This isn’t just one of my favorite horror movies of 1988, or of the 1980s, but one of my favorite horror movies of all time.
The 1980s saw the release of three big-budget studio remakes of 1950s sci-fi films, the first two of which are widely regarded as classics. John Carpenter’s 1982 reimagining of The Thing from Another World (retitled to just The Thing in his version) and David Cronenberg’s brilliant take on The Fly use the basic premises of their ’50s counterparts and rebuild them from the ground up, introducing the kinds of state-of-the-art makeup and creature effects that had only become possible in the ’80s to deliver new masterpieces of even greater visceral and emotional impact than their predecessors. The third of these ’50s remakes is the one that isn’t talked about as much or as well-regarded outside of the horror community: Chuck Russell’s 1988 take on The Blob. Of the three high-profile remakes, it’s ironically the one that’s the most faithful to its source inspiration; it doesn’t reimagine the 1958 movie so much as modify it, adding a healthy dose of government paranoia and, especially, some of the best effects of the decade. Outside of Rob Bottin’s work on The Thing, Tony Gardner’s effects on The Blob are my favorite in all of horror.
You know the story by now: a meteor lands in the sleepy town of Arborville, California. A hobo comes upon it and decides to poke it with a stick, cuz hobos gotta hobo. A gelatinous pink goo leaps out of the meteor and attaches itself to his arm, causing horrible pain. So begins the journey of The Blob, an organism that grows larger with every new human being it dissolves as it tears its way through town, with only a popular cheerleader (Shawnee Smith) and the town's bad boy (Kevin Dillon) to put a stop to it.
The Blob ’88 is the rare horror film that's specific to the 1980s: hard-edged and intense, but still upbeat and fun, moving at a breakneck pace for all of its 95 minutes and offering a number of surprises along the way. Part of its special genius is that it’s a movie that has it both ways, paying tribute to some of the sweetness of the ’50s original while having a much harder ’80s edge, one that's wall-to-wall practical gore effects and paranoid cynicism. The first act of the film is all about setting up a gentle small town with an old-school feel. The sheriff has a crush on the waitress at the diner. Paul, the high school's big jock, has a crush on the pretty cheerleader and there's nothing sleazy about it: he's nervous about asking her out, he's respectful to her parents (minus a pretty dopey scene involving the purchase of condoms), and when he finds the homeless guy in trouble, he immediately wants to help. He is a genuinely decent guy, which makes it all the more surprising when he's nearly the first one to die screaming as he's dissolved beneath The Blob. The movie traffics in archetypes and introduces what we think are familiar, predictable tropes, but even when you think you know exactly what to expect, Chuck Russell and co-writer Frank Darabont make sure to prove you wrong.
The filmmakers have a blast subverting our expectations throughout the film, not just in terms of who lives and who dies (more on that in a bit), but also in terms of who these characters are. Much has been said about the unfortunate mullet that Kevin Dillon sports in the film, which is too bad: not only does it keep some viewers within arm’s length of enjoying the film, but it also distracts from one of the many clever sleights of hand Russell and Darabont achieve with his character. Dilion is the ’50s teenage rebel with his motorcycle, his biker jacket, his mistrust of authority, and the hints at time he spent in juvie. He's "dangerous," but not really; underneath that biker jacket is a buttoned-down white shirt tucked into his jeans. Don't believe the mullet; he's hardly a badass. He presents as a Greaser, but he’s really a Soc. The opposite is true of Shawnee Smith, who begins the movie as the typical demure cheerleader type and ends it not just as a survivor but a fighter, firing machine gun rounds into The Blob. The film introduces exactly the kinds of ’50s "types" we expect and then inverts them in ways we don't see coming.
Darabont and Russell's script is also full of clever, self-aware jokes, like when obnoxious kid Eddie (Douglas Emerson) talks up the violence of a horror film he and Shawnee Smith’s younger brother, Kevin (Michael Kenworthy), are going to see, but assures Mrs. Penny that it's okay because “there's no sex or anything.” The same is true of The Blob, which features little to no sexual content (outside of an unfortunate would-be rapist who gets exactly what he deserves), but which still manages a hard R on the basis of some gnarly violence.
The filmmakers also pay tribute to the famous movie theater scene from the ’58 film, but increase the scale tenfold, with the Blob devouring first the staff and then an obnoxious audience member who talks through the movie (a none-too-subtle bit of commentary, that) before swallowing up more than half the auditorium. It's just one of the movie's multiple jaw-dropping set pieces, each better than the last and every one of them a "holy shit!" moment. The Blob has more "holy shit" moments than almost any horror movie I can think of, save maybe for Dead Alive and the denouement of Day of the Dead. Sometimes they're played for dark comedy, like the just desserts served to the aforementioned date rapist or the nightmare logic of what happens when a guy tries to plunge the Blob out of a sink drain. Sometimes it's just the shock of seeing something we don't usually see in movies, whether it’s nice guy Paul or the obnoxious Eddie getting melted in the sewer. Kids rarely die in horror movies, and hardly ever this horribly. Holy shit, The Blob. You went there.
Which brings us to the effects. The gags that Russell and Darabont dream up and the creativity with which Tony Gardner executes them is nothing short of brilliant. Every time the Blob takes someone down, it's a showstopper: Paul being melted and having his arms pulled off as Shawnee Smith tries to rescue him from his gloopy doom, the ill-fated plumber’s trip down the drain, the waitress who tries to hide out in a phone booth, and on and on. The showstoppers carry through all the way up to the end, when Deputy Briggs gets folded in half the wrong way (between this and being melted in RoboCop, Paul McCrane has bragging rights to two of the best movie deaths of all time). No one in The Blob goes gently; even the off-screen deaths are awful as depicted in all their gooey aftermath. But the gore doesn't have that repellant quality of many effects-driven horror films of the period. Even when it's gross or outrageous, it keeps being fun—fun because of how a gag is staged, or fun because you can't believe what you're seeing. You can practically hear Russell and Darabont laughing off camera, giddy with just how much they're getting away with.
The effects alone make The Blob one of the strongest remakes of all time, but what makes it one of the best horror movies of the ’80s is the way those insane effects help complement a film that moves like lightning, getting bigger and better and crazier every few minutes. It’s kind of like the Blob itself in that way. Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont take everything they learned making A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and amplify it: the effects are more ambitious and exaggerated, the humor even darker, the movie more their own without having to tie into an existing franchise or iconography. Sure, this is a remake instead of a sequel, but it’s a remake of The Blob insofar as it features a big pink blob attacking a town, which is all that’s required of a Blob remake. Goofy and fun as the original Blob may be, it’s pretty soft and squishy as horror movies go. The Blob ’88 gives the monster a real edge. That, combined with a clever script, expert direction, and some of the best practical effects of all time make The Blob my favorite horror movie of 1988.
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