At last, fright fans – here it: the restored ending of HORROR OF DRACULA! The sequence was eviscerated by the British film censor back in 1958, when the film came out, but the recent Region 2 Blu-ray disc has finally restored the missing footage. No word yet on when a Region 1 Blu-ray will come out in America (hey, Warner Brothers – get on the ball!), but you can see the scene courtesy of this YouTube post.
The footage looks a bit blue-ish (a complaint among some who have seen the disc) and also a bit dark (which I assume is a matter of YouTube compression and/or whatever process was used to rip the footage from the Blu-ray disc). I’m sure the photography will look much better when (if?) WB gets around to release a disc for U.S. consumption.
Tim Lucas discusses the Region 2 Blu-ray disc in the CFQ Laserblast podcast here. You can read about the history of the censored footage and its rediscovery here. And check out a sequence of frame grabs here.
This full-blooded vampire film (you should pardon the expression) reinvented the image of Count Dracula for a generation of filmgoers, eschewing cobwebby castles and black-and-white atmosphere in favor of a bold, colorful approach, filled with lovely cinematography and lavish sets that belie the modest budget. The screenplay by Jimmy Sangster jettisons the creepy clichés and gets down to basics, jumping directly into the action while wasting little time on superfluous exposition; it is a model for how to write a remake of a well-known subject. Director Terence Fisher stages the action with all the gusto you could bleed for: the film feels almost like an action-adventure movie, exciting and lively. Composer James Bernard provides a memorably exciting score, dominated by the famous three-note title theme (just imagine the orchestra saying “DRA-cu-la,” and you get the idea). Peter Cushing turns Professor Van Helsing into a variation on his Frankenstein characterization: a vampire hunter as obsessive in his quest to destroy vampires as the Baron was in his quest to create life. Perhaps most important, Christopher Lee remakes the vampire king into his own image: aloof, condescending, attractive – in a domineering, overpowering kind of way guaranteed to provoke ambivalent responses in viewers, male and female alike, who both fear and admire the Count.
HORROR OF DRACULA (known simply as DRACULA in its native England) was designed by Hammer Films to capitalize on the success of their previous effort, 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which was the first Gothic horror film shot in color. Energized with a fresh approach and a modern sensibility, CURSE became a hit at home and abroad. As filmmakers who have tackled one half of horror’s dynamic duo almost always do, Hammer inevitably followed up Frankenstein with Dracula, taking all the elements that worked the first time and improving upon them the second time out.
The essential elements of the Hammer approach to horror, as established by CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, were color, action, eroticism, and gore, with a sometimes quirky British sensibility lurking around the edges. Although mild by the standards of later horror films, the impact was quite shocking during its day, causing howls of outrage from disgusted critics who accused the films of abandoning atmosphere and subtlety in favor of crude violence and bloodshed. Fortunately, neither CURSE nor HORROR is as crude as the critics would have had us believe, and now that the shock has worn off we can see perhaps more clearly just how good the films are: energetic and involving, with a crisp, fast-paced approach to narrative that somehow makes the incredible events seem like a completely believable component of the world being portrayed.
In a way, Lee’s Dracula is a missing link between the classic cinema vampire and his more contemporary brethren, who are often portrayed almost like human beings suffering from an uncontrollable addiction. Earlier horror films had emphasized Dracula’s allure by portraying the vampire almost like a hypnotic phantom. Bela Lugosi’s performance, in the 1931 DRACULA, emphasized the character’s foreign qualities and an uncanny otherworldliness that made the Count seem separate from humanity even while he moved unobtrusively among it. Lee’s portrayal, on the other hand, erases most of the character’s spooky nature (aided by the script, of course): in HORROR OF DRACULA, the Count does not turn into a bat or a cloud of mist; he seems more real, more physical – a flesh-and-blood being that the audience can more easily believe in. In a sense, he humanizes the vampire, not by making him sympathetic but by making him walk the Earth almost like a mortal – a super-powered, undying mortal, to be sure, but one subject to physical laws that limit his movements, just as they limit ours.
