Remake Wars #2: The Blob (1958) vs. The Blob (1988)

 

Inspired by fellow Filmbalaya writer Nick Petrick’s battle between two versions of Lolita, I’ve decided to do a Remake War of my own, and it’s one that sci-fi and horror fans have been bickering over for 25 years.

Whether or not you have seen the 1958 Steve McQueen classic or Chuck Russell‘s splatterific 1988 remake, chances are that you’re familiar with the story of The Blob.

In both versions, a sleepy American town is jolted awake by a meteorite containing a shapeless gelatinous monster with a limitless appetite. The Blob proceeds to devour everything it touches, growing exponentially bigger with each human snack. It’s up to a couple plucky teenagers to try and level the playing field.

The 1958 version, directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., is a rightfully revered sci-fi classic, best known for its catchy title song, iconic monster, and for a 28-year-old Steve McQueen playing a teenager. The film’s legacy is undisputed and the Criterion Collection recently acknowledged the film’s significance with a stellar digital restoration.

The 1988 remake is directed by Chuck Russell, best known to horror fans as the director of Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Russell, who co-wrote the script with a young Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist), clearly has an aptitude for directing young actors through mazes of gooey gore effects.

Arriving in the golden age of sticky sci-fi remakes (John Carpenter‘s The Thing, David Cronenberg‘s The Fly), Blob ’88 is a cult classic entirely its own, swapping out the original’s Norman Rockwell innocence for cold Reagan-era cynicism.

For the purposes of my Remake War, I’ll be putting these two revered monster flicks head-to-head in a handful of crucial categories. Let’s go!


THE TITLE SEQUENCE

While many modern films tend to go for the cold open or simply forgo a title sequence altogether, both versions of The Blob take great pride in setting the stage with their opening credits.

The Blob ’58 opens with a simple but extremely effective image: a series of red rings gradually swallowing up a black screen. It is minimalism in the tradition of the great Saul Bass and, accompanied to Burt Bacharach‘s kitschy but strangely unsettling title song (It creeps/and leaps/and glides/and slides/across the floor), it is a truly memorable opening title sequence.

The Blob ’88 goes for a more direct approach. Overlayed with glowing sci-fi titles, the camera’s POV leads us down from the stars onto the Earth’s surface, leading into a montage of the deserted streets of the small town setting of the film. Portentous ambient music from composer Michael Hoenig lets us know early on that this Blob means business. The titles end with an ominous shot of a fog rolling over the town’s graveyard. A graveyard, the title sequence gruesomely suggests, that is about to need some serious expansion.

WINNER: The Blob (1958). It’s simple, beautiful, and one of the most iconic title sequences in film.

 


 THE CREATURE

Perhaps this category isn’t a fair fight. After all, special effects had 30 years to improve in between Blob ’58 and Blob ’88, and it absolutely shows. So let’s ignore the obviously superior special effects of the late 1980’s and take a look at the personality of these two Blobs.

’58 Blob is an alien of unknown origin and the iconic iteration of the creature. It’s the Sean Connery of shapeless gelatinous monsters.

A curious ball from another world, it roams about and playfully devours. Slow-moving like a big ball of strawberry Jello rolling down the stairs, the ’58 Blob seems more interested in exploring this strange blue planet than conquering it. It can’t help that it devours everything it touches! Stay out of his way, and you’ll probably be fine.

’88 Blob on the other hand, isn’t an alien at all. It’s a manmade biological weapon run amok, specifically designed to be a misanthropic slush of hot pink bubblegum sadism. It actively HATES human beings and rips us apart with wanton prejudice. While the ’58 Blob’s victims would disappear offscreen and never be seen again, the ’88 Blob’s favorite pastime is displaying its half-dissolved victims through its translucent flesh.

The mean-spirited Blob of 1988 doesn’t play fair at all. It will go up drainpipes and suck people down the sink, ripping them apart like a garbage disposal. It will sneak inside of your date and slurp you up while you try to cop a feel. It will go up ceilings, through air ducts, and it has absolutely no qualms with killing children. In fact, it finds them quite tasty!

Moving at high speeds and equipped with phallic tentacles to grab humans in those hard to reach places, the ’88 Blob is the equivalent of the “fast-moving zombie”. Less iconic perhaps, but infinitely more terrifying when you take a moment to think about it. For if you had to choose between spending ten minutes in a room alone with ’58 Blob versus ten seconds with its successor, the answer should be your guide to who is the real monster here.

WINNER: The Blob (1988), by face-melting bubblegum TKO.


 THE HERO

In the 1958 corner, we have Steve “Bullitt” McQueen. Ultimate badass of the silver screen.

In the 1988 corner we have… Kevin Dillon? From Entourage? Wearing a leather jacket, silver earrings, and a mullet straight out of Lethal Weapon?

Looking at the marquees alone, most viewers will have already made up their minds on this one, but they’d be judging the book for its cover.

