Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Cardboard Science: A real piece of the sky


THE BLOB

Very close to being a flawless version of itself, the only thing that separates The Blob from perfection are a smattering of screenwriting hiccups, a reluctance to completely demonstrate its awesome monster's gross lethality onscreen, and (of course) the production's well-known lack of money.  But let's not be overly critical: the thing is exceptional, and has surely earned its enduring reputation as perhaps the best of its particular breed of B-movie.

1958
Directed by Irving S. Yeaworth Jr.
Written by Theodore Simonson, Kay Linaker, and Irvine H. Millgate
With Steve McQueen (Steve Andrews), Aneta Corsaut (Jane Martin), Earl Rowe (Lt. Dave), and John Benson (Sgt. Jim)

Spoiler alert: severe


One thing's for sure: 1950s sci-fi comes no less iconic than The Blob.  With its unforgettable titular monster and an enjoyable preview of that future paragon of faintly dull masculine stillness, Steve McQueen, history has given The Blob the right to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any one of the evergreen classics of the form.  But, truth be told, it actually stands out.

You see, despite the genre's reputation as a low-budget playground, almost all the best mid-century cinematic SF actually came from the big boys like Universal-International; and most of the rest came from, at the very least, the biggish boys, such as Allied Artists.  But The Blob?  It didn't even come from Hollywood.  Instead, it came from the east—it might as well have come from outer space.  In the end, it only barely got picked up for national distribution by Paramount; and that's when it became one of the genre's single most unexpected hits.

The Blob was the brainchild of Jack Harris, a Pennsylvanian with something to prove.  Even in his comparative youth, he had ambitions beyond being a local film distributor in Philadelphia.  Thus he looked at what independent filmmakers were doing in California—making shitty sci-fi/horror programmers—and he commissioned a local first-time feature-filmmaker to make another one, only for him.  Of course, the really curious thing about the director Harris chose, one Irving Yeaworth, was not that he'd never made a feature.  It's that he had made almost 400 shorts—especially religious ones, for regional churches.  This wasn't just Yeaworth's bread and butter, either: it was his calling.  In his off-hours Yeaworth wore the frock (or whatever) of a Methodist minister, and his Valley Forge Studio was dedicated to these various good works.

Naturally, Yeaworth approached the project with some suspicion; as Harris tells it, he had to seduce the clergyman with the promise of money and exposure, which Yeaworth might then reinvest in the greater glory of God.  But, as I've often remarked, in the 1950s, you could be extremely religious (or, alternatively, work with extremely religious material), and nevertheless manage to make a movie that, theoretically, everybody could still enjoy.  So the usual take on The Blob—that it's some kind of paradox that a company devoted to Christian ministry actually wound up producing one of the most well-known and arguably even one of the scariest horror movies to come out of America in the 1950s—is, honestly, a little bit misguided.  Indeed, maybe the neatest thing about The Blob, and its Christian origins, is that you can actually see them—in fact, it's one of the things that makes the movie so memorable, and maybe even one of the things that makes it great.

The plot you almost certainly already know: in smalltown Pennsylvania, we find a couple of capital-T Teenagers, Steve and Jane, necking at one of their community's local lovers' lanes.  Their respective libidos hit a wall, due to some 1950s-era doubts about their burgeoning sexuality; but before they can make the audience too uncomfortable with all their squishy feelings, a meteor shower kicks in, delivering something just as squishy, and even more potentially menacing.  When one of the meteors strikes so close they hear the impact, they resolve to investigate.  Unfortunately, what they find instead is the poor old man who was the first to actually take a poke at the fallen spacerock—and who discovered that what was inside wasn't just alive.

It was hungry.

