Chuck Russell gives us a practical effects upgrade of 1958’s Cold War classic
The word ‘remake’ usually sets people’s teeth on edge these days, but for a while, back in the 70s and 80s, there had been enough of an advancement in cinema that the concept of established classics getting remade sounded like a promising idea. Compared to the 40s and 50s, cinema had significantly moved forward, not least in two important ways – the loosening of censorship post-Hays Code, and the staggering developments made in the field of special effects. This meant that there needn’t be any holding back in the terror (although it’s perfectly valid to prefer the earlier method of less rather than more, which is why, even today, 1942’s awesomely suggestive Cat People is still rated a notch above the all-out 1982 remake) and the ability to create otherworldly, unnatural, ghastly monsters were more achievable than ever. This is why, compared to so many of today’s equivalents, where the common pejorative that’s thrown around is ‘pointless’, the 70s/80s run of remakes still stand proud as their own thing. The difference between 50s and 80s cinema is enormous, whereas the difference between 80s and today’s cinema is far leaner, at least in regards to the two ways I’ve mentioned.
There are many examples of much-loved horror and SF remakes from around the 70s and 80s – Philip Kaufman’s intelligent, scary 1978 take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, David Cronenberg’s powerful, gruesome The Fly (1986) and of course, John Carpenter’s extraordinary, no-holds-barred The Thing in 1982, although lest we forget, in addition to merely moderate box office returns, the latter was absolutely eviscerated by critics at the time for being a sacrilegious, unnecessarily graphic desecration of the original 1951 The Thing From Another World. Alongside new versions of Invaders from Mars and Little Shop of Horrors, we also had films like 1987‘s Innerspace, which might not have been a literal remake of 1966’s Fantastic Voyage, but took the miniaturised explorer inside a human body concept and brought it bang up to date with incredible, Oscar-winning visual effects and a whole lot of contemporary charm.
Coming near the end of the decade after all of these films was Chuck Russell’s awesomely entertaining remake of the 1958 monster movie The Blob. Because the original was and still is often dismissed as a cheap slice of B-movie schlock, there were few accusations of sacrilege this time. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s a superior version. Indeed, it’s hard to fault a film with this much gleeful melding of old-fashioned genre entertainment and, at the time, very spectacular, very contemporary thrills. The original, which was quite the box office success in its day, was notable for an early performance from Steve McQueen in the lead, playing a teen at the tender age of 28. Telling the tale of a town under attack from an extra-terrestrial amorphous mass of goo that lands on Earth with a penchant to devour its victims entirely, it’s an iconic period piece that, from the teenage kicks of its hot-rodding adolescents, its über-camp theme tune (‘Beware the Blob’, co-written by Burt Bacharach!) and drive-in-movie charm, is all the more enjoyable for being so very much of its time.
However, as an exercise in horror, the original Blob is pretty dated. An uneventful plot, an often harmful lack of forward momentum and, somewhat unsurprisingly, rather old-fashioned (if fun) special effects add up these days to a quaint viewing experience. A belated, clunky follow-up, Beware! The Blob (aka Son of Blob) arrived in 1972, and was the one and only film to be directed by Dallas‘ Larry Hagman (resulting in a later re-release boasting the ingenious tagline “The Movie That J.R. Shot”) – this was a lot more comedic and self-reflexive (one character is even seen watching the original Blob on television) but a seemingly endless roster of tiresome supporting characters ad-libbing their way through a film without an apparent script resulted in a slog of a sequel that only had very slightly improved special effects and marginally more blob for your buck to recommend it.
Dr. Meddows: Let Me tell you a story. Dinosaurs ruled our planet for millions of years and yet they died out almost over night. Why? The evidence suggests that a meteor fell to Earth carrying an alien bacteria.
Meg Penny: Plague? Is that what this whole thing is about?
Dr. Meddows: Prevention!
Brian Flagg: And you think that this meteor brought some kind of killer germ?
