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Wednesday, April 28, 2021

‘The Blob’ and Its Transformation Into a Violent Highlight Reel of Practical ’80s Gore [Revenge of the Remakes]

Welcome to Revenge of the Remakes, where columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.

When putting any remake’s “justification” on trial, there’s no cleaner defense than decades between releases. Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s 1958 The Blob and Chuck Russell’s 1988 revamp benefit from thirty years worth of Hollywood advancements between the two cosmic creature features. That’s not a jab at the 50s iteration with crimson jello engulfing diners, for clarity. It’s more to highlight the most digestible logic behind horror remakes—Father Time’s ticking clock. I mean, how can you not watch John Carpenter’s The Thing and drool over an upgraded representation of Yeaworth Jr.’s cranberry-sauce-lookin’ devourer?

It’s the longstanding comparison between “Old School” and “New School,” as Russell’s The Blob adapts not only to mechanical mechanisms but sticky-filthy political commentary. It’s often forgotten when discussing 80s genre standouts, which is frankly unfair. There’s something so quintessentially retro about Gaky-graphic death scenes, government conspiracies, and biker bad-boy Kevin Dillon revving his engine over ravines. Both iterations were blind spots until I finished my homework for this entry, which constitutes an appreciation in period horror on both accounts (watching from the distant future in 2021)—and both hold status tremendously. Dare I say Russell’s remake will become one of my go-to 80s horror recommendations as this Cold War influenced time capsule explodes with outta-this-world horror conceptualization that never relents nor fails to entertain?

The Approach

The simplicity of a small town under siege by a meteor monster in Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s The Blob is extrapolated by remix writers Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont. Both films “infect” a woodland hermit with some amorphous organism that suctions onto the old man’s hand after he discovers a sizzling space rock. In the 1950s version, this leads to teenagers who warn their neighbors about the interstellar goop dissolving townsfolk with no more explanation than lousy galactic fortune. In 1988’s version, Russell and Darabont honor the unstoppable intentions of a slimy invasion while also injecting an unsubtle biological warfare subplot about chemical experimentation gone unpredictably awry. On the surface, both movies unleash gloppy chaos as humans become snack food for undulating masses of mess—one a more family-friendly rallying cry of communal values, the other a violent highlight reel of 80s midnighter gore and national mistrust.

The city of Arbeville, Colorado becomes a quarantine zone in 1988’s The Blob, after a comet slams into mountain soil. Local renegade Brian Flagg (Kevin Dillon) stumbles into the unlucky patient zero of future blob-related fatalities, a mumbling victim who’s taken to the hospital by cheerleader Meg Penny (Shawnee Smith) and footballer Paul Taylor (Donovan Leitch Jr.). From there, the blob displays its acidic qualities and escapes into greater Arbeville, where everyone from café waitresses to movie theater projectionists fuel the blob’s enlargement. Dr. Meddows (Joe Seneca) leads a team of hazmat scientists and soldiers who promise to contain the current threat, but suspicions quickly arise. Brain and Meg ignore safety instructions and tail the blob’s wake of destruction, daring to expose classified lies if it means saving however many loved ones are still alive.

Russell and Darabont see The Blob as a catalyst for protest, dictated by their generation’s societal paranoias that defined 80s horror focuses. We’re talking about a companion title to the likes of They Live, The Return Of The Living Dead, and The Stuff. Cynicism and blindness juxtapose 50s sentiments about rallying together in a perfect stars-and-stripes system. Both exist as manifestations of their times, from protecting Pleasantvilles from interstellar muck to combating artificial sludge weapons and lunatic officials who deem human loss a necessary sacrifice for the greater patriotic good. That’s how Russell and Darabont issue an identity unto their remake that’s equal parts respectful and reimagined, pulling from a shift in American fears that accentuates hysteria by suggesting those officials in charge of big red buttons may not care about the civilians they’ve sworn to protect.

Does It Work?

In a time of Reaganism and Russian spy games, The Blob succeeds in prioritizing the intimacy of a Colorado community but twists villainy to an internal subject. Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont succeed in folding extraterrestrial anonymity into a blobulous reign of petri dish terror, veering beyond the directness of man versus gunk. The addition of Dr. Meddows’ contamination squad stokes horror of the red, white, and blue variety versus 50s exceptionalism bred from a different America. The blob becomes an agent of reckoning, and while that may throw audiences who adore the straightforward sci-fi curiosity of Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s escapism, Russell ushers The Blob into a tumultuous era by attributing narrative depth that’s more than gelatinous molds pouring through vent grates.

In terms of visual creation, special effects guru Tony Gardner can dedicate his now dazzling resume to The Blob. Featured interviews within Scream Factory’s Blu-ray reveal the extensive problem solving that brought this pinkish, veiny predator with tentacles to life. Gardner’s mission became filling in death-by-absorption blanks that Yeaworth Jr.’s less ferocious production couldn’t achieve nor cared to expose. Prop masters stitched “blob quits” out of silky patchwork filled with a food thickening agent (methylcellulose) that became the carnivorous amoeba now associated with blob presentation—a lurching piece of chewed gum born from a timeline dominated by bloody 80s slashers. Russell wanted to ensure audiences had a blob worth legitimate horror, and his “Blob Shop” wizards worked hundred-hour weeks to bring the blue-screened bloodsucker to life through miniatures, robotic rigs, and even slimy children’s playthings.