So they take this old man with a gelatinous ooze consuming the flesh on his arm to the town doctor, who in turn tasks them with investigating the parasite's origins.  But—being kids—they run afoul of the cops.  Dave, the police lieutenant who wearily chides Steve and his idiot friends for street racing, treats these pseudo-rebellious youths with condescending indulgence; Jim, his sergeant, looks down upon them with something like total contempt.  Eventually, Steve and Jane do get around to trying to find out what happened to the old-timer, and while they return empty handed, they do so just in time for Steve to witness the doc covered in purple jelly and in the process of being eaten by somethingsomething that Steve can just scarcely begin to describe.

And yet describe it he shall, with predictable results: even the adults who don't think he did anything criminal still dismiss his crazy tale as fantasy.  (The rest of them just shriek at him.)  But Steve and Jane, too plucky for mere scolding to stop them, sneak out once again in order to pursue the mystery.  And all the while, the glob that ate the doctor, his nurse, and the old man is continuing to work its way through the town, one human victim at a time, growing ever larger with each new meal—until, at long last, even the Goddamn squarest authority figure in town can't ignore the enormous Blob, that's consumed the slower half of audience at the midnight picture show.

Now that's a meta gag done right.

The beautiful thing about The Blob—or one of the beautiful things, I should clarify—is just how gracefully it panders to its intended audience, never quite giving the whole game away in the process.  Ultimately released as the B-picture to I Married A Monster From Outer Space, The Blob proved a vastly more robust attraction.  It's easy to see why, given the double-feature-going demographic.  Steve and Jane are neither sinners nor saints; instead, they're just right when the adults are wrong.  If the screenwriters err on the side of making the authorities of this rural township ever-so-slightly too befuddled, at least they're not mindless anti-teen bigots.  No, everybody in The Blob is just plain folks: sometimes they can be dicks; but, usually, they're pleasant, reasonable people.  Their biggest problems seem to stem not from any special malice—just an inability to talk.  So it's the gentlest generational warfare you'll ever see.  That's one area where the values undergirding The Blob show themselves—but they elevate the picture by being subtle about it in a way that's hard not to find totally charming.

Take that opening scene, too: it's as absolutely frank as it needs to be about what's happening—Steve and Jane are this close to just screwing—but when they don't, it's not closed off with a bunch of shrill moralizing (nor even the usual hurt and/or recrimination).  It shades instead into a tender conversation, about experience and trust.  Thus our very first impression of our two leads is that they're a pair of imperfect, but inutterably decent-hearted, human beings.  It's been said before, but it does bear repeating, that this was something special in 1958.  Indeed, the decision to eschew movie-grade Science Heroes in favor of a community of regular people was, just in itself, quite radical enough; and making the central heroes teenagers was a stroke of genius.  But making those kids so normalThat was tantamount to an actual statement.  The Blob hits a sweet spot in the burgeoning genre of teen movies.  There's almost nothing that's genuinely overwrought about any of it; it's like Happy Days without nostalgia for an excuse.  Even the street racing is anodyne.

Enjoy our low-impact scrapes.

So it's a film about bridging that late-50s generation gap, offering a scenario where this gaggle of super-relatable (and kinda-dull) Adults-in-Training get to be exciting despite it all, as they save the day from a rampaging space beast right alongside the Actual Adults who, just hours earlier, had been their adversaries.  And it proceeds from there, with little redemptions for the town's assortment of various jerks: even Jane's own father—also the stern high school principal and the biggest jackass of all—gets his moment of heroism, when he smashes his way into his own school with a big old rock in order to get some vital Blob-fighting equipment.  And the camera simply savors the irony, of this disciplinarian committing an act of vandalism for the common good.