Dr. Meddows: It’s something I’ve expected and prepared for all my life!
Brian Flagg: Your meteor brought something all right but if it’s a germ, it’s the biggest son of a bitch you’ve ever seen!
By the time of the mid-to-late 80s horror and science-fiction had moved a hell of a long way, and had also become more commercially viable than ever, with franchises born and phenomenons emerging. Following the success (either commercially or on a cult level) of past examples like the ones I’ve already mentioned, the idea of an up-to-date Blob was inevitable. The SFX and make-up scenes had finally reached the level where a seriously fearsome blob was now possible, and boy did it deliver the goods. The film itself turned out to be a real Friday-night-at-the-movies crowd-pleaser of a movie, even if the crowds never ended up paying money to see it. Compared to the nihilistic The Thing and the unbearably tragic The Fly, The Blob, for all its graphic, ’18’-rated terrors, is clearly made with an intention to purely entertain, even it does end on an unsettling, ‘the world may be fucked’ coda just like The Thing.
This was director Chuck Russell’s second film, hot on the heels of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3: Dream Warriors, a mightily effective balancing act between the straight-up terror of the first two films and the more humorous streak that would arguably derail the series artistically (if not commercially) down the line. Like Dream Warriors, The Blob would also be co-written by Frank Darabont, who would soon attain spectacular success with The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist. It’s certainly a film that’s just as happy to play on tropes of the 80’s just as much as the 50’s. The Thing, Aliens, Predator are just three examples that come to mind when thinking of similar films from around this time, and as such, The Blob has a reassuring, comfortable scariness to it.
It begins beautifully. After the expected opening shots in outer space, we fade to the tourist town of Arborville, California, which is strangely, eerily desolate, apart from a single cat. All we hear are the sounds of autumn leaves and Michael Hoenig’s ominous score. Where has everybody gone? If the Blob were to show up here it would surely be left wanting by the lack of grub. Amusingly, the last shot of this credit sequence montage is a cemetery, which seems to suggest the worst, but it turns out that it’s right next to the football pitch where it seems everybody is enjoying the home team run away with the game, with fresh-faced star player Paul Taylor (Donovan Leitch) suffering one hell of a smackdown at the hands of the opposition but managing to score a date with lovely cheerleader Meg Penny (Shawnee Smith) as compensation.
Wait, did I say everybody was at the game? Well, not quite. Down near the woods, there’s rebellious, beer-swilling, cigarette smoking teen Brian Flagg (Kevin Dillon), a boy whose best friend is his bike (he can’t quite seem to pull off that jump over the ravine though) and who has no truck with authority or anyone it seems, especially the wealthier likes of Paul and Meg. Also present to watch Flagg spectacularly fail at bike stunts is ‘The Can Man’, a kind, homeless old guy who ends up being the first eyewitness to the arrival of the dreaded meteor that crashes in the woods, a meteor that hosts a blob-like organism that, just like in the original, doesn’t take kindly to being poked with a stick, attaching itself to the poor man’s hand. Of course, this being the gorier Eighties, we later get an utterly wince-inducing moment where he starts hacking at his wrist with an axe to try and get rid of the blob, only for it to move further up his forearm to maintain its acidic grip.
Over a single night, the blob will end up attempting to devour the kind of cutesy small town that fans of Spielberg’s Amblin films will be pleasantly reminded of: Arborville is presently hard-up, struggling to pay the rent at a time where it hasn’t snowed much in years. Not good for a tourist town dependent on visiting skiers. The townsfolk are the regulars – football stars, cheerleaders, rebels, kindly mothers, grumpy fathers, cheery priests, pushy cops, bratty kids who want to sneak into the latest horror movie, etc. Just like in the original, no one takes the kids seriously with their tales of monsters, and just like in the more contemporary A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of them is even dismissed with the unwelcome suggestion of sleep to get over it. On the lighter side, there are all-too human early scenes involving panic over buying condoms (later on we get the best delivery of the word ‘ribbed’ in cinema history) and what looks set to be the awkward, sweet beginnings of a romance between Sheriff Herb Geller (Jeffrey DeMunn) and diner owner Fran (Candy Clark).
