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Non-Review Review: The Blob (1958)

I’m surprised that The Blob doesn’t get more love as a late-fifties creature feature. It has all the right ingredients, from a compelling monster, a clever central metaphor and a dashing lead in Steve McQueen. Sure, the special effects haven’t aged well, and the movie occasionally veers into the realm of cheese, but it is a wonderful example of type of monster movies American studios used to churn out during the fifties – seemingly disposable little horrors that ended up a lot smarter and more sophisticated than most viewers took them for.

It came from outer space...

Of course, I suspect that most people are familiar with the premise of the movie – or at least the monster – even if they’ve never seen the film themselves. The eponymous blob of goo falls to Earth as part of a meteorite shower, and promptly begins consuming organic matter. Latching itself on to the hand of an old man living just outside of town, the creature is promptly ferried to the small little community, where it wreaks havok – consuming organic matter on contact.

We never discover where the blob came from (apart from “outer space”) and we never get a read on whether it’s intelligent or self-aware. The script displays a canny wit, ensuring that the monster – a gloried pool of jello – maintains an air of mystery. While it recoils from the cold and pursues warm bodies as food supply, we never determine whether it’s especially smart, or merely a predator acting on instinct. Is it just chance that it landed on Earth, or was it sent here as some form of biological weapon? The movie shrewdly avoids giving us unnecessary exposition or detail on the eponymous blob, which helps it feel far more sinister than it probably should.

Teenage wasteland...

It goes without saying that the special effects have dated quite badly, but they are helped along by the fact the film seems quite modest. The premise of the movie acknowledges that a simple approach is better, realising that an understated special effect is less likely to seem obviously ridiculous. Rather than giving us a silly man in a silly suit, the notion of glob of consuming matter is realised quite efficiently. There are moments when the suspension of disbelief is stretched a bit – generally when the blob gets larger and we’re treated to awkward model shots or animated sequences – but they’re few and far between.

To be honest, part of me did wonder how the creature went from taking hours to digest a man’s hand to instantly dissolving multiple people without leaving a single trace. Similarly, I found myself wondering where all their mass went. I imagine there’s more mass to one person than the small “ball”of blob that’s left after it finishes its first victim – and it didn’t appear to leave any residue behind for the police to find. Of course, suspension of disbelief covers small problems like that, but I couldn’t resist the urge to wonder.

Blob on a stick...

However, the script is sharp enough to make up for any minor flaws. I’ll concede that the dialogue veers a little bit into camp at times. “Doctor, nothing will stop it!” a hysterical nurse declares after her first attempt to kill it doesn’t work. I’ll also admit that the plotting is a little predictable – in that most modern horror fans will be able to chart pretty much everything that happens from the opening scene. More than that, Doctor Hallen seems to acclimatise fairly quickly to the creature once it’s in his surgery – even if you can’t help but shake your head when he tries to stop it with his shotgun.

Still, The Blob really excels in its exploration of late-fifties America. Jeff Sharlet wrote that The Blob was an attempt to articulate the fear of communism that had begin to cement itself in the American character. I can understand his argument. The Blob is all-consuming and erodes the individual into the collective, after all. In the fifties, paranoia would have you believe that there were communists everywhere, ready to invade the American heartland in the most subtle and subversive of ways. Of course, his claim is disputedand I’m not entirely convinced.

Call the doctor!

Instead, The Blob seems to offer a commentary on the culture shift that was occurring between the late fifties and the early sixties. Steve McQueen, in his first starring role, plays the young teenager who tries to warn his community that there’s something dangerous in their midst – but the town refuses to acknowledge his criticism or to engage with him. Instead, it seems like the blob itself serves as a metaphor for the all-consuming conformity that many young people found themselves fighting against in the post-War era.

