performances come from the obscure supporting cast: Elinor Hammer, for example, having a ball as the fusspot housemaid who insists on “dusting around the prints” at a crime scene; and Earl Howe as Lieutenant Dave, a sceptical detective who wants to believe the monster stories but is shackled by a need to do things by the book. This was Hammer’s only screen credit and Howe wouldn’t act again until the 1970s.

The Blob’s greatest flaw is that it’s cripplingly talky. There’s more discussion about what characters have seen or done than actually showing them doing it. In the final reel the film twitches into life, as the teens tour the town, trying to drum up communal interest in the unseen thing from another world. It’s an amusing montage.

Of course, the teens’ reputation – and the locals’ prejudices – precede them, so they are not believed. It’s a typical theme of a decade defined by James Dean: adults in positions of power disapproving of young people. Ultimately this film, which has overtones of postwar youth frustration, is concerned with how a community can come together to overcome an amorphous threat (we might as well call it communism); something which cannot be killed, merely frozen, out of sight but in mind.

Yeaworth’s framing and blocking is fairly standard and stagey, but the lighting is excellent and the colours are bold and popping. The special effects, which are sadly too spare, were achieved through the use of forced perspectives and miniatures based on real-world locations, and they hold up. There is one genuinely intense setpiece where the Blob attacks a packed cinema. But it’s too little, too late.

Without McQueen, I wonder if The Blob would be remembered at all. It’s a neat idea with a pleasingly otherworldly nemesis (sci-fi films around that time tended to dress humans up in silver foil and call them aliens), and it’s marginally better made than many B-movies of the period. But a verbose script, an evasive monster, and some awkward performances drag it down.

Extras:

  • Two audio commentaries: producer Jack H. Harris and film historian Bruce Eder, and director Yeaworth and actor Robert Fields
  • Slideshow tour of props and locations, collected by local fan Wes Shank. Includes a selection of international posters.
  • Trailer

The Blob is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, 3rd December 2018.

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