Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Code Pink


If you ever watched the original Blob, and asked yourself, "Yes, but what about all the implied mass death?  Could that be a lot more explicit?"—well, my friend, Chuck Russell has made a movie just for you.  And by "you"?  You know damned good and well I actually mean "me."

Directed by Chuck Russell
Written by Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell (based on the screenplay by Kay Linaker, Theodore Simonson, and Irvine Millgate)
With Shawnee Smith (Meg Penny), Kevin Dillon (Brian Flagg), Donovan Leitch Jr. (Paul Taylor), Jeffrey DeMunn (Sheriff Herb Geller), Candy Clark (Fran Hewitt), Paul McClane (Deputy Bill Briggs), Art LeFleur (Mr. Penny), Michael Kenworthy (Kevin Penny), Douglas Emerson (Eddie Beckner), Del Close (Rev. Meeker), and Joe Seneca (Dr. Christopher Meddows)

Spoiler alert: high

As knee-deep in remakes as we might be in 2016, there's never really been a time, since the invention of sound (at least!), when Hollywood hasn't been in the business of turning old ideas into new money.  But here's what you can argue, though: once, remakes were commissioned with one eye on actually supplementing their forebears with a genuinely new vision—if not just outright supplanting them, with a better one.   That's the quality today's transparently mercenary franchise extensions seem to utterly lack: an ambition to be something more than a name slapped onto a product.

Hell, maybe it's the same as it ever was; nostalgia's an insidious thing.  But, if you asked me, the desire to improve upon the past has never been more obviously apparent than in the great cycle of remakes that took aim at the straitlaced sci-fi/horror classics of yesteryear, and brought them, body and soul, into that pit of sleaze and sin that some of us call, simply, "the 1980s."  Still, all good things end, and the main line of mid-century sci-fi remakes more-or-less came to a close here in 1988, when Chuck Russell finally managed to realize his own passion project: his remake of Irving Yeaworth's legendary sleeper hit, The Blob.

Russell had spent a couple of years at New Line trying to get his remake off the ground.  Stonewalled, he revived Freddy Kreuger instead, in the third Nightmare.  But that film's success gave him and his screenwriting partner, Frank Darabont, the springboard they needed to jump to Tristar; and Tristar agreed to fund their Blob dream to the impressive sum of $19 million.  (For comparison, Cronenberg's remake of The Fly didn't cost half that.)  As for the rights to The Blob, that might've been the easiest part: Jack Harris, the original's owner, eagerly came aboard.  After all, this new Blob for a new era was bound to be more along the lines of what he'd always wanted anyway.  And this time there would be neither a Hays Code nor a conclave of Methodists nor a lack of funding to put a damper upon his admirable desire for a whole shitload of terrific Blob-based violence.

And then... it flopped.  1980s audiences were strange and fickle beasts, to be sure.  But perhaps the sheer oversaturation (and cultural devaluation) of blood-and-gore cinema had something to do with it.  By 1988, I reckon that The Blob looked like nothing but one more dead teenager film amongst hundreds.

And I guess it kind of is, though it's an awfully good one.

The story should be familiar: we begin in a small town in California—between 1958 and 1988, the Real America had relocated itself westward—and here, we home in on a group of kids.  And they're still doing what kids do, after all these years: namely, they're chafing under the yoke of square adult authority and trying to get laid.  Our teen heroes number three, it seems; the first person we meet is Paul Taylor, a football player, and he has the hots for the second, Meg Penny, a cheerleader.  He secures a date with her, and—once we're through with a High 1980s sketch comedy routine, involving the procurement of prophylactics—the couple find themselves plying the nighttime highways, goofing off.  But that's exactly where they run headlong into the plot, at roughly the same moment they run headlong into that inevitable old man, who has once again foolishly poked at a meteorite in a movie named The Blob.  It's the old stuff, then; however, in this instance, the old man's been accidentally chased into the road by our other presumptive protagonist.  That's Brian Flagg—and, as the doofily ironic name somewhat implies, he's 100% as factory-standard in his own evocation of the Sarcastic Leatherbound Young Punk as Meg and Paul are in their roles, as the Cashmere-Clad Upper Middle-Class Good Girl and the Hot-Headed But Decent-Hearted Jock, respectively.

Well, with a banged-up senior citizen on their hands, they transport him to the hospital; and, like clockwork—in fact, somewhat more directly than in the original—the thing on his hand consumes his whole body.  But that's when the truly unexpected happens: it eats the living shit out one of our heroes.

Put another notch on Hitchcock's headstone!

And thus does Meg find her date, enveloped (and already dissolving) within the oozing predator from outer space; the kicker is that even when he does get one hand free, all she actually manages to pull out is the forearm.

So now we can loop around back to the point I was making earlier: yes, when it comes to a one-line summary, The Blob looks like it's lazy as hell, a remake that does practically nothing but update the original film's setting.  It's not a top-to-bottom reimagining, like The Fly; it doesn't correct a major narrative problem, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it doesn't re-adapt a literary source, like The Thing.  The plot, in fact, is very close to exactly the same, especially if you ignore the appearance by the Evil Government in the second act and the revelation that the Blob is a biowarfare experiment gone badly awry.

