Well, the film is out, and the reviews are in. Predictably, the critics carping over TWISTER’s alleged failings have proved that they don’t appreciate the wonders of cinema magic, for this movie is a wonder to behold. Working from a simple premise (storm chasers pursue tornadoes in the hope of gaining information to build a better warning system), the film builds itself up almost solely out of action surrounding its title phenomenon. As one would expect, DeBont directs the affair almost exactly as he staged SPEED: the action starts in the opening frame and never lets up. What’s surprising is that, after an overwhelming opening sequence that stuns its audience into silence and then appreciative applause, the film actually manages to sustain this intensity level (unlike CLIFFHANGER, which opened with its best scene and fell downhill from there). Read More
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH may be fashioned from a variety of film-making techniques, but there is one intangible element that holds the film together: pure imagination. Springing to life first in the fertile mind of author Roald Dahl and then planted like a seed in the equally fertile mind of stop-mo¬tion director Henry Selick, JAMES is a unique film. Like all great fantasies from THE WIZARD OF OZ to TOY STORY, it has the ability to spark imagination in the mind of its audience.
Director Henry Selick, having already proved himself proficient in the arduous realm of stop-motion with 1993’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, now adds this impressive notch to his artistic belt. The film opens in live-action, telling the tale of young James (an excellent performance by newcomer Paul Terry), who is forced to live with his aunts, Spiker and Sponge (over the top villainy from Miriam Margoyles and Joanna Lumley) after his parents’ death. Selick wisely chose to give these sequences the surrealistic look of stop-motion, which not only sets up the nether¬world quality of the film but also makes the transition into the world of stop-motion less jolting.
When James enters the giant peach and encounters the humanized insects, the story pulls out of the slight stall laid upon it by the down¬beat opening sequences. From the beginning, the animation is nothing short of a knockout. The hand craft¬ed images are blended seamlessly with computer graphics to create such startling sequences as a battle with skeletons aboard an underwater pirate ship (a possible nod to Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARG¬ONAUTS), and another sequence in which the peach, tethered to a flock of sea gulls while floating at sea, comes under attack by a mechanical shark (this may be one of the best action sequences you’ll see at the movies all year). Selick also uses JAMES as an excuse to experiment wonderfully with other animation forms, such as a hallucinogenic dream sequence, accomplished using cut outs a la Monty Python.
With such scenes, JAMES could have fallen into the same “style over substance” trap that turned many off to NIGHTMARE. But unlike the residents of that film’s “Halloween¬town,” who at times seemed like nothing more than set dressing, the insects in GIANT PEACH are fully-developed oddball personalities, similar in many ways to TOY STORY’s toys. Providing even more dimension is a great voice cast: British character actor Simon Callow gives just the perfect “veddy British” tone to Grasshopper; Susan Sarandon plays the sultry Miss Spider as Greta Garbo (she even says, “I prefer to be alone”); and Richard Dreyfuss pulls off a scene stealing performance as the Centipede, with his “Brooklynese” and off-the-cuff one liners.
The insects also add a great deal of depth to the story, warming up to James and helping him to overcome his fears (which are represented by the image of a Rhino-shaped storm cloud). The insects also perform the film’s most poignant song “We’re Family,” one of five new composi¬tions by Randy Newman, each fitting nicely into the plot, many of them infectious, including the gospel-like “Good News,” which closes the film.
JAMES falls just short of being a perfect film, but its failings are small-such as in its conclusion, which combines live-action and animation in a way that seems clumsily executed and strangely out of joint with the rest of the film. Nevertheless, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is a satisfying experience that’s perfect for anyone who needs a quick fix of pure imagination.
Click here to read a review of the 2010 Blu-ray disc of JAMES THE THE GIANT PEACH.
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Producers: Denise DiNovi, Tim Burton. Executive producer: Jake Eberts. Co-producers: Brian Rosen, Henry Selick. Director: Henry Selick. Camera: Pete Kozachik, Biro Narita, A.S.C. Editor: Stan Webb. Music & songs: Randy Newman. Production design: Harley Jessup. Conceptual design: Lane Smith. Animation supervisor: Paul Berry. Art direction: Bill Boes, Kendal Cronkhite. Costume design: Julie Slinger. Sound design: (Dolby), Gary Rydstrom. Visual effects supervisor: Kozachik. Screeaplay by Karey Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Roberts & Steve Blood, from the book by Roald Dahl. 4/96, SO mins. Rated PG. Cast: Paul Terry, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, Jane Leeves, Miriam Margolyes, Joanna Lumley, Pete Postlethwaite, David Thewlis.
This review originally appeared in the August 1996 issues of Cinefantasitque, Volume 28, Number 1.
Don’t be surprised if, much like the titular fruit, you feel you’ve been cast adrift in this live-action/stop-motion animated adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s classic. The story of a boy’s fanciful trip to New York City, accom¬panied by the insect inhabitants of a massive peach, seems to have been a victim of an historic round of studio second-guessing, marked by a formless story (What lesson does James acquire from his flight across the ocean – well, he does at least learn one way to avoid the inconvenience of a trip through customs), flat characterizations (only Susan Sarandon’s coolly seductive spider hits any depth past the obvious and the treacly), and an overabundance of truly hideous and completely pointless songs (hey, I admire Randy Newman as much as anybody, but while a song like “Eating the Peach” – in which the insects exult over all the effluvia and offal they have ingested in their lives ¬ must have sounded great when delivered in the composer’s irony-laced monotone, it’s practically unbearable in its final, jolly incarnation).
As with THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, director Henry Selick’s animation is wonderfully expressive and impressively surreal – the film features many stylistic nods to Selick’s far more fascinating short film, SLOW BOB IN THE LOWER DIMENSIONS. Looks can go only so far, however, and without the benefit of Tim Burton’s sardonic instincts (not to mention Danny Elfman’s minor-key proficiency), JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH sinks in the mire of its own syrup.
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (Walt Disney, 4/96, 80 mins. ) Director: Henry Selick. With: Paul Terry, Susan Sanodon, Richard Dreyruss, Joanna Lumley.
