The Blob (1988) – A Retrospective
In 1988, thirty years after the release of THE BLOB, a new and more expensive version was unleashed upon the world. The remake turned out to be almost diametrically opposed to its predecessor: the 1958 BLOB was a low-budget production filmed in–house by a company and crew that had never worked on a feature before; the 1988 BLOB was a big-budget production from a major studio and an experienced team of professionals, blessed with a longer schedule and the advantage of a thirty-year advance in technology. Ironically, the old BLOB had been a sleeper hit in its day; the new BLOB turned out to be a box office disaster.
The remake was the brain-child of Chuck Russell, who had co-produced and co-written the enjoyable fantasy film DREAMSCAPE. Like many of fans, Russell discovered THE BLOB on television as a child.
“Even before I saw the film, I knew the Blob,” said Russell. “It was so unique. Everyone else in the ’50s was making movies about aliens that were smart enough to build flying saucers, and all they really wanted to do was kill teenagers when they got to Earth. But Jack Harris and his people had a film with a really alien creature. They hit on something that struck a primal chord: this thing that’s relentless and predatory — you can’t reason with it, and you can’t get away from it. There’s something about the primal simplicity of this creeping, crawling thing that can slide under your door and squeeze through the heating vent that blew a lot of people’s minds as a kid. It was a very effective film in its day, and it’s a wonderful archetype for classic monster movies.”
Years later, Russell caught the end of the film on television and was “hit by lightening” with the idea of crafting a remake. When Russell first mentioned the idea to Rupert Harvey, who went on to produce the film, Harvey laughed, “You’ll never get the rights!” As it turned out, getting the rights was one of the easiest things about the picture. A copyright search led to Jack H. Harris. Russell discovered that after 1974’s BEWARE THE BLOB, there had been a couple of aborted attempts at doing a more contemporary sequel. Fortunately for Russell, his enthusiasm for the project won over Harris, who agreed to give Russell his chance at getting the film off the ground.
Russell and Frank Darabont wrote a first draft at New World, home of Freddy Kruger, but the project stalled. Russell and Darabont then collaborated on rewriting A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET III, which Russell directed. The success of that film helped clinch the deal to make THE BLOB at TriStar, a relatively new company that had emerged as a big-time Hollywood spender.
At the time, there was a trend in Hollywood of creating big-budget remakes of low-budget 1950s sci-fi flicks: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS in 1978, INVADERS FROM MARS in 1982, and of course David Cronenberg’s THE FLY in 1986. It didn’t hurt that the latter film was a hit. “THE BLOB was all sewn up and being written when THE FLY came out,” said Russell. “But I think the Cronenberg success made it a hotter property in the traditional Hollywood fashion. THE FLY was such a departure from the original that I was really impressed – they had the guts not to have the scene with the guy going, ‘Help me!’”
Russell’s take on THE BLOB was also a departure from the original, though in a different way. He didn’t use the premise as a springboard to re-imagine the material in a totally new way; instead, he retained the basic elements and goosed them up to make them commercially viable for a contemporary audience.
“I incorporated some of my favorite scenes, and in a way that’s all a lot of people remember,” said Russell. “Looking back on the original, it tends to fall into the category of ‘Slow Monsters’ – a fast walker can make an escape. It’s dated. It was a very low budget movie, even for its day, and it’s not as frightening as it used to be. It may be like THE FLY in a way, because thirty years later people remember it through rose colored glasses. It has this incredible spirit, though, that made it a classic. We’re absolutely true to the spirit. We’ve expanded it in terms of scope, action, and thrills. I give more scares and have more fun with the concept.
“This isn’t an homage, and I’m not deeply infatuated with ’50s movies,” Russell added. “There was no search for the child who appeared in the original to appear in this one. I’m just very excited about the concept, and I was very excited about an adventure that happens in one night. I’ve always wanted to do – I hate to say ‘old fashioned’ – but a very large scale monster movie. I’ve always wanted to do something where, thematically, you’re dealing with ‘Everyman’ rising to heroic proportions in the face of unlimited danger. It’s a classic theme. And I wanted to do this creature effect with the technology available.”
