The best way to establish the nature of The Blob is with a song. This little ditty by a young Burt Bacharach is the first impression of the franchise, playing over the opening credits. Unlike the chilling horror scores for filmmakers like Hitchcock, Argento, or Carpenter, The Blob has a theme song that you can dance to, something more in the neighborhood of The Monster Mash. If someone had never been exposed to The Blob before, they might expect a cartoon after hearing the song.
I recommend that while reading this blog entry, you play the above song to get the full media experience. If you read faster than 2 minutes and 41 seconds, then you may want to scroll back up and play it again. The song is catchy and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t listen to it a dozen times or more during this Blogathon process.
Beware of the blob, it creeps, and leaps and glides and slides across the floor, right through the door, and all around the wall, a splotch, a blotch. Be careful of the blob
The song is a riot, but even the name is on the silly side. What is a Blob anyway? According to the dictionary, it is “a globule of liquid; bubble.” It is far from menacing, and instead is a playful, ridiculous villain, the type that would be right at home with the popcorn sci-fi double features of the 1950s. The reason the film was so successful and the song a hit has less to do with the scares, and more to do with the pop culture phenomenon of a funny little monster that resembles Play-Doh or a well-chewed piece of gum.
I’ve already talked about the 1958 version of The Blob, but the 1988 remake is also worth recognizing as a significant part of the franchise, even if it has a slightly different tone as the original. It has plenty of teenage inadequacy and angst, but is expressed more in the palette of the 1980s. Brian Flagg (Kevin Dillon) is a renegade outsider, wears a leather jacket, has a mullet, and rides a motorcycle. Meg Penny (Shawnee Smith) is a pretty cheerleader who at first wants to date the star of the football team, yet later is thrown into the Blob hysteria with Dillon. Just by the way the characters are drawn, they fit the typical 80s theme of how children fit (or don’t fit) into different social cliques.
The remake takes itself more seriously than the original, but it is not without having a little fun at its own expense. For starters, it has the star football player buying condoms at the pharmacy for his hot date with Meg, and later discovers that his date’s dad is the same pharmacist. Doh! Most of the rest of its humor fits with the state of the horror genre in the 1980s. Some of the Blob’s attacks and kills are outlandish and you cannot help but laugh, which is a distinctively different atmosphere as the original, which celebrates and has fun with teenage life.
So let’s talk about the monster itself.
In both movies, it came from outer space. In both movies, it is discovered by a homeless person, who tries to touch the meteorite with a stick, only to get a piece of The Blob on his arm.
In the original, he tries to shake it off like one would shake a stuck piece of rubber or glue. It’s just something disgusting that he wants off. This is when The Blob first gets its exposure to human flesh, and immediately wants more. It latches onto his arm and doesn’t let go. In the remake, they don’t waste time with having the homeless guy dance around trying to get a sticky mess off his arm. They instead go right for the gusto. Once The Blob gets a whiff of humanity, it strikes and latches on with lethal precision. Again being playful, the remake cuts to kids eating jell-o.
The colors of each film are worth discussing. One of the reasons that the original caught on was that it featured an extremely good use of color for the time. You can even tell from the screenshots that the color palette holds up reasonably well today. Of course by the time the 1988 version came along, color was not exactly groundbreaking, so they instead played around with the mise-en-scene. The school colors use pink, so cheerleaders at the football game have pink pom-poms. In one scene the use of color is addressed directly with Meg messing up the laundry and accidentally turning a sweater pink. Maybe that was an epidemic because there are many pink sweaters seen throughout the film. The remake had more flexibility with special effects to highlight the colors of the monster, and sometimes used that to color the frame. A good example of this is the phone booth scene where The Blob and one if it’s captives envelop the booth.
The way they kill may not necessarily be different. The special effects limitations for the 1958 version don’t allow us to see the all the deaths. Besides, for the time frame, anything remotely close to the graphic images in the 1988 version would be shocking and revolting. The old homeless man is found dead in both movies, although far too graphic in the second film for me to even post a screenshot.
Steve and Nancy see the doctor dying, and presumably other people die as well, but most deaths are not on screen. In both films, The Blob can kill by enveloping their victims and we’d assume they suffocate. In the remake, The Blob also has the ability to dissolve their body as if they had been dipped in a vat of acid. That’s interesting because in the 1958 version, the nurse unsuccessfully tries to throw acid on The Blob, which has no effect.
As for how The Blob gets around, Burt Bacharach mostly had it right, at least for the 1958 version. It creeps, leaps, glides, and slides. Where does it go? Across the floor, through the door, and around the wall.