This review originally appeared in the August 1996 issues of Cinefantasitque, Volume 28, Number 1.
Existential angst in the form of cyberpunk anime from Japan. A form of artificial intelligence has become self aware, and now it`s seeking a way to escape from cyberspace into the real world. Ironically, the special forces tracking it down are formerly human beings whose bodies and brains have been so enhanced with modern technology that it`s hard to say how much of their humanity is left. The film explores weighty issues like: What is identity? Can artificial intelligence have a soul? Consequently, it often feels closer in spirit to an art house film than to a typical science fiction thriller, despite the great action scenes. Unfortunately, the story occasionally sags under the weight of its philosophical speculation. Nevertheless, this is an exciting effort, with an interesting premise, a strong plot, and involving characters. It ranks among the best animated features ever from Japan, easily on par with the best that live-action science fiction has to offer. Read More
It is no masterpiece, but after some of the schlock seen this year, it is nice to see a science-fiction horror film that delivers. Basically, this is “ALIEN on Earth,” featuring some of the best on-screen visualizations of H.R Giger’s work since Ridley Scott piloted the Nostromo to stratospheric box office success.
The hunt-and-chase plot offers a conventional, audience-friendly plot that keeps the sci-fi proceedings believably grounded, and the cast manages to make some sense of the pursuit teams’s character interaction, even when the script is thin. Ben Kingsley takes the genre material seriously, and it is nice to see supporting actor Michael Madsen given a chance to shine as the cool-headed professional brought in to track down the alien menace that literally threatens the survival of the human race. It is hard to say whether Natasha Henstridge is an actress of great depth, but she perfectly embodies that menace in the human guise of the seductive Sil. Read More
“Sugar” and “Spice” are not opposites. So why are they the names of Two-Face’s girlfriends (Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar), when everything about him is supposed to be split into opposing dichotomies? Apparently, “Leather” and “Lace,” the monikers used in the script, were deemed to suggestive for the family audience Warner Brothers was trying to placate after the horrifically demented BATMAN RETURNS (1992), so safer names were substituted at the expense of logic. It’s only one small detail, but it reveals the problem underlying the whole of BATMAN FOREVER: this is a film not designed to be the best piece of pop art it can possibly be, but calculated to draw the widest possible demographics in order to please WB’s merchandising partners, whether or not the result satisfies the actual audience.
Actually, if this film had come directly after BATMAN, it would have been an appreciable improvement. On a superficial level, Joel Schumacher is a better director of mindless action movies than Tim Burton is, and Schumacher also knows better how to negotiate his way through a production behemoth, serving up the requisite elements without much personal style or conviction to get in the way of the Hollywood hype. Read More
Most of the classic movie monsters are derived from folklore (the Wolfman), literature (Frankenstein), or a combination of the two (Dracula). Only a very few are original products of Hollywood. Of these latter creatures, one of the most memorable ever to leave its indelible impression upon the popular psyche is the Blob. Let’s face it: the Blob has become part of our popular consciousness, an instantly recognizable pop icon; whether you have not seen the film in years, or never saw it at all, you know what the Blob is – quite an achievement for a monster that has no literary or mythic antecedents.
Generally regarded as a classic among fans of old sci-fi flicks (especially those who first saw the film as children), THE BLOB owes its status to two factors: the presence of star Steve McQueen in his first feature film starring role, and the originality of its truly unique monster. The film itself is an amusing little effort that adheres closely to the reactionary sexual and political themes prevalent in most genre items of its era, as Robin Wood outlined in his essay “The American Nightmare” (“Two teenagers kiss enter the Blob”). The established order of American life (represented by parents, police, war veterans, etc.) at first seems to be threatened by hedonistic teenagers who show little respect for authority, but these two opposing groups join forces when faced by the threat of the Blob. By the end of the film, all the teenagers have proven themselves to be good solid American citizens who will probably grow up to be just like the authority figures now in power.
The Blob itself is quite an interesting monstrosity. Devoid of personality and intelligence, it is so primal as to be open to any number of interpretations, but it has one undeniable characteristic: it devours human flesh. In effect, it comes across as a punishment for the sins of the flesh, as in memorable garage scene. Two attendants talk about their plans for the weekend. The one lying beneath a car brags about leaving his wife behind while he goes off for a wild time other leaves to go home to his wife. Of course, it is the one beneath the car who is devoured. And, reinforcing the metaphor, the creature is defeated with cold — like the proverbial shower.
The human element of the film is the most part not as interesting as Blob itself. Much of the dialogue is overstated and melodramatic, serving to fill-in for shots and which could not be visualized. The acting is variable. McQueen and Corseaut come across well, but Keith Almoney (as Corseaut’s younger brother) makes us wish the Blob had devoured him in the first reel.
Also, production values were obviously limited. The film tends to be more effective in its early scenes, when the Blob is small. By the conclusion, when the Blob has grown large enough to engulf a diner, the film is visibly straining to do justice to its concept, holding on reaction shots of actors while the audience is left to imagine what the Blob is doing off screen.
Still, flaws notwithstanding, THE BLOB is a classic of a kind. Though not a masterpiece, it is one of those movies that somehow accidentally struck a chord that continues to reverberate in the popular consciousness five decades later (aided, of course, by awareness of a big-budget remake in 1988).
BEHIND THE SCENES
The production story behind the original is almost as interesting as the film itself. It all started when Irvine H. Millgate met Jack H. Harris, a distributor who wanted to become a producer. “He [Millgate] was head of visual aids for the Boy Scouts of America,” said Harris. “They had made a feature film, and they asked me to be consultant on the national distribution.”
While promoting the film, Harris and Millgate toured the country together. “On our trips, we would talk about the great movie that I was gonna make one day, because that’s what I wanted to do,” recalled Harris. “Millgate said, ‘What is your formula?’ I said, ‘It’s gotta be a monster movie. It’s gotta be in color instead of black and white. It can’t be a cheapy creepie — it’s gotta have some substance to it. It’s gotta have characters you can believe in. And there’s gotta be a unique monster — never been done before. And the method of killing the monster would have to be something that grandma could have cooked up on her stove.’”