After completing the screenplay with Darabont (who wrote a draft of THE FLY 2 and later went on to adapt and direct Stephen King’s THE GREEN MILE for the big screen), Russell storyboarded the effects sequences. After his work on DREAMSCAPE and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET III, Russell had a good idea of how to work with special effects as a director: “I’m familiar with the stuff, and I like to work with it, but I bring in people who know more about these things than I do,” he said. “I have a pretty good sense of when I really need things to interact on a full-scale situation, but when you get down to whether you want go-motion or stop-motion…”
Next, the production assembled a team that would bring the special effects to life on a scale far beyond the scope of the old film. The new Blob was designed by Lyle Conway (who had handled the effects for Audrey in the 1986 version of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS). Makeup for the Blob’s victims was supervised by Tony Gardner (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD). Greg Jein built the eighty-foot by thirty-foot miniature of Abbeyville, Louisiana, matching the location where the live action was shot. And Hoyt Yeatman, of Dream Quest, supervised the shooting of plate photography and combining of optical elements.
Production began on January 12, 1988, with Jack H. Harris, producer of the original film, in a figurehead role, while Rupert Harvey (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD) handled the day-to-day production chores. Replacing Aneta Corsaut and Steve McQueen were newcomer Shawnee Smith (later seen in SAW) and Matt Dillon’s younger brother Kevin Dillon (who had been in the low-budget sci-fi flick REMOTE CONTROL and the Oscar-winning PLATOON).
After three weeks on location in Abbeville, Louisiana, the production moved to Los Angeles for another three and a half weeks of exterior locations, then settled into sound stages in Valencia, near Magic Mountain, a popular place with genre filmmakers at the time (e.g., WAXWORKS and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD II), apparently because it was close enough to Hollywood to be viable while offering much lower rents.
The new Blob was much less camera-shy and quite a bit different from its predecessor. Conway used silicon and other translucent materials to give the Blob the appearance of a jellyfish or an amoeba. He also created full-scale, live-action tendrils, similar to the vines he crafted for Audrey II, the carnivorous plant in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. “So the Blob is a distant relative to the Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” he joked. “Audrey II didn’t have any eyes or nose or anything to focus on except lips. This time, there’s nothing. This is the only film I can think of where the star arrives in a bucket.”
Some pieces were built full scale to interact with the actors; others were done small scale, because the materials used were easier to control in small sizes – an important consideration when trying to coax a performance out of inanimate objects. “We were relying a lot on the materials to dictate their own movements,” said Conway. As in the original film, gravity effects, reverse motion, and even some tilting miniatures were used to animate the Blob. “My approach is pretty much low tech,” Conway added. “State of the art technology is whatever it takes to do the job right.”
Conway’s low-tech approach was supplemented by special effects supervised by Hoyt Yeatman at Dream Quest Images, who employed a “motion-control” tentacle for a handful of scenes that required precise movement or a change of skin texture. In the days before computer-generated imagery, motion-control allowed movements of the mechanical tentacle to be pre-programmed by computer, so that those movements could be photographed at very low speeds, and then exactly repeated as necessary. This allowed different elements to be shot at different times, so that when they were composited optically, they would line up exactly. This technique also allowed Yeatman’s crew to airbrush the Blob’s skin between frames, while the camera’s shutter was closed – an effect that previously would have been achievable only with the single-frame stop-motion (in which a model with a wire armature was posed, then reposed and photographed again, a single frame at a time until enough footage was shot to create the illusion of movement when projected back at twenty-four frames per second). The use of motion-control and so-called “go-motion” represented an improvement on stop-motion, because it eliminated the tell-tale stroboscopic look that came from filming objects that were not actually moving (and, therefore, lacked motion blur).
The nature of the Blob was not ideal for composite shots. Before computers revolutionized the effects industry, the most common way to combine miniatures and live-action was to photograph elements in front of a blue screen. Optically, the blue could be removed and replaced with a black “matte” that matched the missing area exactly; then elements photographed separately could be inserted into the empty black space. The technique tended to work best when the edges of the matte were clear and sharp; otherwise, a noticeable blue fringe would appear in the final composite. The problem was exacerbated by reflective surfaces that might pick up some of the color from the blue screen – these blue surfaces would be inadvertently matted out, along with the background screen, and replaced with special effects, thus leaving gaping holes in what were supposed to be solid objects.
