Friday, 30 January 2015

The Blob (1958)

The Blob is perhaps the most famous of all the science fiction monster movies of the 1950s. It has spawned sequels and remakes and on more than one occasion a television series was even contemplated. It’s one of those movies that crosses the line and becomes a pop culture phenomenon rather than just a mere movie. Does it live up to the hype? In my view, not entirely but it’s still a good deal of fun.

The plot is standard 50s sci-fi fare. A meteorite lands, an old man investigates the meteorite and finds some horrible sticky substance adhering to his arm. A couple of teenagers find him and take to the local doctor who is mystified and alarmed. The sticky goop keeps growing and pretty soon it’s obvious it lives by devouring living creatures and it seems to have a preference for people. It seems unstoppable and the whole town is threatened, in fact if it can’t be stopped the whole world will be menaced. One of the teenagers, Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen in his first major film role), tries to warn the townsfolk of the danger but no-one will listen to one of those crazy teenagers.

The Blob was shot at Valley Forge Studios in Pennsylvania, a small studio specialising in religious films. Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr was in fact an ordained Christian minister which caused some slight problems during shooting since he was naturally enough unavailable to work on Sundays due to the demands of his day job. Apart from making enormous numbers of religious films Yeaworth made a couple of other notable science fiction movies including The 4D Man.

For cult movie fans one of the interesting aspects of The Blob is that it’s possibly the first movie to make reference to the “midnight movie” phenomenon. The town’s teenagers are attending a midnight “spook show” at the local movie house. Hardcore cult movie fans will be even more delighted that the movie that’s playing is Daughter of Horror, a bona fide midnight movie classic.

This reference is interesting because The Blob itself is of course part of the same phenomenon, made outside the Hollywood studio system. Producer Jack Harris started his career distributing movies under the states rights system which was a distribution system  completely outside Hollywood and the the MPAA which was used by exploitation film-makers. Harris had tried to interest all the studios, major and minor, in The Blob but eventually decided to go it alone with financing although it was later picked up for distribution by Paramount. The late 1950s saw the majors finally starting to take a reluctance interest in the sci-fi and juvenile delinquent movies made by small studios and independent producers that were making huge amounts of money on the drive-in circuit.

Although The Blob was a very cheap movie compared to mainstream Hollywood fare it was not an ultra-low budget movie. Harris’s idea was that the movie should be made in colour and with reasonably high production values so that it would be able to compete with major studio productions. It was a good strategy and the movie is reputed to have made back its production costs a hundred times over.

One unusual feature of The Blob is that there are no scientists on hand to explain where the blob comes from or to offer suggestions for combating the menace. In fact there are no scientists at all in the movie. This was deliberate - it was felt that to maximise the terror it was desirable to have the townspeople left to deal with the threat without any outside help. This is why there are no air force jets to bomb the blob or army units to offer the usual ineffectual help.

Harris’s idea for the movie was that science fiction and juvenile delinquents were proving to be box-office winners on the drive-in circuit so the obvious thing was to combine the two genres. But with a difference. The juvenile delinquents would turn out to be basically nice kids and would in fact pitch in enthusiastically to help combat the alien menace. Since the movie was going to be aimed to a large degree at teenage audiences it seemed sensible to portray the film’s teenagers in a positive light.

At the time the movie was released Steve McQueen had just landed the lead role in the popular TV western series Wanted: Dead or Alive and his star was very much in the ascendent. This certainly did the movie no harm and helped to contribute to its growing cult status. McQueen was apparently very difficult to work with and had mixed feelings about the movie, sometimes seeming to be quite embarrassed by it although he remained on good terms with producer Harris and director Yeaworth and at times he was driven to admit that the movie had played a large part in launching his career.

The special effects suffer from the inherent goofiness of the monster although some scenes, especially of the Blob oozing through cracks and under doors, are quite effective. This is a movie monster that even at the time was probably going to provoke laughter as often as terror but that of course has been part of the movie’s appeal over the years - it has very high camp value.

The Region 4 DVD release looks terrific with the colours being incredibly bright - at times even perhaps over-bright! It includes not one but two commentary tracks, one featuring producer Jack Harris and the other featuring director Yeaworth and one of the supporting actors. Both commentaries are quite interesting.

The Blob suffers from uneven pacing and it’s really not especially scary. It is however highly entertaining and it has a more polished feel than many of the other 50s sci-fi monster movies. Recommended.

1 comment:

BrockRhodes said...

Most of The Blob bores me. The last 30 minutes or so are pretty solid, though.