Synopsis: A young(ish) Steven McQueen struggles to become an upright citizen of small-town Americana. He must earn the respect of his parents, the cops and the girl he loves. Meanwhile, a red alien slime takes over town.
Today, this film is deeply, deeply un-terrifying. In truth, as a film, it’s incredibly dull. Films survive in popular culture for a variety of reasons. Some survive worthily on their merits, and some survive by feeding on their infamy – but The Blob seems completely mediocre in every way. On first inspection, it’s a candidate for forgetting. I was surprised to hear of its release on Criterion.
But perhaps Criterion have identified a third category of surviving film, a third kind of magnificence: those films that are so honest and pure and of a time that they are less film now than they are relic, primary evidence, mummy.
The film appears in many senses so amateurish and un-polished that there seems to be a space between the camera and that which happens in front of it. In completely ‘professional’ fiction cinema, all these elements fuse together within the drama, and one forgets the camera is even there. It’s more common to find a camera gazing on helplessly at the imperfect world before it in documentary movies. But then again, very often, a B-movie is the fantastic document remarking the making of a bad film.
The Blob’s invaluableness lies in the accuracy of the document it creates, and the fondness with which it is remembered. I can think of no piece of framed narrative cinema that better embalms small-town America in the 1950s. It is as if it has been buried for sixty years and unearthed. Completely untouched, and exactly as you’d hoped it would look.
It’s a kind of street photography. Everything the camera sees is of such an uncannily particular time and place that the most mundane aspects of the world become remarkable. The new Blu-ray print is of such a magnificent quality that this remarkableness becomes actively fetishistic; the gentle feathering of Steven McQueen’s hair, the sweat on the foreheads of the policemen, even the model-maker’s fingerprints on the Blob itself.
Most importantly, note the crowd that pours out of the foyer doors as the Blob takes over the cinema; not a single actor amongst them – not a single frightened face. They pelt toward the camera, half of them grinning and laughing like mad, the other half staring right down the barrel. Their joy is pure. They’re going to be in a movie! And it’s the finest moment in the movie.
The director, Irvin Yeaworth, surely noticed his extras misbehaving, but decided to keep it in. The cynic would say that time and money were not his friends on that day. But, I say, Yeaworth saw something in it. Yeaworth as the humble, happy record-keeper of America, that sees the value in things. And it’s the friendliness of this value that gives The Blob its right to be taken seriously.
The Blob itself is a good invention. Of all the ‘atomic’ epoch’s antagonists – The Fiend Without a Face (1958), It (1958), etc. – the Blob marks a certain logical, material conclusion. It’s a well-conceived and well-designed villain. Yet as my off-hand synopsis suggests, the Blob itself appears only four or five times. Yeaworth concerns himself far more with painting rural Pennsylvanian life, than he does developing the idea of the monster in the mind of the audience.
For it’s the confounding minimalism of the creature, the over-plainness of its half-presence, that excites the film. There’s a facetiousness to its simplicity, that its nature is but to challenge the credence of the audience. It is not easy watching The Blob, meaning it requires a certain activeness in the mind of the viewer, to keep the film pinned down and keep it from vanishing into risibility. And it reminds me of surrealism. When played right, horror can become the very best kind of surrealism. And a silent cherry-red mass emerging from a cinema, sliding down main-street and engulfing a restaurant, in a film that attempts no explanation, is of this best kind.
Sci-Fi, Horror | USA, 1958 | 12 | Blu-Ray | 3rd December 2018 (UK) | The Criterion Collection | Sony Pictures Releasing | Dir.Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. | Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Two audio commentaries: one by producer Jack H. Harris and film historian Bruce Eder and the other by director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. and actor Robert Fields
Blobabilia!, a gallery of collector Wes Shank’s rare trove of stills, posters, props (including the blob itself!), and other ephemera
PLUS: An essay by critic Kim Newman
UNITED STATES | 1958 | 82 MINUTES | COLOUR | 1.66:1 | ENGLISH