For this writer, it’s one of the coolest horror movie death scenes ever conceived. A waitress barricades herself inside a phone booth, while outside, a quivering morass of sentient jelly tries to fight its way in. The waitress jams her foot against the door, and yells down the phone line for help – all the time, the goo seeps in through the gaps.
The music rises to a crescendo. The booth begins to creak under the blob’s raw strength. We know it wants in; we know the waitress is doomed. But it’s what happens next that provides the biggest shock. We cut to an overhead shot, where we see the pink, translucent goo burst into the phone booth, engulfing the waitress from her feet to the top of her head until it appears to envelop the lens itself.
This scene sums up what’s great about 1988’s The Blob: it’s tense, imaginative, grotesquely funny and startling all at the same time. The Blob is one of those films where, even when we know a character’s going to die, their demise is almost always more over-the-top and harsh than we might expect. Where most horror films would be content to have a luckless goon’s arm mashed up by a waste disposal unit, The Blob has them sucked in head first.
The late ’70s and ’80s were a busy time for horror and sci-fi remakes, from Philip Kaufman’s stunning Watergate-era Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to David Cronenberg’s full-blooded take on The Fly. Not all of these remakes were successful, though; John Carpenter’s The Thing (loosely based on Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World) is rightly regarded as a classic today, but it was shunned by cinema-goers and critics alike in 1982. Tobe Hooper’s 1986 version of Invaders From Mars, meanwhile, was so inept and plastic-looking that it’s hard to believe it was made by the same guy who brought us the fearsome Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or even the loony tunes sci-fi of 1985‘s Lifeforce.
All of this might explain why The Blob was largely overlooked in theatres on its initial release: by the end of the ’80s, audiences may have had their fill of ’50s B-movies with Reagan-era coats of paint. What cinema-goers missed out on, though, was one of the most entertaining horror remakes ever made.
The Blob 1988 shares largely the same plot as the original, released 30 years earlier. A small Californian town is visited by a roving, seemingly intelligent gooey blob that consumes everything in its path – and the more the pink monstrosity consumes, the bigger it gets. Thanks to the relaxation of film censorship and advances in practical effects, however, the blob now has the ability to dissolve faces and limbs in graphic fashion; it can also hide inside bodies and burst dramatically into view; form tentacles to grab hold of its victims, and lots more stuff besides.
The Blob owes a certain debt to the amorphous effects work of 1978’s Body Snatchers or, particularly, Rob Bottin’s peerless creature designs in The Thing. All the same, Tony Gardner’s effects for The Blob are impressive in their own right; as comical as the film’s premise is, his work helps sell the goo as a threatening, malevolent creature. Like The Thing’s protean monster, Gardner’s blob also treads the line between blackly comic and stomach-churning: a scene where high schooler’s body shrivels like a lanced balloon is funny and grotesque all at once.
Director and screenwriter Chuck Russell – who co-wrote the script with a young Frank Darabont – also deserves credit for The Blob’s grisly imagination. Russell and Darabont previously collaborated on A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and they bring a pleasing element of 80s edginess to The Blob’s 1950s premise. Let’s face it, as beloved as the original was as a cult item, it wasn’t a particularly cool film: The Blob had its own pop novelty record, was made by a director more used to shooting religious short films, and it tried to pass off Steve McQueen (who was 27, but looked about 40) as a teenager.
Say what you like about Kevin Dillon’s mullet in the 1988 remake – he at least makes a passable teen anti-hero, who rocks up on his motorcycle to rescue Shawnee Smith and the rest of the town’s eccentric inhabitants from the oozing terror. And in case you hadn’t guessed, nobody’s really safe from the blob – not even those cute kids with squeaky voices and hemispherical haircuts that normally survive movies like this.
Indeed, there’s the sense that Russell and Darabont quite enjoy letting their blob run amok in a conformist, all-American town. It’s noteworthy how the most wholesome, handsome character of the lot – the boyfriend of Shawnee Smith’s character, Meg – is one of the first to die, leaving the film in the hands of Kevin Dillon’s sneering, leather jacket-wearing outcast. By the same token, the various authority figures, from a Bible-thumping reverend (Del Close) to a government scientist (Joe Seneca) to various soldiers, are either mad, untrustworthy, useless or some combination of the three. (The blob’s origins also tie into the anti-authoritarian theme, though we won’t spoil that bit here.)
In other words, The Blob is drenched in a similar air of 80s cynicism as something like RoboCop, which gives the movie a very different slant to the cold war paranoia of the original. Back then, movies tended to give the impression that whitebread America would be just fine if it wasn’t for those pesky, invading communists. In the 1988 Blob, it’s conformity that’s the true creeping menace.
It’s also a great-looking film, and not just because of the effects; cinematographer Mark Irwin, who worked with David Cronenberg on his early horror films, provides some superb visuals here. We like to think that it was Irwin who came up with that spectacular overhead shot of the waitress being engulfed by goo in a telephone box. As for whoever it was who cast Candy Clarke – who so memorably played alongside David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth – well, we wish we could shake them by the hand.
A grand total of $19 million was spent on making The Blob, and when distributor Tri-Star got the ticket receipts in after its opening weekend that summer, it may have wished it hadn’t bothered. But time has been kind to this 80s horror item, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The makers of The Blob tear their small American town apart with evident relish – and even all these decades later, that relish is infectious.