With those specifications in mind, Millgate went to work. Almost a year later, Harris was awakened one morning by a long-distance phone call from an excited Millgate. “He said, ‘I’ve got it — I’ve got it — Oh Lord, I’ve got it! THE MOLTEN METEOR!’ I asked, ‘What the hell’s that?’ He said, ‘A mineral form of life that consumes human flesh on contact.’ I said, ‘That sounds good, but how do we do it in?’ He said, ‘You can’t burn it; you can’t reduce it with acid; you can’t shoot it. There’s only one thing you can do: freeze it — makes it immobile.’ So that was the basic notion.”
Millgate developed this notion into a treatment, which Harris took to Valley Forge Films, a production company in suburban Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, headed by Irvin S. (“Shorty”) Yeaworth, Jr. Under Yeaworth’s direction, Valley Forge Films had made hundreds of low budget TV shows and numerous 16mm films. Along with producer Lou Kellman (The Burgler), Yeaworth had been trying to co-produce a feature, but they were unable to raise financing for a script they had developed — “a Bridie Murphy kind of situation,” according to Yeaworth. The real-life case of a woman who became famous for allegedly recalling past lives under hypnosis had led to a brief vogue with reincarnation, but other films had already cashed in (e.g., Roger Corman’s THE UNDEAD in 1957). When Kellman approached his friend, distributor Jack Harris, for help raising money, Harris suggested making THE MOLTEN METEOR instead.
Although initially reluctant, Yeaworth eventually decided that science-fiction might not be a bad genre for a feature debut. “Science-fiction wasn’t where we lived,” he recalled. “We were not buffs, but it was a safe area for a first venture. We knew we weren’t ready for a serious dramatic film.”
Harris’s distribution company, Screen Guild (soon renamed Tonylyn Productions, after the producer’s two children) entered into a contract with Valley Forge to produce the film. Harris, his partner Mike Friedman, and Yeaworth each put up one-third of the $120,000 budget.
“The three of us were partners,” Yeaworth recalled. “We hired my company to produce the film, at a contracted price. The contract, written in legalese, hired ‘one Yeaworth and his company to produce.’ Harris got the producer’s credit because we knew eventually someone had to be the spokesman who went out and sold this film, and he was good at that kind of thing.”
A screenplay was developed from Millgate’s treatment. The script went through several drafts at Valley Forge, including uncredited input from the director’s wife, Jean Yeaworth, with a final draft credited to Theodore Simonson and actress Kay Linaker (who had written “Scandal at Peppernut,” an episode of The United States Steel Hour, under her pen name, Kate Phillips, in 1955).
“Ted worked with us on story,” Harris recalled. “With all due respect, I think he supplied more of a plot. I kept throwing in what I needed in the way of thrills. Once he did that, we hired Kate Phillips, who was an established writer, and she put the finishing touches on it.”
After the script was completed, Harris had “the serious job of running around trying to corral financing – and that was not as easy as it sounds. Since I had never made a picture before, I had to go to people who knew me as a publicist, distributor, exhibitor. First, I tried all the studios. Rejected out of hand. By all of them – including Paramount, which eventually took the picture. It was heartbreaking. I hocked what I had, and I went out and got a couple of partners who were distantly involved in the motion picture business. One was in the laboratory end, so we could get printing. That’s how we got it together.”
Months of pre-production went into preparing the film so that it could be complete on its limited budget. Harris felt that intense advance planning was the key to keeping the budget in check. “To me the most important part is preparation – that’s where it all happens. We had about three-and-a-half months preparation, besides story development. [It was] the best-prepared movie I’ve ever done; I thought they were all that way. I’ve found out since that time, they ain’t all that way.”
Much of this was devoted to engineering the techniques required to portray the Blob – which was actually a ball of silicone. “The thing that took time was the special effects,” said Harris. “They’d never been done before, by anybody. It wasn’t like you could say, ‘How do I do this?’ You had to find out how to do it by doing it. Fortunately, Yeaworth had this art studio, and he had a bunch of brilliant amateurs that just kept experimenting until they found out how.”
One of these “brilliant amateurs” was Thomas Spalding, who had photographed several short subjects for Yeaworth. “Being the director of photography, I was given the assignment of testing methods to figure out how we would actually make the Blob movie,” Spalding recalled. “What was designed was a gimble device. A miniature of each real set was built. Into this set, we’d put this little ball of silicone, and on this gimble device we mounted lights, perfectly locked off, and a camera. The whole thing could be tilted any direction and turned upside down.”
Working with silicone presented its own challenges. “We were lucky,” said Harris. “3-M got a kick out of it – they were the principal suppliers of silicon in those days, and they sent a research scientist to stay on the set with us and help us with the problems. We had silicon of every consistency, from running water to solid glass. This was important to them – they could point to it, and it would help their business.”
The appearance of pure silicone was not enough to give the Blob its memorable on-screen look. “Adding colors was another problem,” said Harris. “Silicone didn’t come in colors; it was clear. We had a deal with Standard Oil: they would send us different pigments to use, and we finally found one that photographed well, but it didn’t stay in solution. So we had an effects grip who kept mixing it up and mixing it up.”
Because the silicone was like a piece of thick, molten glass, the tests were shot single-frame, speeding up the apparent motion of the Blob. Tilting the gimble device would make the Blob roll forward. Turning the device upside-down made the Blob appear to rear itself up. Pulsating movements were achieved by altering upside-down and rightside-up.
The cast was assembled mostly from local unknowns, with one notable exception. Yeaworth had met Steve (then Steven) McQueen the year before, when McQueen had visited the set for a day to see a girlfriend appearing in one of Yeaworth’s short films. Despite this previous connection with Yeaworth, Harris claimed he insisted on casting McQueen over the director’s objections.
“Totally obnoxious,” Harris proclaimed of McQueen. “Nobody liked him; nobody wanted him.”
