Tuesday, March 12, 2013

THE BLOB: Blu-ray (Paramount 1958) Criterion Home Video

Okay, let’s just get one thing out of the way right away! It’s a little difficult to get one’s knickers in a ball over a giant piece of purple Jell-o rolling around the city streets, even if it is consuming humans and other forms of life in the process. Yet Irving Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958) remains an iconic movie whose reputation has endured; today, mostly for its camp elements and the appearance of a very young Steve McQueen, signed to a three picture deal before he proved so difficult on the set of The Blob that his contract was effectively canceled after principle photography wrapped. McQueen – billed herein as ‘Steven’ – could be quite rough on his directors, particularly when he thought the material was substandard to his capabilities. Moreover, he was a bit of an egotist even then, opting for the upfront $2500 salary instead of 10% of the gross which would have netted him $400,000. However, the record has clearly shown that McQueen was destined for far greater successes after The Blob.
The Blob’s debut effectively rounds out a cycle in sci-fi/horror begun with visions of radioactive giant bugs and mushroom shaped aliens from another planet come to wreak havoc on our own. Fueled by the Cold War and its very real threat of nuclear annihilation – its deadly radiation having the power to mutate plant and animal life into our perilous executioners - the 1950s sci-fi/horror craze yielded some very fine – if exceptionally kitschy and corn-balled – popcorn flicks that whetted the public’s appetite for a ‘good scare’ while heightening our paranoia over certain Armageddon: man-made or otherwise. The cycle, arguably begun by Universal’s Creature from The Black Lagoon (1954), was later justly celebrated with creepier forays like Them! (1954),This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956). 
The key to achieving a good sustained fright from the audience derives from a filmmaker’s ability to maintain our fear of the unknown.  If all else fails the director can always rely on an ominous monster to generate palpable terror, as in, say the gill man from Creature from The Black Lagoon. Inevitably, a horror movie is only as good or as terrifying as its monster. Bad monster. Bad movie. Yet, The Blob defies this logic almost from the moment its first hapless victim (Olin Howland) begins probing the ominous glowing meteorite with a common twig, only to have its suspicious aubergine ooze suddenly turn corrosive and devour his arm. No, there’s no getting around it. The Blob is little more than a sticky ball of translucent Silly Putty taking out the citizens of Dowingtown Pennsylvania using the element of surprise as its primary weapon. As it grows in size the blob becomes much more of an obvious threat, a sinister mass unidentifiable from either the front or back, spreading like jelly to swallow its victims whole.
The film’s original working title, ‘The Molten Meteor’ was presumably changed at the last minute when screenwriter Kay Linaker began referring to the creature as ‘the blob’; an inspired choice of words. For ‘blob’ suggests something unseemly, strange, lacking a definite form – and by extension – a definite purpose. The movie really isn’t forthcoming with any explanation as to the blob’s origins either. It came from outer space - period. But exactly from where and to what purpose – these questions are never fully addressed, leaving our minds to run ramped with possible scenarios. Director Irvin Yeaworth had begun his career by making motivational, educational and religious short subjects, a curious apprenticeship for The Blob – his first feature. And yet the film is imbued with all of the psychological and spiritual underpinnings of a cautionary tale. Is The Blob a metaphor for man’s own affinity for self-destruction – another cold war experiment gone horribly awry - or is it a harbinger of death, like some Biblical plague, divinely inspired to teach mankind a lesson?   
On a miniscule budget of $110,000, The Blob went on to gross more than $4 million in its initial release, thanks to teens and twenty-somethings flocking to drive-ins all across the country. Over the years there have been conflicting reports as to how ‘the blob’ was actually created. What we do know is that the creature was an amalgam of shots incorporating a modified weather balloon and the clever use of colored silicone gel. Shot mostly in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania and using real locations like the Colonial Theater wherever possible, certain inserts were later added using rear projection and miniatures to rather obvious effect. The Blob is also noteworthy for its rather featherweight pop tune title track written by Burt Bacharach and performed by ‘The Five Blobs’. In truth there was only one ‘blob’ – contract singer Bernie Nee, whose vocal was recorded five separate times and then combined to achieve its lush ‘Boris Karloff-esque’ sound. Regrettably, Bacharach’s contribution would go unnoticed for decades despite its popularity on the hit parade and yielding several covers by other artists, yet only Ralph Carmichael's underscore received screen credit.
The genius of Kay Linaker’s screenplay is that it all takes place during one harrowing night and (for budgetary reasons primarily) in an isolated rural enclave. We open on a pair of passionate friends; Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) enjoying the pleasures of their local Lovers’ Lane. Their enflamed desires are regrettably interrupted by an eye witness account of a meteorite crash landing over the next hill. Steve is intrigued and goes off to investigate. Unfortunately, an old farmer (Olin Howland) has discovered it first, probing the shattered remains with a wooden stick to reveal its jelly-like center. The blob quickly attaches itself to the farmer’s hand, its acidic properties sending the man running into the street where he is nearly struck by Steve’s car. Presuming the farmer’s injury to be burns sustained by the meteorite Steve and Jane drive him to Doctor Hallen (Stephen Chase) who is about to depart for a medical conference.
