The Strange History of The Blob movies

From the 1958 original via Larry Hagman's low-rent '70s sequel to the '80s remake, we chart the unusual story behind The Blob...

Outside a small Pennsylvania town, a meteorite falls from the sky in the dead of night. From within emerges a gelatinous, alien mass – an organism that grows inside and threatens to consume everything in its path.

It’s a simple story, but one that has seen The Blob, first emerging in 1958, endure for more than 60 years.

As Simon West becomes the latest director to take the helm of a remake, we take a look back at The Blob‘s surprising origins – and how its three-movie history took in such disparate figures as Steve McQueen, Larry Hagman and Frank Darabont…

The Blob (1958)

An unusual sci-fi horror B-movie for its time, The Blob had equally unusual beginnings. It was set in motion by Jack H Harris, a bored Pennsylvania film distributor determined to break into movie production. With little money

to make the project, Harris turned to a Pennsylvania-based studio called Valley Forge – a company that had made around 250 religious films, but had never attempted a feature before.

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Remarkably, Harris managed to convince Valley Forge, along withMethodist minister and filmmaker Irvin S Yeaworth, to direct his sci-fi horror project.

“Their basic mission was to promulgate the Word,” Harris recalled in Tom Weaver’s book, Interviews with B Science Fiction And Horror Movie Makers. “They were doing that pretty well, but starving to death at the same time. I convinced them that we could take what facilities they had […] and come up with films that a lot of people would come and see. And if they did it right, we’d do it again; and the more notice they got, the more Word they’d be able to transmit…”

And so it was that a group of devout Christians ended up making one of the most successful sci-fi films of the 1950s.

Accounts

seem to vary as to who came up with the idea for The Blob. According to Kim Newman’s wonderful liner notes for The Blob’s Criterion release, the story came from one Irvine H Millgate. Harris suggests that the idea was born from his desire to “make a movie monster that is not a guy dressed up in a suit […] some kind of a form that’s never been done before.”

After a few days of pitching ideas back and forth, Yeaworth apparently rang Harris with an idea. “This mineral,” Yeaworth suggested, “if you get involved with it, can absorb your flesh.”

Whatever the story’s origins, The Blob quickly began to take shape as Harris and his team at Valley Forge began to storyboard it out; only when they had the major sequences in place did they turn to Theodore Simonson (also a minister) and former actress Kate Phillips to write the screenplay.

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Despite protestations from Yeaworth that he was a “dirty guy” and “an opinionated ass,” Harris cast a 27-year-old, still unknown Steve McQueen in the role of small-town teenager Steve Andrews. McQueen  was paid a meagre $2,500 for his role; he’d been offered a smaller salary upfront in exchange for a percentage of the profits, but McQueen, desperate for the cash, took the larger pay cheque.

With story and cast in place, The Blob was shot over the course of 31 days and a budget of just $110,000. Taking a further nine months to produce, the special effects relied heavily on a mixture of silicone and red vegetable dye, though some scenes also use rotoscoping and even a barrage balloon covered in crimson goo.

The Blob is both a typical low-budget film of its era and unusually bold: its use of colour and simple special effects are highly effective, and the title monster is all the more watchable because of its simplicity. Where other aliens crowding into the B-movies of the time were commonly played by men in cheap costumes, there’s something quite refreshing about an unearthly threat with neither a goofy face nor some complicated higher purpose. It simply wants to consume – whether it’s drunken old men or cinema-going teenagers – until there’s nothing left.

The red ooze’s desire for consumption has led to a fair amount of speculation about the film’s possible subtexts. Some have an anti-consumerist theme into it, while others see the Blob as a literal Red Menace. Actor and comic book writer Del Close – whose fate, as we’ll soon see, is closely bound up in the history of the Blob movies – had this to say in a 1988 issue of Starlog:

“There’s also a subtle, weird, political message in the original Blob. Joe McCarthy had just been disgraced, and the Cold War was very much a fact of life […] That’s what the Blob is – a creeping red menace – the Cold War.”