While advancing the Count’s evolution, Lee also captures some hints of Dracula as he appeared in novel Dracula. Author Bram Stoker’s physical description of the Count emphasizes not hypnotic fascination but physical strength. He is tall, his face a strong aquiline with a thin nose and a cruel-looking mouth. The literary character may be a fascinating monster, but he is definitely a horrible one. The air of cultured aristocracy (emphasized by Lugosi) is definitely there, especially in the early scenes at Castle Dracula as the Count plays charming host to his hapless guest, Jonathan Harker; however, this air is merely a deceptive cloud hiding the monstrous lining. Sophisticated he may be, but Stoker’s Dracula is better defined by the pride he exhibits when boasting of leading troops in warlike fury to fend off foreign invaders.
The more overt suggestions of savagery were absent from Lugosi’s Dracula, who never bared his fangs and seldom lost his temper (although he does snarl once or twice). Lee was afforded the luxury of allowing the character’s monstrous side to show more fully. Abetted with dripping fangs and red contact lenses, Lee portrays Dracula’s ferocity to the hilt. Also, in keeping with the novel, Dracula is never naively accepted into the society of his victims; instead, after the characterization is established in the opening scenes at Castle Dracula, he becomes almost a background character, infiltrating his victims’ homes like some sinister spy from beyond the grave.
Lee’s costume retains the familiar black cloak but omits the red lining (favoring Stoker’s description of Dracula’s attire being “without a speck of color anywhere”). Rather than Lugosi’s melodic cadences, Lee opts for a fast-paced, authoritarian tone of voice. Like Stoker’s character, he speaks “excellent English,” though without the “strange intonation” captured by Lugosi. By dropping Lugosi’s Hungarian accent, Lee erases the Count’s Continental aura, instead emphasizing the physical strength that underlies vampire’s aristocratic mien. Unlike Lugosi, one can imagine Lee leading troops in warlike fury against the enemy invader.
Without being overtly Freudian, the film is certainly more obviously aware of the sexual undertones in Dracula’s attacks on helpless women, who seem to enjoy being ravished by the rapacious vampire. His approach to his female victims, who now consciously await his caresses (rather than sinking into a hypnotic stupor), emphasizes the erotic as never before. The fact that Dracula is less subtly seductive and more physically overpowering in these non-verbal attacks (we never see him talk to the women whose bedrooms he invades) lends an almost sado-masochistic air to his nighttime predations.
Like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the script for HORROR OF DRACULA offers a severely condensed version of the source material that erases the globe-trotting elements of the original story. While omitting the details, this telescoped version at least captures more of the essence of the novel’s structure (retaining more of Stoker than CURSE retained of Mary Shelly’s novel).
Stoker’s story was loaded with characters and took place over the course of several months. Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to help the Count purchase property in London, only to discover that his client is a vampire. Back home, Harker’s fiancée Mina has a friend named Lucy who becomes Dracula’s first English victim. Dr. Seward, one of Lucy’s three suitors, calls in Professor Van Helsing for consultation; unable to recognize the disease, the professor eventually realizes the cause is vampirism, which eventually claims Lucy’s life. Van Helsing teaches Seward and Lucy’s two other suitors, including her fiancé Arthur Holmwood, how to destroy her after she returns from the grave as a vampire. When Jonathan Harker returns to England (having escaped the clutches of Dracula’s three vampire brides), the details of the journal he kept lead Van Helsing to realize that Dracula is the vampire that attacked Lucy. Meanwhile, Dr. Seward has been noticing that one of his psychiatric patients, Renfield, has been acting in a way that seems to be an index to the comings and goings of the Count. Renfield, who wants to extend his life by devouring the lives of living things, worships Dracula as a sort of Antichrist, but the Count kills him when Renfield rebels and tries to prevent the vampire from claiming Mina as his next victim. Eventually, Van Helsing leads Mina and the young men on a trek back to Transylvania, where Harker and the Texan Quincy Morris manage to stab Dracula in the heart and behead him.
Sangster’s script jettisons Renfield and Morris, and reduces Seward to a walk-on as a family physician. Harker still comes to Castle Dracula, but he arrives on false pretenses, intending to destroy Dracula; instead, he falls prey to the Count after staking his vampire bride in her tomb. Van Helsing is no longer a kindly old bumbler who comes to believe in vampires only after studying Lucy’s condition; he is a full-fledge vampire hunter, dedicated to wiping the plague off the face of the Earth, with the same zeal as a doctor eradicating smallpox.