Only Doc Hallen has never seen anything quite like this before. Without the proper diagnosis he still manages to anesthetize the farmer before asking Steve and Jane to return to the impact site and gather more evidence; though why no one thinks to telephone the police immediately remains a curiosity. Hallen speculates that the arm must be amputated with all speed – a conclusion reached too late to save the farmer who has already been consumed by the blob. In short order Hallen and his nurse, Kate (Lee Payton) suffer similar fates, the blob growing significantly in size after devouring all three. Steve arrives just in time to see the blob consume Hallen. Terrified, he rushes to the police station, dragging back with him a very reluctant Lieutenant Dave (Earl Rowe) and equally skeptical Sergeant Jim Bert (John Benson). Dave and Bert pass off Steve’s story as a teenage prank, particularly when their cursory search of Hallen’s office reveals no sign of the good doctor, his assistant or the blob.
Escorted to their respective parents’ homes by the police Steve and Jane sneak out in search of the creature who has by then ingested another victim; an unsuspecting mechanic working under an automobile in his garage. In the meantime, Steve and Jane reunite with another friend, Tony (Robert Fields) at a midnight screening at the Colonial Theater. Tony gathers some of his friends to hear Steve’s account. Only the diner is full of late night drunks who don’t take him very seriously. Dejected, Steve and Jane leave, crossing the street where Steve takes notice that his father’s grocery store is unlocked. Cautiously, the pair goes inside in search of the midnight janitor who seems to have vanished into thin air.
Too late Steve and Jane find themselves cornered by the blob, grown very large and bubbly and forcing them into the walk-in refrigeration unit in the backroom. The blob begins to ooze underneath the door but suddenly pulls back leaving Steve to conclude that the creature cannot withstand exposure to colder temperatures. Escaping the grocery store, Steve and Jane set off the town’s air-raid sirens, incurring the wrath of both the townspeople and the police; that is until the blob is spotted inside the theater, absorbing its projectionist and slithering into the auditorium where it devours more patrons attempting to flee.
In the ensuing panic Jane's young brother Danny (Keith Almoney) fires his cap gun at the blob, now a towering mass of red jelly. Narrowly saving Danny, Steve and Jane once again find themselves trapped, this time inside the diner with its manager, George (Vincent Barbi) and a waitress, Sally (Julie Cousins).  Officer Ritchie (George Karas) establish a radio connection using the diner’s telephone and orders Steve to take everyone into the cellar while they drop a live power line on the blob. This only serves to set the diner ablaze, but it also encourages George to use his fire extinguisher. The C02 from its canister puts out the flames but also forces the blob to temporarily retreat. Communicating their discovery to Lieutenant Dave, Jane’s father (Elbert Smith) arrives on the scene with extinguishers commandeered from the local high school and, with the aid of police and students they drive the blob from the diner before freezing it into submission.  Steve, Jane and the rest emerge unharmed and Dave requests that an Air Force jet transport the frozen mass to the Arctic where it will surely never be allowed to thaw.
Viewed today The Blob is ridiculously outdated, but undeniably good fun – ultra-camp – if one can coin the term as such, and carried off with such believability by its principles that one cannot help but appreciate the story as memorably silly. Given that the film’s ‘The End’ credit turns into a gigantic question mark it is remarkable no follow up was ever made until 1972’s pedestrian low budget effort, Beware: The Blob. Indeed, Paramount, who had inherited the distribution rights, was more than impressed by the film’s box office receipts. A few lingering interoffice memos superficially suggest a sequel might have been in the works. But by then Steve McQueen was a star, negating his further involvement.
In retrospect, The Blob has come to define the ultimate sci-fi/horror flick from the 1950s. Endlessly revived on Saturday afternoon TV broadcasts as a ‘creature feature’ the film’s cult status was forever assured when, in 1988 director Chuck Russell undertook a much spookier and more technically savvy remake. Although Russell’s update is undeniably more sinister and graphic than the original, it generally pales by comparison. It seems that audiences, whatever their age or generation still cannot get enough of Irvin Yeaworth’s original.
Remastered in 4K The Blob on Blu-ray from Criterion yields a very pleasing image. Even back in its day The Blob’s special effects were not considered state of the art. But the new 1080p resolution doesn’t seem to have made their trickery any more transparent. Colors really pop. The DVD – also from Criterion – had a greenish tint to it. The Blu-ray’s palette looks far more natural, with a bit of well represented film grain and very solid contrast. Criterion has resisted the urge for a new 5.1 mix. We get a 1.0 DTS mono that is adequate instead. Extras are anemic at best. Two commentary tracks, a gallery of still images and some linear notes - disappointing! Otherwise, this one comes recommended: truly a time capsule. So, beware – The Blob…or just enjoy it for what it is; harmless, weird fun!  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

No comments: