Sunday Reads: Remembering THE BLOB (1988)

Director Chuck Russell’s remake provides impressive practical effects that entertain moviegoers decades later.

The lights are off, the reflection of the silver screen shines brightly against the faces of an attentive audience on the edge of their seats as a Friday the 13th rip-off plays on a busy weekend night. A talkative patron is torn from his seat and engulfed in a pink, gelatinous ooze violently seeping out of the projection booth as the slides burn out, the screen erodes to black, and the audience becomes prey. This movie massacre scene in 1988’s The Blob epitomizes the film’s central strengths. It is grotesquely imaginative in its practical effects, thrilling, and a tense yet comical remake that has been vastly underrated since its conception.

The 1980s experienced a string of remakes from the 1950s with sci-fi and horror crossovers. Reagan-era mentality within idyllic towns and political metaphors of communism and the Cold War, coupled with a fascination of alien encounters, were fairly rampant in pop culture which set the stage for adaptations years later. John Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake of The Thing from Another World, a 1951 black-and-white creature feature. Special effects make-up designer Rob Bottin created prosthetic makeup for such films as The Howling, RoboCop, and Total Recall. He collaborated with Carpenter on The Fog and with some help from Stan Winston is responsible for the gnarled and disturbing visuals of The Thing. His work was dubbed “madly macabre” as well as “colorfully horrific” and employed an array of tactics including prosthetics, rubber, foam-latex, and radio controlled limbs. To reach the desired visual aesthetic and draw attention away from blood and viscera, Bottin utilized household items ranging from cream corn, mayonnaise, microwaved bubblegum, K-Y jelly, and Jell-O. It was a golden age for playful innovation, and nothing was off limits to get the grossest visuals possible.

David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly also shocked audiences with Oscar winning makeup from special effects artists Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis. The final “Brundlefly” creature was developed in seven stages and meant to serve as an aging metaphor, complete with the deterioration of hair, nails, teeth, and skin all decomposing to develop into a malformed creature. The effects team utilized an array of methods including prosthetics, a full body suit, and colored contact lenses. Once the transformation from man to fly was complete, two puppets were constructed: one was a full-sized mechanical rig operated by twelve people that was used for wider shots, while the other was a waist-up puppet with rod arms that was more articulated in the head and face which the crew used for close-up shots. Both The Thing and The Fly received ample praise for their visual effects and a large amount of behind-the-scenes footage can be found detailing the artwork and craftsmanship that went into creating these beloved horror films. However, The Blob slid to the wayside and did not garner the same amount of attention, let alone notoriety, years later despite it being one of the best remakes within the genre.

In 1958, director Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob was distributed as a double-feature with I Married a Monster from Outer Space. The plot centers around an alien amoeboid entity contained within a meteorite that crash-lands into Earth. Corrosive and deadly, the being grows larger, stronger, and more aggressive after devouring each of its victims. Steve McQueen stars as Steve Andrews, a teenager who teams up with his love interest (Aneta Corsaut) to conquer the monster and save their hometown. With a budget of $110,000 and shot over the span of thirty-one days, the special effects team relied heavily on a mixture of silicone and red vegetable dye while other scenes were shot with a barrage balloon covered in crimson slime. While most sci-fi/horror films of the ‘50s featured men in monster suits, The Blob was refreshingly unique in its tactile approach.

Thirty years later, director Chuck Russell who had previously headed up A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, gathered forces with writer Frank Darabont for a remake of The Blob complete with a ‘50s homage mixed with ‘80s gore. The terror duo stayed true to the original’s basic plot but enhanced the death sequences and camp components to really highlight the special effects, as well as push the envelope for what is acceptable to be shown on screen. The remake stars Saw franchise scream queen Shawnee Smith and Kevin Dillon (Platoon). The cast carries the film well, and the first act is filled with unreliable narratives as it’s unclear who will be most likely to survive and who will meet their gooey demise. Darabont’s talent as a screenwriter (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) is evident as he allows audiences to draw empathy from supporting characters despite being immersed in a campy horror film. He even makes the bold decision to kill off a young boy during one of the final scenes of the film. This intrepid choice could have been inspired by John Carpenter’s ice cream truck scene in Assault on Precinct 13. Regardless, it’s another example of the risks the team was willing to take in order to elevate the original and provide more ruthless elements to the narrative and monster overall.

Twenty-three-year-old special effects designer Tony Gardner had worked as an assistant make-up artist on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, The Lost Boys, and Aliens before he came on board with The Blob. His style alternated between dark situational comedy, terror, and repulsion. Directing a total of thirty-three crew members, Gardner built forty-one effects in only seven months. Gardner’s original concept of the blob was “an acidic type of creature, and things like skin and organic fabrics would start to dissolve and slide off immediately, and things like the skeletal structure and fingernails and hair - dead cells that the blob would have no interest in - it would bleach those out.” He wanted to make everything pearlescent, like a crystal sculpture. However, he and Russell compromised on a different approach while utilizing a blood scale as the creature grew in size throughout the film. The blob’s material was made out of methocil (a fruit additive used to thicken gravy), one hundred gallons of hexoplasm, vinyl, urethane and latex foam, along with a lot of silk fabrics and lycra.

One of the first kill scenes consists of a high school football player getting engulfed by the sticky killer and swallowed whole in an effect that looks like he is entrenched in slobbery, elastic bubblegum while his face condenses into a primal scream. To get the effect, Gardner went to a company called Image Masters to have the actor programmed into a computer and scanned from the collarbone up. The information was fed into a computer, which operated like a lathe, and generated coordinates into a 3-dimensionality on carving wax to produce a 6-inch bust. Later, it was put into the blob to obtain the effect of a body half-consumed. Another noteworthy kill scene consists of a diner waitress stuck in a phone booth while trying to call for help. The ectoplasmic killer slowly drips down over each side of the glass while severed heads of its previous victims stare at its frightened prey. The monster oozes underneath the cracks of the doors before bursting through the glass, and our poor server’s body is slaughtered to shreds by the mutant slime. And who could forget that gnarly car scene where an all too eager teen tries to make a move on his date?

The ‘80s version of The Blob is a prime example of how to adhere to an original storyline (despite shifting the creature from being an alien to a biological weapon) and elevate visual impact within the creature feature genre. The updated monster moves quicker, is more savage, and both the themes and effects are a quintessential reflection of the times where gore and practical effects reigned. In an age of increasingly saturated CGI, the notion of practical effects may be dated to some, but to others it’s a testament to the art of cinema and allows the audience to experience more authentic scares. An underrated and gory gem, The Blob deserves its place among ‘80s horror films to be remembered, and to slide back onto screens decades later after it originally crash landed into theaters.