Friday, September 12, 2008

Beware! The Blob!

The only movie monster that really scared me as a kid was The Blob. The Wolf Man's ferocity was unsettling, and the Hammer horrors, with their more explicit violence, gave me goosebumps. But The Blob gave me the chills. Not at first; it took several viewings for the full scariness of The Blob to sink in. (Back then, movies like The Blob were in constant rotation on local TV stations, so you could see it over and over again, without resorting to a "playback medium" like a DVD.) But when it did, it latched onto my nightmares, hard. I fantasized that The Blob was under my bed, ready to pounce if I dared leave the safety of my blankets and pillows. It didn't even have to pounce; if I accidentally touched one little portion of it, that was it, I was gone, Blobbed forever, like the doctor and the nurse in the best scene in the picture.

When the doctor throws some acid at it, and it briefly glows green, then goes back to its normal pulsing state, you knew The Blob meant business, and you worried that there was no way to get rid of it. Sure, I knew that Steve McQueen figured out that freezing it was the answer, but how could I replicate that from my bed? Blasting the air con and tossing ice cubes at it were not options. Clearly I was toast. The bedroom Blob had me in its grasp.

By dawn, I had recovered my senses, not that it was so bad. There was an upside. It was deliciously thrilling, conjuring different scenarios as to how The Blob might eat me and my family, then go on to subsume the neighbors, the neighborhood, and my sworn pre-adolescent enemies. But no way did I look under my bed in the morning. Fantasy was one thing; I dared not tempt fate. Let The Blob ooze under my bed, disturbing only my sleep.

Today is the 50th anniversary of The Blob's release. The bringer of night terrors (and the pride of Phoenixville, PA) was loosed into unsuspecting theaters a half-century ago, and my parents, age 16 at that time, recall seeing it then. Every teen saw it then, it seems: Picked up by Paramount, the indie production was double-billed with another good shocker, I Married a Monster from Outer Space (like The Blob, a more sober picture than its title or reputation suggest), and grossed an astronomical $4 million on a budget of $120,000.

(More of which likely went into the weather balloon and colored silicone gel from which the title terror was constructed than into McQueen's pocket; unhappy with the assignment, he unwisely took a salary of about $2,500 instead of a percentage, which no doubt added to his distress at playing a teenage rebel without a cause at age 27. But the film, and his charisma--he and co-star Aneta Corseaut are charming together--landed him his star-making role on TV's Wanted: Dead or Alive. )

The Blob isn't camp. The wonderful title tune, by Burt Bacharach and four more of "The Five Blobs," is mordantly, rather than mockingly, amusing. Played over the squiggly line credits, it creates a delightful unease about what The Blob might be...and what a shock it is when early on it splays all over the hand of the old man who dislodged it from its meteor cradle. The secret to The Blob's success as a movie monster is that it's not a metaphor for anything; the pointy-heads might say that it stands in for rampant late 50's consumerism, but why it works is that it's completely inhuman and unreasonable. Hollywood might have insisted on more of a backstory or explanation; working far from LA, screenwriter Kay Linaker, who died earlier this year (and was the rare woman working in the genre) dispenses with all that. It gets you and you're gone, end of story. The teens save the day, and order is restored between the restless youths and the disbelieving small-town establishment, but the question mark that ends the movie confirms what we think: That ice, even Arctic ice, isn't much of a prison for The Blob. (With the onset of global warming, where would you safely stick it today?)

The Blob came back in 1972, in a comical film too lazy and drugged-out to be funny, Beware! The Blob!. The one and only film directed by Larry Hagman (and re-released as "The film J.R. shot!" a few years later), it's a purple haze of a sequel, with the likes of Godfrey Cambridge (who has brought it back from the Arctic), Shelley Berman (as a disapproving hair stylist, the only amusing-scary bit) and Burgess Meredith Blobbed as McQueen's love-beaded replacements (including Bud Cort, Cindy Williams, and Robert Walker, Jr.) run from the beast. The ice rink climax doesn't "gel" like the movie theater sequence in the original, which no doubt added some meta-fun for Mom and Dad. Nothing does, actually. TV ads made me want to see it but when it turned up on New York's Channel 9 a year or two later I was severely letdown. Even the jellied special effects weren't as good. The Blob deserved better.

And, in 1988, it got it. The Blob roared back from cold storage in a wonderfully malign, R-rated remake, with state-of-the-art effects that for the first time showed you what happened when you crossed its pissed-off path (it isn't pretty, as you can see). Released at summer's end the film flopped, and stars Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith, game replacements for McQueen and Corseaut, had to wait till the next century to find some measure of stardom, on Entourage and in the Saw pictures, respectively. But I loved it. Like the 1982 remake of The Thing, it goes its own way, without the crutch of excessive homage, and breaks some taboos: Kids (about the age I was when the original Blob scared me silly) are on the menu, the church isn't much of a pillar of the community, and the friendly cliche black scientist (Joe Seneca) sent to solve the crisis turns out to be a cold-hearted SOB covering his government-experiment-gone-wrong tracks.

There was talk of a Blob TV show, with a "good" Blob, and murmurings of another remake, which would bring the character into the CGI age (and I'd bet reboot it for environmentalism, yawn). But if nothing pans out, no sweat--two good Blobs, 30 years apart, is a satisfying critical mass.

And did I mention that the 1988 Blob also gave me nightmares? Different bed, same shakes...

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