This twist on the Van Helsing character, embodied by Peter Cushing (who brings the same zest and precision that he displayed as the Baron in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) lends HORROR OF DRACULA its peculiar thematic underpinnings. Despite occasional flashes of warmth, Cushing’s Van Helsing embodies a cold ruthlessness in his quest that is very similar to Frankenstein’s monomaniacal obsession to create life, no matter what the cost. If Lee’s Dracula represents the eruption of carnal desire, of physical lust overwhelming the mind and sense, then Cushing’s Van Helsing is the intellect divorced from feeling, who will stop at nothing to subjugate the flesh to the mind.
In effect, HORROR OF DRACULA espouses a very conservative morality, in which unbridled sexuality is equated with spiritual Evil, and sexual repression is allied with Good. What prevents this old-fashioned concept from descending into camp is the very secular way it plays out. We are clearly seeing a film in which the characters can be interpreted as embodying the abstract metaphysical concepts of Good and Evil, yet the religious iconography is expressed in purely practical terms. In other words, the film’s Van Helsing (unlike the novel’s) seems hardly devout or spiritual; he uses crosses like weapons because they are effective, in the same way that an exterminator uses poison or traps.
The benefit of this approach is that it dissipates the cornball melodrama associated with too many bad horror movies, creating a film that seems fresh and modern even after the passing of decades. The potential pitfall is that it could downscale the story, mitigating the mythic undertones that make great horror films resonate in the mind like half-forgotten dreams suddenly recollected.
Somehow, HORROR OF DRACULA walks this razor’s edge with the skill of a tight-rope acrobat. Thanks to the robut staging of director Terence Fisher, the final battle between the forces of Darkness and Light, embodied by Dracula and Van Helsing, is as exciting as an World Wrestling Federation bout, culminating in Van Helsing’s Errol Flynn-style leap through the air to yank down a massive set of curtains, leading to the Count’s disintegration in the rays of the sun, his ashes blowing away in the wind — a remarkably poetic image to cap a remarkably well-made movie. At a clipped eight-two minutes, this is one of the most effective and tightly structured horror films ever made; in fact, some have gone so far as to call it the greatest horror film of all time.
In truth, the short running time robs the film of the scope that would have made it a full-blown, multi-level masterpiece. It works on its own terms, rather like the cinematic equivalent of a novella rather than a full-length novel, but there are other horror classics that have displayed more depth and sophistication.
HORROR OF DRACULA also falls prey to occasional melodramtic excess. In the role of Arthur Holmwood, Michael Gough’s horrorified reactions to the horrible events sometimes go a tad overboard (as when he desperately asks Van Helsing “Is there no other way?” – besides a stake in the heart – to release his sister from the curse of vampirism). And the flow of the story sometimes seems interrupted by old-fashioned fadeouts, not to mention the questionable cinematic device of showing Jonathan Harker sitting down to write in his diary. (Thankfully, the filmmakers eventually figure out that it is enough just to hear his words in voice-over on the soundtrack, while showing him perform some other action.)
But these quibbles do nothing to undermine the many strengths of HORROR OF DRACULA, which manifest themselves in numerable, memorable scenes. The first glimpse of Dracula at the top of the stairs is a wonderful fake-out – an ominous introduction followed by the Count’s perfectly civil greeting to Harker. The Count’s vampire bride (Valerie Gaunt) is wonderfully seductive, and her fight with her master, who stops her from making a victim of Harker, is wonderfully done, including Dracula’s athletic leap over a table. The staking of the vampirized Lucy (including a close-up of the stake sinking her white grave clothes, red blood welling up around it) is still sharp enough to make an audience squirm.
Apart from the mis-steps mentioned above, Gough does an excellent job in a relatively thankless role; embodying audience incredulity, he serves as the skeptic who must be convinced by Van Helsing, hopefully helping the audience to believe what they are seeing on screen. Also, Melissa Stribling deserves mention: the character of Mina has never come across on screen as well as Stoker imagined her; although Stribling’s version lacks most of the attributes of the literary version, the actress deserves credit for imbuing some life into her underwritten screen version. Her sly smile after her first encounter with Dracula, followed by her ambivalent reactions while anticipating a return visit, perfectly capture the mixture of attraction and repulsion inherent in the vampire mythology.
