Warning: spoilers for both movies throughout.
1. The 1958 B-movie “The Blob” is one of my favorite films, and one of the few to earn annual viewing in my house. It’s a smart crowd-pleaser too often overshadowed by a reputation for being just another cheap-and-cheesy low budget product of the dopey 50s.
2. The 1988 remake of the same name is, while not a perfect film, a perfect remake, the sort of picture that respects the source material while updating themes for the times. It’s an old story retold with a fresh voice, eager to make improvements where they’re needed and unwilling to tamper with scenes that don’t. While horror fans quickly call up “The Thing,” “The Fly,” and “Dawn of the Dead” as rare horror remakes that soar, they usually overlook “The Blob.”
Curiously, my appreciation for both films stems not from their monster movie elements, but in how they treat character. The original presents its teen leads with a respect not usually found in the age of juvenile delinquent panic. Semi-accidentally crafting itself into a “Rebel Without a Cause” for the matinee monster crowd, the screenplay (by Theodore Simonson and veteran actress Kate Phillips, from an “original idea” credited to Irvine H. Millgate) gives us teens who might get in trouble now and then but are actually good kids once you bother to get to know them. Sure, they drag race (backwards!), they park, they scuffle – but they’re just looking for a good time in a town that doesn’t offer many options for one. “The Blob” is told from their point of view; they know more than the adults, and it’s only when the adults accept this that the town is able to pull together and stop the monster.
Steve McQueen – infamously billed as “Steven McQueen” in his first major role, and, at the ripe age of 27, never convincing as a high schooler – stars as Steve Andrews, who, along with girlfriend Jane (Aneta Corsaut), stumbles upon an old man (Olin Howland) who’s become the unfortunate first victim of a gooey mass which hatched from a meteorite and has set out to eat everything it can. Rather than reduce the teens to clichéd types, the script lends them an honesty – they have a genuine concern for what’s happening, a need to help others, and a ready acceptance of responsibility. They often act more grown up than the grown-ups.
Earl Rowe plays a cop introduced as “Lieutenant Dave,” and what a great character name, gifted upon him by Steve and his friends. We know from the start this is the guy the kids can trust; he’s willing to give Steve the same attention he’d give any adult. (Sgt. Bert, played by John Benson, is less trusting out of contrast, but not cartoonishly so, and with reason – his wife was killed in a car crash caused by a careless youth. Other grown-ups also have doubts about Steve’s story, but it’s a dismissal borne from realism, not plot device or generation gap.) It’s a trust that soon spreads to the other adult characters, a transformation best represented when Jane’s father – the school principal – leads a gang of teens to the school to collect fire extinguishers. They’re all in this together.
Side characters are given quirks to bring them alive, like an officer’s chess game via radio; others get one-off comic shtick, like the pajama-clad air raid warden hunting for his uniform or the housekeeper intent on cleaning a crime scene. Such lightheartedness helps diffuse the fact that the horror just isn’t that scary, really – these are fun scares, not unsettling ones, and even the film’s grimmest moments are relatively tame. Paramount’s first move after buying the film from producer Jack H. Harris was to replace the film’s menacing opening theme with a novelty tune by Burt Bacharach and Mack David (brother of Bacharach’s usual partner Hal David); “Beware of the Blob” is intentionally goofy and suggests the viewer should laugh along with, not at, the film’s visual effects shortcomings (which play off, then, as the charms of a locally-made independent lark).
It’s interesting to watch writers and fans scramble to find an appropriate metaphor for “The Blob” – after all, this was the 1950s, when every sci-fi horror flick had to mean something, be it a commentary on Eisenhower-era conformity or a reaction to atomic age fears or a warning of the Communist threat. The most common analysis suggests the latter, but I’d like to think “The Blob” stands for nothing but a good scare at the movies (suggested best by the classic, winkingly meta sequence where the creature oozes into a theater showing a “midnight spook show,” sending viewers screaming into the streets). Sure, it sneaks some ideas into the corners, mainly the aforementioned “the kids are alright” premise, but overall it’s harmlessly, almost admirably shallow. It works because it’s sincere in its superficiality, hoping to earn some gee-whiz reactions from an eager audience.
