Horizon Review: The Blob (1988)

blob-movie-poster-1988

Before we even get started with this review, I have a confession to make: I have only watched the original 1958 version of The Blob once, while I have watched this one many, many times.  There are some of you out there who probably consider this heresy.  All I can say is that a big part of The Blob, in either generation, was the theme of “parents just don’t understand”, and the teens taking action to save the world – and my own teen years were a lot closer to 1988 than 1958.  Arborville, the small town where the movie is set, reminds me a great deal of the small town where I grew up.  The only difference is the exact nature of which dying industry is causing the town to dry up and blow away.  Meg Penney, Our Heroine, looks like someone I could have had a crush on in high school.

Sequels and remakes that follow in the footsteps of a classic always have a hard road before them.  Whatever it is that makes a movie worthy of a sequel or a remake, it’s hard to catch the lightning in a bottle twice.  Most sequels can only hope to not damage the original by their existence.  I can count the number of sequels that added some significant value to the original on one hand: Aliens; Hellraiser: Hellbound; and the final two movies in the original Star Wars series.  Most people would put The Godfather Part II in this august company, but it’s my article and I disagree.  I would include the latter two Lord of the Rings films, but since that series is a single story broken up over three films, I don’t know if they count as sequels.

As for remakes, the best they can generally hope for is to be a decent movie in their own right, and that people will simply enjoy them without comparing them (too much) to the greatness of the original.  This year’s Evil Dead managed that.  So did the 2002 version of The Italian Job.  And so did 1988’s The Blob.

It may have helped that The Blob, both original and remake, were essentially special effects-driven popcorn films…and the remake had much, much better special effects (which was probably why it was made in the first place).  We can probably credit the surprisingly good story and characterization to a young Frank Darabont, for whom this is one of his earlier writing credits.  It also has a surprisingly good cast, but I’ll introduce you to them as we get to them.

Which is my cue to get this review started.  Spoilers after this point.

The opening credits roll over a long pan through the deserted streets of a small town.  What has happened here?  Where are all the people?  Is this place some sort of modern Roanoke?  Was there a mass alien abduction?  Were they – oh, wait.  They’re all just at the football game.  All of them.

So from the very beginning, Arborville, CA is established as the kind of small town where the entire population turns out for the high school football games – partly because their sense of community is Just That Strong…and partly because there’s nothing else going on.

One of the football players, one Paul Taylor, is standing on the sidelines, talking with his Douchebag Best Friend (DBF deserves no name, and will get none in this review) about whether he should ask one of the cheerleaders, one Meg Penney (Shawnee Smith, perhaps most famous as Amanda from the Saw movies), out on a date.  DBF encourages Paul in his pursuit, but Paul is looking for the right moment…which arrives the very next play when he’s tackled out of bounds, through the table where the water cooler is set up, and lands semiconscious at her feet.

There is one citizen of Arborville who isn’t at the game, though: Brian Flagg, local bad boy (played by Kevin Dillon, perhaps most famous as “Drama” in Entourage or “Bunny” in Platoon).  While the respectable people of Arborville are all at the game, Flagg is up in the hills, trying to jump a gully on his motorcycle.  Unfortunately, the motor sputters during his approach, and he takes a spill.  An eccentric old coot who happens to live in a nearby shack sees the crash and, once he sees that Flagg is unhurt, claps in amusement and collects Flagg’s discarded beer can for the deposit.  Flagg smiles back, letting us know that whatever kind of bad boy Flagg might be, he isn’t the kind that goes looking for fights.  Fine example of show, don’t tell, folks.  Well done.

Next, we’re back in town, where Sheriff Herb Geller (Jeffrey DeMunn, perhaps most famous as Dale Horvath in The Walking Dead), is having a cup of coffee and chatting with Fran, proprietor of the local diner.  He asks her on a date, and while it first looks like she’s too busy, he finds a note at the bottom of his bill.

I like this.  It’s rare that teen-oriented horror movies acknowledge adults, let alone authority figures, having lives outside of hassling Our Heroes.  It’s even rarer that Hollywood acknowledges that two non-models might have romantic feelings.  Of course, this is a horror movie, so they’re just setting us up for future tragedy, but I still appreciate it.