There are some movement similarities during the early portion of both movies. The Blob grasps at the homeless guy’s arm and gradually spreads to the rest of the body. From there, the 1988 Blob moves at a far more rapid pace. This could be another special effect limitation because we do not see the 1958 Blob move as much. After all, he was basically just a bag of silicone. There are some fun movement parallels between both movies. For instance when Steve and Nancy are in the closet, The Blob oozes under the door. When Brian and Meg are in the walk-in freezer, The Blob oozes similarly toward them.
Another fun sequence in both movies is the theater. For 1958, the theater was groundbreaking in a sense. The late movie aspect of 50s teenage culture had not become a presence on film until The Blob, which used it as an exceptional plot device and a way to creatively show off the special effects at their disposal. The remake borrowed the movie theater plot, injecting some children who are seeing a movie that they shouldn’t. Again, it is a comic scenario, with an annoying guy who keeps talking loudly during the movie being the first to get Blobbed. What’s even funnier is that they show the scream in the movie as a reaction to this loudmouth’s quick demise.
The Blob starts in the projection room of both theaters, coming in through the ventilation system, and then makes it into the theater itself, causing mass havoc. The 1988 screen is darker and the visual may not show up well.
You can almost count on your fingers the number of times that The Blob appears in the 1958 version, and the screens that I’ve posted here represent a high percentage of the monster’s appearance. In the 1988 version, he is everywhere. When he appears, they make it a point to have him encompasses a large portion of the screen.
The conclusion is where the versions diverge. They have a similar ending in that The Blob is allergic to coldness. You could argue that the original was poorly written with a convenient deus ex machina ending as they discover this type of “Kryptonite” in the final act. The latter takes a more sophisticated approach, planting the seed of the aversion to coldness about midway in the aforementioned frozen locker scene. When The Blob oozes under the door, it oozes right back when it is exposed to the cool air.
The latter version also has an origin story, scientists that implement a biological containment as if it is a virus, and some far-fetched explanations that I won’t spoil. I’ll be honest that I much prefer the earlier ending, ‘deus ex machina’ or not. It has that same element of teenage innocence that makes the rest of the film so effective, while the latter version suffers from “Summer Movie Syndrome.” If something is expensive, that does not necessarily mean it is better.
So what can we say about The Blob as a villain?
In both versions, he’s a ferocious monster that basically eats people. I’d say that qualifies as a villain. The one thing I’ve purposely omitted from both write-ups until now is the representation of the red scare. In the 1950s, the symbolism of this nondescript menace that nobody understands is almost too obviously a nod toward the Cold War. That was the real fear, and The Blob is one way that allowed people, particularly teenagers, to process the fear. The 1988 version was still in the midst of the Cold War, but the cultural sensitivity was not as pronounced. Instead they use the additional backstory plot as a way of referencing weaponization. Perhaps they wrote this as an homage to the original, to fit it into the Cold War theme that clearly existed. Or maybe it was a product of the times, way of processing Reaganomic escalation. Either way, any text that uses a being to portray a political or societal evil qualifies as a villain in my opinion.
As I watched the original version of The Blob, I was surprised to find that it is just as much a teenpic as a monster movie. In some respects, the teenage themes were even more integral to the story. The monster was as much a vehicle to showcase adolescent insecurity, conflicts with authority, and the frustration of not being heard.
The teenpic nature of the film actually fits wonderfully for the way I want to structure this blog post. Since I’m about to get going on my Blobathon, it seems fitting to have a serious post today about the teenage issues, with a fun and light post on Wednesday about the monster itself. The Wednesday post will also contrast with the monster of the 1988 version of The Blob.
The one hurdle is that you have to buy Steve McQueen, in his debut feature role at the age of 27, as a teenager. That’s the biggest sell because even then he had a grizzled, experienced face, which would serve him well in his later stardom. While it takes a little while to get used to him as a teenager, he does show signs of the acting chops and screen presence that he’ll become famous for later.
What’s interesting about the teenage protagonists in The Blob as opposed to say, Rebel Without a Cause or even Blackboard Jungle, is that the kids are relatively benign with their misbehavior. As the plot progresses into a monster mystery, the actions that would usually be associated with young hooliganism, like sneaking out with a girl or driving cars fast, are actually heroic actions in an attempt to save their town.
The film begins with Steve (Steve McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corsaut) up in his convertible at a lookout, gazing at the stars and enjoying each other’s company. This is a stereotypical scene of the 1950s, and usually would be seen as a place where a man would bring a girl, or a series of girls, in the hopes of one day getting lucky. Jane questions Steve on this very possibility, but he assures her that she is the first, and that he will not pressure her for romance. Even if he’s a teenager with normal hormones, he is established immediately as upstanding.