Instead of painting by numbers, Russell and Darabont projectile The Blob into the 80s with a suitable makeover. Something like 2009’s A Nightmare on Elm Street fails because it misunderstands replication as remake intrigue. There’s rarely any crossover outside blobular objects slurping scurrying victims when watching 1958’s The Blob and 1988’s The Blob back-to-back. Brian is still the rebellious roadster Steve McQueen’s “Steve” once stereotyped—speeding backward like a total badass—except far more unruly because ideologies around toughness and dynamics around male saviors vastly evolved as they continue today. That’s just a single example, but yes, seeing Meg save Brian is enough to prove Russell’s thinking far beyond a second coming that’s identically simplistic.

The Result

Calling 1988’s The Blob anything less than an exemplary remake based on frightful functionalities and improvements galore would be an insult. Chuck Russell accentuates all the unanswerable anxieties about an unstoppable blob by instituting an aggravated lesson of democratic deception that is still just as prickly by today’s satirical standards. That’s not to say Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s “outdated” The Blob is unwatchable—quite the contrary, as the whole family can experience 50s thrills. Russell creates his own legacy through his nightmarishly nasty reanimation of The Blob that’s always meant for mature viewers who can stomach all the gruesome digestion details Yeaworth Jr. leaves unacknowledged.

Tony Gardner’s army of effects warehouse warriors channels the golden age of 80s horror by going practical with attitude, ambition, and sleepless nights. The blob changes countless forms from a Sarlacc-like sewer pit to towering appendage to carnivorous ceiling smudge—always as a practical model. Russell’s The Blob wants you to know it’s the meaner mucousy monster post-haste when not only “Can Man” (Billy Beck) is found in a hospital bed steaming from a torso-separating acid bath, but then Paul is consumed in a defining 80s cinematic execution. The way the stretchy glop over Paul’s deforming figure attains this elasticity effect that pulls his skeletal figure as the blob exits via window is blissful brutality, as Meg’s left grasping Paul’s severed arm on their first date. It’s suffocating, paralyzing, and gloriously disgusting as an introduction to Russell’s astonishing spectacle of ooze gone wild.

Herb’s (Jeffrey DeMunn) corpse floats outside the enveloped phone booth, Fran (Candy Clark) is eviscerated when the blob crushes said phone booth, George (Clayton Landey) plunges into a sink drain—death is an art form in 1988’s The Blob, and its proficiency is impenetrable.

Everything Russell visualizes pushes farther, balloons in scope, and remains paramountly traumatic. Case and point: a third-act that includes liquid nitrogen explosions over fire extinguishers or a Friday The 13th callback when a child is yanked underwater only to emerge a melting wax sculpture of droopy flesh and mutilated corrosion. Yeaworth Jr. stresses collaboration and a happy ending of sorts; Russell turns a mirror on humanity and indicts most anyone looking at their reflection. The blob punishes horndogs who use alcohol irresponsibly, egotistical men who endanger masses, or brats who fib about seeing Garden Tool Massacre sequels. Yeaworth Jr. questions the survivability of a randomly generated occurrence—Russell blames society for its main street battlegrounds where only crystalized blob gemstones are found when the frost settles.

The Lesson

Monsters of yesteryear are begging for upgrades if they’ve never crept from behind the shadows of “primitive” filmmaking techniques. You can trade the overdramatic signatures of 50s Hollywood for consequently cheesy 80s performances that react to these unspeakable violations of depravity on-screen. Style and substance are two very different elements for movies, and with The Blob, each title finds potential in their unique voices and largely at-odds themes. Although, that’s what you want from a remake. Something that expands beyond source boundaries to become its own beast, realizing where evergreen competencies exist and bolstering whenever possible.

So what did we learn?

  • It’s not out with the old, in with the new. It’s more about analyzing the old and figuring out how to make it unique.
  • The hallmarks of a generation can offer new interpretations on classics that become individual horror stories tailored to a movement or moment.
  • Practical, practical, practical. I’ll say it seventeen thousand more times. 1988’s blob may be a more menacing substance than 1958’s, but they’re both popularly presentable. So help me if another The Blob forgoes the diligent and taxing work of blob creation by hand for CGI replacements…
  • There’s an enormous gap between effects work from the 50s and 80s, which is enough reason to desire a remake of something monster-focused that only had a few tricks to embrace.
  • When in doubt, allow Kevin Dillon’s character to perform an impromptu and unnecessary bike stunt that ends with him flipping off those he’s left in the dust.

Real talk? I thank Bloody Disgusting with every Revenge of the Remakes I write since my horror academia didn’t initiate until later in my lifetime. There were no Donato siblings to show me 1988’s The Blob after midnight, nor parents who cherished memories of accidentally watching 1958’s The Blob themselves. As a freelance writer with a separate full-time day job, it seems the only films that enter my eyeballs are the ones that fit into editorial pitches. It’s because of you, Bloody Disgusting, that Chuck Russell’s The Blob is now one of my favorite 80s horror movies. Never such a thing as too little too late. There’s always another horror movie to discover—maybe even Rob Zombie’s rock n’ roller The Blob re-remake?

Under the right blood moon, anything can happen.


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