Harris, however, had enjoyed McQueen’s performance as an understudy for Ben Gazzara in a play. “I wanted somebody that had reality about him, somebody that was the character.”
In Harris’s version of the story, Yeaworth resisted the casting. The following Monday Harris saw a television show in which McQueen played a delivery boy accused of murder. “He walked through the whole thing, but the last ten minutes he lit up the TV set! I called the director and said, ‘He’s got the part!’ He said, ‘You’ll be sorry. I said, ‘Well, maybe.’ So that was my lucky piece of casting.”
The film began production early midsummer of 1957. Most of the scenes, whether interior or exterior, were shot on the three sound stages at Valley Forge Studios. The only locations were the interior and exterior of Jerry’s Supermarket, the exteriors of the Colonial Theatre, the doctor’s office, and the diner, as well as a few shots of cars on the road. The tight budget and short schedule left little margin for error and no room for on-set experimentation; fortunately, the pre-production planning helped compensate for this. Harris admits to being a little anxious about pulling off location shooting on their limited budget. “I was scared to death,’ he said. “I had everything on the line, and I didn’t want to be broke when we finished the film. ”
THE BLOB was basically an in-house production, utilizing all the crew of Valley Forge Studios. “We had seminars on how to make films and improve ourselves,” said Yeaworth. “It was remarkable that we could mount a feature film.”
The exception to this rule was Vin Keyhoe, a member of the professional makeup union. (Sharp-eyed viewers will note the initials “S.M.A.” after his name in the credits, indicating his membership.) Explained Yeaworth, “I was concerned about how a 27 year-old’s face would come across on the big screen, so I hired Vin. He wrote the book on makeup and did a fantastic job. But still, reviewers like Hollis Alpert couldn’t help but note that THE BLOB boasted ‘the world’s oldest teenagers.’ We obviously had to cast around Steve, so all our teens were on the mature side.”
It was not until the second day of shooting that Harris learned he had cast a twenty-seven-year-old actor as a nineteen-year-old character. “The director came up to me and said, ‘You see – he’s twenty-seven!’ So I said, ‘Shut up and direct the movie!’ McQueen was a pain in the ass, but – boy – I’ll take that pain any time I can get it. He did a helluva a job. But it was very easy for me: Yeaworth had to work with him; I didn’t. But Yeaworth was happy once he saw the film cut together.”
For the most part, filming was an exercise in achieving results with very little. Luckily, the crew was willing to put in a maximum amount of effort for a minimum amount of money. “We were interested in the progress of our studio; therefore, we were all really participants in the project, even though we’re not participants in the profits,” said Spalding.
Shooting was a grueling experience involving many twenty hour days, often six or seven days a week, in order to cut down on equipment rental expense. Said Spalding, “We already owned the lights and sound stages and bad built all the sets; it was all our equipment except the cameras. None of us had ever shot a full length feature. I’d been shooting quite a while, all 16mm. I’d never operated a 35mm camera, never used a gear head. Three weeks later, we had the basic film shot; then we started doing the special effects.
“The thing I remember most about the picture,” Spalding added, “was that you had to use so much light. At that point, film speed was very slow. The A.S.A. was 25; today we use 400. That required 1000 foot-candies. Today I can shoot with six foot-candles. Using regular household lights didn’t show up — the movie lights overpowered them; therefore, you had to have boosters on the bulbs. So everything was more of a hassle to make it look real.”
These lighting difficulties were the main reason the film avoided location shooting as much as possible: real locations often looked “phony” because Spalding was unable to light them properly. “The hardest thing was to light at a distance to see two cars, because we didn’t have enough power to properly light two or three blocks of street,” said Spalding. “We didn’t have the time or money. That’s one of the things I don’t like, because it doesn’t come off as well as it should. Today that would be duck soup, because you can use the available fight that’s there.”
One of the trickier in-camera effects involved the “forest” for the scene near the beginning of the film wherein the old man finds the meteor that brought the Blob to Earth. Actually a set, the woods took up 40 feet of a sixty-five foot soundstage. In order to give the impression that the woods were going on much farther, a miniature of the old man’s house was built at the far end of the stage, so that, with the actor in the foreground, it appeared to be a full-scale house at a great distance. The responsibility for achieving this effect was shared by the team’s production designer Bill Jersey, art director Karl Carlson, and special effects director Bart Sloane, who crafted the crater as well as the meteorite from which the Blob oozed after its crash landing.
Combining the Blob with live actors was done mostly in editing. There are no rear-screen or process shots in the film. When the Blob is seen in the same shot with an actor, a variety of simple techniques were used. In the supermarket, when the Blob is seen sliding by at the end of an aisle and McQueen chases after it, a weather balloon was used. When the Blob envelops a victim, such as the projectionist and the doctor, a plastic bag was placed over the actor’s head and a huge glob of the Blob material was dropped on him. When the Blob sneaks up behind the garage mechanic lying on the floor, a large chunk of silicone was actually pushed across the floor.
Jack Harris’ economy-mindedness resulted in a rather intriguing double feature for the sequence in which the Blob attacks the Colonial Theatre. In order not to have to pay for the rights to use a film, Harris supplied two movies that he already owned as distributor: DAUGHTER OF HORROR and MY SON, THE VAMPIRE, the latter starring Bela Lugosi. Sharp-eyed viewers will note what appears to be a FORBIDDEN PLANET poster outside the theatre. “We hadn’t developed a poster on the Bela Lugosi picture,” said Harris. “One of the [alternate] titles was THE VAMPIRE AND THE ROBOT. We took a FORBIDDEN PLANET poster and made THE VAMPIRE AND THE ROBOT out of that, but DAUGHTER OF HORROR was an actual poster. ‘Not a word is spoken, not a terror left untold!’ — that was the catch line. I can’t tell you the catch lines of the exhibitors who ran the picture! That’s why I made THE BLOB — to get out of that life! It’s fun to be creative, and not be at the mercy of other people’s mistakes.”
