The Blob (1958) ***½
It is a fantasy of mine that someday, the jackasses responsible for Pitch Black, Independence Day, and Starship Troopers will all sit down together, watch The Blob, and realize how miserably their movies fail to measure up to a 40-year-old cheapjack drive-in flick about a pile of man-eating Jell-o. Said jackasses will all then immediately retire to an especially inaccessible monastery on Mt. Athos, where they will spend the rest of their lives repenting their folly. Yeah, I know— not bloody likely. But damn it, I can dream, can’t I?
As you probably know, The Blob is the movie that made a star out of Steve McQueen. Here he plays Steve Andrews, a teenage boy in the small, rural village of Downingtown. Steve and his girlfriend, Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut, who went on to such smaller and lesser things as The Toolbox Murders and Bad Ronald), are out on a date, looking for shooting stars from the vantage point of an isolated ridge at the edge of the woods. They sure picked the right time and place, for just moments after they reveal to the audience just what it is they’re doing, a meteor comes streaking out of the sky, and falls to Earth not far away. The two teens understandably decide to go looking for the crash site.
They won’t be the first ones on the scene, however, because that meteor landed only a few hundred yards from the shack where an old man (Olin Howlin, from The Return of Doctor X and Them!) lives alone with his dog, and he beats Steve and Jane to the site of the impact. What he finds there is a small, round crater about a foot deep and perhaps a yard across, with a spherical rock a bit bigger than a baseball at its center. When the man pokes this rock with a stick he picks up from the ground nearby, it cracks open to reveal a little blob of transparent, protoplasmic goo. This goo adheres to the stick, and begins dribbling down it toward the man’s hand when he lifts it up to have a look. Realizing that this may not be something he wants touching his skin, the old man upends the stick when he notices how close the blob has come to his hand, but to his surprise, it keeps right on creeping, against the pull of gravity, toward his fingers. A moment later, the thing has completely engulfed his right hand, and judging from the sounds the poor old coot immediately begins making, direct physical contact with it hurts like a son of a bitch. The man goes running off through the woods, screaming his head off, until he almost literally runs into Steve and Jane, who are still driving around looking for what the recluse has already found. One look at the man’s hand, and Steve instantly concludes that the stranger needs to see a doctor.
Dr. Hallen (Alden “Stephen” Chase, of When Worlds Collide) is just getting ready to shut down his office for the night and set off for a several-days’ trip to a medical convention when the two teenagers arrive with the injured old man. By this time, the blob has expanded to cover his entire forearm, and has taken on a distinctly alarming reddish hue. Hallen, of course, has never seen anything like it, and he sends Steve and Jane out to see if they can find any neighbors to help identify his patient while he gets to work on the question of how best to treat him. On the way, they are interrupted by a chance meeting with a pack of hotrodders, led by Tony Gressette (Robert Fields, from The Stepford Wives), who challenge Steve to a drag race. Still further delays result when Steve’s reckless driving is observed by Downingtown’s lieutenant of police (Earl Rowe). It isn’t as bad as it might have been, though, because Lieutenant Dave is a decent guy, and he understands that teenagers can be expected to do stupid things on occasion; Steve gets off with a stern talking-to, and is left to go about his business.
The upshot of all this is that by the time Steve and Jane get back from the old man’s shack, the blob from space has had time enough to completely digest both its discoverer and Dr. Hallen’s nurse, and to make considerable headway on the doctor himself, as well. Steve sees Hallen’s grisly demise through a window in his office, and immediately goes to the police with the story. Of course, Lieutenant Dave doesn’t entirely buy it, and his top subordinate, the teen-hating Sergeant Jim Bert (John Benson, from 4D Man and The Space Children), is convinced that Steve is simply trying to pull an elaborate prank on Downingtown’s police. And the complete absence of either Hallen’s body or 440 pounds of flesh-eating protoplasm from the doctor’s office when Dave and his men go to check the situation out doesn’t exactly make the boy’s case any more convincing, especially after one of Hallen’s neighbors drops by and informs the police that the doctor was planning to go out of town for a few days.