In short, HORROR OF DRACULA may not be the greatest horror film ever made, but it easily ranks in the pantheon of genre classics, and despite it’s considerably liberties with the source material (Sangster’s adaptation is in some ways almost an original screenplay), the film remains the best big-screen version ever made of Stoker’s novel. The decades may have given us far bloodier vampires, realized with bigger budgets and better effects; however, HORROR OF DRACULA (thanks in part to luminous Technicolor cinematography that defies the passing of years) is every bit as vibrant as the day it was released, living on from one generation to the next, rather like the undying Vampire Count himself.
The film was influenced by NOSFERATU, the silent German adaptation of DRACULA, in at least two ways:(1) Dracula can be destroyed by sunlight, whereas in the book he simply loses his powers and requires rest in his coffin. (2) Taking up residence in Castle Dracula, Jonathan Harker displays a photograph of his fiance, which attracts the attention of the Count, who later seeks her out.
One element retained from the novel is a rather pronounced class consciousness. The servants in the film are never taken into the confidence of Van Helsing and the upper-class Holmwood, even in the case of the maid Gerta, whose daughter nearly becomes a victim of the vampirized Lucy. And the various working class characters that Van Helsing and Holmwood interrogate in their search for Dracula’s resting place are inevitably played for comic relief. Fortunately, the humor goes a long way toward balancing out the film’s more horrific scenes.
For decades, rumors abounded that Hammer Films created multiple versions of their movies for different markets, supposedly even shooting different versions of some scenes: a tame one for England, a slightly rougher version for the U.S., and an outright bloody one for the Far East. Although Hammer executives propagated these stories to generate publicity, they appear to have been more mythical than real. There is no doubt that censorship in different territories resulted in different versions of the films being released, due to the trimming of violence, gore, or sexual innuendo, but there is little evidence that alternate versions of scenes were ever shot.
In the case of HORROR OF DRACULA, there does seem to have been more explicit footage that has never seen the light of day, not even on DVD.
In the course of the film, three vampires are staked, but only one, late in the film, is shown explicitly; the other two are suggested with shadows or fade-outs. Supposedly, these earlier scenes were shot to be more explicit; however, this seems unlikely, because of the obvious problem: two graphic stakings early in the film would undermine the impact of the later one, which would seem repetitious. However, there is a publicity still of Jonathan Harker, lying in a coffin after Dracula has turned him into a vampire, that suggests more footage may have been shot of Van Helsing staking his colleague and seeing his body decay after the vampire’s curse has been lifted.
Even more interesting, there is an oft-published still of Christopher Lee wearing a hideous, pock-marked makeup that was clearly intended to show the vampire’s face decaying in the sunlight. In the cut of the film shown theatrically and on home video, Dracula’s destruction takes place mostly off-camera: we see Van Helsing fashion two candlesticks into a cross and force the Count back into the sunlight; there are brief shots of his hand and his foot disintegrating, followed by a reaction shot of the professor reacting to the vampire’s demise. Then we see a prop skull covered with dust and, after another reaction shot, a pile of dust on the floor. We never see the makeup meant to show Dracula’s face beginning to decay, but the editing of the sequence clearly leaves room for another transitional moment to bridge the gap between Lee’s normal features and the prop skeleton that replaces him.
Film editor and horror fan Ted Newsom has seen a version of this image that reveals it to be a strip of 35mm movie film, which would indicate that the shot was filmed for the movie, not just as a publicity still:
“I’ve never seen the destruction scene in the climax, but it did clearly exist. Over on Latarnia, on the Hammer thread, I posted a frame blow-up of the scene, showing the same make-up from the standard 8×10 still, but from a camera angle which matches the rest of the shots. It was published in some Japanese magazine in the ’90s, reprinted in a Hammer book in 1995 or 96. Seeing the proof of the existence of the scene in the Asian version sent me off on a 2 year back and forth thing with the Tokyo Archive. On the verge of getting the material telecine’d for posterity, they hired a new archivist, who went back to the party line and said ‘We don;t have it.’ It was bullshit, but I’d had enough.”
