Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE BLOB (1958)

Science fiction movies of the 1950s offer plenty of strange alien menaces, but The Blob (1958) features one of the very strangest. You wouldn't think an oozy sphere would provide much of a threat, but the title monster of this cult classic is as mindless and unrelenting as death itself, an utterly inhuman being with which there can be no discussion or rapport. Given that it looks a lot like a ball of strawberry jam, the blob might not evoke much terror in an audience, but the movie delights nonetheless, for its weird creature, its imaginative effects, its Burt Bacharach title song, and, last but not least, the odd attraction of Steve McQueen as the blob's chief opponent.

McQueen plays teenaged Steve Andrews, who is enjoying a date with Jane (Aneta Corsaut) when the pair spot some kind of shooting star that lands nearby. They search for the object but instead find an old man (Olin Howland) whose hand is covered in bizarre goo, and their efforts to help him unwittingly provide the blob with more victims. Every time the blob consumes another person, it grows, until it becomes big enough to threaten the entire town. Steve and Jane enlist the aid of their friends as well as local cop Dave (Earl Rowe) to warn the citizens and combat the oozing horror, but nobody knows how to fight such a strange, unstoppable foe.

The Blob has a lot in common with dozens of low-budget science fiction productions of its era, and in many ways it is indistinguishable from them. Its director, Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., made a handful of other B movies, but only The Blob enjoys much notoriety today. The acting is decent but not outstanding, and the plot depends on all of the usual genre cliches, which by 1958 were already well established as such. Why, then, is The Blob such a perpetual favorite? The answer begins with Bacharach's groovy title song, which tells the audience that the ensuing carnage is just silly fun. Then we get Steve McQueen, doing his best to act like a teenager even though he was 28 at the time. He's obviously much too old for the part but manages to be likable nonetheless. Aneta Corsaut, best remembered as Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show, is also more mature than her character but pretty and gentle enough that we let it pass.

As the title implies, however, the monster itself is the real star of this show, and it's primarily the blob that delights audiences decade after decade. Rather than put a guy in a rubber suit, the movie presents us with a creature that never reveals its zippers or strings. Stop-motion work and other tricks bring the creature to life, although the picture wisely avoids most of the actual death scenes for the victims. We know enough to guess at their fates and squirm, especially during the middle segment when the blob consumes the old man, the local doctor, his nurse, an auto mechanic, and a handful of other unlucky folks. The highpoint of the picture comes when the blob invades a movie theater packed with patrons for a midnight horror show. The screaming mob fleeing the theater has become one of B horror's most iconic moments; the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where the segment was filmed, has re-enacted the scene many times and even hosts a Blobfest to commemorate the movie. There's an uncanny thrill in watching a movie in which people watching a movie are attacked by a hideous thing; we laugh even as we glance over our shoulders to see what might be sneaking up from behind. The Blob understands this and capitalizes on it, which makes it a much smarter picture than one might at first expect.

The Blob was remade in 1988 to celebrate the original movie's 30th anniversary, with all the added gore one might expect. Irvin Yeaworth's other cinematic efforts include 4D Man (1959) and Dinosaurus! (1960), while Steve McQueen is best remembered today for The Great Escape (1963), Bullitt (1968), and Papillon (1973). For more science fiction horror from the 1950s, try The Thing from Another World (1951), Donovan's Brain (1953), Them! (1954), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).