The Journal of Ephemeral Inspiration

The Journal of Ephemeral Inspiration promises a neverending spew of pointless minutae, brilliant yet useless ideas, troublingly cruel commentary and emphatic musings on whatever shiny object happens to catch our collective eye. Always remember, hate the game, not the playa.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Ephemereviews: The Blob: Criterion Collection

Video Format: Anamorphic 1.66:1 Widescreen
Audio Format: Dolby Digital 1.0
Language Tracks: English
Subtitle Tracks: English (Captions Only)
Length: 82 minutes
Rating: NR
Release Date: November 14, 2000
Packaging: Keep Case
Region Code: 1
Studio: Criterion (Spine #91)
Catalog Number: CC1560D

Expectations & Reactions:

Science Fiction B-movies in the 1950s were often throwaway drive-in filler, but occasionally contained deeper layers of social commentary (for example, Toho's Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) was reflective of Japan's coming to terms with the Atomic Age). In The Blob (1958), themes of teen rebellion coincide easily with thinly veiled communist paranoia (in the form of a largely unseen and ever-growing red menace that overtakes Anytown, USA, and is eventually banished to the far corners of the planet), providing a well-rounded overview of 1950s fears in America.

We weren't expecting much from the DVD of The Blob, having seen a number of schlocky (though enjoyable) 1950s monster movies, most released as budget-line bare bones DVDs with below average audio and video. Still, The Blob has become synonymous with the '50s horror movie in pop culture, along with The Thing From Another World (1951), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), so it seemed almost mandatory that it be part of our horror/monster/sci-fi film collection. What we found most interesting was the distributor: The Criterion Collection, known for their discriminating taste in important films. Could this non-Hollywood B-movie possibly belong in the same collection as The Seven Samurai (1954), The Third Man (1949) and The Seventh Seal (1957)?

Frankly, yes, insomuch as it is an honest attempt at filmmaking that succeeds on its own terms, not only on an artistic level, but on a social one as well. The Criterion Collection has offered a feature-rich DVD of The Blob, with a solid video presentation far better than we think the average curious viewer would expect.


Steve and Jane, two typical small-town teenagers, are spending a quiet evening in Steve's convertible when they see a shooting star streak across the sky. Determined to find where it landed, they race off into the countryside, only to find a delirious old man with some sort of amorphous parasite covering his hand. It seems the old man was the first to discover the meteorite and the gelatinous goo that it contained (which promptly attached itself to the man's hand). Steve and Jane rush the old man to the town doctor, only to find when they arrive that the creature has spread and enveloped the old man's entire right arm. The doctor sends the kids to see if they can find someone who knows the old man, and prepares to amputate the afflicted arm. But by the time his nurse has arrived, the old man is gone, and the blob has grown into a bright red and seemingly unstoppable menace, immune to attack and able to seep through any opening. Can it be stopped? Who will be its next victim? As the theme song says, "Beware of The Blob..."

Look & Listen:

In a word, the Criterion Collection's presentation of The Blob looks fantastic. Considering the age of the film, its frugal budget, and its usual relegation as superficial teen fare, Criterion has done an amazing job at reproducing the fine detail and vibrant color The Blob must have presented in 1958. Though the color was processed by Deluxe (on credit and a promise of future print orders), it compares to the rich three-strip Technicolor of other '50s features. The anamorphic transfer allows for crisp detail, except for moments of soft focus and brief day-for-night filtered exterior shots, particularly of the crowd fleeing the movie theatre toward the end of the film.

Blacks are largely solid and deep, which is important, as most of The Blob takes place at night, either on actual location or studio sets. There is a subtle shimmer to the print on the left side of the frame that is present throughout much of the movie, but it's not overly distracting. There are moments of minor dirt and scratches on the source print, mostly occurring at reel changes, but these do not lessen the overall viewing experience. The source print displays subtle grain, but far less than one would expect for a movie of this age. The transfer was handled with great care, and pixelation and edge enhancement are not an issue (the film's relatively short running time likely allowed for a robust bit rate). All in all, Criterion has done a wonderful job, well worth the somewhat expensive retail price.

The film’s audio is presented in Dolby 1.0 mono, and though it does reveal the limitations of 1950s audio technology, it is warm and hiss-free, and never strays into harsh tones. There is a reasonable amount of depth to the mix, with dialogue always clear, and the score used largely as emphasis to moments of suspense, but not such that it overpowers the actors. Bass response is not particularly strong, but appropriate to the rest of the mix, and the sonic range is surprisingly full and satisfying for a film of this age.

Features & Extras:

The Blob is packed with informative supplemental features – the depth of which may not be apparent at first. Two separate audio tracks feature rich commentary: the first by producer Jack Harris and film historian Bruce Elder (recorded separately in the summer of 2000), and the second by director Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr. and actor Robert Fields (also recorded separately in 2000). Harris and Yeaworth provide the bulk of the commentary on their insightful tracks, with Elder adding historical perspective (and the occasional correction to Harris's facts), and Fields expanding upon the numerous Steve McQueen anecdotes throughout. It's clear that those involved with The Blob recall the film affectionately, and valued their experience in working with McQueen at the beginning of his film career, regardless of his troublesome reputation. A nice touch is that audio tracks are indexed by topic to correspond with the DVD chapter titles.

