Summer Shocks 1988: The Blob

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The mightiest of all movie monsters?

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

If there were ever an actual war among movie monsters, I think the smart money would be on the Blob. That pulsating mass may not have the following that Dracula does – or Frankenstein’s Monster, or the Wolf Man, or the Mummy, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon – but the Blob could take down Godzilla without breaking a sweat. Well, if blobs were able to sweat, that is. Only the Abominable Snowman would be safe from that oozing menace from beyond the stars – as long he stayed on his frigid home turf, at least.

As a kid I was terrified by the Blob – the original Blob, that is, as it appeared in the original 1958 film. That was a movie that I first saw on television and the concept of a mindless entity that could consume you and from which there was no place to hide (because it could pour its way under door cracks) was thoroughly disturbing to me. I knew I could outrun the Mummy, I knew that Frankenstein’s Monster was really a good guy, and the Wolf Man and Dracula had well-known weaknesses (and like most kids, I wouldn’t have minded turning into either a werewolf or a vampire) but to be a victim of the Blob seemed like the most hideous fate imaginable. The original Blob was regarded as camp even by the time I watched it but for me, it was a true horror film.

When The Blob remake was released in 1988, I wasn’t predisposed to being scared by space jelly anymore but I believed that an update of The Blob had potential. With special effects being so much more advanced in the ’80s, the possibility of a bigger, better Blob seemed promising. While the original Blob was portrayed in action by such primitive filmmaking methods as being slid across photographs of the movie’s locations, in the hands of writer Frank Darabont, director Chuck Russell and FX artist Tony Gardner, the ’80s incarnation of the Blob became the most versatile slime in the universe. Together, these three guys successfully pimped out the Blob.

When the great horror/sci-fi remakes are cited, titles like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), and Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) are always mentioned and I’d put the Blob remake in that company without hesitation. Why it wasn’t a hit in the summer of ’88 is still confounding to me. Maybe audiences were just weary of remakes. Or maybe the original Blob was regarded as so hokey that it seemed dumb to spend millions of dollars to update it. Or maybe in an age where horror fans loved the wicked witticisms of Freddy Krueger, a blob just wasn’t personable enough.

Whatever the reason, most audiences that summer missed out on one of the best modern monster movies (they also gave the incredible Phantasm II the cold shoulder – crushing the hopes of Phantasm phans everywhere of ever seeing more of the Tall Man on the big screen). One thing that strikes me about the ’88 Blob today is the sense of craft, of every creative resource being stretched as far as it will go. Too many movies today seem made by people that are apathetic towards their film’s quality (or just incapable of doing good work). With The Blob, there’s a passion for the material that comes through. There’s nothing lazy here, no half-measures. And it isn’t just that the Blob itself is a slicker, more complexly realized FX creation (although, in the hands of Tony Gardner, it definitely is), it’s that the story is thought-out, the characters aren’t just wallpaper, and the homages to the original are woven into the flow of the narrative with care (as opposed to the approach of the makers of the recent A Nightmare on Elm Street remake in which all the references to the original film are shoehorned onto the screen in the clumsiest fashion possible, showing no understanding of what made these moments work in the first place).

Frank Darabont’s screenplay shows the attentive hand of a genre fan who knows that plot and character matter, even in a movie about a flesh-eating blob. And while The Blob may not be nearly as nihilistic as Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of The Mist, it’s still fairly a ruthless piece of work – dispatching some sympathetic characters with shocking suddenness. Once this Blob really starts to get its blob on, there’s a pair of deaths back-to-back that are genuinely surprising. Clearly Darabont wanted the audience to know early on that this film meant business. This Blob was not coming at people with kid gloves. Instead, it’s like a gelatinous gantsa. This is a movie that takes Joe Bob Briggs’ rule about what makes a great horror movie to heart – “Anyone can die at any time.”