Herb leaves before the post-game crowd arrives, and runs into Flagg on the street.  Another interesting scene ensues: Herb “congratulates” Flagg for his upcoming birthday…then warns him that “if you screw up now, you’re in the majors.”  And the funny thing is, it sounds to me like it might be an earnest warning.  No doubt Herb and Flagg have been butting heads for years, and there’s no love lost between them, but Herb doesn’t seem to look forward to sending the local troublemaker to the kind of prison where the real hardcases go.

That confrontation over, Flagg heads on to his original destination, the garage owned and operated by his friend “Moss” (apparently the only African-American in town).  At the moment, Moss is working on…something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  You see, Arborville is a ski town, and it’s on the verge of becoming a ghost town because the last few winters have been warm and snowless (in 1988…they hadn’t seen nothin’ yet).  Snow making machines would make perfect sense, but those are usually stationary things set up on the mountain itself.  These are tanker trucks that blow snow in front of them as they drive, like an anti-snowplow.  How are those things supposed to get snow on an unpaved slope?

Anyway, Moss has had just about enough of Flagg mooching his tools, but Flagg manages to wheedle a socket set out of him by promising to come in over the weekend to help with Moss’s overwhelming workload.  This establishes two things about Flagg: 1) As a not-quite-eighteen-year-old boy, he’s a good enough mechanic to make his services worth something to a professional.  That’s interesting, but it doesn’t really come into play. 2) As annoying as Flagg may be to authority figures, he has charm and friends among the working-class people of Arborville.

Again, nice job with showing instead of telling.

The next 10 – 15 minutes or so are devoted to setting up the dominoes.  Paul and Douchebag both have dates that night, and Paul accompanies Douchebag on a trip to the drug store to pick up condoms.  Douchebag runs into the local minister (I’m sure there’s more than one, but this is the only one we meet – a gentle, unassuming soul) while there, and in throwing “suspicion” off himself, he makes Paul sound positively predatory, which of course sets us up for a gag where we find out that the pharmacist is Meg’s father.

Sorry if I ruined the joke, but I need to establish just how terrible a person Douchebag really is.

We also get to meet the rest of Meg’s family, including her brother Kevin and his obnoxious best friend Eddie.  Kevin and Eddie aren’t being entirely honest about their plans for the night, which will come back to bite them later.

Meanwhile, up in the woods, the eccentric old coot sees something fall from the sky, and goes to investigate.  He finds what appears to be a meteorite, cracked open from the impact, with some kind of pink goo inside.

He pokes the pink goo with a stick, it promptly grabs his hand, and we’re off to the races.

As he runs around in panic and pain, the old coot runs into Flagg, who’s still up in the woods repairing his bike, and then runs in front of Paul and Meg as they drive along the backroads to wherever they were going.

(You know you live in a small town when you have to leave town to go anywhere worthwhile on a date.  I’ve been there.)

Paul and Meg rush the old man to a hospital (Paul insists rather strongly that Flagg accompany them; Flagg sneers but doesn’t resist), but unfortunately, as you might expect, a weird old guy who lives in a shack up in the woods isn’t a priority as long as there’s, well, anyone else to treat.  The three teenagers sit for some time, until Flagg gets disgusted and storms out.  Paul finally decides to check on the old man…and finds his half-eaten corpse.

Blob Half Corpse

What follows is a sequence of events that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other horror movie: Paul immediately calls the police, and Herb, upon hearing that a few local teens have been witness to a murder, takes it seriously and says he’ll be right there.

This shouldn’t be so amazing.  It probably makes a difference that Paul and Meg are explicitly Good Kids, from Respectable Families and all, but there are plenty of films where that doesn’t help.

Unfortunately, all that Paul gets to say is that there’s been a murder and that Flagg was there with them.  Then the Blob drops on him from the ceiling.  Meg does her best to save him, but since he’s already dissolved into the image from the front cover of the DVD (I will bet you money that image was the primary reason this movie was made in the first place), he’s really beyond help.  All she gets is a piece of his forearm and a knock on the head for her troubles.

