The Blob offered audiences something more than the typical creature feature. Somewhat inured to flying saucers and giant bugs by 1958, audiences found that the film offered a legitimately terrifying monster that included a bit of medical horror joined somewhat unevenly with some of the elements of the ‘50s teen movie.
Steve McQueen, in his first major film role (he had primarily done television previously) centered a cast of what the trailer referred to “exciting teens”. No matter than McQueen looks 25 instead of 16, he carries the film as the male lead (also named “Steve”). He even manages to look surprisingly convincing when he sees and then describes the extraterrestrial threat for the first time.
As does the monster. Advertising materials, including the poster that appears on the front of the short booklet included with the film, made especially horrific claims. Describing the creature as “bloated with the blood of its victims”, it caught the central ick factor of the narrative. Although there might seem to be nothing scary about an amorphous mass, the idea itself offers a brilliant frisson for anyone not thrown off by the ‘50s-era special effects. The creature, after all, has the attributes of both a flesh-eating virus and a carnivorous monster. And it’s getting bigger because it’s consuming its victims and making their biology part of its own.
The famous scene of the monster attacking the theatre, consuming the projectionist and driving a movie house full of screaming teenagers into the street still works. The marquee features a film by Bela Lugosi and in one of those intertextual moments so beloved of the horror tradition, the kids are watching old horror films when this new kind of monster attacks.
Especially striking today is Ralph Carmichael’s hilarious theme song, “Beware of the Blob”/ It’s a campy, hippy-dippy score that in many ways seems out of step with the rest of the film. Bizarrely, Carmichael’s career primarily involved composing church music. In fact, he would compose some standards of the Christian rock genre in the decade after the making of The Blob.
The film is also notable for its post-Rebel without a Cause take on youth and juvenile delinquency. Early in the film, Steve and his friends are in trouble with law enforcement (and their parents). The cops wont believe Steve and Jane’s parents are convinced he’s no good. The film takes the kids side, however, and by the end an intergenerational alliance has to be formed to defeat the monster. In fact, one of the dads has to become a delinquent himself by the conclusion of the film, breaking one of the school windows with a rock to get at some fire extinguishers.
The Blob reminds us of how the ‘50s sci-fi genre combined so many elements of that deeply optimistic period in American history that W.H. Auden also described, paradoxically, as an “age of anxiety”. In fact, more than a decade after the “flying saucer” summer of 1947, The Blob offered a gauge for how invested Americans had become in the mythos of alien invasion. McQueen’s character, which first sees the meteor that carries the creature fall to Earth, says he knows that people claim to see “flying saucers” all the time. Even the stereotype of the local yokel who encounters the alien first appears in the film, a well-established convention in alien contact folklore since 1955 when the “Hopkinsville Goblins” when some rural Kentuckians sighted the “Hopkinsville Goblins” in 1955, the template for “little green men”.
Olin Howlin, a veteran silent film actor, plays the perfect provincial confronted with a thing from out space he shouldn’t touch. In one of the film’s many moments of off-handed humor, he pokes what will become the Blob with a stick and ends up having the flesh-eating extraterrestrial begin to consume his arm like gangrene. The scene will be immediately recognizable to those that have seen Creepshow as Stephen King reprised, parodied and paid homage in the opening of the horror anthology.
Even if you own Criterion’s earlier DVD release, fans of ‘50s sc-fi must pick up this blu-ray transfer. The blu-ray brings out the vibrant colors of the film and also reveals its photography as beautifully lit. Famous moments like the Blob emerging, engorged and yet still hungry, between the split theatre doors are a revelation in blu-ray. And, by the way, Steve McQueen’s 1953 Plymouth Convertible comes out a gorgeous sheen of blue.
The special features are sparse compared to most Criterion releases. The disc does however include a peculiar feature, a set of photographs of Blob memorabilia gathered over the years by collector Wes Shank. Navigable through your remote, the collection includes behind-the-scene photographs, posters and even the Blob itself (looking not very frightening as red silicone in a can). This feature goes a long way toward making up for the typical “making-of feature,” as the numerous photographs contain plenty of information about creature effects, set design and the careers of the character actors who make up most of the cast.
The commentaries, as is usual for Criterion, are excellent. Producer Jack Harris appears on one track, providing lots of casting background (including the story of how McQueen came to be attached to the film. Director Irvin Yeaworth appears on a separate track along with actor Robert Fields who appears as “Tony” in the film. Yeaworth provides some explanation of the building of the miniatures and models of the sets that allowed for the making of the blob and allowed the monster to have its “giant” size by the end of the film.
“I thought you cats didn’t like spooky shows.” One of McQueen’s teenage cronies says this when Steve and his date come bursting into the theatre to warn them of the real danger creeping their way. Cats in the ‘50s did love spooky shows, in part because they often naïvely mirrored their own culture’s concerns, with little nuance and less irony. The Blob is one of the best of these acts of cultural anxieties.