It's really quite enough to ignore the leather-faced elephant in the room—namely, the "teenager" being played by Steve McQueen, whose greatest contribution in terms of pure look is to make his co-star, Aneta Corsaut, appear ever-so-slightly more believable as someone who wasn't also in her mid-to-late 20s.  It's a very solid performance all the same, peppered with hints of the qualified greatness that McQueen would achieve in the next decade.  (And there's a real argument, I think, that Steve Andrews really might be McQueen's most appealing role.  Although already something of an abomination to work with, according to Yeaworth and Harris alike, he hadn't yet fallen into his niche of the laconic badass, and Steve Andrews' sheer earnestness is certainly a lot more inviting than the taciturn glarer of Bullitt and Le Mans.)  Make no mistake: it's not even uniformly good—McQueen is constitutionally unable to look afraid, and he noticeably gags on some of the explanatory dialogue he has to spout, in lieu of the lengthy, draggy exposition scene that Yeaworth (probably wisely) cut out of the original script.  But when it comes to The Blob's biggest emotional beats, McQueen (and Corsaut) sell them effortlessly.  And so that penultimate moment in the diner, where the Blob has surrounded them, and they essentially give up all hope, in order to spare Jane's toddler brother the sight of their panic—well, it's as superbly human as any piece of acting in any movie the decade produced, SF or otherwise.

By the same token, it's almost as easy to forgive the other problem with The Blob, which is that it's indecently cheap.  Made with a strictly regimented shooting schedule planned out ahead of time, there was no room for on-set improvisation—or even for correcting blatant technical oopsies.  (For God's sake, at least twice, the camera goes completely out of focus.)  The soundstages are obvious even for this kind of flick, with "nighttime" lighting that makes no attempt whatsoever to hide the fact that there's an enormous lamp just outside the frame.  (This is not to say that the cinematography lacks any magic, and the color is vivid in the best possible way.)

And, of course, when Dave mentions that the Blob has killed "40 or 50 people" (!), you're bound to scornfully narrow your eyes a tiny bit, because we've only seen five or six—and not too damned clearly, at that.  The Blob is, in fact, close to goreless—this being the other side of the Christian sword, since Yeaworth prevailed upon the more bloodthirsty Harris to keep the movie clean in this regard, even by Hays Code standards.  Please, don't get me wrong: The Blob still possesses an admirable power to shock; indeed, the Blob's very first movement, going from immobile jelly to striking at the old man's exposed hand, is legitimately startling even by modern standards.  Yet the film's dearth of gruesome digestion is the one major oversight that would ultimately justify its (also Harris-produced) 1988 remake.  For what it's worth, the Blob's increasingly reddish hue was, apparently, the compromise between the two men—and it's subliminal enough that I, personally, never once realized that this meant that the monster really was supposed be "bloated with the blood of its' victims!" until I read an interview with Harris that pointed it out.

Thus, assuming that I'm the idiot, I have added an extra point to the final score.

Fortunately, however, the Blobbing we actually get forecloses any suggestion that Valley Forge were true amateurs.  Inventing a whole host of novel in-camera effects, and assisted by a chemist from the industrial silicone firm that supplied the Blob material, the stages of the Blob we do get to see are positively superb in their construction.  It's arguably the most enchantingly lo-fi effects work of the decade.  (In many shots, you can clearly see the artists' fingerprints on the silicone ball, and there are few things more adorable in this world than that.)  The thing lacks a personality, but it doesn't need that, because the Blob is elemental: it is the physical manifestation of a need to consume everything it touches.  It is thus as pure an expression of horror as you could devise: just a giant sack of digestive slime that envelops you, takes you, and makes you part of itself.  It leaves an everlasting impression, and yet you might be surprised how little it's actually around (especially when it turns out that the famous "theater panic" scene is essentially nothing more than one single shot).  The (financial) necessity of keeping the monster offscreen does The Blob few favors, especially as we approach that diner climax, which relies more on reaction shots from the crowd than anything the expended effects budget can accomplish.  And although it undeniably works, I have to admit that it works a lot better when you know, in the back of your mind, that there's a version of this film done thirty years later, that is positively brazen when it comes to showcasing its monster.

