Thursday, October 30, 2014

THE BLOB: Blu-ray (TriStar Pictures 1988) Twilight Time

Director Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988) is, in hindsight, a fairly impressive achievement on several levels. First, at just under $20,000,000 it’s a fairly low-budget rehash of a 1958 cult classic about a protoplasmic ‘thing’ from another world…or so it would seem. The remake adds a neat little twist; the presumed meteor fallen from the sky is actually a biological test satellite launched by the U.S. military, whose bio unit have arrived en masse, naively endeavoring to ‘contain’ their formless threat with conventional weapons – and even more conventional wisdom. Second, most of the movies effects are done full-scale and in-camera with only a few obvious matte process shots and miniatures evident during the climactic showdown; Russell’s blob primarily constituted from the same thickening agent used in a McDonald’s milkshake.  That alone makes me never want to drink their milkshakes again! Third, the cast – featuring Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith (among others) – are more than competent.
Too few horror movies have hedged their bets on A-class SFX, but third rate forgettable faces with minimal acting talent to carry the load. Yes, The Blob is still chocked full of ‘stock characters’ bordering on cliché; the oversexed football jock (Ricky Paull Goldin), the high school princess/cheerleader (Smith), the leather-wearing/motorcycle-riding rebel without a cause (Dillon), the religious zealot (Del Close) and the emotionless government agent (Joe Seneca). But the actors inserted into these axioms have more to offer and this makes their characterizations not only believable, but fairly compelling, even when the blob is nowhere to be seen.  Fourth, the screenplay by Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont (cribbing from the 1958 classic written by Theodore Simonson and Kay Linaker), has managed the minor coup of taking a premise we’ve already seen, borrowing its most iconic bits, but taking it in a slightly newer direction that never seems to grossly bastardize or plagiarize from the original.
It shouldn’t have worked, except that Russell has given us an analogous, shapeless terror even more disgustingly toxic and aggressive than its predecessor. Whereas the original blob rolled along the streets like a giant piece of raspberry Jell-o (there is, in fact, a hilarious Jell-o reference in Russell’s remake) and oozed through air ducts and sewers with the consistency and contents of pink Play Doh, this new amorphous bio-hazard warps and twists like a lacerated bowel with colon-esque extensions; acidic, lassoing unsuspecting victims from their theater seats, bitch-slapping them into the pavement or corrosively devouring their flesh in a gelatin tub of goo that drops like a spider from the ceiling, strong enough to crush and consume a glass and metal telephone booth with its victim already paralyzed inside. Of course, the original Blob was blessed with the presence of Steve McQueen, who brought a psychological complexity to the lead role; also, in retrospect, the cache of his megawatt star power – as yet untapped, or rather – acknowledged – when the 1958 film had its premiere. Russell’s remake supplants the importance of the male protagonist; all brawn and street smarts as played by Dillon and vetted by Smith’s proto-feminist warrior/princess who takes charge in the third act. She saves him and he repays the favor in kind. The Blob…a love story?
Hardly. In fact, at 95 minutes the Russell/Darabont screenplay hasn’t the time to give us anything more or better than these cardboard cutouts; remedial in their motivations and even less convincing in their hyper-intensive will to survive. In the post-atomic age, self-preservation remains paramount, coupled with the film’s subtext of exposing an insidious big, bad U.S. government chemical warfare run amuck. The Blob is rather heavy-handed in its telescopic focus on the time-honored cliché of illicit teenage sex leading to dire consequences; nowhere more evident than in the scene where football jock, Scott Jeske (Goldin) attempts to cop a feel (and possibly more) from his presumably inebriated date, Vicki De Soto (Erika Eleniak) who, regrettably, has already been consumed by the blob and thus is lying in wait to swallow Scott whole too. The Blob is one of only a handful of horror movies to graphically illustrate the killing of a child – Douglas Emerson as the hapless Eddie Beckner, ingested by the blob in the aqueducts beneath the town. Interestingly, The Blob did not receive the dreaded R-rating for this infraction, director Chuck Russell taking pride in the fact his movie departed from the tried and true mantra of preserving the innocent. In The Blob nothing is for certain. It isn’t only the peripheral characters who meet with a gruesome end. In fact, Russell seems to relish establishing his cast, then picking them off one at a time; dispatching the all-American clean-cut, Paul Taylor (Donovan Leitch Jr.) first; almost immediately followed up by his less altruistic counterpart, Scott Jeske. Along the way we also lose a homeless coot, Hobbes (Frank Collison), the town’s cook/dishwasher, George Ruit (Clayton Landey), waitress, Fran Hewitt (Candy Clark), sheriff, Herb Geller (Jeffrey DeMunn), his deputy, Bill Briggs (Paul McCrane) and, predictably, the evil government agent chiefly responsible for this mutant bio-toxin, Dr. Meddows (Joe Seneca).