With the blob itself remaining a motive-less and non-anthropomorphized entity, the central conflict of the film is one between Steve and his elders. When Steve tries to alert the police about the fate of Doctor Hallen, the officers in charge are convinced it’s a childish practical joke. “You’re crazy if you go, it’s a gag!”one complains. When they investigate, they insist there’s nothing wrong. Sure, there’s no body – but the place is a mess and the door was locked from the inside. That should at least merit a bit more than a casual dismissal.

Quite handy...

When the landlady is asked if she overheard any shouting or shooting, she makes rationalisations – she tries to convince herself and the police that there’s nothing wrong and that Steve is somehow acting out or hallucinating. “There’s always some shooting or screaming,” Ms. Porter observes, when the cops ask about gunshots. This is a small town where the residents can’t distinguish televised screaming and gun shots from the same thing. No matter how many ways Steve points out that “this is all wrong”, everyone rationalises and explains it away.

It gets to the point where Steve almost seems to doubt himself. After all, everybody else can’t be wrong, surely? The community has spoken and decided on their version of events, and the individual must acquiesce to them. His first-date girlfriend notes his confusion and has to ask, “You believe you did see it, don’t you, Steve?” It seems that Steve himself isn’t sure, so strong is the groupthinkin this town.

Hoods on the hood...

It’s no coincidence that the blob seems to attack people in groups. It seems to strike at the heart of the community – first in the doctor’s office, and then in bars and supermarkets and cinemas. It’s “assimilating […] flesh at tremendous speed”, in the same way that the community tends to assimilate individual identity. It creeps in under the door and into personal space – just like there’s no physical boundary that can fully isolate an individual in a small town from the general thought. I imagine that there were a lot of kids in the late fifties who felt like they were going to be consumed and devoured by that all-pervading average-ness, swallowed whole by the same boring conformity that held their parents and their families.

It’s telling that Steve ultimately alerts the town by daring to upset the social norms – and by counting on the town’s capacity to be led like sheep. He plucks his friends out of a movie theatre while one patron repeated “ssshhhh”-es them. He warns the townspeople by setting off the air-raid and fire sirens. Even those seem to confuse some of the more simple-minded residents who are conditioned to respond. “This has never happened before,” one vigilant citizen asks, “what am I going to wear?”That’s a pretty biting critique of small-town life, where what you wear replying to an emergency is more important than responding promptly.

Oozing suspense...

Similarly, the blob is defeated when the residents are finally willing to upset the social norms – when the police are finally willing to listen to Steve revealing the monster’s weakness over the radio. A pivotal moment at the climax sees a group swarming to the high school for vital supplies, but locked out. Tellingly, it’s the principal, rather than any of the students, who must pick up the rock to smash open the locked door and save the day. The adult must learn that there is a time and a place to go against social norms.

The movie’s ending is a bit swift and a bit random – the blob’s fatal weakness seeming just a bit convenient given the circumstances (although it was set up earlier). It seems like the movie almost ran out of time or money and just decided to end it all there. Although I do think that global warming perhaps retroactively justifies that insanely gratuitous (and, at that time, seemingly mandatory) closing question mark.

Armed and dangerous...

It’s fascinating stuff, and it’s probably still as insightful today as it ever was. While it has a lot of flaws, I think it’s a clever enough and intriguing enough film to overcome those difficulties.

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4 Responses

  1. It’s a whole lot better than Chuck Russell’s remake in 1988, which upped the disgusting gore and omitted all intelligence.

    • I heard that, though part of me is a little fascinated by that – perhaps just to see the carwreck in progress. Looking at the film, though, part of me wonders how hard it is to mess up those core themes and points? They’re brilliantly universal, because every teen faces that fear of being “consumed” by the society around them.

      • Themes can be messed up by ignoring them and simply making a film about people being killed in gruesome manners.

        You may also want to check out “Son of the Blob” AKA “Beware the Blob!” directed by Larry Hagman (yes, J.R. Ewing himself). Just make sure you have some wine to go with that cheese.

      • I’ll keep an eye out for that one, actually. Did some quick research and… a bowling alley? I kinda want to see it now.

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