On the occasion of Steve McQueen’s 81st birthday, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
One of the best-remembered and most beloved films of the Fifties, in the SF or any other genre, The Blob gave the young actor then billed as “Steven” McQueen his first shot at stardom. It was the brainchild of Philadelphia native and childhood vaudeville performer Jack H. Harris, a film distributor who left an indelible mark on the cinema with this maiden effort as a producer.
Harris wanted to take the budget of two of the black-and-white SF films he was handling and make one in color, with an alien form of flesh-consuming mineral life as its simple monster. He then shared this formula with a friend of his, Irvine H. Millgate, a professor of humanities at Northwestern University, who developed—and received screen credit for—the idea of the film.
Director Irvin S. “Shorty” Yeaworth, Jr., was a Methodist minister recruited from an arts colony in nearby West Chester, Pennsylvania, where he was making religious films. Yeaworth had his close friend Kate Phillips (who, as Kay Linaker, had appeared in almost fifty films during the 1930s and ‘40s), then writing teleplays for Playhouse 90, polish Theodore Simonson’s script.
Yeaworth also directed the SF films 4D Man (1959) and Dinosaurus! (1960) for Harris, but has few credits outside of his religious pictures. It was while McQueen’s then-wife, Neile, was appearing in one of the latter that he first made the acquaintance of Yeaworth, who took a dislike to the actor’s hellraising personality (he reportedly referred to McQueen as “a dirty guy”).
But Harris had been impressed with McQueen’s intense performance in “The Defender,” the two-part Studio One episode with William Shatner that became the basis for the series The Defenders. Hoping they could curb his antisocial tendencies, he and Yeaworth wisely decided to take a chance on the actor, who soon hit the big time with his own series, Wanted: Dead or Alive.
Although twenty-seven at that time, McQueen was cast as teenaged Steve Andrews, who sees a meteorite fall while necking with his girlfriend, Jane Martin (Aneta Corseaut). By the time they locate its landing site, the meteorite’s gelatinous, colorless contents have oozed onto the arm of an unfortunate old man (Olin Howlin), whom the two teenagers immediately rush to a doctor.
After dallying with Steve’s drag-racing pals, he and Jane return to the doctor’s office just in time for Steve to see him killed by the Blob, as were his nurse and the old man. But because it completely consumes its victims, turning blood-red in the process, the Blob leaves no evidence, and the quickly summoned police write off the reports of a monster as just another teen prank.
While their friends try to warn the town’s populace of the literally growing danger, Steve and Jane investigate his father’s ominously deserted supermarket and encounter the Blob, which has eaten an auto mechanic in the meantime. Barricaded inside the store’s walk-in freezer, they are saved when the Blob begins to squeeze beneath the door and suddenly, inexplicably, retreats.
In one of the most memorable sequences, the Blob overwhelms an entire cinema during a midnight showing of Daughter of Horror (1957). Harris, who has a cameo as one of the patrons fleeing the theater, had distributed this recut version of writer-director John Parker’s dialogue-free cult movie Dementia (1955), adding narration by Ed McMahon, then a local TV announcer.
When Steve, Jane, and her little brother are trapped inside a diner, a power line that is dropped ineffectually onto the Blob starts a fire, and as Steve extinguishes the flames with CO2, he sees the Blob recoil. Remembering its retreat from the freezer, he deduces that the cold is anathema to the Blob, and conveys this information to a sympathetic cop, Dave (Earl Rowe).
Quickly, the other kids break into the high school and retrieve more extinguishers, with which the Blob is frozen, contracting sufficiently to let our heroes escape through the windows of the diner. The Blob is then airlifted to the Arctic by the Air Force, while the words “The End” appear on the screen and, in a short-lived Harris trademark, metamorphose into a question mark.
One element of The Blob’s success was its catchy theme song, “Beware of the Blob,” by future Oscar winners Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Completed in 1957, the film was awaiting its release by Paramount (which was negotiating to buy “The Purple People-Eater,” until Harris intervened) when the tune was added, so there was no space to insert a credit for its composers.
The Blob has become not only a pop-culture phenomenon, but also a kind of cottage industry for its producer, spawning a sequel, a remake, and a redubbed spoof. Harris has also spoken of his desire to do another remake, a rock musical, and a TV series based on the film, although he resisted pressure to produce an immediate sequel, which took more than a decade.
Beware! The Blob (aka Son of Blob, 1972) was written by Harris’s son Anthony, who also co-produced the sequel, and Jack Woods. A veteran sound effects editor, Woods directed, wrote, and starred in the finished version of Equinox (1971), one of several projects that Harris acquired and vastly revamped for release as features, sometimes to the chagrin of the original filmmakers.
Actor Larry Hagman inspired Harris, then his next-door neighbor in Malibu, to revive the idea he and his son had abandoned, which then became Hagman’s feature-film directorial debut. He cast a number of his comedian and celebrity friends (e.g., Shelley Berman, Burgess Meredith, Godfrey Cambridge, Carol Lynley), giving the sequel a comic twist that Harris had not intended.
Robert Walker, Jr., stars in the sequel, in which Arctic pipeline worker Cambridge finds the Blob and unwittingly brings it back to civilization, where he becomes its latest victim. The Blob once again grows out of control, consuming most of Hagman’s celebrity guest-stars along the way, until it is finally frozen once more in a bowling alley that doubles as an ice-skating rink.
Hollywood mainstay Tim Baar (aka Barr), who also had a small role as the owner of the bowling alley, provided the special effects, utilizing essentially the same pre-CGI techniques as Bart Sloane had in the original. Sloane’s method was a simple but still impressive combination of frame-by-frame animation and in-camera effects, using colored silicone to represent the Blob.
Thirty years after the original was released, Chuck Russell directed a remake of The Blob (1988), which he wrote with future Oscar nominee Frank Darabont. Russell initiated the project with New World, which eventually put it in turnaround, and after A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) had made him a hot property, he was able to strike a deal with Tri-Star.
Unfortunately for Harris, said deal also involved financing from another producer, Elliott Kastner, and gave Russell final creative control over the results. Harris objected to elements like a more elaborate climax, in which the military is brought in to battle the Blob, and the choice of an effects team that was eventually—and expensively—replaced, but he had no say in the matter.
The remake follows much of the original story, but adds an unexpected jolt as its apparent hero, clean-cut Donovan Leitch, is consumed. His girlfriend (Shawnee Smith) then joins forces with a young tough (Kevin Dillon), and eventually blows up an artificial snow truck to freeze the Blob, which can form tentacles and is revealed to be a governmental experiment in germ warfare.
In its most recent incarnation to date, the 1958 Blob was given new dialogue by a comedy group, The L.A. Connection, and became Blobermouth (1991). Co-produced by Harris’s then-wife, Judith Parker Harris, this spoof added an animated mouth to the Blob, and re-envisions the entire tale as a rivalry between aspiring stand-up comics (embodied by the Blob and McQueen).