If you've never seen The Blob before, or just have dim memories of watching it as a kid and getting creeped out by its weird concept and primitive special effects, I can't fault you for wondering just what it was that led the Criterion Collection to include this title among its illustrious catalog of noteworthy films. The title itself was practically a parody of 1950s monster movies when it was originally released, an instant punchline that reveled in its own silliness. The marketing scheme (as evidenced by the poster above) strikes a fine balance between lurid appeal to the kid in all of us that relishes a cleverly rendered gross-out and a knowing nudge that promises an amusing schlock-fest, so bad it's good. But as much as we might enjoy the corny/campy diversion, it's fair to ask: does The Blob have staying power? Is it really the kind of film that commands a premium price tag and rewards multiple viewings enough to warrant a place in one's DVD collection, or any degree of serious scrutiny, for that matter?
The more I've watched this film over the years, and especially after spending a fair amount of time with it over the past week or so, my answer grows, blob-like, ever more resoundingly YES! The Blob has a lot to offer, beyond famously serving as the feature film debut of future superstar Steve McQueen who, at age 27, portrayed a misunderstood teenager who overcomes the doubts and skepticism of adult authority figures to save his town from a hideous killer on the loose. Beyond telling a delightfully far-fetched space-age horror story, it's a great example of the ingenuity and desperate determination of a small group of independent American film makers who incredulously had a vision to bring this story to the screen and did so, succeeding way beyond their wildest expectations. And that opening cha-cha beat theme song, written by Burt Bacharach, over the undulating concentric circles during the opening credits... what a smash! I love it!
The lasting significance and artistic achievement of The Blob comes through clearly after listening to the two separate commentary tracks that feature the movie's producer, director, one of the supporting actors and Criterion mainstay film scholar Bruce Eder. This movie, contrary to what first impressions may lead us to assume, was not just some exploitative cinematic junk food dreamed up by Hollywood studio bosses eager to make a fast buck off of a generation of gullible thrill-seeking kids. No, this confection was put together by a small-time studio that specialized in making religious short subjects, funded by a regional film distributor who basically put himself totally in hock, cashing in his life insurance policies and scraping together every last buck he could call in to get the film made. Despite the disciplined penny-pinching that the project required, it resulted in a vivid, colorful time capsule of considerable ambition. I don't know which quality of producer Jack Harris and director Irvin Yeaworth's I admire more: their gutsy willingness to gamble their life savings on such an apparent long-shot of a movie, or their keen insight into the collective American psyche that convinced them a story about a gelatinous alien invader that crashed into Smalltown USA and immediately, wordlessly set about devouring its inhabitants would electrify the popular imagination as wildly as it did.
The Blob, let me hasten to clarify, is in many respects every bit as goofy, stiff and achingly dated as a first-time viewer might assume. Part of that was the low-budget and amateurish acting of a mostly unknown cast of locals from Valley Forge PA, where it was shot on location. Here's a nice compilation of "Then and Now" shots created by a devoted fan. Besides the historic context it provides, in seeing how mundane local structures and streetscapes were employed, you get a sense of the home-grown and pragmatic sensibility behind The Blob's production.
Cross-culturally, so to speak, some of the awkwardness we feel watching it in 2011 stems from the distance between small town life as depicted on screen and the crass, jaded society we've become since then. Even though Yeaworth and Harris sought to distinguish their spine-tingling effort from run-of-the-mill scary movies by injecting a touch of post-Rebel Without a Cause serious social commentary into the mix, the "juvenile delinquents" we meet in The Blob are so mild and non-threatening that we may not pick up on the tension or understand what problem the cops and respectable grown-ups of Phoenixville would have with these clean-cut kids. Sure, they drive their impeccably maintained hot rods backwards down the street for kicks late at night, and occasionally sneak out to the bushes for a little bit of necking, but we're still a long way from Skins.
As for the terrifying mass at the heart of the movie itself, The Blob remains, in my opinion, one of the most haunting and effective movie monsters of all time. The terror inspired by a tiny bulbous organism that swarms and slurps up its victims, without any feature even capable of reflecting emotion or reason, is primal and hard to shake. The basic concept of the Blob itself is so elegantly simple and elemental that looking back now, it seems utterly inevitable that it would have to emerge from the human imagination eventually. And even though we're now in an era when it's easy to surpass the crude visual effects and render the hideous mass more graphically and gruesomely, there's still something endlessly appealing to The Blob's original conception. Even learning more about how they captured the images, details of which abound on this nicely thorough DVD package, enhanced my appreciation. And here, for your enjoyment, is a fan edit of the film, boiled down you might say, to the Blob essentials:
Next: The Lovers