It’s a warm, familiar roster of characters, and so it’s all the more shocking when the writers decide to kill some of them off, and when you least expect it too. This Blob sure ain’t picky, and even a bit sadistic. Having handsome, wholesome Paul, a lead in any other film, as the film’s second victim is a terrifically unexpected move – I remember watching The Blob as a child on television and, well….I did not expect that. It gave the film a thrillingly unsafe frisson that kept me totally on edge. Hands up anyone who thought there might have been some kind of love triangle plot between him, Meg and Flagg? Yeah, well put your hand back down. Speaking of hands, that’s all that’s left of poor Paul when Meg tries to prise him free of the blob in a truly horrific death scene.
Just as shocking is the brutal end to what could have been a beautiful relationship when Fran, desperately trying to call Sheriff Geller for help in an increasingly blob-consumed alleyway phone booth, turns around to see the half-digested face of her would-be saviour within the pink slime outside, and what’s worse, he’s seemingly still alive, if that moving eye is anything to go by. By not having us see Geller initially attacked beforehand makes this reveal an absolute classic shock moment in horror cinema. Then, just as brutally, Fran herself is killed when the Blob breaks through the glass of the phone booth from all sides, a demise captured in an astonishing overhead shot that I’m sure had many people rewinding to try and figure out what kind of fucked-up mess they just saw. What is it with Chuck Russell and killing off some of his most sympathetic characters in alleyways? He did the same damn thing to Jennifer Rubin’s doomed Taryn in Dream Warriors!
Probably even most shocking of all is the dispatching of a child. Meg’s younger brother Kevin and his best friend Eddie barely escape with Meg from a blobbed cinema into the sewers and through a labyrinth of spooky subterranean chambers and cavernous pools of water. Eyeing an escape route, the three of them almost make it when Eddie is yanked back into the sewage – cue what surely is the inevitable rescue as Meg dives underwater to get him back, and yes, he does come back, but only as a half-melted nightmare vision with his arms helplessly outstretched for a brief moment before he’s dragged back down again forever. That’s right, they just killed a kid in this film, which puts The Blob in the mean sub-genre of monster movies like Alligator (remember the pool scene?) that simply doesn’t give a shit about the rules. In fact, aside from Paul’s sleazoid, Quagmire-in-waiting buddy Scott, who stores a mini-bar in the boot of his car and tries to cop a feel of his unconscious girlfriend, or the dickhead in the cinema who commits not one but two cardinal cine-sins by talking out loud and spoiling the plot, these are sympathetic victims. Their deaths sting. Actually, given that this incarnation of the blob seems to have acidic qualities (check how its tentacles singe Meg’s hair as it tries to catch her), these deaths burn too.
The added twist to this particular Blob is that the supposed saviours – a team of military scientists investigating the crisis – are revealed to be the monster’s creators, having experimented with a virus decades earlier and sent it out of the way into space only for it to come back to Earth in mutated form. Their leader, Dr. Meddows (Jon Seneca), is hoping to contain the threat, treating the residents of Arborville as necessary collateral damage. For a moment I thought Meddows might had something approaching a tormented conscience when he says that their probable deaths are his ‘cross to bear’, and yet there’s still something unforgivably cruel when he refers to our heroes as ‘expendable’. Needless to say, he gets what he deserves when the Blob works its way into his chemical suit and consumes him near the end.
