The Blob (1958) is one of the most emblematic and enduringly popular sci-fi films of the 1950s. Partly it's because of that goofy but apt and undeniably memorable title. Another reason is, unlike the vast majority of low-budget sci-fi films of its era, The Blob was photographed in color, thus making it much more desirable for local TV airings in the decades following its release which in turn kept it very much in the public eye. And, finally, its producers had the sense and incredible good fortune to cast Steve McQueen on the cusp of his stardom, the movie opening almost simultaneously with the television premiere of Wanted: Dead or Alive, a series that soon led to bigger and better things. McQueen's marquee value gave the film even more exposure through subsequent theatrical reissues during the 1960s, much to McQueen's great embarrassment.
He needn't have been, however, for The Blob is astoundingly good for its budget level. It cost just $110,000 to make, peanuts even by 1950s standards, and though its cheapness and the relative inexperience of the people who made are apparent here and there, it's extremely effective almost from start to finish. The script is admirably ambitious, fleshing out even minor characters and their motivations but, also cleverly, it wisely limits its scope and scale to what was possible with that very limited amount of money. Not until George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) would filmmakers use so little money so well. Though its title suggests something campy to be derided, in fact The Blob has an impressively engrossing story and, by 1950s standards, even a few genuinely scary moments.
Criterion released The Blob to DVD back in 2000. That version looked terrific and was crammed with loads of worthwhile extra features. Were I not reviewing Criterion's new Blu-ray I'd probably resist double-dipping myself. But within the first few minutes of watching this I realized just how wrong I was. This new high-definition transfer, with all but one reel scanned from the original camera negative, is a spectacular improvement over that earlier transfer. Far more detail is visible and the movie's bright primary colors just about pop off the screen. By the end I was longing for Criterion (or some other label) to release Blu-rays of the equally fine 4-D Man (1959), which has never had a good video transfer, and the goofy but fun Dinosaurus! (1960), the two other features made by the same Valley Forge, Pennsylvania-based team.
The simple story is confined to a small rural Pennsylvania town over the course of a single night. Steve Andrews ("Steven McQueen," as the credits bill him) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) are making out on Lover's Lane when they see a meteorite crash nearby. An old man (Olin Howland) pokes the hot rock with a stick and the meteorite breaks apart, revealing a small jelly-like blob inside. The blob unexpectedly slides up the stick, attaching itself to the old man's hand and begins eating him alive, though this is not immediately apparent.
Steve and Jane stumble across the old man and rush him to Doc Hallen's (Stephen Chase) small clinic. Steve and Jane leave while the doctor calls his nurse. So voracious is the parasitic blob that he fears he'll need her help to amputate the old man's arm in order to stop it from spreading.
By the time she arrives it's too late. The blob has absorbed the old man completely and, in an unnerving scene, attacks Doc Hallen and the nurse, absorbing them, too. Steve and Jane try to alert the police but hothead Sgt. Bert (John Benson), a cop with a big chip on his shoulder, insists the kids' wild claims are part of an elaborate hoax designed to make him look foolish. Meanwhile the blob attacks more people ... and gets bigger, and BIGGER.
The Blob was an anomaly among '50s science fiction movies. The filmmakers weren't inexperienced, though with a single exception they'd made only short, mainly religious films, not commercial narrative features. Co-writer Kay Linaker had been a busy actress in Hollywood B movies during the '30s and '40s; possibly her experiences helped shape the unusually good screenplay, which fleshes out even the most minor of characters. After briefly introducing Steve and Jane as ordinary, decent young adults and Police Lt. Dave as a refreshingly nonjudgmental authority figure they can count on, every scene drives the plot forward, the story stopping only briefly here and there for short bits of added character color.
Steve, Jane, and the other young actors are always described as teenagers but in the movie they seem to be playing 18-20-year-old high school graduates, more like the characters of American Graffiti. The crowd-pleasing movie makes them everyday heroes responding logically to a crisis while, at the same time, the script avoids demonizing the adults. By the end Sgt. Bert gets a little moment of salvation, while Jane's stern, high school principal father, in trying to stop the blob, actually throws a rock through his school's front window. I'll bet that got a big cheer from 1958 audiences.
The various people behind The Blob made virtually all the right choices. For example, they were wise in hiring seasoned, professional actors in all of the major speaking parts rather than rely strictly on local talent. Besides McQueen and Corsaut, Olin Howland had a long career as a wily character actor, often in Westerns, while Stephen Chase had a similarly largely anonymous career playing colonels, doctors, bartenders and the like. McQueen seems to be half-heartedly channeling James Dean (lots of hemming and hawing) in a noncommittal performance, but even so was burning hot and his unique screen charisma still shines through. (When the same filmmaking team made their next picture, 4-D Man, they cast a young actor named Robert Lansing in the leading role. Lansing resembled McQueen quite a bit and was an equally fine actor.)
The low budget shows itself in minor ways. Cinematographer Thomas E. Spaulding was probably used to industrial-type static shots because whenever there's a lot of movement the film frequently goes slightly out of focus. Other than a few good matte paintings and opticals, the blob effects were achieved simply, mainly using a gelatinous substance sliding around carefully positioned still photographs. Occasionally the perspective is a bit off, revealing the trick. But most of the blob effects are quite believable.
The real small town locations add a verisimilitude not possible in bigger Hollywood sci-fi films geographically limited to overused locations within driving distance of Los Angeles. When, for instance, the blob is loose in a local supermarket, it's clear that a real market with real advertising and produce is being utilized, the kind of place much more recognizable to everyday moviegoers than, say, an elaborate soundstage set or the palm tree-dotted boulevards of Southern California.
Video & Audio
Helpful liner notes explain the 1.66:1 The Blob was scanned in 4K from the original camera negative with the exception of Reel 5, which was too damaged to be accessed and instead an interpositive was substituted. That reel more closely resembles the older DVD transfer but, thankfully, the picture pops back into extreme clarity just as the Blob gets loose in the Colonial (Movie) Theater, where it grows to gigantic proportions after eating the projectionist and half the unlucky audience. The added clarity is quite obvious and a real treat even for those very familiar with the movie. (The transfer includes the Paramount logo at the head and tail; they picked the film up for distribution originally, double-billing it with I Married a Monster from Outer Space, another "triumph over title" movie.) The English LPCM 1.0 mono (English only) is strong, the disc includes optional English subtitles and the film is Region A encoded.
Supplements include two wonderful audio commentary tracks recorded in 2000, first with distributor Jack H. Harris and historian Bruce Eder, the other with director Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr. and Robert Fields, one of the "teenagers" seen in the film, and who has lots of good things to say about McQueen. Kim Newman contributes good liner notes and there's a trailer, in high-def but awfully dog-eared. Finally, what's billed as "Blobabilia!" is actually a collection of behind-the-scenes photographs, many annotated, along with poster and lobby card art from around the world (some of it hilarious).
(Mild Spoiler) The Blob isn't so much destroyed as put on ice. "At least we got it stopped," Lt. Dave says at the end. "Yeah," replies Steve, "as long as the Arctic stays cool." When The Blob concludes with a title card reading "The End?" who'd have imagined this clever film was also extraordinarily prescient? 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. Plop! A DVD Talk Collector Series Title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.