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Summer of ‘88: The Blob

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Summer of ‘88: <em>The Blob</em>

“Don’t worry. There’s no sex or anything bad,” a kid tells his mother in the 1988 remake of The Blob before heading out to a midnight showing of the horror film-within-a-horror film Garden Tool Massacre. Mom settles down and the kid and his friend go happily on their way. Eat your heart out, Kirby Dick. Just don’t let the MPAA catch you dry humping it.

The sex-death gag is meta only on a very general level, but it bears mentioning that people sure were afraid of the color pink in the late 1980s. Whether or not you think the lion’s share of credit for that deserves to go to ACT-UP, it’s seems unlikely that it’s coincidence that both Chuck Russell’s tongue-in-cheek remake of the classic 1958 monster movie (and, in this case, “classic” clearly meant “not scary anymore”) as well as the calculated but occasionally charming Ghostbusters II prominently feature giant, spoogy masses of hot-pink goo as their primary sources of menace. In the for-the-masses kiddie sequel, the slime represents the collective negative energy of an entire city’s worth of malcontents, but the good news is that it can be rehabilitated through positive reinforcement and used as a force for good. In The Blob, it’s fast, it’s angry, and it will not negotiate with traditional family values. This is one of the few horror movies that dares to kill a young child. And not just kill the kid, but show him grasping for help as his tiny body dissolves in a morass of pink.

The Blob came on the tail end of a long and rather artistically successful string of horror remakes that moved in just as the great renaissance in American horror films was starting to peter out. As if amending the theory that the great horror films from 1968 roughly through 1980 were all born from a socially toxic, politically dysfunctional environment, the filmmakers that plundered the now quaint-seeming monster flicks from the dawn of the Atomic Age all seemed to understand, at some level, that the new showroom model U.S. of the 1980s was by any number of measures a regression to the McCarthy years. Only this time with the momentum of a political pendulum fueled by full-brunt backlash. And The Blob functioned as the post-credits punchline stinger within the trend.

Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers set the tone, murking up the Don Siegel original’s palpable anti-establishment bent by changing the setting of the invasion from conservative, straight-and-narrow small-town Americana to post-hippie, burnout San Francisco, playfully perverting the distinctions between right and left, while at the same time positioning the “me” decade’s wave of self-actualization as nothing more than the product of mass brainwashing. John Carpenter’s The Thing traded in on the original’s paranoia over the proverbial other by turning its protagonists suspicions onto literally every single other person in their Antarctic exploratory base camp, reinforcing the aspects of the recrudescent 1950s that so frightened many a progressive American.

And then, of course, came the sexual politics of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which upgraded the corny ’50s sci-fi cautionary tale about man’s hubris into one of the era’s most devastating metaphors for the accelerating AIDS crisis. Cronenberg has voiced a more moderated reading of the film, insisting his depiction of terminal illness was intended to read far more generally (i.e. cancer), but that analysis ignores the revulsion Geena Davis’s character feels when she realizes she’s pregnant; the sexual indiscretion leads to nightmares of a writing bug gestating within her loins. She’s been exposed to something worth being very afraid of. (The Thing, too, features a very memorable scene revolving around the horrific implications of drawn blood, but since it came out in 1982, any similar reading would be wholly retroactive.)

If The Blob lacks the gravity of its precedents, it’s probably because it’s as much a parody of the new horror breed as it is of the 1950s monster flicks. That’s not to say it’s either liberal or conservative; it just gets off on spinning the compass around willy-nilly. In the original, the blob was merely a convenient excuse to stage mayhem and to position the town’s teen populace (chiefly Steve McQueen) as their saviors. In the remake, the blob is the result of a disastrously botched U.S. military experiment in biological warfare. Previously sent into space, where its DNA gets rewired pink, it falls back to Earth and lands in the sort of small town where members of the high school football team can still get embarrassed if the preacher catches them trying to buy condoms at the notions counter, where a loose-haired teen who wears a leather jacket can still be viewed as the town’s biggest threat.

Isolationism and false security are as much the targets of the ’88 model blob as hobos and horny jocks. For Russell and screenwriter Frank Darabont (whose The Majestic probably could’ve used an extended cameo by the flesh-eating distention), all are red herrings, and all meaning ascribed unto the attacks is strictly external to the creature itself, which only wants to eat people, and messily at that; the film belongs to the spectacular end of a special-effects era prior to the advent of CGI, and the half-campy, half-terrifying blob attacks are invariably lurid fun. Its attacks are rationalized through the corrupt filter of organized religion, though the blob is still a biological phenomenon, much like the disease that inspired so many activists to wear pink and take to the streets in protest over a needlessly politicized epidemic. Yes, the movie is more overt fun than the others of its ilk, but it tellingly ends with a holy man all too thrilled to deliver credit for the scourge directly to God’s doorstep.

Eric Henderson now feels bad for the kid that bit it in The Blob, but probably didn’t back then, because in 1988, Beetlejuice taught him that being dead lets you pull your face into all sorts of gnarly shapes.