Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. Light spoilers ahead for both versions of The Blob. Proceed at your own risk!
Allow me to open this edition with an anecdote. For my 10th birthday, I decided to have a sleepover party with four or five of my closest friends at the time. We got pizza, did birthday stuff, and my mom rented some movies for us. She rented the live action short Frankenweenie, Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes, and the original 1958 version of The Blob. I had chosen this last one after finding out that a movie I was obsessed with, Chuck Russell’s remake of the same name, was actually a remake of an older monster movie. I remember putting that movie on, and my friends all being terrified at the thought of that relentless ball of protoplasm wreaking havoc on a small Pennsylvania town (Phoenixville, to be exact, about an hour southwest of where I’m writing this right now) only to be stopped by a plucky band of resourceful teens led by Steve McQueen. I, however, wasn’t really impressed with the movie. It’s…fine, I suppose. If you enjoy medium rare 1950’s B-movies, and I suppose at the time it was likely scary to audiences, especially during the scene where the titular creature attacks a movie theatre. Steve McQueen is charming enough and does an excellent job of carrying the film as the good-looking all-American hero. But I had cut my horror aficianado teeth on Chuck Russell’s vision of the gigantic murderous germ, a 90 minute madhouse of gooey mayhem that felt far more plausible and dangerous than the tame and creeping creature that was bested by a handful of teenagers with fire extinguishers after it envelops a diner.
This will hopefully be the first piece in a series of pieces dissecting remakes that I think surpass or at least hold their own against the film they’re recreating. There are a lot of bad remakes out there, and it’s become something of a Cool Guy In Horror badge of honor to never admit to liking remakes. Which, if that’s your thing, whatever. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, things should be left alone. I don’t believe in sacred cows, but I do believe in necessity when it comes to telling a story, and if you don’t have a good reason to tell a story, don’t.
Russell’s The Blob is a film that takes a simple if not somewhat silly premise and turns into something legitimately frightening. Whereas the original film would have likely been lost to the annals of B movie history if not for the star power of Steve McQueen later on due to just how bland and unexceptional it is, the 1988 remake is anything but bland and unexceptional. In the original film much of the kills are left to the imagination, due just as much to limitations in effects as to accepted levels of violence at the time. In Russell’s version, however, nothing is left to the imagination. Case in point: the unfortunate houseless gentlemen who first encounters the Blob after it emerges from its crashed meteorite. In the original film, doctors find an empty bed where moments before he was laying wounded, and we the audience are supposed to fill in the blanks that ‘oh, clearly the Blob grew in size and consumed him. Duh.’ In the ’88 remake, however, we are treated to the ghastly sight of the unfortunate gentlemen largely dissolved from the chest down, with most of his body being a smoking melted ruin from the Blob’s digestive acids. In the original, a nurse who is attacked by the Blob falls behind a couch and we hear her scream and we’re supposed to think ‘ah yes the Blob got her!’ In a scene that lets us know what we’re in for with the rest of the movie, Paul Taylor, the handsome and wholesome high school football star and who we’re supposed to believe is the analog for Steve McQueen in this film, is gruesomely devoured alive by the Blob as his date watches helplessly.
I’ve watched this movie easily a hundred times at this point in my life and this scene still leaves me in awe: as Paul reaches out to Meg the Blob is rapidly flowing over him, dissolving him as it goes. The sound of him screaming from inside of it is genuinely chilling, and it strikes a very basic chord within the viewer, evoking a sense of revulsion and empathy at the sight of someone seemingly in true agony and terror. There’s something horrifyingly too close to home about the way Paul is shown dissolving under the tissue of the Blob: eyes sinking into his head, jaw gaping as the skull collapses, blood seeping out, a weird gasping moan escaping the ruined maw. It’s sickening and wonderful. The iconic movie theatre scene, in which we just see the Blob flow quickly over the projectionist and then out of the projection window followed by scenes of people running and screaming out of the theatre, becomes a full-fledged smorgasbord for the Blob in Russell’s vision. The projectionist becomes a half-melted monstrosity stuck to the ceiling of the projection booth, and in the theatre itself we see scenes of the Blob rapidly flowing over seats, lashing out tentacles to grab unfortunate people as they’re trying to escape.
The acidic effects of the Blob are highlighted in the remake, with one of the effects artists describing the creature as an “inside out vampire stomach”. Instead of a creeping glob of crimson goo, the titular creature becomes a lethal predator, quickly subduing its prey and dispatching it horrifically with powerful digestive acids while it’s still alive. This mechanism is used brilliantly throughout the film, showing victims in various stages of dissolution. Soldiers are shown half melted from coming in contact with the creature. Meg, the hero of the film, finds a girl in the theatre with her face melted and stuck to the theatre floor. When her, her brother, and her brother’s friend Eddie are chased into the sewer by the creature, it greedily devours Eddie after dragging him underwater, but not before we’re treated to a shot of him lurching out of the water, flesh falling off his skull and body, screaming in pain (side note: the fact that the Blob devours a child sets this light years apart from the original film, in which the filmmakers went out of their way to let the audience know that a dog that was heard barking at the Blob in the supermarket was later spotted running down the street).
