Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as it’s legacy and influence on modern horror.
This July, in honor of Greedy Guts month on Nightmare on Film Street, we’ll be venturing into technicolor and looking at one of the most charming and iconic 50s B-Movies of all time, The Blob (1958). The film epitomizes everything about mid-century drive-in cheese, yet it somehow made the jump from a guilty pleasure to a bonafide classic. Let’s take a look at the film’s appeal and why we still love it all these years later.
There is something about Summer that calls for B-Movies. The long nights inspire memories of cruising through the local drive-thru, chowing down on burgers, and ending up at the drive-in theater to catch whatever was on the double feature. The more hokey monsters and UFOs, the better. Most of us can’t claim these memories as our own, sadly. The era of the drive-in and teen cruising is history for most people unless you grew up in a small town that was lucky enough to still have a drive-in. But no matter where you live, on warm summer nights when the crickets chirp it still feels like you could just turn the corner, park your car, and take in whatever cheap thriller the studios churned out for local teenagers.
The Blob (1958) is a special movie not because it’s particularly well acted or very scary. Rather, it manages to capture the feeling of a 50s drive-in B-movie so perfectly, it’s shocking to think it is itself a 50s drive-in B-movie! It embodies its genre so quintessentially that it could have been made today as a knowing homage to the 50s — think the Grease of horror SciFi.
“[The Blob] embodies its genre so quintessentially that it could have been made today as a knowing homage to the 50s”
But The Blob was very much a real 50s drive-in flick. It was part of a massive wave of low budget horror and SciFi films produced by money-hungry studios in the 1950s. Television had seriously lowered theater attendance and transformed the predictable box office that Hollywood had grown to expect in the 30s and 40s. But the drive-in became a consistent money maker. Youth car culture ruled the decade, and anything you could do for fun from behind a steering wheel became the recreational activity of choice for young Americans. The drive-in promised kids entertainment and an easy, affordable date night and social scene. Studios knew the kids were buying tickets more for the popcorn, hookups, and the chance to show off their cars over the films themselves. As a result, the double features that ruled the drive-in tended to be low-quality films that usually fell in the horror or sci-fi genre, better for close cuddles of course.
The market was saturated, and we can thank its output for supplying us with plenty of Mystery Science Theater 3000 material to enjoy. But what made The Blob stand out? Why do we still happily watch it today with no humorous commentary needed? Why is it included in, of all things, the Criterion Collection, home of seminal classics and the best of art film? I think it’s because The Blob simply embodies every possible characteristic of a horror subgenre and era, all with fun and a premise so silly, it’s actually ingenious.
It Came From Outer Space!
The Blob follows Steve Andrews, a teen played by Steve McQueen in his starring debut. McQueen was 28 at the time, and his rough looks certainly make him look way past high school age, but it just adds to the endearing cheesiness of the film. Steve and his girlfriend, Jane (Aneta Corsaut) are parked at a lover’s lane when they see a meteor hit nearby. They investigate and discover an old man with some sort of slime engulfing his arm. They take the man to the doctor, where the eponymous Blob consumes the man, the doctor and the nurse, grows three sizes, and then wiggles along its merry way. Steve is the only witness to the threat, but the cops won’t believe him. So he recruits the local teens, who band together to stop the Blob before it’s too late.
The winking atmosphere of the film is evident from the opening credits, featuring the cheerful pop song “Beware of the Blob.” The song was written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David, just at the start of Bacharach’s rise to pop composition stardom. The film’s director wanted the opening music to be an ominous portion of the instrumental score, believing the novelty theme set the tone of The Blob as comedic rather than horrifying. But the decision to go with the bouncy song proved to be the right one. The song was a Top 40 hit for three weeks in ’58, and it put audiences in the right frame of mind to enjoy the film’s lighthearted strengths.
“The sets are like picture books and the film gives you the sense of a small town you could walk into and inhabit […] The mindless amoeba is frightening in its deceptively docile appearance, silent slithering, and complete consumption of its victims.”
Those strengths include the rich and vibrant color cinematography. Cinematographer Thomas Spaulding demonstrates a surprisingly good eye for creating atmosphere and a sense of place. The sets are like picture books and the film gives you the sense of a small town you could walk into and inhabit. The scenes set in a movie theater are particularly well done. In a series of sequences during the midnight “spook show,” a black and white chiller contrasts with the bright Technicolor of the unsuspecting audience — and the dark red blob descending on them from the projection room. The sequence uses footage from the real 1955 experimental horror film Daughter of Horror, later renamed Dementia. The film within a film’s surreal black and white images contrast wonderfully with the bright colors and sincere story of The Blob, making for an effectively atmospheric scene.
The simple, charming and surprisingly effective special effects are another lasting strength of The Blob. The creature itself was made of silicone and vegetable dye, constantly mixed in a washtub to keep the pigment even. The mass was then shot in miniatures that were shifted to create the creeping movement of the alien mass. Producer Jack H. Harris described some of the techniques in an interview;
“Naturally, we couldn’t afford to cover a diner with the Blob, so what we did there was photograph the diner through a bent bellows to give it dimension. To correct any minute flaws we enhanced the photograph with touch-up and air-brushing. We then mounted it on plywood, set it up on an eight-foot-square gyroscope-operated table and tied cameras to the table, rock-steady. Then we were able to move the table in any direction we wanted; the Blob, of course, would always follow gravity. When we wanted the Blob to jump on the “diner,” we put it there and got it to jump off with a quick movement of the table. That footage, shown in reverse, gave us our effect.”
The use of miniatures is often obvious but only increases the film’s charm and aesthetic appeal. One of the best things about The Blob is that the alien monster is so simple and low budget that it’s surprisingly effective. The mindless amoeba is frightening in its deceptively docile appearance, silent slithering, and complete consumption of its victims. It’s actually a comparatively realistic extraterrestrial threat compared to most other alien invasion films. The creature is given very little screen time, probably due to budget restraints. But the side effect is surprisingly suspenseful, as the characters stumble upon various mysteriously abandoned locations, unaware that a newly satiated monster isn’t far.
The Blob Lives On
The Blob was a surprise hit for Paramount Pictures, which picked up the indie film from Harris for $300,000 and tacked it on as the B-film in a double feature with I Married a Monster from Outer Space. But audiences loved The Blob so much, it was promoted to the main title. The film only cost $110,000 to make, but it grossed $4 Million at the box office ($35 Million in today’s dollars).
The Blob likely succeeded at the time because it was so charmingly original and fun. Today it’s a classic, regarded for being a quintessential example of the mid-century drive-in teens vs. monsters from outer space genre. It’s cheesy enough to be a laugh and solid enough to be engrossing. The film also captures the feeling of being young during the 50s so tangibly, it has an almost Spielbergian feeling. The story of teens banding together to save their town is reminiscent of Stranger Things and the 80s films that series homages. Not to mention the question mark ending is extra ominous today! Without spoiling things, I’ll just say humanity’s safety is dependent on “the arctic staying cold.” This may have seemed a given in the 50s but today, I think we are due for a sequel in which climate change unleashes the monster once again! The Blob is the perfect film to pair with a summer night. It’s a cheesy, Technicolor, midnight dream. A ridiculously enjoyable pleasure of the guilty variety, no car needed.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams!
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