Blob, The (1988)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-10-22 01:36

Written by: Chuck Russell & Frank Darabont (screenplay), Irvine H. Millgate (story), Theodore Simonson, Kay Linaker (earlier screenplay)
Directed by: Chuck Russell
Starring: Shawnee Smith, Kevin Dillon, and Donovan Leitch Jr.

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"The organism is growing at a geometric rate. By all accounts, it's at least a thousand times its original mass."

"This will put U.S. defense years ahead of the Russians."

I must have breezed by the copy of The Blob at my local video store dozens of times as a kid before finally deciding to rent it. In my hurry to make my weekend reunion with Freddy, Jason, Michael, or the Crites, the best I could usually muster was a curious glance at the eye-catching art, which admittedly frightened me and was probably responsible for my hesitation. Even after I decided to check it out, Iím not sure that it ever became part of my usual rotationóI enjoyed it (read: watching people being chewed up by an acidic blob was cool), but it didnít become much of a favorite until I got older and realized what it was up to.

I canít help but wonder if my experience is a microcosm for the filmís overall reception: largely ignored upon its release and even now considered a tagalong in the conversation of 80s remakes of 50s sci-fi (a narrow niche if there ever was one), itís largely overshadowed by The Thing and The Fly, both of which have been canonized as equals (if not superiors) to the films that inspired them. Meanwhile, The Blob stands demurely on the podium with its bronze medal, a distant third when all it does is markedly improve the í58 film and brilliantly update it. Released at the twilight of Cold War hysteria, Chuck Russellís take twists the original filmís subtext into a subversive reflection of a new type of growing domestic paranoia. Itís a great film thatís at least deservedly oozed its way into this discussion over the past 25 years and has (appropriately enough) only grown in stature as itís gained momentum.

Like its predecessor, it presents small-town Americana under siege by an alien force. Arborville, California is an especially Rockwellian scene even in the late 80s: teeming with diners, matinee theaters, and a high school football obsession that consumes the entire town each Friday night, it could mostly pass as the same streets Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut walked thirty years earlier. But something troubling lurks beneath the faÁade: the kids here are much more promiscuous (as evidenced by a humorous condom-purchasing episode), and the latest brain-dead slasher flick has arrived in town to prey on the innocence of the children. Some purity remains, however, as star football player Paul (Donovan Leitch) and cheerleader Meg (Shawnee Smith) head out on a date, only to have it interrupted by a bizarre encounter with local biker bad boy Brian (Kevin Dillon) and an old man (Billy Beck) with a strange blob affixed to his hand. The detour leads to the hospital, where their date ends with both the stranger and Paul reduced to gory sludge.

Like its aforementioned contemporaries, The Blob clearly isnít fucking around. Its mean streak is on display early and often, with the first-act protagonist switcheroo (Meg eventually aligns romantically with Brian, what with her other date having been absorbed by an alien blob) immediately setting the film off-kilter, especially when compared to the original. This one essentially kills off the Steve McQueen analogue and replaces him with a more brooding loner, a James Dean type that you actually might have expected to pop up in the original. The manner in which is callously dispatches Paul is especially unnerving; by 1988, offing what appears to be a protagonist wouldnít have been that jarring, but the sight of a hollowed out corpse is a far cry even from Janet Leigh being butchered via montage.

Russell and co-writer Frank Darabontís early gambit foreshadows the ultimate twist lying in wait: in this version, the titular blob is not completely alien in nature. Sure, it arrives clinging to a meteor from outer space, but itís soon revealed that a shadowy cabal of government agents (headed by a disarmingly sinister Joe Seneca) has arrived to clean up its own mess. Turns out the blob is an experimental bio-weapon gone horribly awry, and, suddenly, Meg, Brian, and the townsfolk have to contend with a growing panic and a government-enforced quarantineóas if trying to evade sentient, bloodthirsty gelatin werenít enough.

Itís certainly a paradigm shift and admittedly not a very subtle one that points to the growing concern that American audiences werenít so much worried about threats from without as much as those from within, a notion that only resonates more 26 years later. While the original film relies on an obvious subtext (itís hard not to see an amorphous, all-consuming, red blob and not sound the Communist alarm), Russellís update makes it the text. One can argue that the sight of American citizens forced to battle rifle-wielding government agents in its own streets is at least as disturbing as a glob capable of eating your face off, if not more so. In 2014, The Blob almost feels like a Tea Party or Truther fantasy (or a nightmare for sensible people), full of government corruption and everyday (read: very, very white) folks rising up against it. The good news is that Russellís approach isnít too heavy-handed hereóitís just obvious enough to add some weight to what is otherwise a gruesome monster flick in the tradition of its B-movie ancestors.

