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November 15, 2009

Rebel Without a Blob; or "Why The Blob Matters"

This weekend, I've decided to divert from my normal format to submit a look at a pair of films that loom large in my image of midnight movie history. Of course, I'm talking about 1958's The Blob, and its 1988 remake. Dismissed often as secondary sci-fi/horror fare, I'd like to take some time and look at aspects of both films that makes them stand out for reasons other than the fact they feature an amorphous killing machine.

(Plus, it gives me a chance to post that ridiculous French poster for the original that you probably are still staring at with a puzzled look on your face.)

Phase One: Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.'s The Blob
Backed by cowboy producer Jack H. Harris, 1958's version of The Blob gives us a simple story that doesn't seem to be much on the surface. A meteor crashes to earth outside a small town, and an old-man discovers the smoldering ball's contents. Those contents soon envelop his arm, and two smooching teens named Steve and Jane (Steven "Don't call me Steve yet" McQueen and Aneta Corsaut; both making their film debuts) find him and take him into town. From there, those contents - which consist of one blob, if you haven't figured it out yet - spread and terrorize, and it's up to the kids to figure out how to stop it before it's too late.

When I look at this version of The Blob, I immediately am reminded of another of my favorite films of the 1950's - Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause. The famous James Dean picture focuses on an image of teenagers of the time period, and on how quickly parents, elders, and authority figures are to pass judgment on youth. (Assuming you can get past the fact that few of the actors in either film are or actually look like teenagers.) The Blob doesn't hide its impression of Ray's film, nor should it. But The Blob does something that Rebel Without a Cause didn't - more on that later.

Looking at The Blob as an adult, I can't help but look at the first impression given of the teens in the film. The first scene of the film has Steve making the moves on Jane, even though he seems to be having some trouble remembering her name. However, when the old man who's clearly in danger comes in to play, the character becomes a caring individual, focused on helping out a stranger in need. After getting the injured man to a doctor, it's back to goofing around with some friendly rivals, leading to street racing and a run in with the local police. It's safe to say our lead, at least by '50s standards, is intended to be something of a delinquent. It's also safe to say that his friends, who're heading to the midnight spook show due to reports of "unprotected women"; aren't the most reliable people around.

It's also easy to see how little adults believe in these characters. The heroine's father is also the school principal, and brings his own preconceptions to the table - when finding out his daughter has been mixed up with the police, he immediately blames Steve and states that "that boy" won't take out his daughter again. The police are entirely skeptical of any reports of blob activity, and you'd expect them to, but their doubt seems to be more due to the source of information - again, Steve - than the fact that an amorphous jelly-like creature is highly illogical.

I'll come back to this version of The Blob shortly, but I'd like to jump ahead 30 years for a moment...

Phase Two: Chuck Russell's The Blob
I don't need to take as much time to review the plot of 1988's version, as the introduction of the meteor and its blob is the same. However, there's a difference in characters, as we've got a trio of leads this time out. Paul (Donovan Leitch) is a football star who seems to be a pretty nice guy, and he's taking out cheerleader Meg (Shawnee Smith, lookin' great) after a big win. However, they run into the already blobbed old man at the same time as local bad boy Brian (Kevin Dillon) and all three are soon caught up in the shadow of doubt that the police, doctors, and parents cast upon their story.

It's especially interesting to see the portrayal of the teens in this Blob due to the horror films that had inundated theaters throughout the decade. With the slasher film booming throughout the first 3/4ths of the decade, the perceptions of teenagers in a horror film were at an all-time low. Russell's film does feature a couple of characters that fit these cliches, particularly Paul's football buddy Scott, who specializes in boozing babes and unbuttoning blouses (which leads to one of the film's best blob moments), but the movie does seem to shake those trends, especially when the focus shifts to Dillon's Brian, who's blatantly drawn as a rebel that seems to be a throwback to '50s films like The Wild One.