That's a difference, I guess.  But the real difference is huge, and it's entirely in the approach: the original Blob, I've noted, is a very circumspect film; not to put too fine a point on it, but it's too Goddamned Christian (and too Goddamned cheap) for its own good.  Hardly anybody with a name even dies, and virtually none the horror it promises—hell, that its very dialogue asserts!—actually happens on camera.  Now, The Blob '88, on the other hand, is a vicious, even mean-spirited movie, completely in love with its gore effects and gifted with the budget to truly show them off.  And, with that, it separates itself decisively from its predecessor.

The old Blob had characters so that they could stand in for their respective generations; the new Blob introduces and develops characters, almost solely so they can die.  The difference between this and your average dead teenager film—besides the spectacular 50s-style space monster at the center of it—is that nearly every human it kills is actually likeable.  Even more importantly, they're set up in a way that tends to assure you that the movie doesn't consider them to be expendable meat.  Thus, when they are inevitably reduced to nutrients within the infinite gullet of our beloved Blob, the effect is a lot more than the word "surprising" easily conveys—it's so utterly shocking, that even watching it for a third or fourth time, you'll still find yourself taken off your guard, when Russell and Darabont mercilessly execute characters that you've been trained to recognize as "safe."  Indeed, the importance of that aforementioned space monster can't be overstated—it's the heart of the film, obviously—but it works in subtle, downright structural ways too, so what you might not even notice is how its mere existence completely recalibrates your expectations, but only so they can be almost immediately subverted.  This, you say, is a sci-fi film, not a slasher; and, in fact, it only occasionally even really feels like a slasher; but that same nihilistic ethos is burned just as deep into this version of The Blob as any bona fide slasher film that's ever been made.

And this Blob murders its way right through its scenario with a whole heap of extraordinary style, thanks to some of the most expert gore effects of the era.  Several effects wizards must be credited—the new Blob's designer Lyle Conway, model-maker Greg Jein, and special photographer Hoyt Yeatman are, equal and alike, champions of their craft.  (And Russell himself should be mentioned, too: after all, it was his idea to make his Blob much faster, and therefore more threatening, than the lumbering, easily-outrun horror of the original.)  But, above all, we must praise Tony Gardner, for it was Gardner who rendered the Blob's digestive capacity in all its grody glory.  He designed the Blob's poor victims, and Russell lingers over them while they still cling to life—indeed, he lingers with absolutely no restraint and with a whole lot of transcendently gross joy.  As they each melt into their constituent carbon compounds within the monster's transluscent, caustic goo, it's nothing less than nauseatingly amazing.

While I was watching it, I was baking a nice peach cobbler.  It was delicious.

If The Blob had nothing else but its brutally effective narrative dead-ends and its supernatural ultraviolence, it would still be one of the best gross-out horror movies ever made.  And since The Blob, in fact, does not have all that much else to offer, it's a very good thing that its most salient qualities are indeed so finely and ubiquitously demonstrated.

Not that it offers nothing whatsoever: our besieged community is established with a genuinely Carpenterian charm, and this remains true even when most of its members exist solely to be eaten.  (In fact, take the very first shots of the film, a montage of emptied-out locations that closes with a simple pan from a graveyard to Meg and Paul's innocent football game.  It's as fine a piece of signaling as you'll ever see, getting across the film's enjoyably apocalyptic mood with the kind of unadorned elegance that, frankly, you can be happy never shows up in this movie ever again.  Really, who the hell wants an "elegant" Blob?)  Meanwhile, the performances, on average, are a notch above those of the original.  Not exactly a high bar, but let's at least give them the faint praise they're due: you'll not often see a movie this full of near-nobodies that's also this competently-acted; nor characters this short-lived who also feel this lived-in.  But the best-in-show honors necessarily go to Shawnee Smith, who has the most to do (and the most room to grow) as The Blob's Sarah Connor Lite, Meg—and who fluctuates between the perfectly functional and the actually, legitimately good, to the extent you can see her making choices about what to do with her eyes and face, as opposed to just spitting out her lines with an attitude that's been dictated to her by the script.  (Of course, "spitting with attitude" was her co-lead Kevin Dillon's job.  And yet I'll surely grant that he does it with real sincerity—not to mention a palpable lick of comic timing.  Truly, it must take some talent to be able to 80s-quip through a script this dour and lethal, and make it halfway work as an expression of Brian's nervous fear.)