Like both Blobs before it, the only thing that can stop it in its tracks is the cold, and luckily that liquid-nitrogen stacked snow maker we saw in the garage early on in the film is driven into town and detonated to kingdom come, freezing the blob into temporary stasis, where it is presumably shipped somewhere far away, maybe the Arctic like at the end of the original. Yet just like the original and its sequel, we end on a cliffhanger, with newly-deranged priest Reverend Meeker (Del Close), convinced that the attack on Arborville was divine justice and now prophesying judgment day to a tent of believers, cradles a small jar of defrosted blob backstage, seemingly awaiting a sign from up above to unleash it onto the world. It’s a pretty chilling coda, and wisely Russell resists paying homage to his predecessors by slapping a ‘The End?’ caption on screen.
With its $10 million budget, Russell spares no expense. It looks good (the night photography is particularly impressive) and there are even some subtle foreshadowing of the terror to come with the innocuous use of pink in the early scenes (Meg’s bedsheets, the light reflecting off the blinds in Penny’s kitchen, the curtains in the diner kitchen). The deaths are seriously grisly – think of that poor sap who finds out the hard – and narrow- way why the plunger won’t unblock that kitchen sink, or one guy who’s literally folded in half. The big set-pieces are spectacular, especially the cinema attack which pays homage to the original with its patrons running screaming out of the foyer, yet unlike back in ’58, this shows us much more than just the projectionist getting killed. This time we see a the Blob wreak havoc behind closed doors, turning the cinema screen pink and fucking with the lighting so much that the auditorium becomes a flickering, strobe-lit nightmare.
Of course, the SFX are amazing. The spectacle of practical effects were already at their zenith – whereas the original Thing was simply a man in a suit, in 1982 it became unspeakably horrifying, a nightmarish shape-shifter that could become anything – the only limit was SFX designer Rob Bottin’s imagination. Likewise in The Fly, the melding of human and insect no longer needed to be simply a case of switching heads (and an arm) – now Chris Walas could create a ghastly synthesis of Jeff Goldblum’s and some of the most extraordinarily unpleasant make-up ever put to face and body, effortlessly mutating over the course of the film so that when we end up with an entirely prosthetic monster, it felt utterly, disgustingly convincing. Riding on the popularity of these existing successes, the new Blob is genuinely monstrous – compared to the ketchup splat of the original and the coyly filmed mass of the sequel, here we have a grotesque vision that’s laid bare for all to see with a tentacle-driven reach and who will happily cocoon your screaming body for a while before it kills you, and while it’s indebted to Bottin’s Thing now and then, it’s still got enough personality and malevolence to stand proud on its own.
Unlike the ’58 version, which became a Technicolor mass of red, this Blob maintains its translucent, pinkish hue right to the end – maybe it was all the better to contrast the gore with, maybe because it just looked so goddamn cool, almost like it was neon, and hey this was the decade of neon. Okay, there’s a few obvious blue-screen shots, and the bigger the blob gets, the more it resembles the slightly artificial monster movies of yore, but for the most part the FX work is fearsome and even genuinely horrific – the reveal of The Can Man’s melted lower-half is spectacularly gross, and imagery like Scott’s girlfriend (Baywatch’s Erika Eleniak in an early role)’s face caving in on itself as she-as-Blob kills him, or Meg turning over the body of a cinema patron to reveal half of her face as a grotesque gooey smear, are seriously nightmarish.
There are some neat editing tricks too, like when Flagg’s attempt to bike over the ravine is intercut with the cheers and hollers of the crowd watching the football game at the same time, or when we jump from The Can Man’s hand being covered in goo to a child slurping up jelly from a plate. I love one of the final shots, where the frozen, crystal field of shattered fragments that the Blob has become then fades beautifully to the wheat field where Reverend Meeker is performing his sermon. There’s clever foreshadowing too – Kevin’s coat suffering from a problematic zip which ends up nearly killing him later, the town’s need for snowfall unwittingly doubling up as a need for cold, or sly lines of dialogue when a humiliated Paul promises to Meg that ‘Scott Jeskey is going to die’. He doesn’t realise how right he is.