We can only hope that some archivist finds the footage, either in a vault at Hammer or in a print in the Far East, so that a restored version of HORROR OF DRACULA can be made available to fans.
Copyright 2006 Steve Biodrowski
As mentioned in this previous review, THE FILM CREW is an attempt by MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 alumni Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy to recapture a little of the old magic in a direct-to-video DVD format. The trio play blue-collar workers, apparently in a mechanic’s garage, who are assigned by their boss to provide audio commentaries for bad movies. In effect, this is MST3K without the silhouettes of the characters seated in a theatre. You get the same kind of jokes, but since this is not a television show, there are no commercial breaks, and there are fewer interstitial segments with the cast goofing around. This disc’s entry is WILD WOMEN OF WONGO, a reasonably ridiculous 1958 flick, set 10,000 years ago, in the village of Wongo – where, according to the opening narration delivered by Mother Earth, she and Father Time have conspired to make all the men ugly and all the women beautiful. A nearby village suffers from the exact opposite problem, and when a handsome emissary arrives in Wongo to seek help fending off an invading tribe, the Wild Women of Wongo fall head over heels, much annoying their men. After much mutual hostility, everything settles pretty much as you would expect: the men and women of either tribe pair up with their appropriate counterparts.
WILD WOMEN OF WONGO is certainly bad enough to warrant ridicule. The contemporary hair styles of the Wongo women are a real hoot, as is their cave-woman-type attire, which is supposed to look as if made from animal skins but which is fashioned and cut exactly like a modern one-piece bathing suit.
Unfortunately, this is one of those films whose badness resides principally in boredom. Director James L. Wolcott has no idea how to stage action or use camera angles and editing to compress screen time, so you see a lot of people walking from here to there, waiting around from the temple door to open, walking into the temple, encountering the temple priestess, then walking down the temple steps to consult the temple god (an alligator obviously filmed at another location). This results in some long, long, and very dead passages that are an open invitation to caustic comments, but there is one big problem: there is not much funny to say about shots consisting simply of people walking around doing nothing.
This fact helps illuminate the good judgment of the original MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, at least during its initial run on Comedy Central. Original host Joel Hodgson and his robot companions were always at their best when blasting away at films that were hysterically outrageous and absurd, not merely boring, and they did a good job of picking titles that played to their strengths. Faced with the tedium of WILD WOMEN OF WONGO, on the other hand, The Film Crew give it their best college try, but there just are not enough jokes in all the world to make the viewing experience a joyfully giddy one. Still, you gotta give ’em credit for trying.
The interstitial segments suffer from the fact that the childish antics do not seem so cute when acted out by adults instead of toy robots. The opening gag has Mike and Bill mistake Kevin for the hooded figure of Death just because he is wearing a parka. The mid-film break features a bit with Kevin identifying Wongo on a map that also contains Narnia, Middle Earth, Fantasy Island, Atlantis, etc.; it is mildly amusing but goes on too long. The closing echoes back to MST3K’s old invention exchange, with Bill revealing a contraption that matches people up to their ideal mate based on physical attractiveness – a nice attempt to make a satirical comment on the values espoused by WILD WOMEN OF WONGO, but it falls flat in the execution.
The DVD includes two bonus features: In the first, Mike, Kevin, and Bill are compelled to dance thanks to a cutaway to a shot from the film, in which the Wongo priestess orders her flock to dance. It’s a goofy bit of physical comedy that suggests The Three Stooges, but none of the trio can match Julia Louis Dreyfuss’s appalling footwork in the SEINFELD episode “The Little Kicks.”
The second bonus is a riff on the film’s finale, in which the actor’s, paired up with their mates, break the fourth wall by turning and winking at the camera. The Film Crew re-stage the scene with cardboard cutouts standing in for beautiful women. Unfortunately, Bill has trouble winking on cue, so Kevin resorts to a little “Method Directing,” squirting him in the eyes with rubbing alcohol. It’s a funny bit, but probably not as funny as the sequence it spoofs. WILD WOMEN OF WONGO may be one of those films so bad that it becomes its own parody (like the Tom Cruise Scientology video that appeared on the Internet a week ago); anything else is somewhat redundant.
RELATED ARTICLES: The Film Crew – Killers From Space – Plan Nine from Outer Space (with audio commentary by Mike Nelson)
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).