The characters in The Blob aren’t deep but they are likeable – a quality that horror filmmakers were already rapidly losing touch with by the late ’80s. I don’t know what happened during the ’80s to cause this but at some point, the notion that audiences would always be more scared if they were watching characters that they actually liked being terrorized, and even killed, became disregarded. It used to be a given when you saw a horror movie that you’d really like the people in the film and fear for them but during the ’80s it became more common to hate the characters and eagerly anticipate their gruesome ends. The Blob isn’t like that at all, thankfully. There’s one skeevy dude who likes to get his dates drunk (thanks to the handy mobile bar in the trunk of his car) and take advantage of them and there’s a young kid who’s kind of a little shit but even these two have their appealing qualities. The only true villain is the head of the military operation out to contain the Blob (good luck!) and execute a massive cover-up regarding its origins.

Shawnee Smith and Kevin Dillon are the two young leads, a mismatched pair that end up having a winning chemistry together. Smith plays Meg, a member of her high school’s cheerleading squad – a girl who exudes wholesomeness. Dillon, on the other hand, is Brian Flagg, the town’s teen delinquent. Oddly enough, the surly Flagg seems to be the only bad element in Arborville – it’s no wonder he’s such an outcast in this community. Everyone else seems to have gotten the memo about the importance of keeping a positive attitude and practicing good citizenship but not Flagg. Of course, he’s not really a creep; he’s just a kid with a chip on his shoulder when it comes to authority. Early on, Darabont and Russell set up the character of Paul (Donovan Leitch) – a clean cut football player and Meg’s date on the night the Blob hits town – as the male lead but it’s all part of a Psycho-esque fake-out, putting Flagg by Meg’s side for the remainder of the movie.

The biggest change, story-wise, from the original Blob is that this version gives the Blob an origin of sorts and in tandem with that, a gang of shady military types out to wrangle it in at all costs. The Blob might be out to digest you but at least it’s nothing personal – it’s just acting according to its nature. Less excusable are the amoral actions of the scientists and soldiers that are willing to sacrifice the lives of small town Americans in order that the Blob be properly contained (only to be used as a weapon down the line). Back in ’88, I was a little dubious about this new wrinkle to the story, as it seemed like an unnecessary complication. But I warmed up to it and came to feel that it was an inspired move. Learning that the blob was part of a biological warfare experiment gone wrong doesn’t bend over backwards to explain the Blob; it just puts its creation in some kind of context. Also, in a story in which the titular character can’t really offer any dramatic counterpoint, it’s good to have some real villains for Flagg and co. to have some conflict with.

As the story moves from one Blob-alicious set-piece to the next, claiming victims at the hospital, the diner, the movie theater, and even in the sewer system, Darabont and Russell never run out of new ways for their Blob to strut its stuff. When it comes to creative kills, Jason, Michael and Freddy have nothing on The Blob. The signature kill of this movie, though, has to be the scene where the diner’s hapless handyman gets literally pulled into a sink drain. This seems like an unmistakable homage to the scene in the Stephen King short story “The Raft” in which a teen is sucked between the planks of a raft by the blob-like entity floating on the water of an isolated lake. That particular scene did make it to the screen the following summer when the makers of Creepshow 2 adapted “The Raft” but the “official” version pales in comparison to Darabont and Russell’s take on it.

As the ’80s went on, I often wished that films would get back to the grittiness of the ’70s but the fact is, the ’80s did slick so well. Today I wish that movies could be so adept at being smart and thrilling. As a piece of entertainment, this film about an amorphous alien remains as sharp as a tack.

Other horror films released in the summer of ’88:

Dead Heat (May 6th)

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (May 13th)

My Best Friend is a Vampire (May 31st)

Poltergeist III (June 10th)

Waxwork (June 17th)

Phantasm II (July 8th)

Monkey Shines (July 29th)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (August 19th)

The Hero and the Terror (August 26th)

SUMMER OF 1979:

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1980:

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1981:

Deadly Blessing (Jeff Allard)

Wolfen (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1982:

Poltergeist (Jeff Allard)

Friday the 13th: Part 3 (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1983:

Psycho II (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1984:

Dreamscape (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1985:

Day of the Dead (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1986:

The Fly (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1987:

Predator

Source: Jeff Allard