The next major scene between the teenagers is also typical juvenile behavior – a car race. A group of kids at first seem antagonistic, and they even tease Steve by dubbing him king of the road and placing a hubcap crown on his head. The tension eases quickly. They become more congenial, and even though they race, they do so in a playful spirit and the sequence ends with them friendly towards each other.
The relationship with the teenagers and the policeman are quite different from the norm. This being a small town, they know each other, and Steve addresses the ‘good’ cop as Dave rather than officer or any other title of respect. The ‘bad’ cop, Jim Bert, is nicknamed ‘Bert the Schmert’ because he is not sympathetic. Instead he is hostile and antagonistic. He refuses to believe in the monster, and blames juvenile delinquency for the strange events happening in the town.
The monster places the kids in a hopeless situation where they are the only living witnesses, but absolutely nobody will believe them. There are a few scenes where they try to convince the police. Dave is more inclined to believe then, whereas Bert plays intermediary and sways attention back onto the kids. Bert is alone in this manner of thinking, but this still contributes to confusion. The police and everybody else don’t know what to believe. There is another scene where a kid tries to warn a group of adult partiers, but they dismiss him entirely, even making fun of him by calling him Paul Revere. After several futile attempts to make people aware, Steve frustratingly wonders “How do you protect people from something they don’t believe in?”
They don’t get results until Steve and the other teenagers make enough of a ruckus to get the entire town out of bed and gathered in one area. They do this via another method of teenage misbehavior — honking their horns and making noise. Steve then appeals yet again to the police. This time Dave is a willing listener. He takes a leadership role that leads to the final outcome. The tables are turned and the adults actually save the children.
Given that this was a B-level science fiction escapist flick, with a director who had never made a fiction feature, and a lot of amateur or first time actors, The Blob overachieves. The shots may not be framed well and the editing has some issues, but the story is told effectively. The teenage themes help the audience get more invested in their fight against the red menace, and it makes for an enjoyable resolution.
Film Rating: 6/10
Commentaries: This release has two commentaries, one with Producer Jack Harris and Historian Bruce Eder, and the other with Director Irwin S. Yeaworth Jr. and Actor Robert Fields. All of the commentaries are recorded separately with no interaction, so I’m just going to list some of the highlights from each. One of the interesting highlights was how each one talked about the late Steve McQueen. They all spent quite a bit of time talking of their experiences with him, whether positive or negative. He was certainly a character, both on and off camera.
Jack Harris – Harris of course wanted to make a commercially successful film, so he intentionally combined science fiction with a teenpics. Both were playing well at the time, so he figured it would be a winning formula.
He thought McQueen had potential to be a big star, but he was too much of a “bad boy” and trying to impress people. Harris admitted that he didn’t like Steve McQueen on The Blob and would not cast him in the sequel. By the time he changed his mind, McQueen was too big for them to afford him. They became cordial later and McQueen tried to rent Harris’ house once. That was the last time Harris saw him.
He is the only one on the commentary to address the 1988 remake. He was not complimentary. The remake went in a lot of directions that the original didn’t, was too expensive and not as good.
Bruce Eder – Eder did not get as much voice time as Harris, but he did get a chance to make some Illuminating points.
He discusses some of the teenage themes. The children are the only ones who see the Blob until the end, and the police think the teenagers are the invaders. Eder thinks that McQueen’s performance came across as real on the film because he had genuine problems and irritation with the script. Those negative feelings were expressed through his performance as he tried to get heard.
Irwin S. Yeaworth Jr. –
McQueen and Yeaworth were both about the same age, and one review called them “the world’s oldest teenagers.” He had previously worked on a number of religious and educational films. They had created about a hundred 16mm films before trying their first feature.
He says that McQueen had a mercurial personality and was very “willful.” He hints at some problems on the set, although they did see each other several times later in California until Yeaworth stopped working there. McQueen seemed displeased with several aspects of The Blob, especially his salary because he made the short-sighted decision to take a smaller up-front payment rather than a cut of the profits. Yeaworth was surprised to learn that when McQueen died, the only thing found on his wall was a poster of The Blob. Surprising because he had disparaged the film because it was a B picture and he didn’t get paid what he could.
At first the movie was titled The Molten Meteor. They then changed it to The Glob, but that was taken. The next option was The Blob, which stuck. They wanted a title that people would make fun of, and they got free publicity from it.
Robert Fields – He played Tony, the apparent leader of the clique of boys that first encounters Steve.