The same goes, more or less, for the 1988 remake, adapted by Chuck Russell (who also directed) and Frank Darabont (both veterans of the third “Nightmare on Elm Street” film). By this point in the decade, horror movies were crowding multiplexes, and few of them were bothering with social commentary. “The Blob” was no exception; although Darabont and Russell made notable changes to the script that can be read for thematic depth, those changes are really signs of changing times.
For its first half, the 1988 “Blob” roughly follows the same story structure as the original, expanding but not really altering plot. There’s still a meteorite and a hapless old man and teens who try to help, and you bet there’s still a movie theater that gets invaded. No longer constrained by budget, however, we can now see more of the small town setting (updated to a small ski town on the decline) and its inhabitants; the story can afford a more complete introduction to its players.
Again, the emphasis is on character, this time with the writers playing some cruel tricks with our expectations. The film gives us three teen leads, not two, and we’re certain the hunky football star Paul (Donovan Leitch) will be our Steve McQueen stand-in, and scruffy greaser Brian (Kevin Dillon) is simply a third wheel, especially since it’s Paul, not Brian, who asks out cheerleader Meg (Shawnee Smith). Yes, it’s Brian who finds the old man (now reduced from scruffy hick to full-on hobo, played by Billy Beck), but it’s Paul who stays with him at the hospital after Brian blows them off. It’s also Paul who gets killed off next, and the only way you saw that coming is if you’ve seen the movie before.
The script also takes great pains to set up a potential romance between the nice-guy sheriff (Jeffrey DeMunn) – an updated take on Lt. Dave – and diner waitress Fran (Candy Clark), only to kill them off in the first reel, too. By the time the creature gets around to killing a kid (something the original wouldn’t have dared), we figure all bets are off. Indeed, one of the few people who do manage to survive is Reverend Meeker (Del Close), a greasy holy roller whose creepy ways would make him an easy early victim in just about any other horror film of the era.
By the story’s midpoint, the filmmakers have managed to carefully and faithfully keep the original in mind while tossing around updated gross-out moments (this creature doesn’t just absorb its prey, but rip them apart and digest them in plain view, for maximum gruesome effect) and sly comic asides (there’s a great payoff to a “teens buy condoms” gag that leaps out just when you forgot about the set-up). Yet even with these additions, the plot remains recognizable to fans of the original.
Then, suddenly, the government shows up. We’re asked at first to trust kindly Dr. Meddows (Joe Seneca), but Brian knows better. Turns out he’s right: those guys in hazmat suits are up to no good, on the trail of a biological weapon they created, then lost, and they’re willing to tell any lie to stick to the cover-up.
It’s a then-modern twist on the 50s sci-fi trope of “scientists bad, military good.” The tail end of the Cold War didn’t see much distrust of science in our movies the same way it popped up in the Atomic Age, whose movies’ messages often boiled down to “science will kill us all.” (Curiously, nuclear paranoia often fostered faith, not doubt, in government.) Nor did it see a parade of faith in the military – sure, Reagan Era jingoism in the form of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Norris blowing stuff up but good ruled the screen, but so did a wave of Baby Boomer post-Vietnam guilt; the two more or less cancelled each other out, resulting in confidence in our troops but not their commanders, the old guys with their fingers on the button.
For their 1988 upgrade, Russell and Darabont combine the rival factions of 1950s sci-fi into a singular scientific military organization, then tells us we can’t trust them because they’re with the government. Indeed, few in authority are trustworthy. We can trust the cops – even weaselly Deputy Briggs (Paul McCrane) takes Brian’s side by the end – but they’re an exception. When the teens bring the old man to the hospital, they’re not greeted with the immediate help Doc Hallen (Steven Chase) offered in the original film; instead, the staff, uninterested in an uninsured patient, dumps him in a back room somewhere. Compare this to the 1958 version, where the teens’ first instinct is to inform the police and where their last instinct is to trust the government and the military to properly handle disposing the creature.
And what of Reverend Meeker, whom we assume is some sort of community leader? His very appearance suggests someone deserving of several yards’ distance, while the epilogue reveals he’s quietly assisting in the monster’s return. In the aftermath of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, who could count on religion? Certainly not Del Close, whose every move is calculated to make us uneasy.
But is an uncertainty in leadership what “The Blob” remake is “about”? Yes and no. It deals with these themes the same way the 1950s B-pictures that inspired it did: by working them into the margins. It’s bigger, faster, and gorier, a slick example of changes in audience tastes, but at its core? It’s still just about some kids who keep a monster from destroying a town.