As for the rest of what The Blob offers—well, it's mainly subtractive.  The nicest thing to be said about its particular recapitulation of the Evil Government Subplot, endemic to its era of science fiction, is that it's one of the best; but, by God, please recognize that as one extremely backhanded compliment.  Inevitably, it clutters up the clean lines of the classic Blob premise, even if it is reasonably well-handled, and doesn't completely derail the movie's pace, as such drab attempts at social commentary usually do when movies throw in conspiracy theories to substitute for their lack of screenwriting inspiration.  (Though what the commentary actually represents here is rather ill-defined, considering that the evil scientist comes severely close to introducing himself by reciting Reagan's own nine most terrifying words, namely "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."  Presumably, we're still meant to identify this specific Evil Government with Emperor Reagan himself—the mechanics of their scheme are just close enough to Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative for the jab to register—and, besides, the other unnecessary subplot, with the town's slimy, crazy, Blob-worshipping minister, provides the rest of the necessary context, not to mention this film's memorable yet somehow-unlikeable sequel hook.  It was a sequel hook that, needless to say, never quite caught; and, of course, in the fullest context, it seems like a damned odd thing to specifically add to a remake of The Blob, a movie directed by one Christian minister and co-written by another.)

Finally, for better and worse, we have the other two things that pin The Blob to 1988, like a butterfly behind a particularly thick pane of glass: the crassness and, yes, the kitsch.  The crassness is best exemplified in the death of Paul's skeevy friend Scott, during a date rape gone even worse.  When Scott starts unwittingly pawing at the corpse of his date, presently having her internal organs hollowed out by the Blob—he believes she's just passed-out drunk—it's as well-accomplished as any gore scene in the film, but you get the distinct impression it's just a more conceptually-interesting iteration of the same morally-dubious punishment that Russell and Darabont stupidly poke fun at, just a little later, during their update of the theater massacre.  (Now, that's one hell of a sequence, too, lit only by the discomfiting and effective strobe of the damaged projector; and so it's fair to say that it's only mildly undermined by the excerpted scenes of Garden Tool Massacre, the particular midnight picture show which the Blob so rudely interrupts, and which bears the curse of all such movies-within-movies—that is, it's an asinine one-note reference joke that discredits the movie you're actually watching a whole hell of a lot more than its nominal target.)

And, as for that kitsch, that's a relatively minor thread in the overall weave, but it is spun with the purest gold, and I cannot overlook it: so behold Brian Flagg and his putatively rad motorbike, which we shall witness performing several true 1980s miracles, such as coaxing his Evil Government pursuers into slow-motion car crashes, as well as a few semi-impressive momentum-based stunts within the implausibly enormous underground tunnels of the town, in order to dodge our sewer-dwelling Blob.  (But could we truly call it "gold," if Brian's two-wheeled exploits were not accompanied by what frankly sounds like the preset beats of a Casio keyboard?  Oh, but take heart, gentle reader!  Because they absolutely are!)  Honestly, it's kind of wonderful; but it's enjoyable in a way that's very nearly incompatible with the vastly more legitimate thrills that naturally arise in the due course of a well-realized Blob attack on an unsuspecting town.  Brian and his bike are not the only examples of a mildly-mangled tone, either; they're just the most blatant.

All told, it's a rather noticeably flawed motion picture—it is, perhaps, even less "perfect" than its likewise noticeably-flawed predecessor—but it corrects all the original's omissions, and with such balls-to-the-wall gusto, that I honestly can't help but love the thing that much more.  I don't care that it's not "really" perfect.  It's too entertaining where it counts—hell, even where it doesn't!—to be called anything less.

Score:  10/10


  1. God, I love the Blobs.

    While I kind of dig Garden Tool Massacre for best signifying my love-hate relationship with the slasher genre, I do see your point there. Honestly, it's been so long since I've seen this one that maybe I'll have swung around next time I watch it. Which will be soon, because your double feature has lit a flame under me.

    I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more Blob. Also, I checked my shelf and it turns out I own TWO copies of the original '58 Blob. Now, how did that happen?

    1. I just don't understand the impulse when it comes to make every movie-within-a-movie (or TV-show-within-a-TV-show) so preposterously bad. Garden Tool Massacre is kind of funny, but when you throw an obvious parody (with obvious jokes) into your movie, and treat it like this is what the people in your movie actually like, it just undermines the reality you're trying to create.

      I do recognize that this is the kind of thing that bothers me all out of proportion to the actual sin, but it's just that they do it virtually every time a piece of media has to show up in another piece of media.

    2. Also, I am now fully up-to-date on Beware! The Blob.


  2. The Blob was great, good review. One comment in your review states:

    "And then... it flopped. 1980s audiences were strange and fickle beasts, to be sure. But perhaps the sheer oversaturation (and cultural devaluation) of blood-and-gore cinema had something to do with it."

    The Blob's opening weekend was up against some stiff competition in the theaters:

    - Tom Cruise's Cocktail in its second weekend.
    - Who Frame Roger Rabbit still going strong a month into its run.
    - Die Hard in its third week.
    - Eddie Murphy's Coming to America, also a month into its very strong run.
    - A Fish Called Wanda in its third week.
    - Midnight Run in its second week.
    - Tom Hanks Big almost two months into its massive run.

    All in all theater goers had a lot of choice at that time and the Blob. Not to say your not correct that blood & gore movies may have just fizzled out their attention span, but that opening weekend still had a lot of popular movies going for it.

    1. Damn! Honestly, that explains it all a whole lot better. That's an annihilating combination of movies to try to sneak your comparatively expensive horror flick through.