He makes some interesting points about what he calls “Dying on Film.” He does not mean it as dark as it sounds, just that it is an expression that is used in acting fields. Actors see the aging process in their lives because they can see themselves at various points of their career. He compares this with a shoe salesman, who doesn’t see himself doing the same job at a younger age. Even though this is a dark point, he appreciates being able to see his younger, better looking self.
He shares a number of Steve McQueen stories, but they have a different angle than the rest since he was younger. He has vivid memories of riding in McQueen’s two-seater sports care, racing through winding roads at 100 mph. Robert thought of him like an older brother or a mentor of sorts. McQueen had a lot of charisma and impacted Fields’ life.
Blobabilia Wes Shank is an avid collector of memorabilia from The Blob. He has several still photos, posters, and the actual Blob that was used as a prop. The disc has a lengthy slideshow with the highlights of his collection.
Criterion Rating: 6.5
This semester I’ve been taking a history class on The Old South. We have covered the role of women and poor whites, but the vast majority of our studies have been on the peculiar institution of slavery, and their relationships with their planter masters.
Because of this class, I’ve been highly interested in seeing 12 Years a Slave. Not only has the buzz been deafening, and it appears to be the front-runner for the Academy Award, but it seems to be a film that really gets slavery. At least that’s what I was led to believe.
The Old South class informed and influenced my viewing of the film. I came to appreciate it a lot more now that I have a better understanding of how the south works. While the people and places within the film might not be historically accurate, the way the institution functioned was spot on. They even gave a literal shout out to one of the most respected historians, which I’ll discuss momentarily.
Ever since the 1970s, historians have believed that the slave owners had a paternalistic sensibility towards their slaves. This wasn’t quite a white man’s burden sentiment. It was more of a product of the 2nd great awakening, and belief in the Christian ideal that all souls are the valued the same in the eyes of God. It wash’t just for show either. The Christian planters believed that their role was to Christianize and mentor their slaves. They treated them with respect and, at least in their eyes, created a bond that went beyond the master and slave contract.
Even though the Christian planters may have believed they were doing good, of course we know that they were not. Another reason that they became paternalists was out of necessity. Around the turn of the 19th century, there was a lot of negative pressure against slavery. It was being banned internationally, and the slave trade would be completely outlawed soon. Planters were invested in their own slaves, and the only way to grow them was for them to breed other slaves.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Mr. Ford exemplifies the paternalistic relationship. While he is portrayed as an imperfect and conflicted character, we can tell that Platt/Northup has an amount of respect for him. Unlike Paul Dano’s overseer, Mr. Ford listens to his slave’s ideas, and is impressed with his experience. He preaches to them on Sundays, and carries himself as a virtuous, educated Christian man who happens to own slaves.
The major reason for the shift to paternalism was that to debate this anti-slave rhetoric, they had to change the argument from necessary evil to positive good. The slavers were not blind to the evil of the institution. It just happened to be part of the world and economy that they grew up in. It was a necessary evil that it existed. With abolition movements rising, that argument changed to positive good. Slavery was a vehicle for planters to do right for their slaves. They took care of them, nurtured them, clothed and sheltered them. Their argument was that free laborers were subject to the whims of capitalist industrialists who had their own interests in mind.
This is where Mr. Ford’s character has nuance. He protects him from retaliation from the overseer, but stops short of listening and taking action on behalf of Northup’s unfortunate situation. Despite his qualities, he lived in this system and had to abide by its rules. Helping slaves was conditional upon them remaining slaves, and the institution persisting.
Overseers, Drivers, and Poor Whites
Even if the master was pleasant and benevolent, that didn’t mean that slaves were treated well. However, the mistreatment often came from their direct supervisors, usually the overseers or drivers. These positions attracted poor, irresponsible white men, who otherwise would not have many employment opportunities. These men were usually the most racist individuals in the south. They were invested in slavery being tied to race and color, because otherwise, they would be prime candidates to become slave laborers. Essentially, the color of their skin was the only thing that separated them from slaves.
Paul Dano’s Tibeats and Garret Dillahunt’s Armsby characters embody the poor white perfectly. Tibeats wears his racism like a badge of honor, and is hardly able to utter a sentence without maligning the black man. A key scene that exemplifies the difference between rich planter and poor white was when Platt/Northup was recalling his experience with canals in New York, which conflicted with Tibeats’ way of doing things. The core of the overseer’s debate is simple. Since Platt is black, anything he says cannot be correct. The master favors the Platt plan and slights Tibeats. He even acknowledges that Tibeats cannot be impressed because of his prejudice, but Ford is quite impressed.