The clip of the film-within-the-film being shown at the Colonial Theatre is from DAUGHTER OF HORROR, a film made in 1953 by John Parker, originally titled DEMENTIA. Filled with bizarre shadows and tilted angles, it is just intriguing enough to make one wonder what the whole film is like. “I’ll tell you something interesting about that,” said Harris. “I found the film. It was made without any dialogue. The film didn’t make much sense. At the time, I was pretty friendly with Ed McMahon. I got a hold of Ed. We went into a little stage and put a stocking over his head ‘ so you wouldn’t see his face. He was the Spirit of Death, and he would come in every once in a while and bridge the action with a couple lines of dialogue. It was almost a movie; it just didn’t work. The other one was pretty bad too. But my distribution company needed product, and they were a couple of available titles. They were never distributed together; the only place they ever played together was on that marquee!”
Shooting was often slowed by arguments between Yeaworth and McQueen. “Even then, Steve McQueen was a prima donna – or what you would call a son of a bitch!” Spalding recalled. “The director and the actor spent a great deal of time behind the stage, arguing about the script. They butted heads over many reasons, but it was mostly interpretation. McQueen didn’t wish to be told how to do it, which is what the director’s there for. I knew both of them well enough to know neither one wanted to give in to the other. Therefore, we reached a near impasse. It was a tough shoot. We had to work long hours, and that becomes a strain on everybody.”
Yeaworth disputed this recollection, pointing out that, on the film’s short schedule, there was little time to waste arguing with his lead actor. The director attributes his disputes with McQueen to the “tight design control and in-camera editing” necessitated by the film’s limited budget. “McQueen used a natural, improvisational style and hated the limitations that the pre-designed scenes required, but given the budget there was little choice.”
Yeaworth added, “He was always a very unusual person. Steve was an insecure guy — he’d been through some hard times when he was younger, so he had to create this identity as a defense. That was his nature. He enjoyed being a bad boy, but his bark was worse than his bite. He was not so tough as he liked to act. He was like his dog. He owned this attack dog named Thor that he wanted everybody to be terrified of, but the dog would walk up and put its head in my wife’s lap, like a puppy, and this infuriated Steve.”
One problem was McQueen’s insistence that his German Shepherd Thor be allowed to roam the set freely. “The inquisitive and crafty dog found an endless number of ways to sneak onto the stage: behind a workman, though a window, over fences — much to his master’s delight, even though it often resulted in a ruined take, costing precious film stock,” said Yeaworth.
“He [McQueen] also liked to practice target shooting at tin cans from our commissary,” said Yeaworth, “and we had to express concern because children played in that area. But Steve insisted he was careful. One day he put a tin can on Thor’s head and shot it off cleanly. But several months later, he tried it again and missed, killing Thor and bringing Steve deep remorse.”
Besides the director, McQueen also clashed with his co star Aneta Corseaut. According to Spalding, “They hated each other. Of course, the love scene was the very last thing we shot; by that time, they were really confirmed in their hatred. Aneta Corseaut had a bad time. She had a blemish on her face that made it tough trying to make her look glamorous.”
One scene written but never shot was the standard ’50s scientific explanation scene. Harris recalled, “We wrote a beautiful scene that took fifteen minutes explaining how it could go through the atmosphere and land unscathed, why it was the way it was, and so on. I said, ‘You know, fellas, this is the thing that gives me indigestion more than anything: the obligatory expository scene. We don’t need it. Let the audience figure it out.’ So the scene was never shot.”
Once the three weeks of principal photography were completed, work began on the Blob effects. Still-photographer Vince Spangler took pictures of the set at the direction of Sloane, and miniatures were constructed from them. “They were made from black-and-white stills and hand colored,” explains Spalding, “because color stills were too expensive and difficult to do under the circumstances.’
Sloane recalled, “The miniatures were photographic models, actually, each was a very distorted photograph. Since you’re only seeing it from one point of view — it wasn’t three dimensional — we distorted it in such a way that when we put the silicone in, it seemed to be in proper perspective and appeared three-dimensional. We had a platform mounted somewhat like on a telescope, about six feet long and three feet wide. We had our miniature sets on that, and the camera and the lights. We had to invent the lights because you couldn’t turn a regular studio bulb upside down. It blew out if you didn’t burn it face down. It’s a shame we ran out of time on the thing. We went with a lot of material I felt could have been improved. We’d no sooner perfected our system than, because of time constraints, we had to go with what we had. ”
The talented Sloane also supplied several animation effects for the Blob. When the nurse throws acid on the creature, Sloane’s cel animation, rotoscoped onto the silicone, ball provides the effects of the acid evaporating harmlessly. And, the dramatic climactic shots of the Blob engulfing the diner and of the Blob frozen to immobility, were products of Sloane’s animation skills. The diner was a black-and-white photo hand tinted; the Blob was a static cell element, and other animation effects were layered on top of these, such as sparks when the police try to electrocute the Blob. “Bart is the most creative artist/designer/ animator I’ve ever met,” said Yeaworth. “On all of the projects he did with us, he demonstrated a wide range of talents: designer, illustrator, special effects designer and builder, artist, animator, and cameraman.”
Much of the Blob’s movement was the result of trial and error, doing several takes until it happened to move in a convincing manner. Although several of the effects could theoretically have been achieved full-scale, such as squeezing beneath a door, almost all of them were done in miniature, because the silicone was easier to control in small amounts.
Shots of the Blob tend to be fleeting — just enough to make its presence known. This served both an aesthetic and an economic purpose, as Spalding explained, “We didn’t want the audience to see too much, because less is more. The illusion and what you don’t see is sometimes as important as what you do see. That continues to be my way of doing such things. Some people overdo it — you see too much of the effect and it loses its impact. With the time and money we had, we cut corners, and sometimes having that kind of effect is better than having a bad effect that you see. That’s the secret to me — especially when you don’t have much to show! You really could not show the Blob very long because you’d pretty soon see that it’s stuck to the floor. The only thing that moves is the top of it — it will end up with a tail behind it.”