Like its predecessor, The Blob is a cautionary tale about mankind terrorized and forced to face the unknown. Unlike the 1958 strain, however, this blob is man’s own doing; the criminality behind its Frankenstein-esque incubation our cross to bear. Co-writers, Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont have given us the solemnity and shocks we expect. But they rarely skimp on the comedy either; attaining a careful balance between the scary and the silly that never disappoints or fails to chill to the bone. In hindsight, the golden age of contemporary horror ultimately remains the 1970’s rather than the 1980’s; a decade where blood and guts undeniably replaced spookily lit cheap thrills, rarely emerging in half light from the more foreboding shadows.
The distinction must therefore be made between ‘traditional horror movie’ and the ‘slasher flick’; the latter, generally bereft of a single original idea that goes beyond how many ‘clever’ ways to photograph a person’s head being split open with an axe. All the more refreshing then, this Blob never entirely veers into that gruesome cruelty by brutalizing the audience with such schlock and nonsense. Save a rather stomach-churning moment when one victim is face-planted, then bone-crushingly sucked down a conventional sink drain (aside, I wonder how the skull fit through the elbow joint), and The Blob diverges to a sort of ole time brooding magic for its shudders; Russell giving just enough gore to satisfy without sickening us on his heart-palpating roller coaster ride.
The Blob opens with a few ominous shots of the seemingly abandoned small town of Arborville, California; Michael Hoenig’s eerie underscore punctuating the absence of human life as a cool wind blows a few sparse autumn leaves down these vacant streets.  Interestingly, we’re shown the façade of a church, complete with stone statuary; also a graveyard looking murky and fog-laden (interesting, because never again does the movie bother to revisit or explore the religious ramifications; the Reverend Meeker played strictly for laughs and camp by comedian, Del Close). From here, director, Chuck Russell segues to an ebullient high school football match; jocks, Paul Taylor and Scott Jeske discussing the finer points of seducing the prom princess, Meg Penny. Jeske’s a sly dog with only one thing on his mind. But Taylor needs the right moment to pop the question of a first date. He finds it after being crushed at the fifty yard line by members of the opposing team; Meg leaning over him with concern and accepting his proposition outright before he blacks out.
Russell now cuts to a broken bridge at the nearby, but remote, wooded area of Elkin’s Grove; juvenile delinquent Brian Flagg making his umpteenth attempt to jump, but failing to cross, the precipice on his motorcycle. He is quietly observed with amusement by the mute, homeless man, Hobbes, collecting beer cans with his dog.  The bike needs some work. But Brian is relatively unscathed…well…except for his pride. He promptly hitches a ride back into town to borrow his boss, Moss Woodley’s (Beau Billingslea) ratchet tool set. Meanwhile, at the local diner, sheriff Herb Geller is struggling to finagle his own first date with waitress, Fran Hewitt. She awkwardly resists, but then scribbles a note on Herb’s bill explaining she gets off at 11pm. Could it be love? Alas, no. Because the town is in for a very unwelcome surprise after a meteorite crash lands in Hobbes’ backyard. The inquisitive old coot pokes at the bubbling ooze with a stick and, predictably, the blob emerges to begin devouring Hobbes’ hand.
In town, the Reverend Meeker runs into Jeske, who has already cockily ordered the pharmacist (Art LaFleur) to get him a pack of ribbed Trojans for his hot date with Vicki De Soto. Lying to Meeker, the condoms are actually meant for Taylor’s evening rendezvous with Meg – and quite unaware the pharmacist also happens to be Meg’s father – Jeske hurries off to be with Vicki. In the meantime, Taylor arrives at Meg’s home; meeting her mother (Sharon Spelman), Meg’s much younger brother, Kevin (Michael Kenworthy) and his best friend, Eddie Beckner, who are intent on sneaking into an R-rated movie; aided in their petty larceny by Eddie’s older brother, Anthony (Jamison Newlander), who also happens to be an usher at the theater. It’s just another run-of-the-mill family night in a small town; everyone desperate for an early snowfall to help boost the local economy. Alas, tonight will be decidedly different.
Returning to his bike for repairs, Brian is confronted by Hobbes who endeavors to lop off his hand with a hatchet; the blob continuing to consume him as Brian pursues Hobbes into the forest. Hobbes rushes onto the highway, struck, but only wounded, by Taylor who is driving with Meg. Taylor agrees to take Hobbes to the nearby hospital, but orders Brian into the car as well, as a witness. Russell’s first bit of social commentary follows as the foursome arrives at the hospital, virtually ignored by the attending nurse (Margaret Smith) – who callously never looks up from her paperwork but has the audacity to inquire whether Hobbes has Blue Cross before attending to his wound. Brian elects to skip out, leaving Taylor and Meg to file the lengthy paperwork while Hobbes is taken to an isolated examination room and left there unattended. Some first date! Inadvertently, Taylor catches a glimpse of a queer rumbling beneath Hobbes’ bed sheet, approaching the stretcher and peeling back the covers to reveal the lower half of the old man eaten through. 