Armsby may not have been as outwardly hostile towards blacks as Tibeats, but even though he labors along with slaves, we find that he secretly does not consider himself to be on the same level. He is a bumbling, irresponsible poor white, who is just trying to make out the best that he can. Platt is fooled by Armsby, thinking that just because they work and live together, that they have anything gin common. He tries to recruit Armsby into helping his cause, but the lowly white man immediately double crosses him.
The way Master Epps responds to Platt’s cover story again proves the poor white’s lowly station. The story that the drunken laborer was using this lie as a means to becoming an overseer makes more sense than a slave writing letters to find his freedom. Of course he believed it! Even if it was true, the real story was quite remarkable.
Roll, Jordan, Roll
As I was watching 12 Years a Slave, I was continuously impressed by the respect towards history. What surprised me was when I heard the slaves singing Roll, Jordan, Roll. This was the title of Eugene Genovese’s 1976 book about slavery. Genovese did some groundbreaking research on the history of slavery, undoing the belief that slaves were simply mistreated tools for the master’s gains. With his previous work and research, he showed the paternalistic relationship between slave and master. He was also the first to rely on slave rather than planter sources. He proved theories by using their own words, and he probably also relied on Solomon Northup’s written experiences.
The song came from an old slave Spiritual, which was also how Genovese arrived at the title for his work.
While Genovese’s work was groundbreaking, his idea of Paternalism was not all encompassing. There were two historians Fogel and Engerman (actually cliometricians, people who prove history with numbers), who argued against paternalism because the numbers proved that slavery was an efficient and profitable institution. The only way to explain this efficiency is that the masters were tough on their slaves. They pressured them to be as productive as possible. While they did not shred the idea of Paternalism, they showed that is was not always the norm.
Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps was the antithesis of Christian Paternalism. He had no interest in civilizing his slaves. All he cared about were the amount of cotton they picked. If there numbers were below average, they would be subject to the whip. He was the biggest bastard of them all, treating his slaves with abject cruelty.
Like with Master Ford, McQueen does a good job at drawing Epps as a complicated, textured character. When his wife throws an object at Patsey, Epps protects his slave and threatens his wife. We wonder then whether he has genuine affection for her, but eventually realize that it is not affection, but greed that drives him to protect his “favorite” slave. She picks the most cotton, so she must be protected.
When Patsey goes to the Shaw Plantation to get a bar of soap, Epps responds with rage. He has her whipped. At first you wonder if there’s a little bit of humanity within his psyche, because he initially has Platt do the whipping. The thought is that maybe because he has affectionate feelings towards her, he cannot bear to personally harm her. Not so. When Platt doesn’t whip her with the intensity that his master desires, he takes the reins and unleashes the whip with ferocity. How dare she cross him!
The Plantation Mistress
Women were not considered property like like slaves, but based on their rights, they might as well have. They were in a different sort of bondage. Whether they entered the arrangement willingly or not, they were subject to the wishes of their husband, who was their master. He may be a bastard, like Master Epps was, but the mistress had to look the other way. Divorce was rarely an option, as the woman would be socially isolated and scorned for the rest of her life.
One would think that given their similar station, that there could be a sort of sisterhood between the mistress and slaves. History has shown that was definitely not the case. The mistress was in essence the planation manager. The husband may be the master, but they often ran the operation. They felt no kinship between slaves because they were simply from different worlds. Rich southern women were among the most highly educated in the US at the time, many having gone to private academies in their youth, learning the classics and high levels of mathematics.
One of the stronger characters is Sarah Paulson’s Mistress Epps. She has an eye of suspicion towards Patsey, showing that she is aware of the secret “relationship” between slave and master. Aware or not, she does not voice her suspicion, but she treats the slave with varying levels of aggression. She is violent with the slave at one point, and undermines her with passive aggression at other times. Master Epp’s eventual punishment of Patsey could have been a direct result of the Mistresses constant needling.
We don’t see Mistress Epps working on the books or managing the business, but we see her as more competent and sober compared to her overbearing husband. Even though her station is nearly as low as a slave, she is a tough, stoic woman, more than capable of asserting herself.
12 Years a Slave
If I had not known better, I might question the history of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. I’ve skimmed some message boards where people are critical of the portrayals. They defy many stereotypes seen in other movies, most recently notable in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. After studying the Old South for a few months, however, I have found myself more than impressed by the treatment of history. McQueen could have easily succumbed to Hollywood stereotypes to make a more palatable movie. He and his historical adviser, Henry Louis Gates, have done as much as possible to capture slavery as it was in reality. As a result, they have created one of the most compelling, and perhaps one of the most historically accurate popular films to come out in recent years.