Seriously, donít let the renewed interest in mean-spirited subtext mislead you: deep down, The Blob is an incredible, scrappily entertaining little horror movie, despite its enhanced resources when compared to the original film. Where that film was mostly put on by Hollywood outsiders (its director had previously made a living producing motivational and educational films), this update was helmed by a duo entrenched in the nebulous zone between Hollywood and the independent scene thanks to their previous collaboration on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3. For The Blob, Russell had the backing of Sonyís TriStar unit, the sort of arrangement that usually makes genre fans cringe these days when the latest property is placed upon the reboot chopping block. However, in keeping with most other revivals of the time, this only resulted in a mostly laissez-faire approach that left Russell and Darabont to mess around in a studioís toy box in order to deliver top-notch special effects and a solid cast.

Otherwise, The Blob feels like the work of true visionaries looking to respectfully revive a beloved property and do it justice. If one can attribute one reason the much-ballyhooed class of 80s remakes is so revered, this would be it: each is a personal work with much to say (and indeed, itís not surprising to learn that Russell and Darabont spent years shopping this idea around Hollywood). Perhaps most importantly in this case, it resulted with a film unafraid to let its hair down and cut loose. The film might deal in heavy themes, but The Blob is among the decadeís most amusing splatter romps.

Its transplanting of its source material to the 80s arguably makes for a more natural fit than the eraís other redux efforts, as The Blob was among the first drive-in monster movies to realize its target teenage audience would rather see themselves on screen rather than stuffy adults (even if they were played by obvious twentysomethings). By the late 80s, multiplexes had been overrun with living teenagers in the lobbies and dead ones on-screen, so itís not surprising that The Blob is a perfect fitóit might poke fun at the Garden Tool Massacres of the world (the fake slasher movie playing in Arborvilleís theater until the blob interrupts), but, generally speaking, its dedication to mangling and mutilating its cast isnít much different.

With an absolute army of artists and stuntmen at its disposal, itís also not surprising that The Blob features some of the most stunning special effects work of the age. The blob itself is a triumph of practical wizardry, as Russell isnít content to simply replicate the formless creature from the original; rather, his is a menacing, visceral creature capable of absorbing the viscera and extremities of its victims and then lashing out at its new prey. The gore effects and set-pieces (which even include a motorcycle chase!) are all top-notch as well, and the film is injected with a playful vibe that recalls the spirit of the drive-in. Itís a shame that Russell never recaptured the manic heights of the early work (itís been a disappointing slide since 1994ís The Mask) that revealed a deft balance of visual ingenuity, effects work, and indelible characters (both Dillon and Smith make for fine leads here, particularly the latter, who winds up being quite the ass-kickeróshe would have made a fine scream queen had she ever assumed the mantle).

If the 80s set the bar that all genre remakes should aspire to, then The Blob certainly had a hand in establshing itómaybe it ever ascends to the heights of The Thing or The Fly, but it does offer a humorously-pitched funhouse vibe those two don't and even does so without sacrificing its thematic heft in the process. Whatís important is that itís distinguishable at all: in an age where current remakes often feel like stagnant, manufactured products, The Blob is a reminder that it doesnít always have to be so. Somewhat fittingly, it has lagged behind those other remakes in making its way to Blu-ray, but the wait is over thanks to Twilight Time. More importantly, the disc has been worth the wait, as the high-definition transfer is well done and doesnít exhibit any signs of digital tampering, and the 5.1 DTS-MA track represents an upgrade over the DVDís 2.0 Dolby Surround track. Supplements include a commentary featuring Russell and horror expert Ryan Turek, an 18-minute Q&A interview with the director at L.A.ís Cinefamily, an isolated track highlighting Michael Hoenigís eerie score, the filmís original trailer, plus liner notes from Julie Kirgo. Even if The Blob is destined to always remain the shadow of Carpenter and Cronenberg's films, it's no less worthwhile and deserves its moment of gooey, gory glory. Essential!

The Blob and other Twilight Time titles can be purchased at Screen Archives.

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