Originally released September 12, 1958
Written by Theodore Simonson and Kay Linaker (credited as Kate Phillips)
Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
Starring Steve McQueen (credited as Steven McQueen) and Aneta Corsaut (credited as Aneta Corseaut)
My rating: ★★★ stars
Sci-fi, teen exploitation quickie is better than it needed to be, providing an interesting historical document.
The premise of The Blob hardly makes for a cinematic masterpiece—teenagers battle man-eating goo from outer space. A viewer’s appreciation of The Blob depends entirely on what the viewer expects of the film. Viewers hoping to experience vicarious thrills will be disappointed; the film is more quaint than scary. Viewers wanting technical prowess will consider the film a disaster. The Blob was made quickly and cheaply. Shots run long because the scenes were filmed with a bare minimum of coverage, so the filmmakers often didn’t have the option to cut to other angles in order to speed up the pace of scenes. The visual effects are rudimentary, nothing anywhere near the technical capabilities of the 21st century. Viewers desiring an intricate plot and sophisticated storytelling shouldn’t be looking for those qualities in a film about man-eating space goo in the first place. And viewers expecting something “so bad it’s good” will also find reason for dissatisfaction—because, in spite of all its shortcomings, The Blob is not a bad film.
The Blob was the brainchild of regional film distributor Jack H. Harris, who saw market potential in combining two successful exploitation genres—the sci-fi monster movie and the teen-pic. He produced the film at Valley Forge Studios, a Christian film company in rural Pennsylvania. The director, Irvin Yeaworth, and the crew had made hundreds of religious short subjects, but this would be their first feature. Yeaworth hoped to use the money he made from The Blob to create more elaborate religious films.
Many teen exploitation films of the 1950s focus on juvenile delinquency, a prevalent concern at the time, so much so that a Senate Subcommittee led by prominent senator (and vice-presidential candidate) Estes Kefauver of Tennessee was charged with investigating the problem. Filmmakers grasped onto this hot-button issue, producing multitudinous films presenting teenagers reveling in all sorts of delinquent behavior followed by a quick moralistic ending to satisfy notions of propriety. The wayward teens either learned the error of their ways or suffered grievous punishment.
The filmmakers of The Blob, however, wanted to depict a more benign image of teenagers. The characters in The Blob are genuinely good teens. Even though these kids aren’t juvenile delinquents, they’re not square either. They go parking. They drag race in the street (backwards!). They play pranks on the cops. But, in general, they’re good kids. They’re not malicious. They’re not headed on the road to ruin, like so many cinematic teenagers in the 1950s. The film avoids black-and-white notions of good and bad, instead showing teens who may often display the folly of youth, but ultimately demonstrate responsibility and social concern.
The film had better actors for its main teenage characters than other teen exploitation films. The main couple charged with saving the world from the intergalactic glop monster, Steve Andrews and Jane Martin, are played by Steve McQueen (credited as Steven McQueen) and Aneta Corsaut (credited as Aneta Corseaut). Both would go on to successful careers, McQueen as a top box office star of the 1960s and 1970s and Corsaut as Andy’s love interest, Helen Crump, on The Andy Griffith Show. In this film, they show the qualities that would be found in their later roles. McQueen imbues Steve Andrews with the quiet cool, natural leadership, and confident, if reluctant, heroism that would come to define McQueen’s screen persona. In Jane, we can see the quiet intelligence and the demure fortitude of Corsaut’s Helen Crump. Yes, McQueen and Corsaut appear far too old for graduation, but it was common practice at the time to have actors in their 20s and even 30s play teenagers.
The teenagers’ main problem is not the titular space goo but, rather, the fact that the adults in town don’t believe their tales of a glob of killer slime that fell from the sky. This conflict, between the teenagers and the adults, shows the film at its most thoughtful. The “Generation Gap” that was so pronounced in the 1960s was well underway in the 1950s. In the film, the adults—members of “The Greatest Generation” who suffered through the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II—fail to understand the young people, who seem privileged and aimless. These two generations must come to a rapprochement in order to survive the monster muck run amok.
The blob, which grows larger the more people it absorbs, is a movie monster without much personality. However, its very nature is suggestive of the amorphous threats that led to the intense national anxiety that characterized the 1950s. Most obviously, it reflects the fear of the unknown phenomena that could be encountered as result of space travel. It’s also no coincidence that this blob is red, reflecting the Cold War era fear of communism spreading unchecked throughout the country. While the film is short on moments of shock and sudden scares, the mood the blob creates is one of anxious anticipation, a kind of slow dread, as the blob oozes under doors, around window casings, and through vents, unable to be killed or destroyed. The only hope for the teenagers, the town, and ultimately the country is containment.
This anxiety, this need for containment reflects perfectly the zeitgeist of the 1950s. The Blob, then, acts as a historical document, reflecting the conflicts and fears of its time. Ultimately, if viewers go into this film hoping to be scared by space sludge, the film won’t live up to their expectations. But viewers can expect the film to provide well-rounded characters, historically relevant conflicts, and a snapshot of American life in the late 1950s.