An annotated photo gallery entitled "Blob-obilia!" provides a good collection of behind-the-scenes and publicity stills (approximately 40), posters and publicity materials (approximately 15, including other languages and double-bills with Dinosaurus! (1960), Harris and Yeaworthy's follow-up film), and a dozen or so photos of key props and miniature sets. The photos of the sets used for the effects shots are extremely revealing as to the way they got the Blob to move about, and are one of the most interesting parts of the supplements (The Blob was created through a combination of dyed silicon poured through moving miniature sets, with an under-inflated weather balloon standing in for practical full-scale shots. The effect is quite convincing most of the time). At the end, there is a photo of the football-sized Blob itself, enshrined all these years in a metal drum by memorabilia collector Wes Shank. Although a full-blown documentary may have presented similar information in a more obvious way, the combination of the audio commentaries and the annotated photo gallery provides a fairly comprehensive look into the production.

A theatrical trailer (full of spoilers) is included, and is full of the typical fun publicity hyperbole you find in sci-fi movies from the '50s. Though presented in the same Dolby 1.0 and 1.66:1 aspect ratio as the film, the faded colors and soft details of the trailer only reinforce the beautiful clarity and colors of the feature transfer.

Bruce Kawin, professor of film studies at the University of Colorado, provides brief but insightful liner notes on the social aspects of the film in the tri-fold color booklet. A folded poster reproduction of the cover art is tucked in the inside front of the keep case, but this is more of a nice idea than a practical extra.

Finally, a Criterion Collection DVD wouldn't be complete without their ubiquitous color bars.

Menus & Navigation:

Criterion's affectionate treatment of The Blob is continued in the DVD menus. The Saul Bass-like animated opening titles are reproduced on the main menu, simulating the amorphous Blob with growing red and white organic ripples on a black pond. The film's theme song, "Beware of the Blob" (composed by a young Burt Bacharach) plays underneath in a continuous loop.

The film is divided into nineteen chapters, accessible by two sub menus. Both menus have text chapter headings, with a blobby right-hand frame showing looped highlights from the film with full sound.

The commentary menus feature selections from the orchestral score of The Blob, composed by Ralph Carmichael. Index menus for each of the two commentaries feature color stills of McQueen. All menus are easily navigable, and are great to look at.

Cast & Crew:

The Blob was directed by Irving S. Yeaworth, Jr., and produced by Jack H. Harris. The original score was composed by Ralph Carmichael, with title music by Burt Bacharach.

The Blob stars then-unknown Steve (billed as Steven) McQueen and Aneta Corsaut (who also played Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show) as the "teen" couple who discover the danger threatening their town. An interesting bit of trivia is an unbilled Ed McMahon as the Daughter of Horror (1955) voice-over, which is the Jack Harris-owned film playing in the Colonial Theatre near The Blob's climax.


The influence of The Blob is far-reaching – considering the obvious teen demographic the filmmakers were targeting (with it's "teen" leads, cool monster, and catchy theme song), it's a safe bet that years ago Ridley Scott was inspired by the Blob hatching from the meteor and attaching itself to the old man when he directed the egg scene from Alien (1979)... Stephen King clearly drew inspiration for his "farmer-finds-meteor-which-slowly-envelops-him-in-green-moss" story for Creepshow (1982)... James Cameron must have recalled the doctor firing useless bullets into the amorphous mass when he scripted the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)... John Landis created a clear homage when he recreated the fleeing movie patrons in An American Werewolf in London (1981)... and then there's the art museum being covered by the pink goo in Ghostbusters 2 (1989)... well, let's just forget about that last one. As for the remake of The Blob (1988), it just doesn't match the spirit of the original.

The appeal of The Blob comes largely from its unpretentious charm. The film's low budget kept takes to a minimum, with little to no covering shots, often resulting in what comes off as a momentarily improvised or flubbed line. These unpolished moments don't detract – they simply serve as a reminder that this was a film made outside of the Hollywood system by relative amateurs. With a tight budget, Pennsylvania locations, a non-Hollywood crew, and a cast of largely East-coast stage actors with little film experience, Harris and Yeaworth produced one of the most unassuming and influential teen/monster B-movies of the late '50s.

Although the distinction of a Criterion Collection imprint imparts an authoritative mark of quality filmmaking, it also conveys a hefty price tag. A typical horror/monster/sci-fi film fan might balk at the cost of purchasing a fairly expensive '50s B-movie, but anyone looking to complete his or her collection of influential and genre-defining DVDs should give The Blob serious consideration. We think you'll be duly impressed by the video quality and comprehensive extras, if not pleasantly surprised by the film itself.

The Criterion Collection has preserved not only an important film, but also a fun one at that. Beware of the Blob? Not at all – poke it with a stick and enjoy the ride.

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