Unfortunately, the Blob was, in Yeatman’s words “nebulous,” “shiny,” and “very slick.” Fortunately, his team at Dream Quest came up with a modified front projected blue screen that worked well with shiny foreground objects like the Blob, allowing Yeatman to employ the blue screen process to combine Conway’s Blob elements with live action. This was especially helpful for scenes involving “gravity effects” to create Blob movement: “If you shoot upside down, you can get some very interesting effects with the tendrils or the Blob itself,” Yeatman explained. “When you put that together with a background shot normally, the gravities are different, which gives a unique look.”
Like the Blob, its victims were also shown in much more grizzly detail in the remake, usually in full scale but sometimes in miniature, making it easier to combine them with the miniature Blob elements. Makeup supervisor Tony Gardner’s goal, based on the Blob’s growth throughout the movie, was to avoid duplicating one end result over and over. “I looked at the Blob as a giant stomach that got larger and larger as it ingested things,” said Gardner. “In the beginning it’s like a smaller parasite eating away, so things look raw and bloody because it can’t consume everything. By the end it’s literally sucking people dry and turning them into gum. We went for a clean look, not a blood-and-guts look, because there wouldn’t be any left. We really stylized it [to] be fascinating rather than gross. Some of the stuff actually looks like weird modern art pieces, in a twisted way.”
Difficulties arose when last minute scheduling changes (order to meet the release date) cut into time allocated for shooting the special effects after principal photography was finished. Said Conway, “Originally, there was supposed to be a six-week post production period; unfortunately, they moved it into main unit and still called it ‘post.’ So on the main unit, when they said, ‘We can’t shoot that now; we’ll shoot it in post,’ that actually meant tomorrow afternoon. Actually, it’s very much like the shooting schedule of the original.”
“I didn’t anticipate it as being so difficult,” Conway admitted. “This is something different for each cut almost.” Conway ended up chipping away at the effects “one gag at a time, in a way that I don’t enjoy, which is bringing things to the set untried [with] no rehearsal period. It’s a less than ideal way of working.”
Hoyt Yeatman echoed the sentiment, calling the schedule “frantic.” He explained, “When you have everything going at once, continuity becomes a problem. The best procedure is for live action to do their shooting and have a rough edit so we know exactly what holes we’re filling, because a lot of what we do is mimicking live action.”
Communication was also a problem, with live-action shooting in Valencia while the effects were being simultaneously handled in Hollywood by Conway and in Simi Valley by Dream Quest.
“It’s like shooting two movies simultaneously,” admitted Harvey, who preferred working on smaller scale films. “When you’re making a big budget picture, you tend to lose touch with a lot of the aspects that I as a producer like to be in touch with.”
The rushed schedule resulted in some quick decisions, such as the casting of make-up effects coordinator Cindy Sercelj as the half eaten cheerleader. “We needed an actress pretty fast, and Cindy graduated with a degree in theatre,” Gardner explained. “Our experimentation time was pretty much zippo. In one day we had to cast it, paint it, and put the hair, eyebrows and eyelashes on it.”
Despite the rush, the result was convincing enough to lead to an awkward incident: “I parked my car in front of the theatre early in the morning, pulled a body out of my trunk, and walked inside,” Gardner recalled. “We had a bag over her head, and her arms were hanging down. Someone called the police, and they showed up while we were gluing her head to the carpet. We let him know it was only a dummy. It was a nice compliment.”
In the end, producer Rupert Harvey felt that the rushed schedule had not hurt the final product: “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be faced with what we’re faced with and not be happy with the material. Chuck, [cinematographer] Mark Irwin, and Dream Quest are a phenomenal combination. It looks gorgeous; it looks big. It’s everything we wanted it to be.”