Brian Flagg: Listen to me, Briggs, think for a minute, do you suppose an army of guys in plastic suits show up every time a meteor falls?
Dr. Meddows: [about Brian] Shoot him, that’s a direct order!
Brian Flagg: How do you think they got here so fast? How did they even know when to come?
Dr. Meddows: Shoot dammit shoot!
Brian Flagg: I’ll tell ya how! That meteor is man-made! It’s some kind of a germ warfare test they fucked up!
The cast is fun and likeable. Poor Leitch (son of 60’s psychedelic troubadour Donovan) is great… right up until his early demise. The best performance comes from Smith, who gets to do the most here, starting off sweet and caring and ending up as a post-Ripley, all-guns-blazing avenging angel, shooting the shit out of the Blob and calling it a ‘son of a bitch’ with furious abandon. Dillon makes for a sympathetic rebel who overcomes his spite over a town that left him behind (there’s no mention of his parents) and who learns that caring is the best policy, even leaving his bike behind at one crucial point. Although it’s also fun to see him piss off authority, especially when he licks Paul McCrane’s wound-up deputy right on the face! Clark is warm and friendly as Fran: who knows, if she hadn’t let Flagg stay in for a sandwich after closing hours she might have made it a bit longer through the film. As for the gently authoritative DeMunn, well as a cop he might have made it alive by the end of The Hitcher, but his unlucky sheriff has no luck here. There are also small appearances from David Lynch regular Jack Nance as a doctor, The Lost Boys‘ Frog brother Jamison Newlander as a cinema usher and Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2‘s Chop-Top himself, Bill Moseley, as one of Meddows’ crew. Del Close, who appeared in Beware! The Blob as a one-eyed drunk, makes for the film’s hidden-in-plain-sight warning sign as Meeker, starting off jocular and friendly, but by the end one-eyed once more (after being caught in a flamethrower’s path) and now waiting for/ready to unleash Armageddon.
Adding to the fun factor is the nice but never distracting presence of humour throughout – the laughs and the frights are well balanced and administered, including a really nice bit where Flagg gets a laugh out of the grieving Meg in the diner, and there’s even a few amusing digs at the already-dying slasher genre with the fictional, ‘basic slice-and-dice’ fodder of Garden Tool Massacre playing at the local cinema (‘I thought hockey season had finished…’ wonders one half of a canoodling couple when they catch a Jason-clone spying on them with a chainsaw), and even a wry dig at the odd standards over what’s considered palatable and what’s not in modern entertainment when Kevin reassures his mom that ‘there’s no sex or anything bad’ in the picture!
Yet unlike that packed cinema screening of Garden Tool Massacre, The Blob didn’t quite pull in the crowds. Russell blames it on a mediocre ad-campaign, as well as being released in a busy summer schedule where it struggled to find an audience. After all, it was up against Big, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Coming to America, Die Hard, A Fish Called Wanda, Midnight Run, Cocktail, Young Guns and most notably, a horror movie that was the sequel to his own smash hit Dream Warriors the year previously – A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. If horror had a name in 1988, it was Freddy (and to be fair, Chucky too, but he wouldn’t show up until later in the year) and I guess a nameless, faceless monster wasn’t what audiences wanted. They wanted wisecracks and a strangely lovable baddie to root for, and while it was very true that The Blob made a tremendous case for terror having ‘no shape’, it wasn’t going to sell soundtrack records or tie-in merchandise.
That’s a shame, because The Blob had ‘hit’ written all over it, but it did end up winning plenty of fans on the home video market, and now it’s a much-loved favourite of horror and science-fiction fans, and it’s easy to see why. It does everything absolutely right, with charm, surprise and spectacular impact. It came out at the precise right time in regards to special effects too, just before the CGI-era, where I imagine a fully digital blob would have lost much of its presence and gooey weight. Thankfully, this particular incarnation of the most faceless and shapeless of all movie monsters still packs a slimy, spectacular punch. Get stuck in.