So if the blob isn’t in Hallen’s office, then where the hell is it? Why, it’s rolling around Downingtown eating people, of course. Steve and Jane both realize this, so as soon as their parents have gone to bed, they sneak back out of their houses to go blob-hunting. First, they enlist the aid of Tony and his friends, who had been out at the movies catching a midnight screening of Daughter of Horror, in warning the teen population of the town about the prowling blob. (An aside: Ever notice that in mainstream-studio movies from the 50’s, raucous swing jazz is frequently used to stand in for rock and roll? Listen to the music playing in the background when Tony arrives at his friends’ party to tell them about the gelatinous menace— I think you’ll see what I mean.) Then, while scouring the streets themselves, they notice that the front doors of Steve’s father’s grocery store are unlocked, despite the fact that closing time was hours ago. They go inside to have a look around, and are promptly attacked by the blob, which corners them in the meat locker, but inexplicably retreats when it has oozed about a quarter of the way under the door. Taking advantage of this unexpected respite, the two kids make a break for it, and then round up everyone they can to start making as much noise as possible. A couple dozen car horns blaring at one in the morning is sure to attract somebody’s attention.
But the cops who arrive on the scene shortly after the big crowd of mystified townspeople are led by Sergeant Bert, and at first, it looks like Steve’s last-ditch plan is about to come to naught. Even after the more teen-friendly Lieutenant Dave shows up to take charge, the situation looks hopeless, because the blob has again snuck away. In just moments, however, The Blob’s most famous scene begins, leaving the authorities no choice but to take Steve and Jane seriously. The dessert from beyond the stars squishes its way into the theater, and proceeds to absorb as many of the moviegoers as it can; the screaming mob fleeing down the street soon brings Dave and his police, but the blob has by then gorged itself on teenage insomniacs and increased its mass into the dozens of tons. A couple of shotguns and .38 specials aren’t going to have much of an effect on something like that.
Now your guess as to why such a thing should happen is as good as mine, but rather than go after the delectable horde of fleeing Downingtonians, the blob ends up chasing Steve and Jane instead. This eventually leads to them being trapped in a diner, with the blob encasing it like an enormous jelly mold. The efforts of the authorities to destroy the monster by dropping a live electrical wire on it accomplish nothing but setting the diner on fire, forcing those within to seek shelter in the basement. But this is really a blessing in disguise, for it is while they are trying to fight the fire that Steve and the owner of the diner discover the blob’s weakness. The diner’s fire extinguishers are of the new-fangled CO2 foam type, and it seems the blob doesn’t like that stuff one little bit. Remembering that the blob didn’t like the meat locker either, Steve realizes that it isn’t so much the carbon dioxide per se, but the extremely low temperature of it that offends the creature’s senses. Using the phone in the diner, Steve gets the word out, and before you can say “raspberry sherbet,” the able-bodied men of Downingtown are herding the rapidly freezing blob away from the diner with every CO2 foam fire extinguisher in town. A quick phone call to Washington gets the thing a one-way plane ticket to the North Pole, “where it’ll never thaw out, as long as the Arctic stays cold.”
I love a movie with a peculiar, original monster, and it’s tough to get much more peculiar than The Blob. (Although I’d like to point out that it isn’t entirely original— the semi-sentient, radioactive mud from X: The Unknown is an obvious precursor.) In a decade that was up to its eyeballs in raygun-toting spacemen and nuclear-powered dinosaurs, a monster that is nothing more than an ever-expanding glob of carnivorous slime certainly stands out. And though it might initially seem silly, it offers the undeniable attraction that it’s difficult to imagine how such a thing might be killed, and by filming the movie in color, The Blob's creators were able to work in a little detail that’s actually pretty horrifying when you think about it: though the blob is initially colorless and transparent, it turns an ever-more-opaque blood-red once it starts absorbing people.
And it’s an even bigger treat to find an unusually imaginative monster in a movie that is also unusually good overall. The script makes excellent, thoughtful use of the by-then-standard “nobody believes the teenagers until it’s almost too late” formula, giving it new life by including characters who are more than the expected stereotypes. Jane is a bit bolder than the usual good-girl heroine, Steve is more of a risk-taker than his clean-cut image suggests (Invasion of the Saucer Men’s Johnny Carter would never have risen to Tony’s drag-racing challenge), and Tony and his hotrodders have a strong streak of civic responsibility in them that is usually lacking from 50’s teen-movie bad boys. Even the adults get to have nuances in The Blob; for once, we have policemen and parents who are willing to give the kids the benefit of the doubt, and the one standard-issue hard-ass at least has a believable excuse for behaving the way he does. The acting is also a cut above the norm for this sort of picture. Once you get past the undeniable fact that Steve McQueen was already a bit too craggy to be playing 17-year-olds in 1958, his performance is quite serviceable, if often a bit underplayed. Earl Rowe takes the top honors as Lieutenant Dave, though, and it’s rather a shame that he didn’t become a staple of B-movie character acting (in fact, he made only one other film). For a long time, I harbored a slight preference for the unevenly received 1988 remake, but I’ve since come around to this version of The Blob, which is, in any event, still one of the best of its breed.