The adults aren't much different. The sheriff, played by veteran character actor Jeffrey DeMunn, confronts Brian early in the film for no reason than to intimidate him; while Meg's father (Art LaFleur) suggests a muzzle for Paul due to one of Scott's pranks gone wrong. Like the original, the sheriff's deputy (Paul McCrane) seems to have it out for the kids in an irrational manner, setting up some great scenes late in the film. The most level-headed adult seems to be the local Reverend (Del Close, who appeared uncredited in the "other" Blob film, 1972's Beware! The Blob), but he plays a crucial role in the ending that puts the adults' capacity for reasonable thought in further jeopardy.

So, we've got two horror films that feature a killing ooze and a bunch of untrusted teens as the focal point of our human story. If I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet on a happy ending. And this is where the tales of The Blob shake free and become something more than we're used to.

(Here There Be Spoilers! You've been warned!)
Phase Three: The Youth Shall Set You Free
And finally, here's my point. We've got two films in which we're following delinquent youth who're out too late and living too recklessly. We've got a bunch of adults who don't know what to do, but know they don't want to trust the kids. Let's look at our options.

Considering the influence of Rebel Without a Cause and other pessimistic "youth gone wild" films of the 1950s, there's not a lot that would make us expect anything from the kids in The Blob. Looking at the 1980s horror, as I mentioned above, teens aren't expected to do more than the "Four Fs" (Flee, Fight, Feed, and Fornicate). And, the decade also seemed pretty set on making teens pay for their careless behaviors. Despite the probabilities, The Blob, in both settings, seems to be a story that offers some faith in these teens.

In the original version, Steve and Jane are dead set on bringing knowledge of the impending situation to the town. This leads them to interrupting the police and a late night movie, and even to setting off alarms throughout town, but their "delinquent" behavior is always shown to be with the noblest of intentions. And, when it comes down to the ending and the rest of the town's teens are called in to help the principal, there isn't a moment of hesitation.

In the remake, Dillon's Brian is a rebel to the core, and early film interactions clearly identify him as someone who most wouldn't trust in any situation. Moreover, the characters that do trust him and the other teens seem to be the first to come across the deadly Blob. This leads to a finale that features many characters assuming he can't be trusted, despite the actions the viewer has seen him take to protect others from extinction. Seeing the character become a hero despite his uncaring nature is a great thing to witness.

As someone who works with delinquent teenagers on a daily basis, I can't help but smile when I see horror films taking the approach these two films do. Most writers and directors take the easy out to create obvious heroes who fit the "All-American" standard, but the Blob makers look at the world differently. They seemed to know that there are youth out there who, despite their exterior appearance and focus on leisure activities, are willing to step up and be responsible when the need presents itself.

There's a moment in the final minutes of Yeaworth's original that speaks volumes to this theme. Jane's father, accompanied by 12-15 teens who've abandoned the spook show to help, has to make a choice to break his own rules in order to help the town stay safe. It's a small gesture, but seeing a man who seems to have spent most of his life dismissing the teens by resorting to actions that fit his stereotypes helps confirm my vision of the film. Despite cliff-hanger endings that make sure to inform us there's always a danger out there, both films do their best to remind us that the young people of the world, even if we don't trust them now, hold the keys to our survival. And there are plenty of them that will survive and do us proud.

So, that's my take on the inner workings of The Blob. If you've read this far, thanks for comin'. Happy Blobbing!


Hey! Look Behind You! said...

It's sad to admit but I never watched the entire original Blob movie. At the time I was having trouble with the "teens" being tokin' 40.

One day some day I'll put that behind me and get through the whole thing.

Enbrethiliel said...


I love the scene in which the principal "vandalises" his own school! (LOL!) The redemption of Burke--however flimsy--is also great. Most of the artistry seems to come in the latter half of the original movie.

It has been years since I saw Rebel without a Cause, though, and I didn't pick up on the connection between James Dean and what the filmmakers were attempting to do with Steve McQueen until you pointed it out. It gives a whole new layer to the film that I wish I had known about when I watched it.