Panicked and ordering the attending physician (Jack Nance) to attend Hobbes immediately, Taylor rushes into a nearby office to telephone for the sheriff. Alas, he is unaware – until it’s much too late - the blob has attached itself to the ceiling; the amorphous/veiny gelatin dropping to devour Taylor as a horrified Meg looks on. One of the oddities of this blob is that it seems to discriminately choose its victims. There is, for example, no good reason why this glutinous wad should not ingest Meg as she struggles in vain to rescue Taylor from his fate; or the doctor or everyone else in the hospital for that matter; and director Russell never quite gets around to explaining how Meg manages to survive the ordeal unharmed to be taken home to relative safety by her mother shortly thereafter; Mr. Penny blaming everything on Brian, who he sincerely hopes will hang for Taylor’s death.
Even as it possesses no tangible mode of transport (eg. legs, feelers, etc.) to make it efficiently mobile, the blob covers an incredible amount of territory by simply rolling around; surfacing next at a remote location in the woods where Jeske is all set to have his way with a fairly inebriated Vicki. While this road trip Lothario is busy mixing more cocktails from the trunk of his car – laden with an enviable bartender’s garage of alcoholic libations – the blob sneakily oozes into his car and devours Vicki, who is passed out, from the inside; Jeske returning to his paramour and receiving his just desserts for attempting to cop a feel; the blob bursting forth from Vicki’s chest.  Director, Russell’s homage to both Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) are fairly transparent. The original blob was weird, but nevertheless relatively conventional in its consumption of human flesh. It simply oozed all over everybody. This blob is a far more passionate creature, capable of entering the human body in the most devious ways, just like Scott’s alien organism. It also maintains a back catalog of its victims, frequently regurgitating their likenesses moments before it swallows its next hapless prey.  
Meg sneaks out of her bedroom to go in search of Brian, the only one who actually believes her story. He’s glib at first, and condescending as he strolls off to the diner for a midnight snack. Meg calls him out on his macho fakery and he reveals a tender side as he coaxes her to share his sandwich. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, cook/dishwasher George Ruit is attempting to unplug a stopped up drain, unaware the blob is actually hiding inside the pipe. The blob erupts from its hiding spot, pulling, then pulverizing George into bloody pulp; sucking him whole down the pipes before spewing itself like a gooey nuclear thunder cloud into the kitchen and cornering Meg and Brian inside the backroom freezer. Once again, the blob discriminates; allowing Fran, the waitress to escape to a nearby telephone booth where she desperately tries to call the sheriff. The blob drools down the sides of the glass booth, revealing remnants of Sheriff Herb already half digested, before crushing it and absorbing Fran. Reverend Meeker witness the blob slinking into a nearby sewer. Upon exploring the ravaged diner he discovers several frozen crystals of the blob still inside the freezer, collecting and isolating them in a clear Mason jar.
Told by the police secretary the Chief is missing and Deputy Briggs is near Elkin’s Grove investigating a fallen meteorite, Meg and Bryan hurry to the forest; confronted by Dr. Meddows and his crack team of quarantine specialists wearing protective suits.  Meddows lies to the teens, explaining the blob is a biohazard from another world. He orders Meg and Brian into the back of an ambulance bound for town. Brian manages a daring escape. But Meg chooses to remain behind. She arrives in town and is reunited with her mother and father; the inhabitants corralled into the nearby city hall under the false pretext they are in grave danger of succumbing to a plague. As Meg skulks off to the theater to find Kevin and Eddie, she is unaware the blob has already overtaken the movie house projectionist and theater manager (Pons Maar).  The blob now makes its presence known to the movie patrons, who scatter in terror. Many are overtaken by the blob. But Meg manages to find Kevin and Eddie, the trio narrowly escaping into a back alley and down a sewer shaft into the aqueducts beneath the town.
The blob makes chase. Meanwhile, Meddows has sent two of his men in search of the blob; both easily consumed while they distract the creature from destroying Meg and Kevin. Alas, Eddie is not as lucky; wrestled underwater and eaten alive. Brian, who has managed an escape from Meddows and his men, has entered the drain pipe on his bicycle. He finds Meg, but the pair becomes trapped in the sewers when Meddows, endeavoring to contain the creature, deliberately traps them too by parking one of his trucks atop the manhole cover. Retrieving the rocket launcher from the backpack of one of the fallen government agents, Brian blows the truck to smithereens; emerging in the center of town with Meg in tow and exposing the whole cover story invented by Meddows as a fraud. A stand-off occurs between Meddows, Deputy Briggs and Brian, moments before the angered blob erupts from the manhole and kills Meddows.  It also causes Reverend Meeker to become severely burned.