Appropriately, the Blob is ultimately frozen by Steve McQueen and an army of teenagers armed with fire extinguishers. Dumped in the Arctic by the US Air Force, the Blob is therefore out of harm’s way but still a potential threat, just waiting to be thawed out by the unwary. “It can’t be killed,” Close says, “like we can’t kill Communism – we can only freeze it. Whether on purpose or not, I’m convinced those were its political underpinnings.”

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Although largely made by filmmakers with little feature experience, The Blob was distributed by Paramount, who packaged it as a double feature with I Married A Monster From Outer Space. Accompanied by a bouncy theme song written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David, The Blob was a sizeable hit, making around $4m at the box office.

A film often revived because of its before-he-was-famous starring role from Steve McQueen, The Blob is likely to leave fans of the future star’s laconic charm somewhat disappointed. Clearly too old for his teen role, he’s frequently upstaged by the Blob itself, which is the best reason to revisit this 50s classic. Indeed, The Blob is, like its titular ooze, seemingly immortal: every year, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania plays host to Blobfest – an annual celebration which takes place in one of the towns where the film was shot. Events include a fire extinguisher street parade, and a recreation of the scene where cinema-goers flee from a Colonial theatre engulfed by the blob. Here’s 2014’s re-enactment:

Like the extras in the 1958 original, the people fleeing the cinema are just happy to be part of the fun…

And then there’s the sequel…

Beware! The Blob (1972)

The story kicks off when an oil worker named Chester (comedian and TV star Godfrey Cambridge) brings back a frozen sample of the Blob from the Arctic. Predictably, the ooze escapes, and grows in size after devouring a kitten, then Chester and his wife.

With mumbled, semi-improvised dialogue, distracting electronic music, and uninspiring production values, Beware! The Blob (also known as Son of The Blob) must have seemed like a bit of a relic even in the early ’70s. These days, it’s generally remembered as the sole feature film directed by Larry Hagman – actor in such films as Fail-Safe and Nixon, but most famous as JR Ewing in TV’s Dallas.

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Beware! The Blob is also notable for its oddball cast. Hagman briefly steps in front of the camera to play a hobo. Christian musician Randy Stonehill shows up to play a song called “Captain Coke” with Cindy Williams (Shirley out of sitcom Laverne & Shirley). Del Close, mentioned earlier, also makes an appearance as a homeless person.  Robert Walker (Easy Rider), Richard Stahl (Five Easy Pieces) and Richard Webb (Out Of The Past) were all respected actors who unaccountably agreed to show up here.

Then there’s Dean Cundey, the cinematographer who would soon make such films as John Carpenter’s Halloween and The Thing look so spectacular, and laterworked on the Back To The Future trilogy and Jurassic Park. Cundey created Beware! The Blob‘s gloopy special effects (which, like the original film, were achieved with silicone and red dye) and served as a camera operator. It’s said that a sequence where the Blob consumes a kitten was shot by Cundey.

The Blob (1988)

Having remained on ice for another 16 years, The Blob was thawed out once again for a remake, which arrived a shade over 30 years after the original first seeped into cinemas. Unlike Beware! The Blob, which seemed to exist in its own Z-grade bubble, The Blob 1988 is very much inspired by the body horror of such films as Philip Kauffman’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and David Cronenberg’s The Fly – all of them, interestingly enough, remakes themselves.

This time, Kevin Dillon plays a wayward teenager who battles a growing, disgusting blob that threatens to engulf his Californian town. But the new blob is stealthier and more vicious; it has an acid-like effect on its prey, can divide itself into several entities, and can strike out with deadly tentacles.

The Blob remake was directed by Chuck Russell, who’d previously headed up A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and later went on to direct The Mask (1994), Eraser (1996), and The Scorpion King (2002). Russell partnered up for writing duties with Frank Darabont, then still in his 20s, and between them, they cooked up a movie that’s both steeped in respect for The Blob‘s ’50s roots and full of ’80s gore.