As the Blob devoured more victims and grew larger, it also deepened in color. “It gets redder and redder as it absorbs more blood,” explained Harris. “But that’s subtle — we didn’t announce that. In those days, there were no splatter movies. If you’ve seen the picture recently, there’s no gore. I wanted it, but I was fought tooth and nail by my associates. When the doctor gets it, it’s very sotto voce. That’s as much as I could get my people to do. I wanted the thing to be on him; I wanted him to be writhing in pain. I didn’t want to tear his flesh away, which is one of the things [we did in the remake]. So we did it that way; it was acceptable, and it worked. I can’t knock it at this stage of the game. The picture did so much business, I figured, ‘Maybe I’m wrong.’ Then along comes all this garbage that we face these days – I can’t say there’s not a market [for gore].”
With the completion of the effects work, the next major hurdle was choosing a title. THE MOLTEN METEOR had never been seriously considered. During the production, crewmembers were invited to write any title they could imagine for the film. “The one that used to get all the laughs when people repeated it,” recalled Harris, “was THE GLOB THAT GIRDLED THE GLOBE. We had another one: ABSORBINE SENIOR. I liked that. And, THE NIGHT OF THE CREEPING DREAD. We were really serious about that one, because it was a ‘tuxedo’ title; THE GLOB THAT GIRDLED THE GLOBE was a ‘dumb’ title. I love one-word titles, having distributed many of them, so I said, ‘Let’s call it THE GLOB.’ Finally everybody agreed. We were applying for copyright, and somebody had done a little investigation and found there was a book called The Glob, by Walt Kelly, the cartoonist. I didn’t know any better then. Today, I know I could have called the picture THE GLOB, because you can’t copyright titles.
“We already had the title card [another Bart Sloane cel animation trick] made up,” continued Harris. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll make a new title. A l o b doesn’t spell anything. B 1 o b: Blob. C l o b … Wait a minute. What’s the matter with ‘Blob’? That’s the title!’” said Harris. “It happened in three minutes, because I had a train to catch to go to New York. I can’t say it was anything other than an economy move, because it was less expensive to change the one letter.”
Harris recalled an amusing incident at the cast screening held after the film’s completion: “McQueen comes to see it. I had a handshake agreement with him on future pictures, and I never picked up on it because he was such a pain in the ass. He said to me, ‘Boy, you’re a lucky guy.’ I said, ‘Why is that?’ He said, ‘Because you got me on a flat rate; I should have held out for a percentage.’” Harris laughed. “Who would have given it to him? I’d have hired somebody else. I didn’t need any percentage actors. Especially when his name on a marquee wouldn’t have drawn flies.”
Although Harris had his own distribution company, the film went out under the Paramount banner. “My partners were satisfied with me distributing, but I felt there was an obligation to see what could be done,” said Harris. “I went to a buddy of mine who was a district manager for Paramount, on the distribution end, and I said, ‘I got this picture I think your company would make a lot of money on.’ He showed it to the committee, and they said, ‘Get out of here with that picture!’”
Harris was gearing up to distribute the film himself, creating trailers and posters, when he received a call from Paramount, requesting to see the film again. After the second screening, he received another call telling him Paramount wished to acquire the film. Harris made two offers: one for them to distribute the film for seven years, the other to buy the film outright. Paramount accepted the first offer.
“It was very gratifying that they picked it up,” said Harris. “I didn’t know they were buying it as insurance policy for turkey they made called MARRIED A MONSTER FRO OUTER SPACE. They figured if they had another picture to go with it, trying to copy American International, they’d have two for the price of one. I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE top billing; THE BLOB second feature. They put them out as a package, and they found everybody was calling the theatres to find out what time THE BLOB came on; nobody asked about the other picture. So, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE disappeared, and THE BLOB was top gross in every city. It fought its way. No big campaign, no big money spent. The audience found the picture. So did Steve Allen, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny. Any time they needed a laugh, they’d say, ‘Well, I went to see THE BLOB,’ and the audience would break up. That didn’t hurt us.”
According to Yeaworth, selecting a title that could be “kidded” was intentional “Ray Van Buren who drew the cartoon series ‘Abby and Slats’ devoted several weeks of his comic strip to a spoof of our film including showing the picture being shot in a little Pennsylvania town,” said Yeaworth.
One result of having Paramount as distributor was a change that pleased none of the principals, although it did become an indelible part of the film’s mystique. Bart Sloane’s opening titles were originally synchronized to a slowly building, heavily dramatic bolero by the film’s composer Ralph Carmichael, which reached an ominous crescendo as the title appeared.
“The picture was finished, in the can, and delivered to Paramount,” said Harris. “I got a call. They said, ‘We want to add a title song, because it will help the picture. We have the right to do so, but we want you to agree, which would make life easier for everybody. ‘So I said, ‘What have you got in mind?
At the time, Paramount had a contract with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, paying them a monthly wage in exchange for first refusal rights to any song they might come up with. According to Harris, Paramount said, “‘As long as you don’t object, we’ll try them. If they don’t have anything that works, well buy ‘Purple People Eater’ and stick that on the picture. ‘Burt and Hal went to work; they were back in three days with the song. The rest is history,” said Harris.
The amusing calypso theme song became a top forty hit and went on to become a camp classic. Although it lessened the dramatic impact of the film, Yeaworth, Harris and Spalding agree the song probably did help sell the film to its intended audience. “I bumped into Burt at the premiere of YENTL,” said Harris. “He put his arm around me and said, ‘Jack Harris — THE BLOB! Everybody used to make fun of me, but I thought it was great. He made a lot of money out of that song.”
THE BLOB earned $8.5 million dollars over the next two years, when ticket prices were just thirty-five cents apiece. Despite this financial success (and despite a closing title card that read “The End?” suggesting the story was not really over), producer Jack H. Harris avoided making a quick sequel. “I would think about it,” the producer recalled. “What else could the Blob do? It just couldn’t do anything else! So forget it!”