Blob dissolving Paul

Flagg gets hauled in for questioning, and Sheriff Geller’s (apparently only) deputy, one Bill Briggs, takes some pleasure in giving the local black sheep some grief.  But Geller cuts the interrogation short: Flagg is no killer, and even if he was, he doesn’t have a drop of blood on him from two extremely brutal murders.

I didn’t know cops in horror movies were allowed to be this sensible.

And what about Douchebag?  I’m sure you’ve all been wondering about him.  Well, it turns out that he’s up on a scenic overlook, and he’s been plying his date with alcohol this whole time.  She’s about half-conscious when the scene opens, and by the time he gets back from the trunk, where he has his drink-mixing equipment and an entire stockpile of high school rings, she appears to be fully asleep.  Of course, that doesn’t stop him from feeling her up, and he seems about to go for the full-on date-rape when the Blob bursts out of her hollowed-out husk and eats him alive and screaming.

The Blob (1988)  Directed by Chuck Russell Shown: Ricky Paull Goldin

The Blob is acting completely out of character in this scene, but you don’t care.  You’re just sorry that poor Vicki had to die along with Douchebag.  One thing I do wonder, though: was Douchebag perceived as an outright villainous rapist in 1988, as he would be today?  Or was he just considered an asshole?

But let’s get back to the people we aren’t hoping will die.

On the way out of the police station, Flagg runs into Meg, who can’t get anyone to believe that her date was eaten by a pink Jell-o monster.  Go figure.

At first, Flagg brushes off her problems and heads to Fran’s diner to get some food.  She’s closed for the night, but he still manages to charm her into making him a sandwich.  Again, the working people of Arborville (even Sheriff Geller’s romantic interest) have no beef with Brian Flagg.

Note to people trying to create a “charming rogue” character: wit is all well and good for charming the audience, but it’s also a good idea to show your charming rogue actually charming some people within the story, as shown here.  Granted, Flagg is a bit light on the “rogue” side of the equation.  So far, it seems to be based on a leather jacket, a motorcycle, and the unexplained enmity of authority figures.

Flagg continues to brush Meg off until she finally loses her temper and talks to him in language he understands, rather than that of her upper crust family and neighborhood.  Unfortunately, while that makes him willing to apologize and share his sandwich, he doesn’t have any other help to offer: all he saw was an old man with some goo on his hand.

Fortunately (for Meg’s case, at least), this is when the Blob, who has been clogging up the sink something awful, pulls Fran’s kitchen helper (apparently the only Latino in town) into the drainpipe.

Not just a hand or an arm, mind.  All of him.  Into the drainpipe.  This moment is another reason why this remake deserved to be made.

Blob Sink

Fran, Meg and Flagg all run for it, of course.  Like Paul before him, the poor handyman is beyond help.  The Blob chases the two teenagers first, but they escape into the walk-in freezer (it tries to get in, but retreats after the cold freezes a few bits off its edge into purple crystals).  This buys Fran just enough time to get to a phone booth outside.  She calls the Sheriff’s office, but all they can tell her is that Herb went down to check out the diner.

Yep.  That means exactly what you think it means.  Fran’s last sight is Herb’s half-dissolved body floating inside the Blob as it engulfs her, phone booth and all.

Damn it, why do the most interesting and unique characters always die?  I mean, I know that competent, helpful authority figures can’t be allowed to survive, but Fran was nice!

As for Herb himself…normally I’d be mad that we were denied seeing an important character’s struggle for survival, as I was in I Drink Your Blood , but I think the shock might have been worth it this time.  Maybe.

Unaware of Sheriff Geller’s fate, but with the police dispatcher unable to find him, Meg and Flagg head out to the woods where Briggs is investigating the scene of the crime.  Once there, they find that Briggs has met up with the Government Conspiracy.

What?  The movie makes no effort to hide it, so I see no reason to.

You see, unlike the original Blob, which might have been a Great Old One’s skin flake for all we know, this Blob has a definite and known origin: it was a bacteria sample sent up in a satellite to see what would happen to it if exposed to cosmic radiation.

Of course, by 1988, the scientists would know what happens to bacteria when exposed to cosmic radiation: it dies.  But not this time.  This time, the bacteria grew exponentially until it became large enough that its movements knocked the satellite out of orbit.

