The 1950s trash classic is more self-aware than you might imagine – and much more entertaining, too.
Here’s the question about The Blob. Is this iconic 1958 science fiction romp a trashy, Ed Woodian effort that entertains because of its sheer ludicrousness, or is it rather more knowing – an early example of the deliberately kitsch and determinedly camp? It sounds unlikely, but with the fantastically cheesy Burt Bacharach composed theme song by The Five Blobs opening proceedings, it’s hard to believe that anyone was taking this very seriously. So: is The Blob so bad it’s good, a tongue in cheek sci fi imitation that is deliberately played for laughs, or something in between – a straight film that the producers realized was pretty shoddy and so was retooled to seem consciously trashy? I’d like to believe the latter, but was anyone really and knowingly exploring cinematic kitsch in the mainstream at this point?
Because let’s be honest here – by any conventional standards, The Blob is gleefully bad stuff. Don’t let the fact that it is a full colour, widescreen movie fool you – this is still one of the trashiest of all the 1950s science fiction films, with shoddy special effects, ridiculous dialogue, wooden acting and cardboard characters. Yet as with many a trashy science fiction film of the era, all these elements come together to create something that manages to become rather more than the sum of its parts. The Blob is, above everything else, thoroughly entertaining. It’s also, curiously, the archetypal 1950s science fiction movie in many ways – every cliché of the genre is present here, and as you watch the film, you become aware of just how influential it has been on later movies.
In his first leading role, ‘Steven’ McQueen, looking all of forty, plays teenager Steve, who is out on Lover’s Lane with new squeeze Jane (Aneta Corsaut) when they spot what looks like a meteor landing. They head off to investigate, but are beaten to the location by an old man (Olin Rowland), who pokes at the space rock with s stick, unleashing a slimy substance that crawls up the stick and onto his hand (a genuinely impressive bit, this). When Steve and Jane come across the screaming man, they take him to Doctor Hallen (Stephen Chase), who examines the growing blob on the man’s arm and fears he’ll have to amputate (apparently, small towns in America don’t have access to hospitals). But the Blob grows at tremendous speed, devouring the old man completely, and terrifying the doctor and his nurse, who is incapable of walking across a small room without falling over (Blobs, like slow zombies, require people to do amazingly stupid things in order to fall victim).
Steve returns to the doctor’s office just in time to see the medic consumed by the growing Blob, and is naturally perturbed. He tries to tell the police, but while Lieutenant Dave (Earl Rowe) is sympathetic to the local kids and their hi-jinks (usually involving half-baked drag races), he doesn’t believe the story, and youth hating Sergeant Bert (John Benson) is all for throwing Steve and Jane in the slammer. With the local squares (including their parents) unwilling to believe the wild story, it’s up to the local kids to try and alert the locals, even as the Blob invades the local cinema, interrupting a screening of the fantastic Daughter of Horror (how rude!). Soon, the Blob has surrounded the local diner that Steve and Jane are hiding out in… how can they possible escape from this seemingly indestructible monster?
The Blob is fascinating to watch now, simply because of how often it has been visually referenced over the years. One of the stories in Creepshow is essentially a pastiche of the story, while the shots of teenage lovers spotting a meteor crashing in the distance has been included in numerous films. Every drive-in sci fi film featured in The Simpsons seems modeled on the film and huge numbers of movies like Killer Klowns from Outer Space borrow heavily from it. With one sequel and soon to be two remakes spinning off from the movie, The Blob is an unquestionably important and influential movie. The fact that it’s also gleefully trashy is just the icing on the cake, really.
And the film is extraordinarily trashy. The dialogue is ridiculous, McQueen (and Corsault, to a lesser degree) is hilariously overage – and even at this point in his career he seems slightly embarrassed to be doing this sort of thing. The later Blob effects are laughable. The generation clash is handled with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and the rebellious teens seem almost pathetically straight-laced, even for the era. If the worst thing the local cops ever have to deal with is a teenager driving backwards for a few yards, it’s hard to see why they are so wound up (though Bert is given a brief back story about a wife who is killed by hot rodders and his paranoia about his war record, neither of which is developed in any way). None of this matters though, because the film movies at a cracking pace and almost defies you to mock its straight-faced lunacy – and you definitely suspect that there is a deliberate absurdity at play here. It’s no surprise that the film has developed a camp following over the years.
Of course, you could probably read all sorts of subtext into the film if you wanted to – at the height of the Cold War, the very fact that the Blob is a Red invader overtaking and absorbing good, God fearing Americans could be seen as symbolic. Such theories are interesting to explore, but they suggest a depth of thought that I imagine few low budget filmmakers of the era, keen to turn a tidy profit, were engaging in. Taking a film like The Blob seriously seems to be missing the whole point of the film.
If you have a taste for old-school space monster movies – and if you haven’t, what on Earth is wrong with you? – then The Blob should keep you more than satisfied. It’s low rent Fifties sci fi personified, and ideal party viewing.