In Blob ’58, McQueen plays Steve Andrews, a hot-rodder teen with a heart of gold who just wants to cruise around town in his souped-up Plymouth Canbrook and go steady with the high school principal’s daughter. Steve is characterized as being responsible, pragmatic, and brave. He seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every person in his little town and is willing to put himself in harm’s way if he feels like anyone is in danger (read: straying from their daily routine). While he respects authority to a degree, when nobody believes his wide-eyed tales of the Blob, Steve does whatever it takes to get them to believe, even if that means sneaking out after curfew and waking the whole town up.

Unfortunately, this is one of Steve McQueen’s sleepier performances and he roundly fails to inject Steve Andrews with any kind of personality or urgency. Legend has it that he didn’t want to do the film at all and was a nightmare to work with. It shows.

In Blob ’88, the equivalent of McQueen’s character is Paul Taylor (Donovan Leitch). As good-natured and sweet as Steve Andrews in the original, Paul clearly has no place in this cynical retelling, so he is unceremoniously slaughtered in the first reel, creating an opening for anarchic bad boy Brian Flagg (Dillon) to take center stage.

Flagg is a chain-smoking, motorcycle-riding renegade who claims to look out only for himself, but there’s more to him than meets the eye. Described as a “psychopath” who should be “fried” by normally cool-headed fathers and pharmacists, Flagg is distrusting of authority after multiple trips to juvie and is the last person you’d expect to save the day. Young Kevin Dillon, fresh off a memorable turn as a sadistic grunt in Oliver Stone‘s Platoon, is very convincing in the role, and to his credit, knows when to take a moment to stop being such a badass and actually be terrified of the Blob, giving this whole affair some much needed weight.

Long story short, if this was Star Wars, then McQueen is Luke and Dillon is Han. Who would you rather have in your corner? Exactly.

WINNER: The Blob (1988), because sometimes heroes have mullets.


 THE HEROINE

OK, this one is a pretty indisputable and decisive victory for the eighties, so let’s keep it short.

Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) spends the entirety of ’58 Blob flailing and fainting from place to place. The only reason she doesn’t get gobbled up is because Steve McQueen repeatedly drags her out of the way.

Meg Penny (scream queen Shawnee Smith), on the other hand, is a movie heroine in the Ellen Ripley tradition. She’s a strong-willed cheerleader who sprints, leaps, and shoots her way to survival, even saving a few others along the way.

WINNER: The Blob (1988), because Shawnee Smith.


 THE THEATER SCENE

No conversation can be had about either version of The Blob without bringing up the theater scene, which occurs in both versions. In both 1958 and 1988, the Blob infiltrates the projection booth of a movie house showing a horror film, only to spill out into the auditorium to bring the horror off the screen to unsuspecting moviegoers. It’s one of the most notorious sequences from either version, ’58 for its classic imagery and ’88 for its mind-blowing blood-letting.

The influence of the theater scene in ’58 Blob cannot be overstated. To this very day, an annual “Blobfest” is held in Phoenixville, PA where fans of the original reenact a “theater run” by running and screaming in mass from the historic Colonial Theater where ’58 Blob was filmed. It looks like a lot of fun and I definitely plan on participating someday.

While ’58 Blob leaves what happens inside the auditorium to our imagination, ’88 Blob takes us inside the auditorium with it and locks us in to witness every sticky moment. Naturally, it’s a vomitorium of colorful carnage and sticky viscera, but unfortunately it has the distinct disadvantage of being just another gory setpiece in a film that’s already loaded with them.

WINNER: The Blob (1958), because sometimes less is more (and also because it’s just wrong to not give this to the original).


 FINAL VERDICT

I can easily see why somebody might prefer the original 1958 Blob. The nostalgia. The legacy of Steve McQueen. The wide-eyed innocence of an era that existed only in the movies. Or maybe just for the sake of favoring whoever planted the flag first.

I’m the first to admit that the mean-spirited Blob of 1988 is not a perfect film. The gory eviscerations can become numbing after a while and the decision to make its monster a man-made biological weapon rather than a predator from outer space is a plot wrinkle that remains controversial, although I personally find it a genius touch that keeps it consistent with its cynical and world-weary perspective.

When all is said and done, the 1958 Blob spends most of its 82-minute run time with bland teenagers trying to convince even blander grown-ups that there is a threat, which is something that becomes tiresome on the first watch and agonizing on repeat viewings. It’s only until the last moments of the film do the adults acknowledge that there is in fact a monster, at which point it is easily and anticlimactically defeated.

As mentioned before, the 1980’s was a special time for R-rated remakes of comparably tame sci-fi/horror classics. The Fly, The Thing, and The Blob. Each superior to the original, not just for increasing the blood and guts, but also for upping the brains.

The 1988 Blob, like its eighties counterparts, pulls off the extremely rare stunt of topping the original by acknowledging that the 1958 Blob, while iconic, has serious faults that can be improved in a modern retelling, namely its glacial pace, poor story structure, and primitive special effects. The true strengths of the remake, however, are much deeper than that. There’s a hero with flaws and personality. A heroine who can fend for herself. A harder-edged tone that accepts that blind faith in authority is not the answer for everything. And, of course, a monster who is truly monstrous.

WINNER: The Blob (1988)

LOSER: The Blob (1958)


 

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