Yes.  At the late date of 1988, this movie returns to the “radiation is magic monster-making rays” well from the Fifties.

Wisely, it doesn’t dwell on that for long.  Instead, we quickly move on to the fact that Dr. Meddows, leader of the Government Conspiracy on site, believes that the Blob could tip the balance of world power, and he’s willing to feed everyone in Arborville to it in order to capture it alive.

Now, it’s true that the Out-Of-Control Government Superweapon plot was old and hackneyed even then, and the twenty-five years since have not been kind to it.  But I think we need to consider how it became such a cliché.  I don’t think anyone born after, oh, 1985 or so can really imagine it (and I’ll admit that I myself was a bit young to understand the true horror).  In this day and age, when our biggest fears are terrorists with dirty bombs and losing jobs to China, it’s hard to even remember what it was like when two rival empires stood astride the world like colossi, nuclear guns to each other’s heads, each waiting for the other to twitch.  Whole generations grew up convinced that the world would end in fire any day now, and Ronald Reagan had a lot of people convinced that that day was the day after tomorrow.  It was a time when pop singers pleaded that “The Russians Love Their Children Too” and anything could be justified with “we can’t let the Russians get it first”.  Meddows may well have been thinking that they couldn’t allow a Carnivorous Slime Monster Gap, and given that the thing seems capable of eating continents, he might not be entirely wrong.

Flagg escapes, but Meg is caught up in Meddows’s nets and taken back to town, where all of the citizens are being herded into the town hall, under the cover story that the fallen “meteor” may have brought some extraterrestrial disease with it.  With Sheriff Geller dead, the town has no local leader to counter Meddows.

Kevin and his obnoxious friend Eddie aren’t at the gathering point with their parents; with the help of Eddie’s older brother, a theatre usher, they’ve sneaked into a slasher flick at a theatre that hasn’t been disturbed by Meddows’s troops because classic scene from the first movie, that’s why.  Meg arrives just as the Blob attacks – specifically, just as the Blob does the world a favor by eating the kind of boorish, endlessly-yapping moviegoer who deserves to be dissolved by a carnivorous piece of Silly Putty the size of a bus – and rescues them both.  They flee to the sewers where, in a glorious break with movie tradition, the sneering little shit who’s been annoying us all movie gets dissolved right before our very eyes!

FUCK YEAH!

…okay, I’m back.  I had to get up and do The Dance of Joy at the very thought of a movie that has the guts to kill the Bratty Kid.  Maybe they felt safe in doing so because there’s still a second kid – Kevin – who was successfully rescued, which means Eddie can get eaten and Meg doesn’t look like a failure as a hero.

Kevin escapes through a storm drain, but Meg can’t fit through; she has to drop back into the sewers and try to get past the Blob.  Fortunately, this is when Flagg returns.  On his motorcycle.  In the sewers.  Yes.  Somehow, they manage to make this awesome instead of ridiculous.

They reach a manhole…but of course, it’s the exact manhole that Meddows is in the process of sealing in an attempt to trap the Blob.  Of course it is.  And he certainly isn’t displeased for the opportunity to close a few leaks in the process.  Unfortunately for him, he seals them down there with a rocket launcher.

Why did that soldier even have that?

A few minutes of Mexican standoff and shouting later, and the Blob – now the size of a Mack truck – begins its final rampage, eating Meddows and handily proving just who was lying and who was telling the truth.

During the chaos, something strange happens.  One of the soldiers tries to attack the Blob with a flamethrower (Why did he even have one?), which catches its attention, but all it does is plug the barrel with a pseudopod, causing the fuel tank to explode.  The soldier is beyond help, but the gentle, unassuming minister from earlier (already a bit unhinged by what he’s seeing – he keeps talking about how “this has all been prophesied”) is caught in the explosion and set afire.  Meg grabs a nearby fire extinguisher and puts him out, and in the process discovers that the Blob hates the cold from the CO2 extinguisher she used.  This gives the townsfolk a means to fight back, but the Blob is still winning the fight when Flagg arrives driving one of the snowthrower-trucks from earlier.

Wait.  He ran to get that truck as soon as the Blob came up through the street.  How did he even know…?