I cannot emphasize enough how visceral this film is, in both the metaphorical sense and the literal sense. The kills are so violent they evoke in us a feeling of disgust, and the actual imagery of the film is laden with shots of fleshy protoplasm churning in on itself and lashing out with phallic tentacles. More often than not the Blob resembles a mass of entrails and gooey tissue flowing over itself in pursuit of its victims.
The differences between the remake and the original film aren’t entirely limited to the titular creature. While the tone of the film is certainly the starkest departure from the 1958 version, some of the themes stray from the path as well. In the original, the hero is your archetypical good looking all American small-town alpha male. Quiet, but competent. Sensitive, but strong. Steve McQueen is quite good in the role, but it’s exactly what you’d expect from such a film. In the ’88 version, however, Russell pulls a hat trick towards the end of the first act. Much of the beginning of the film focuses on Paul Taylor, a ruggedly handsome football player who’s depicted as a popular but goodhearted jock, the type of guy who likes chasing women but also respects them (unlike his jerkoff friend Scott Jeske). The action of the film is kicked off when Paul and Meg are driving home from their date and encounter Kevin Dillon’s Brian Flagg, a stereotypical wrong side of the tracks greaser who finds the Blob’s first victim in the woods. Paul takes the old man with the Blob on his hand to a local Redicare center, and it’s there that Russell flips the switch on us: instead of being the hero of the film, Paul ends up being meat for the beast. Ultimately, the film focuses on Shawnee Smith’s Meg as the hero, a frightened but competent and strong young woman who does what she can to help others and stays calm under pressure. It’s a drastic departure from a time when women were depicted in horror films as damsels in distress who constantly needed to be saved by burly men. Kevin Dillon similarly helps turn the film on its head. Instead of a wholesome high school kid who the cops eventually come to side with, Dillon is a sneering miscreant whose entire existence is basically being a walking middle finger to the Man and who falls into the role of a hero almost entirely by accident.
On that note, authority figures are also played drastically different. In the original version, the cops more or less come to side with the local youths to unite and defeat the Blob. Sure, they’re skeptical at first, but they’re far from the at best impotent cops in the 1988 version who largely exist to either bully our heroes/the military or get eaten by the Blob. Chuck Russell goes a step further and paints authority figures as the reason the Blob is there at all. Part of Russell’s veering away from Cold War symbolism of a creeping red menace threatening small town America (cough cough communism) is how he depicts authority figures: cold, distantly, literally faceless figures who are willing to sacrifice the people in the town of Arborville to keep a secret. In Russell’s film the Blob isn’t an interstellar traveler that just happened to fall to earth, but instead the result of a Reagan-era experiment in biological warfare gone horribly wrong. And while the Hazmat suited figures (one of which is Bill Moseley delivering a ghastly line about how he can hear his compatriots screaming inside of the Blob) offer toothless platitudes about how they’re just there to help, it quickly becomes apparent that they’re main agenda is containment of the creature, no matter what the cost.
And, predictably, they’re useless in the end, as it’s civilians who end up defeating the Blob with a truck full of refrigerant. (It’s also worth pointing out that, intentionally or not, a lot of the imagery involving soldiers in Hazmat suits facing off unsuccessfully against a shapeless mass of predatory protoplasm is suspiciously similar to the premise of Dean Koontz’s Phantoms, a 1983 novel about a small town in the Sierra Nevadas that is wiped out by what is essentially a hyperintelligent version of the Blob. But I digress). Whether or not the criticism of the Reagan era was on purpose, Russell’s message of the erasure of small-town America and an America under siege by faceless military figures who don’t care about them at all is undeniable. And the actual ending of the film, in which a local preacher (played brilliantly by Del Close) reveals that he has kept a small piece of the Blob in a jar and is waiting for a sign from God to release it, can easily be seen as a criticism of the wave of far right evangelicals that had swept over the country in the early ‘80s in the wake of Reagan’s victory. In other words, maybe Russell was saying that Falwellian-style religion was going to fuck us in the long run.
Coming at the tail end of the Reagan administration and just as America was coming to terms (or trying to anyway) with the AIDS epidemic, Chuck Russell’s revamping of a 1950’s B monster movie takes a fun and somewhat silly film and turns it into something truly frightening and profound. Not just one of the best remakes of all time, but rather one of the best horror films of all time period. It’s a monument to visual and practical FX and more importantly it’s an example of how horror can be a vehicle for a political message without being “preachy”. And most importantly, it’s really fucking scary. Russell’s vision of a monstrous mass of ravenous protoplasm is the stuff of nightmares. Quite literally. I remember once as a child waking up from a nightmare in which the Blob had enveloped my house, and looking out of my bedroom window just to make sure it was indeed just a nightmare. As I watched, a plastic bag blew down the street, and for one heart stopping moment I thought ‘oh god it’s real and it’s here for me!’ And yet, even after all these years, I still love this film. I’m still unsettled by the kills and I’m still in awe of the effects. And yes…I still get a kick out of Scott Jeske getting his just due for putting the moves on a girl too drunk to consent.