Instead, he and Yeaworth worked on two subsequent science fiction films: THE 4 D MAN and DINOSAURUS. The first of these was completed at Valley Forge, utilizing the same crew that worked on THE BLOB; the second was shot in Hollywood at Universal Studios, with a union crew. Both films use a formula somewhat similar to that of THE BLOB. As Yeaworth described it, his three genre films all feature a single fantasy element that intrudes upon an ordinary situation filled with everyday characters, helping to lend a sense of believability; there is no imaginative technological gizmo that defeats the monster, leaving the heroes to use whatever ordinary tools are available. (This leads to the amusing duel between a T-Rex and a steam shovel at the end of DINOSAURUS – an idea that really deserves to be remade.)
Shortly after the completion of DINOSAURS, Yeaworth and Harris parted company. “Jack wanted me to stay in California,” said Yeaworth. “I had gone out there to help him get started in production on the West Coast, but I had the studio back here. I wanted to make challenging ‘idea’ films, not just science fiction or exploitation subjects.”
Although THE BLOB launched several careers, not all of them continued in feature films. Yeaworth went on to designing multi-sensory productions for Worlds Fairs, Theme Parks, etc. Bart Sloane eventually left filmmaking to concentrate on his work as an artist. Aneta Corseaut never appeared in another feature, although she did play Andy Griffith’s wife on the MAYBERRY, RFD television show. Tom Spalding came to Hollywood to work as a cinematographer for both film and TV, including episodes of the revived ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS in the 1980s. Russ Doughten went on to found his own production, distribution, and exhibition company. Bill Jersey became an Academy Award nominated director. Jean Yeaworth worked as a writer and a musical supervisor on several films. And Jack Harris became a successful Hollywood producer.
But of course the most famous career was that of Steve McQueen, who went on to become a major star before his untimely death from cancer in 1980. In fact, when Harris re-released THE BLOB in 1964 on a double bill with DINOSAURUS, McQueen’s name was featured prominently above the title on the new posters, in much larger type than originally. (Curiously, there was another change: during the subsequent years, McQueen had shortened his first name from “Steven” to “Steve.’)
It was not until 1974 that Jack Harris finally got around to producing another BLOB flick, BEWARE, THE BLOB! (a.k.a., SON OF BLOB). Barely a sequel, BEWARE THE BLOB features little connection with its predecessor except the titular monster: the original film ended with the Blob being deposited in the arctic; the sequel begins with actor Godfrey Cambridge watching THE BLOB on TV, who mentions having brought back some weird thing he found frozen in the snow during a recent expedition.
Directed by Larry Hagman (an actor best known at the time for starring in I DREAM OF JEANNIE), the film feels more like a spoof, but the attempt at parody is weak, neither scary nor funny, despite cameos by reliable character actors and comedians like Shelley Berman, Gerrit Graham, Burgess Meredith, Bud Cort, Carol Lynley, and Hagman himself. Despite the recognizable names and a bigger budget, the sequel was not as memorable as the original, certainly not the kind of film that would inspire a remake some 30 years later. In fact, probably the funniest joke connected with it is the tagline that was retroactively added to the video release: after Hagman became famous as J.R. Ewing on DALLAS, BEWARE THE BLOB became known as “The film that J.R. Shot!” — a reference to the famous season-ending cliffhanger that left viewers wondering, “Who shot J.R.?”
One rather odd offshoot of the 1988 remake was the transformation of the original version of THE BLOB into a comedy. At the time, L.A Connection (an improv-comedy group in Sherman Oaks, north of the Hollywood Hills) was doing a series called “Mad Movies,” in which the cast would perform live dialogue in place of the soundtrack during screenings of campy old films. With the remake putting the title back into public awareness, the L.A. Connection unleashed their comedic talents upon THE BLOB, even though it was a cut above the their usual targets (e.g., CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON, REEFER MADNESS).
In the L.A. Connection retelling, the old man who becomes the Blob’s first victim sounds like Elmer Fudd. The fireman with the Italian-looking face becomes the Pope, and the woman screaming for him to save her child is over-dubbed to say, “Why won’t you let women into the priesthood?” And for reasons inexplicable yet funny, the Blob is a comedian who delivers one-liners in a Henny Youngman voice whenever it appears.
After attending the performance at the venerable Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, producer Jack H. Harris gave permission for the L.A. Connection to preserve their version on video by overdubbing their dialogue onto the film, much as Woody Allen had done with WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY? Unlike the live performances, the video version tampers editorially with the original film, and also uses rotoscope animation to create lips for the Blob when it speaks. Titled BLOBERMOUTH (1990), the result is a cult item more of interest to comedy fans than to sci-fi enthusiasts, but it is nice to have the Connection’s truly inspired comedy preserved in a way that makes it available for those not fortunate enough to have seen it performed live.
Seen today, the 1958 movie that first launched the Blob onto movie screens, is a bit of a museum piece, perhaps more important for its place in cinema history than for its own humble artistic achievements. THE BLOB can no longer scare an audience over ten years old, and the limits of its production values are so obvious that it’s hard for even a forgiving viewer to overlook them totally. And yet, somehow, the movie’s monster lives on public awareness as one of the most frightening ever conceived. As recently as 2006’s SLITHER, the old film was receiving an obvious on screen homage: when a pair of characters finds the fragments of a tiny meteorite, one picks up a stick and pokes it, exactly like the old man at the beginning of THE BLOB.
That THE BLOB managed to embed itself in the public memory to such a degree, was a source of amazement to those who worked on the original film. “At the time, the only thing we were proud of was that we got it made,” said Irwin Yeaworth when interviewed in 1988. “ Now people still come from all over the place to talk to us about it.”
Producer Jack H. Harris also expressed surprise. “I sure guessed wrong on that,” he said. “THE BLOB was not my forever movie. My forever movie was DINOSAURUS. It was Cinemascope, Technicolor. It was made with Universal; they put muscle behind it. I thought, ‘Dinosaurs are here to stay.’ Forget it! It did fine, but it ran its course and that was it. Certainly not a classic movie. There’s nothing you can do to make that happen. It happens because people discover it.”
Copyright 1989 by Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 1989 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 19, Numbers 1 and 2).
