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.
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).