But you cannot blame The Blob for an ambition that slightly exceeds its grasp.  When it comes down to it, what we have is an exceptionally simple machine: a fleet-footed, semi-spectacular cheapie powered by a wondrous monster of a kind rarely seen before, plopped down in the middle of the Real America, where it does some tremendous damage and is stopped, when it is finally stopped, only by the lucky discovery of an Achilles' heel that, against all the odds, actually makes sense—especially by the standards of 1950s sci-fi, and more especially still when you compare it to The Blob's clearest precursor, The Monolith Monsters, which is swell, and also one of the most terrifyingly idiotic movies ever made.

The Blob, on the other hand, is damned near plausible—which frankly puts it in the top echelon all by itself.  Meanwhile, the film is just serious enough that you're compelled to take it seriously, too.  (The promise made by the kitsch tune that plays over the opening credits—a stupidly-catchy calypso number by Burt Bacharach that wound up making waves on the charts and probably has something to do with the film's continued popularity—is proven to be nothing but a distributor-mandated lie in every frame that follows.  On the plus side, Paramount's misunderstanding of the movie they'd purchased from Harris pushed The Blob's actual composer Ralph Carmichael's very finest gesture, the stings of his composition "Violence," into the back half of the movie, where they could do the most good.)

And so, when you consider all its other strengths—the implication of mass death (even if it isn't shown), the potential fun with allegory (a frozen red menace, carnality incarnate, etc.); that most excellent final title card (THE END?); and, of course, every little thing that goes toward the gauzy, humane message of the film—well, I suppose there's nothing else to call it but timeless.

Score:  9/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Note: "damned near plausible" does not mean "actually plausible," though The Blob's as well-founded an evocation of the mercilessly-multiplying gray goo as anybody has ever managed on film—and so the one thing that could possibly justify Simon West's senseless upcoming remake (because we already have the kindhearted, mysterious version and the crass, super-gory version of this story) is if it finally turns The Blob into full-on apocalyptic fiction.  I doubt it will, and the only other place to go is back to the well, but with CGI, and I can't say that excites me at all.
  • They didn't even try an atomic bomb.  I bet that would've worked.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Honestly, the film is so firmly in its main characters' corner, that there's nothing here to get upset about.  Whenever something comes up that seems ugly, it's supposed to be; whenever something comes up that could get weird, the film swerves into kindness and decency instead.
  • But I will ask if cops would really just shrug at a smashed-up room, especially when a witness has just described a murder that took place there.
  • There is a whole bit where the Blob quite plainly eats a dog, and, then, five minutes later, the script shoehorns in a line of dialogue to make it painfully clear that the dog is just fine—and it's no less dishearteningly lame in a movie from 1958 than it was in a movie from 1996, when Emmerich did much the same thing in Independence Day.
Sensawunda:
  • The Blob is too wundaful for words, when we get to see it, as fine a piece of special effects filmmaking as you're likely to find in a film of its vintage, and not terribly likely to ever be repeated today.

2 comments:

  1. I LOVE The Blob! In fact, it's the only Criterion film that I own.

    It's definitely the 50's sci-fi/horror movie that I've connected with the most. No offense. I've liked most of the ones you've showed me, too. Except Invaders from Mars. F**k Invaders from Mars.

    I also really adore the remake, which is an effects blowout like no other. I assume you know that The Blob got a sequel (1972's Beware! The Blob), but have you had the chance to see it? I'd advise against it, but it's definitely a fascinatingly weird little movie.

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    1. I'm aware of, but have never seen, Beware! The Blob. I'm sure I will, probably sometime soon. (Hell, it's on YouTube, which means I have absolutely no excuse not to.)

      I am definitely reviewing the remake, which is up there with the all-time best remakes (along with The Thing, The Fly, Magnificent Seven, Fistful of Dollars/Last Man Standing, Insomnia, Cape Fear, Vanilla Sky, etc--actually, that makes it sound like there are a lot of great remakes).

      And yes: fuck Invaders From Mars, for it is stupid. When some wag insists that it's some great movie, or even indicative of mid-century SF, I kind of want to strangle 'em.

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