“Reality is more horrible than fiction,” a character observes in this stylish Spanish/Italian shocker, yet director Mario Bava keeps pumping for the fantasy – oriented delirium at the core of the cut-and-slash dramas so dear to his heart. Here he forsakes the mystery element usually associated with his blood-drenched projects to inspect the tormented psyche of a handsome, well-heeled psycho played by Stephen Forsyth, who unlocks his troubled past by hacking up young women, usually on their wedding night. Read More
By Jeffrey Frentzen
Mario Bava’s ANTEFATTO (“Before the Fact”), produced in Italy in 1970, was picked up for domestic release by Hallmark in 1973, playing second-feature to other Hallmark bloodbaths like MARK OF THE DEVIL and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. The latest Bava work available for American viewing is the director’s most complete failure to date, heaping graphic violence onto one of his more ridiculous scripts. If you were appalled by the gore and slaughter of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, this latest film contains twice the murders, each one accomplished with an obnoxious eye for detail (faces split open in loving close-up, decapitation, and murder of the axe variety). The raw violence is only an excuse to propel a silly story reminiscent of an Edgar Wallace cloak-and-dagger mystery.
Bava is a talent, despite the claustrophobic limitations of his plot. He has always had a fascination for beautifully decorated interiors and fog-shrouded, wispy exteriors, all filmed in prevalent hues of grey and blue. It is unfortunate that his fascination extends also to synopses filled with unabashed stupidity. His screenplay abounds with an execrable soap-opera quality that somehow overpowers even the excessive bloodshed. Bava shares the blame this time with Carlo Reali for developing the slight story idea, involving a group off heirs to a valuable land tract who are murdered one by one, supposedly by someone who wants the land for himself. Red herrings are ever-present, and serve as the only interest keeping the plot in motion, but nothing really redeems the dumb storyline. There is a cleverly calculated “surprise” ending that comes far too late to make any difference. Bava seems to make a point of confusing the viewer.
There are, of course, those shining moments which distinguish any Bava film: the opening scene, accompanied by a sumptuous, well-orchestrated score by Stelvio Cipriani (the only consistently good quality in the film), in which the dim figure of a woman in a wheelchair is stalked and strangled; the swimming sequence wherein a girl bumps into a floating corpse on the lake and is killed for her discovery. Bava is a creative talent despite his weaknesses. His photography is moody and effective, and his pacing is good in spite of a defective plot. Here is a director and expert cinematographer whose work is constantly being maimed by the unreasonably low standards set by his own lousy scripts.
Copyright 1975 by Jeffrey Frentzen. This review originally appeared in the Fall 1975 issue of Cinefantastique (4:3). As time permits, other articles from this issue will be archived under the heading for September 1975.
TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (released in Italy as Ecologia del delitto [“Ecology of Murder”], also known as “Bay of Blood,” Hallmark, 1973). In Color. 90 minutes. Produced by Guiseppe Zacciarello (Nuova Linea Cinemato¬graphica). Directed and photographed by Mario Bava. Screenplay by Bava and Carlo Reali. Cast: Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Claudio Volonto, Laura Betti, Ana Maria Rosati, Brigitte Skay.
RELATED ARTICLES: Bay of Blood Review
EDITORS NOTE: This review by John R. Duvoli ran in the very first issue of Cinefantastique magazine, Fall 1970 (Volume 1, Number 1). Therefore, although today is in fact February 24, 2009, I am dating the article September 1, 1970.
By John R. Duvoli
It would appear that the makers of this European suspense shocker poured over volumes of Hitchcock film critiques and attempted to piece together a Hitchcock-like thriller. The plot contrivances are there, the possibilities are there, but the style and flair that is the master’s is not. The film does succeed, though, as a good imitation.
American Tony Mussante, on a holiday in Rome with Suzy Kendall, witnesses an attempted murder. He becomes almost obsessed with piecing together the mystery, despite the vehement objections of Miss Kendall; and when it becomes apparent that the man he saw may have been a “Jack-the-Ripper” type. who is terrorizing Rome, his criminologist-like instinct wins out over common sense.
The Hitchcock devices are there. Mussante, early in the film, traps himself between two glass panels while attempting to rescue a victim (Eva Renzi) and desperately tries to signal the nearly deserted street for aid. Later, after nearly being killed, Mussante follows his would-be assassin into a hotel…where he winds up in a convention hall where everyone is dressed like the killer. Still later, we see a victim climbing a long staircase; she cannot see the lights go out on the top landing, but we can.
I must confess to having the mystery all figured out, or so I thought (and every plot revelation made me more positive)… but I was wrong. The “surprise” ending, while a surprise, is unsatisfactory. I can’t reveal it of course; suffice it to say that it is illogical and not at all believable. The psychiatric explanation at the finale seems pretty weak on logic and believability too…but by this time the film has become sufficiently compelling.
There are flaws. The absurd characterizations that were a trademark of the Edgar Wallace series are there, though this time to a lesser degree. Dubbing is satisfactory and technical credits are good. There’s an annoyingly exaggerated portrayal of a homosexual art dealer, but Suzy Kendall is very likable, as is Mr. Mussante. Eva Renzi, who works in both major (Funeral In Berlin) and nudie (That Woman) films is adequate.
The title refers to a rare bird, whose chatterings are heard in the background during a phone conversation with the “ripper” killer, a vital clue in the denouement.
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (L’ Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo, 1970). A UM Film Distributor Release, 8/70. In Eastmancolor. 98 minutes. A Sydney Glazier Presentation. Producer: Salvatore Argento. Director and scripter: Dario Argento. Camera: Vittorio Storaro. Film Editor: Franco Fraticelli. Music: Ennio Morricone. Art director: Dario Micheli. Sound: Carlo Diotalievi. Cast: Tony Musante (Sam Dalmas), Suzy Kendall (Julia), Eva Renzi (Monica), Enrico Maria Salerno (Morosini), Mario Adorf (Berto), Renato Romano (Dover), Umberto Rano (Ranieri), Reggie Nalder (assassin).