Never mind.  Flagg uses his brilliant idea in exactly the dumbest way possible, by ramming a creature that is entirely immune to kinetic damage instead of keeping his distance and continuing to spray it with snow.

But I don’t mind.  Do you know why?  Because the Blob wins that little sumo match, knocks the truck over (sending the tank of snow-producing chemicals rolling away), and starts to engulf it.  Meg, seeing her new boyfriend (because who are we kidding by this point) in trouble, runs back out into the street, grabs an assault rifle and a satchel charge (no, seriously, why the fuck do they have all this heavy ordinance when they came to investigate a crashed satellite?), and lures the monster back toward the freezing tanks.

I want all of you to take a moment and picture something with me.  Picture a corn-fed, All-American beauty.  Blond hair.  Blue eyes.  Cheerleader.  Daughter of a Respectable Family.  Pillar of the high school community.  This American beauty is covered in muck and sewer gunge, at the end of her rope after a night a thousand times worse than anything she ever imagined was possible, rising up righteous and firing an assault rifle at the creature who has made the mistake of fucking with her boyfriend, all the while screaming, in a raw, primal shriek completely unlike her cultured and civilized tones from earlier in the movie, “Come and get it you son of a bitch!”

Meg Before

Meg Before

Meg After

Meg After

It.  Is.  Fucking.  Glorious.

The movie’s existence, all of its absurdities and illogic and recycled tropes, is justified by this moment alone.

Remember what I said in the first paragraph?  Well, Shawnee Smith and I are both a lot older these days, and I’m a long way from my own small town, but I’m still a little bit in love with Meg Penney.

Of course, Meg’s plan doesn’t go off without a hitch.  If it did, Flagg would have looked pretty useless.  Still, in the end, the Blob gets a face full of whatever was in that freezer tank, and the problem is solved.

Only not.

Now, usually, I hate the obligatory “it’s not over” twist at the end of horror movies.  If it happens at the end of every damn movie, then it’s not a twist!

But this one is done very, very well.  Remember that gentle, unassuming minister?  We catch up with him at a tent revival meeting some time later.  Half his face is a mass of burn scars, and he’s shouting about Wormwood, the Rapture and the Judgment Trump.  He’s also got a hip flask that he turns to for more worldly comfort after the sermon is over.  He hasn’t taken more than one swig, though, before one of his congregants comes to ask him just when Judgment Day will come.

“Soon, Madam, soon,” he assures her, lifting the jar of Blob-crystals that he collected while checking the diner for wounded in an earlier scene, said crystals now warm and active again. “The Lord will give me a sign.”

Blob Apocalyptic Preacher

The gentle, unassuming minister has become a mad prophet of doom, and he has doomsday itself in a jar on his dresser, ready to be unleashed at his apocalyptic whim.  Now that’s chilling!  That’s how you do it!  So often, the “It’s Not Over” twist accomplishes nothing else but taking away the protagonists’ legitimately-earned victory in the name of a cinematic habit.  Even better, this “twist” was fairly foreshadowed in the movie itself – see that bit about collecting the crystals earlier?  Usually, the INO Twist is nothing but cheating.

So.  As those of you who have followed me through this little exegesis can probably guess, I recommend this movie highly.  It’s tied with The Faculty as my favorite teen horror movie of all time.  Like all movies in that much-mocked genre, it has its share of foolishness, but as you can see, I even MST3K it with love.

The writing and the acting – both from future stars just beginning to show their chops – are a step above what you’d expect for the genre, and they combine to create lively, interesting characters.  My personal favorite is Meg, and not just because I have a crush on her.  Meg, like Dr. Pat Medford in Them!, was a step ahead of her time in terms of being a hero – I would really say the hero of this movie.  Of course, the Eighties had Final Girls aplenty, but Meg was no Final Girl, an innocent left alive because all of her friends were punished for their sins.  Meg is the hero because she’s the hero, brave and true.  And even today, that’s not nothing.

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2 responses to “Horizon Review: The Blob (1988)

  1. Pingback: Found Stories: Meat Loaf’s “Razor’s Edge” | Dreams of the Shining Horizon

  2. Pingback: What’s Happening And What’s Coming Up | Dreams of the Shining Horizon

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