You can sense how much fun they had in dreaming up the slew of melting bodies, severed limbs and vicious tentacles. Take, for example, the blackly comic moment where a poor schmuck is pulled down a plughole, face first. Or maybe the superbly-shot scene where Candy Clark’s drowned by the blob as it gushes into a telephone box. The prosthetic effects work – although evidently inspired by Rob Bottin’s miraculous creations in The Thing – is great value

. It’s courtesy of Tony Gardner, who once worked under Rick Baker on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and has since worked on such films as 127 Hours and Zombieland. The helmets Dark Punk wear on stage? Those were Gardner’s. 

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Special effects aside, The Blob remake is enlivened by a colourful supporting cast – not least Del Close, who briefly appeared in Beware! The Blob and plays the eccentric Reverend Meeker here. Close had a varied and interesting life; as well as an actor (look out for him in The Untouchables and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Close was also a writer, and in the late 1980s, co-wrote a series of DC comics called Wasteland. Strangely, one of the stories Close wrote for Wasteland was based on his experiences on the set of Beware! The Blob. Within weeks of writing that story, Close got a call from his agent about a possible role in The Blob remake.

“I had written a Blob story for Wasteland #8, “The Eye Like Some Strange Balloon,” where my cat had scratched my cornea and forced me to appear in Beware! The Blob in an eye patch,” Close told Starlog. “And as it turned out, Chuck [Russell] had seen me in The Untouchables on his flight into New York to audition me, so I was fresh in his mind.”

Close’s role as Reverend Meeker is small yet pivotal; a scarred and deranged preacher of doom by the film’s end, Meeker possesses a small fragment of the Blob in a jar, thus leaving the story open for a sequel.

Sadly, The Blob‘s disappointing performance at the box office meant that a sequel never happened. Although it’s by no means a perfect film, The Blob is an undeniably a fun one, and certainly deserved to make more than a meagre $8m in theatres (less than half its then-lavish $19m budget) – a victim, perhaps, of an audience growing weary of the remakes of ’50s films bustling into cinemas at the time. But the Blob is a tenacious creature, and while the 1988 film’s financial failure extinguished the possibility of an immediate sequel, it looks as though the gooey monster will once again be returning to the screen.

The forthcoming Blob remake

Although he’s been involved in all kinds of film and TV projects since the 1950s, The Blob seems to hold an enduring sway over producer Jack H. Harris. Now well into his 90s, Harris has been working for several years on bringing yet another incarnation of The Blob to cinemas. Around a decade ago, it was announced that Harris had partnered with Scott Rudin to produce a remake, with a screenplay written by Carey and Chad Hayes, while Rob Zombie was set to direct on a budget of around $30m. But by 2010, Zombie had lost interest in remakes (he’d previously directed a new version of Halloween), and decided to make The Lords Of Salem instead.

After years of silence, a remake of The Blob is up and running again, with Harris on board as executive producer and Simon (Con-Air) West signed up as director.

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“With modern CGI we can now fully realise the potential of The Blob,” West told Deadline. “The world I create will be totally believable, immersive and emotionally satisfying. It’s a thrill to introduce an enduring icon to a wider audience and a whole new era of fans.”

Unlike the 1988 version, which recast the Blob as a manmade biological weapon, it seems that West’s remake will draw on the 1950s film’s story, where the Blob had more otherworldly origins. “Simon West has a terrific and terrifying vision for bringing this iconic outer-space creature to life for a new generation,” say producers Saperstein and Witten.

Beyond that, we can only speculate; words like “terrifying” and “believable” suggest an attempt to make a more low-key horror film than the gleefully nasty, over-the-top 80s remake, and the plan to bring The Blob to “a wider audience” suggests that West’s film will be considerably less gory than its predecessor, too.

Will the use of CG mean that The Blob is about to mutate into some kind of viscous disaster movie, where a much larger monster tries to consume another city? Or will it be another small town tale, this time told with slick CGI? Whatever form it takes, The Blob seems primed to slide and slither its way into cinemas once again.

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