As the terrified inhabitants flee, barricading inside city hall, Briggs is snapped in two by the blob. Realizing the only thing that can stop the blob is the cold, Brian elects to drive his boss’ snow maker into it. The blob retaliates by overturning the vehicle and Meg bravely risks her own life to free Brian from the truck and detonate its tanks of C02. Becoming entangled in the process, she is rescued by Brian moments before the bomb goes off. The frightened town’s folk emerge from city hall to discover the blob neutralized into frozen crystals; Moss declaring they had better get these frozen remains over to the icehouse before they thaw. We cut to a summer tent revival; the Reverend Meeker – apparently madder than a hatter – preaching sin and Armageddon to a small congregation of God-fearing evangelicals. Afterward, Meeker is confronted by one attendee, who timidly inquires when the end of times will come. Meeker, raising his Mason jar with a thawed out mini-blob still inside, declares, “Soon madam, the Lord will give me a sign!”  
For diehard horror aficionados, The Blob is a fairly juicy affair (pun, intended). It has its shortcomings, however, chiefly the dated 80’s milieu, typified by big hair – particularly Dillon’s, resembling a lion’s mane.  In our jaded age of wallpapered CGI effects, there is more than quaintness to be gleaned from this pastiche to the prototypical fifties epoch of ‘it came from another world’ faceless/graceless atomic fallout inspired weirdness.  And director/co-writer Chuck Russell, together with Frank Darabont, have truly done their homework on ‘the blob’ itself. This isn’t that giant piece of Jell-o recalled as the perfect make-out drive-in movie. It’s a more sinister affair; less quantifiable as…well…a blob…and more easily considered some sort of grotesque science experiment gone hopeless awry. Adding a government conspiracy to the equation really doesn’t hurt the movie’s basic premise; although, in hindsight, it doesn’t exactly add all that much to it either. The academic cronies fronted by the perpetually steely-eyed Dr. Meddows are little more than monolithic and powerless ‘suits’ – literally and figuratively – on loan from the conspiracy theorist stooge factory.
Mark Irwin’s cinematography is first rate and there is a certain amount of mileage gained by the fairly convincing special effects. This blob, unlike its predecessor, is a constantly evolving mutant strain of bacteria; one that appears to place favor to its victimization.  It hunts not only with an insatiable appetite but with a vengeance. While the ‘58 blob has often been referenced as a euphemism for the communist Red Scare, this ‘88 blob seems to parallel the cadaverous AIDS pandemic. The creature’s pearly grey and bubbling façade resembles a mucous membrane. It strikes with phallic-inspired tentacles, invading its host stealthily and silently without being recognized. It capably divides its cellular structure, just like a virus, thus aggressively metastasizing to other things, and so on.
Subtexts aside, The Blob marks the pinnacle of that evolution and partnership between Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont, whose symbiosis had begun on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). In creating The Blob’s many and varied special effects, SFX guru Tony Gardner supervised a crew of thirty-three, including artist, Chet Zar and mechanical effects designer, Bill Sturgeon; everyone conspiring to bring out the absolute very best for this loose remake.  Early tests with CGI were tried, but eventually scrapped for the more tactile approach to generating visceral chills. As a result, this blob feels decidedly ghastly and very sincere. While the ‘58 version had Steve McQueen – an undeniable asset – for obvious technical reasons – the ‘88 version excels. However, this blob’s overall success is only partly due to the believability of the actual creature. The other half rests squarely on the shoulders of its cast who sell the freak show with understated authenticity.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, under their licensing agreement with Sony Home Entertainment, has yielded another solid effort. It’s astounding it’s taken this long for The Blob to arrive on home video in hi-def. Alas, this disc isn’t perfect. Most of the 1080p transfer is softly focused, fine detail generally wanting, especially in the darker sequences. Occasionally, effects are less than seamless, owing to Blu-ray’s higher resolution revealing matte work in particular. Another issue is grain; looking a tad thicker than anticipated, particularly during ‘optical effects’ shots. But grain is decidedly distracting in the scene at the diner afterhours when Brian offers Meg some of his sandwich. Contrast too seems a tad anemic.  Still, colors are fairly solid throughout and flesh tones look appropriately nature. We won’t poo-poo it any further. The overall characteristic is decidedly dated and looking appropriately vintage ‘80s.  The DTS-HD 5.1 mix fairs infinitely better, revealing some squishy sound effects and subtly nuanced rustlings during more quiescent sequences. Overall, not flashy but good and solid and well represented on this disc. Extras are limited to an isolate score. It’s sparse at best, but nicely handled. We also get a featurette featuring a brief and truncated Q&A with director Chuck Russell, and an infinitely more engaging audio commentary by Russell and horror authority, Ryan Turek, plus two theatrical trailers. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS

2

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