Sadly, the film was not everything viewers wanted it to be. When released, it failed to find an audience and quickly disappeared from theatres. Part of the problem was an uninspired advertising campaign; the tag-line on the posters was rather innocuous: “Terror has no shape.”
As they would later do with their atrocious updating of GODZILLA, TriStar kept the appearance of the new Blob under wraps raps while simultaneously insisting that it was quite different from the original. The obvious problem with this strategy was that everyone already knew what the Blob should look like, based on the old movie, and when they came to the theatres they got something unfamiliar and disappointing.
Whatever its promotional problems, the BLOB remake suffered most greatly from its ill-conceived attempt to improve upon its title character. Instead of a mineral form of life, the Blob was re-imagined as an organism that could sprout tentacles and grab its victims like an octopus. This robbed the monster of its most distinct trait – which was its utter lack of detail or distinguishing characteristics. The Blob used to be…well, just a blob – but it was unique. The new Blob was a non-distinct squishy-gooey monster, like an over-sized jellyfish, but without the personality.
The problem extended to the script, which explained away the Blob, destroying its mystique. Instead of a “molten meteor,” the new Blob is the result of a failed bio-weapons experiment that crashes to Earth in the form of a man-made satellite. This provides an excuse to drag in some ominous Federal Government types, who are more interested in preserving the Blob than in saving the town under attack. This conspiracy movie subplot destroys the classic simplicity of the original scenario by muddying the waters. The old film may be quaint in its portrayal of parents and their misunderstood teens joining forces to defeat the extra-terrestrial menace, but at least the simple story works.
Further complicating matters is the script’s tendency to elongate every plot point. The original film established its two leads in a single romantic scene that opened the film, then immediately had the meteor fall. The new version doubles up several of the characters and gives each of them more screen time, slowing down the pace. This tactic is also a bit of a cop-out, creating extra characters who can be killed off while still leaving enough alive for a happy ending (i.e., there are now two male love interests and two young boys, and one of each bites the dust).
The longer running time might be acceptable if the new material were good, but much of it is unnecessary filler. Russell and Darabont borrow one joke from an old urban legend: one young man buys condoms from a pharmacy, resulting in an awkward confrontation later, when he arrives to pick up his date – and sees that the girl’s father is the pharmacist! One cannot fault the effectiveness of the punch line, but the scene contributes little to the film overall; it’s just there as a sop to the target teen audience.
The remake also suffers from a tendency often seen in horror films from major studios: despite the R-rating, the horror is mostly toned down in order to appeal to a wide audience. The film is filled with gruesome effects, but most of them don’t register very strongly, because the action is presented as an exciting adventure, and most of the victims come across like expendable targets at a shooting gallery.
Consequently, the opportunity to take a great idea from a low-budget movie and expand it to magnificent proportions was lost. In spite of its production values and special effects, the 1988 version of THE BLOB simply is not memorable in the same way as its predecessor. It’s not a terrible film, but its entertainment value is about on the level of a non-descript B-picture, worth catching on television for curiosity value but hardly worth seeking out.
There remains a chance that THE BLOB may emerge as a big-budget film that lives up to its promise. Jack H. Harris teamed with Scott Rudin (SLEEPY HOLLOW) to create a new version, scripted by Carey and Chad Hayes, that was targeted for a 2007 release date, but the year came and went without the film being made. If the project ever gets the green-light, we can only hope that it fares better than previous remakes from Rudin, which include THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and THE STEPFORD WIVES.
THE BLOB (1988). Directed by Chuck Russell. Screenplay by Chuck Russell & Frank Darabont; based on the earlier screenplay by Theodore Simonson and Kay Linaker, from a story by Irvine Milgate. Cast: Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith, Donovan Leitch, Jeffrey DeMunn, Candy Clark, Joe Seneca, Del Close, Paul McCrane, Sharon Bpelman, Beau Billingslea, Art LaFleur, Ricky Paul Goldin, Robert Axelrod, Bill Moseley, Jack Nance.
Copyright 2008 by Steve Biodrowski. Portions of this article (intended for a cover story that never materialized) were previously published in Cinefantastique magazine.