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One of the most successful monster romps of the 1950s was born, bred and polished in Pennsylvania, with some pro acting talent imported from New York. Independent producer Jack H. Harris made news by licensing his monster thriller The Blob to Paramount for a terrific profit. Paramount must have been after a socko hit like Godzilla or Rodan, overseas acquisitions that had done well for Joseph E. Levine and DCA.
The Blob has a unique origin. Harris produced it in rural Pennsylvania in partnership with some religious filmmakers making quality 35mm inspirational short subjects. The director at Valley Forge Studios was Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., an idealist committed to spreading his faith via film. Harris saw an opportunity to turn out commercial color features at a fraction of what it would take in Hollywood or New York.
Criterion's deluxe presentation illuminates all aspects of this drive-in classic. The Blob brought Steve McQueen his first starring feature role and reinvigorated the fashion for teen-angst monster films. Its disturbingly simple concept out-shocked movies about shaggy werewolves and gigantic bugs. Twenty years later Steven Spielberg galvanized imaginations by hyping a sea creature that did only three things: swim, eat, and reproduce. What if there came to earth a mindless substance with only one purpose, to dissolve and assimilate human flesh? One can't negotiate with The Blob.
The story captures the slow pace of rural life, interrupted by something extraordinary. Decent teens Steve Andrews and Jane Martin (Steven McQueen & Aneta Corsaut) encounter an injured Old Man (Olin Howland of Them!), whose arm is covered with a gelatinous substance. They rush him to the house of Doctor Hallen (Steven Chase of When Worlds Collide), only for the doctor to also be consumed by the mass of protoplasm. Police Lt. Dave (Earl Rowe) wants to understand but Officer Jim Bert (John Benson) thinks Steve's wild story is personal anti-authoritarian harassment. Picked up by their parents, Jane and Steve sneak out again to solve the mystery. Growing as it eats more people, The Blob traps the teens in a supermarket freezer and then infiltrates a movie theater and attacks the audience. It finally lays siege to a diner, trapping Steve and Jane in the cellar. Steve discovers that The Blob is repelled by extreme cold... but can he relay that information to the rescuers outside?
One of the best-remembered 50s movie monsters, The Blob has persisted in the public consciousness despite pedestrian direction and a pace that's on the poky side. The script owes a debt to Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, and young star Steve McQueen (27 playing 17) is clearly working in James Dean mode. Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr's sincere direction shapes characters as warm as those found in the TV family sitcoms of the day. Steve Andrews and Jane Martin may be slow on the uptake, but unlike the teens of American-International's Earth vs. The Spider and Invasion of the Saucermen, they're sarcasm- and irony-free.
The independent production displays a blend of professional and non-pro qualities. The color cinematography is good but the low budget shows somewhat in Yeaworth's static setups; the script dawdles in dialogue scenes. Jack Harris brought promising actor McQueen and future television player Corsaut from New York to play against local theater talent. Some of the film's acting is atrocious, with Jane's little brother Danny (Kieth Almoney) especially hopeless as he shoots at the Blob with a cap pistol holstered over his 'jammies'.
On the other hand, ingenious low-tech special effects animate the cherry-red mass of goo with clever gags that avoid expensive opticals. Effects man Bart Sloane cut budget corners by photographing the Blob in front of color photo blow-ups. Red-colored silicone oozes slowly and silently, only to suddenly lunge onto Olin Howland's arm. Having just gobbled up the movie audience at the Bijou, it flows into the street like murderous red caramel.
The Blob's scenes of menace unspool at an even pace, often without music; 1958 viewers reported that the film was genuinely frightening. At the last minute, Ralph Carmichael's title theme was substituted with a novelty song by Burt Bacharach and Mack David. It's now considered an immortal piece of camp: "Beware of The Blob it leaps, and creeps, and slides and glides across the floor, right through the door..."
Why is The Blob scary? Its inspirational bloodline traces immediately back to Nigel Kneale's highly influential The Quatermass Xperiment, in which a man slowly transforms into a mass of protoplasm. The Blob's menace is even more elemental and existential. It's not an intelligent life form; its only instinct is to consume. The Blob has no philosophy and no message; it's irreducible. It's the organic equivalent of Ice-9 in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle, a hard, inert substance that crystallizes all water into... more Ice-9. The Blob is an organic solvent that converts all living matter into more Blob. It homogenizes Life. If the Blob consumed the whole world and became sentient, perhaps the earth would be like Stanislaw Lem's planet Solaris, a living ocean of protoplasm.
This deceptively uncomplicated monster thriller disturbs at a subconscious level because its menace negates all human values. Its victims don't just die, they're instantly recycled as raw material for a mindless and Godless 'thing'. The Blob brought sheltered American teenagers of the 1950s a taste of existential doom. It isn't about outer space or the future; it's about death in the age of the atom.
Curiously, the film's silly ending has the Air Force transport The Blob to the North Pole. Although the consensus opinion is that it cannot be destroyed, all agree that the low temperatures will keep it inert and harmless. A final dialogue exchange assures us that the world will be safe, "as long as the Arctic stays cold". Well, the final shot does end with a Jack H. Harris signature Question Mark. Someone page Al Gore.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Blob duplicates their good DVD release from 2000, which itself was a reworking of the company's old letterboxed laserdisc from the early 1990s. The good HD transfer replicates the Kodachrome- like colors of original prints, and mattes the feature at an appropriate 1:66 AR. The soundtrack is also of pristine quality. The disc carries two separate commentaries. Host Bruce Eder does his best to corral the garrulous Jack H. Harris, a producer who made a habit of buying up overachieving indie films by excited young filmmakers, and squeezing a profit from them with cagey distribution deals. Only much later did we learn that the bizarre movie-within-a-movie seen in the Colonial Theater is another Harris pickup, the bizarro art film Daughter of Horror. I remember Forrest Ackerman printing pictures in Famous Monsters of Filmland of the poster seen in the Colonial's front display -- even he theorized that it was a 'made up' title like the robot-vampire feature faked from a poster for Forbidden Planet.
A second commentary offers the thoughts of director Yeaworth Jr. and ex-teen actor Robert Fields. Yeaworth was a dedicated fellow, a lifelong maker of religious films for TV, educational and even theatrical purposes. His anti-drug films are some of the most moving in the field, simply because Yeaworth transferred his personal ethical values to his work.
The disc's brief menu section contains a trailer and an extra called Blob-abilia!, which contains stills from the collection of Blob enthusiast Wes Shank, and explains how the film's interesting special effects were accomplished.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Blob Blu-ray rates:
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