Oooey, Gooey, and Oh So Chewy – Early Forays in Blob Cinema – By Philip Smolen

Beware of the Blob it creeps and leaps and glides
And slides across the floor, right through the door.
And all around the wall a splotch, a blotch
Be careful of the Blob!

– Song lyrics to “The Blob”

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 When I was seven years old, I was positive that the Blob was going to get me. After seeing the movie on TV for the first time, I was so terrified when I went to bed that night that I barricaded myself in my room. I almost got away with keeping our CO2 fire extinguisher there, but my father saw me taking it and would have none of that.  So instead, I stuffed my throw rug under the door and put scotch tape around the cracks of the door (and especially the keyhole) all in a vain attempt to keep that amorphous red menace away from me. I figured that when it attacked and couldn’t get past my rock solid defense, maybe, just maybe, it would move on and devour one of my sisters instead (yeah!). That night I also locked my window and put tape around the frame. Then I hid under the covers and tried to sleep. Needless to say, every creak and shudder that our old house made prevented me from sleeping and I wasn’t very comfortable that warm spring night. When my mother came in the morning to wake me up, she couldn’t open the door. When she finally pushed her way in, she was none too happy with my makeshift fortifications. I was screwed for the rest of the day. But hey, the Blob didn’t get me.

Blob movie monsters have made an indelible mark in the minds of a lot sci-fi fans (I know I’m one of them). They’re thought of as such a staple menace that they’re even being parodied in today’s mainstream Hollywood films.  However, compared to the other menaces of sci-fi films (such as dinosaurs, aliens and nature run amok) their numbers are few.  To see where blobs got their start, along with most archetypal monsters, we have to go back to the decade of fear, the decade of paranoia, the 1950s.

During the 1950s, it was only a matter of time before opportunistic movie producers figured out that a shapeless mass of protoplasm would make a good movie menace and possibly generate big bucks at the box office.  Movie audiences had already been deluged with reawakened dinosaurs, gigantic bugs of every species, as well as evil aliens, killer robots and malevolent yetis. So why not a blob monster? If you think about it for a moment, the idea of a blob is simplicity itself (at least in terms of screenwriting). Your traditional blob monster has a unique singularity of purpose. There’s no reasoning with it. It usually just wants to eat you. I suppose we can be grateful that there have been no blob movies that have featured a horny blob! There are no obstacles for it. It can move and flow around and through the smallest crack. Normal weapons (that a person might have around the house) are useless against it. And it’s silent; you won’t hear it coming.  That’s pretty scary to me.

Most of these early blob films were quickly made and were an attempt to cash in on the sci-fi craze of the decade; some, however, have withstood the test of time and become well-regarded genre items. None had an A-budget (as their special effects can attest to), yet through a combination of script, direction, acting, art direction and inventive effects artists, they are fondly remembered for the shudders they produced.

Also pretty amazing is that the idea of a blob monster was not the sole domain of Hollywood. This first generation of movies has a decidedly international flavor with entries from England, Italy, Eastern Europe and Japan.

So grab your fire extinguisher (or portable flame thrower) and let’s revisit some of the famous and not-so-famous blob movies from the first golden age of sci-fi cinema. Using the guidelines for 1950s sci-fi movies established by author Bill Warren in his bible Keep Watching the Skies, I am restricting my entries to the years 1950 to 1962.

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Next to The Blob, this is probably the most famous movie with a blob-like monster. It introduced the world to the prickly and direct Professor Bernard Quatermass (ably played here by Brian Donlevy). Quatermass has launched his first rocket (carrying three astronauts) into space without waiting for official permission.  It crashes with only one astronaut (Richard Wordsworth) still inside. It turns out that an alien presence entered the rocket while in space and absorbed the other two astronauts and is now in the process of changing Wordsworth into a strange plant-animal hybrid with the need to reproduce. This process of change and Quatermass’s search for the mutating astronaut is the crux of the story. By the film’s final reel, Wordsworth has morphed into a tentacled mass of glop (portrayed here by some tripe bought to life by the ever inventive Les Bowie). Based on the hit BBC six-part series by Nigel Kneale, this is one of the best sci-fi movies of the 1950s and is still highly regarded today. It is tense and the mood is full of dread. The lead performers turn in solid performances, James Bernard’s score helps ratchet up the tension, and the appearance of our first movie blob at Westminster Abbey, though very brief, is still remembered fondly by baby boomers everywhere.

Quotable Movie Line: “It’s almost beyond human understanding. Some fantastic invisible force converted two men – into jelly?”

2.  X – THE UNKNOWN (Hammer, UK – 1957) Director: Leslie Norman

Another fun low-budget Hammer blob feature. On the Scottish moors, a group of soldiers discover an open fissure that appears to be bottomless. Later it is revealed that someone or something is stealing sources of radiation from the area.  It turns out that a living intelligent radioactive mass from beneath the earth leaves the open fissure each night and seeks sources of radioactivity for nourishment. Feeling very much like a Quatermass film, this Hammer sci-fi follow up has much that is memorable.  Jimmy Sangster’s first sci-fi screenplay follows some tried and true 50’s pathways (stalwart scientist, unexplainable mystery, unstoppable deadly menace), yet he overcomes this by creating strong characters (even the stuffy lab director realizes the error of his ways by the climax), and some real creepy scenes including the one where two young boys venture out at night to the moor on a dare only to come face to face with the monster. There are also crisp performances from Dean Jagger and Leo McKern.  Les Bowie (again!) creates a simple mud monster and make up man Phil Leakey provides some gruesome close ups of dissolving victims. Definitely another high point in early blob cinema.

Quotable Movie Line: “Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the forces contained in the center of the earth have developed an intelligence of their own? If we accept this we must then consider what these forces may think. Their world is slowly being compressed out of existence. “

3. ENEMY FROM SPACE – AKA QUATERMASS II (Hammer, UK – 1957) Director: Val Guest

Another high point for blob cinema although, truthfully, the blobs don’t show up until the film is almost over. Once again it’s Nigel Kneale’s Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) versus an alien menace.  Here he finds that his rocket group’s government financing is drying up and being rerouted to an artificial food factory that strangely resembles Quatermass’s proposed moon project.  He discovers that the project is really an attempt by amorphous aliens from an asteroid to acclimate themselves to our environment so they can take over. They arrive in small meteorites, penetrate the nervous system of a nearby human host, and take control. He also finds that the conspiracy reaches to the highest levels of the British government.  Enemy from Space is similar to another classic 50s film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but here the emotionless alien-controlled humans are doing their master’s bidding rather than being replaced by them.  As with the first film, there are some wonderful creepy highlights. My personal favorite is when actor Tom Chatto (here representing a government official) falls into the “food” and is horribly burned. The climax has gigantic alien blobs (representing millions of the hives’ intelligences) escaping from pressure domes and slithering around the food plant for a few moments until our atmosphere does them in. They really don’t do much, but they’re suitably icky looking.  Enemy from Space is a wonderful paranoia classic from the fabulous fifties.

Quotable Movie Line: “What is really being carried out in Wynnerden Flats is the mass destruction of men’s minds!”

 4. THE UNKNOWN TERROR (20th Century Fox [Regal], US – 1957) Director: Charles Marquis Warren

Yow. It hurts to remember this film. I haven’t seen it since I was a young boy. I almost didn’t want to include it in this list, but it needs to be here for completeness. Mala Powers (who has appeared in better sci-fi movies) drags her husband and family friend into the South American jungle to look for her brother. They don’t find him, but eventually they come across a mad scientist who’s experimenting with new strains of fungi. He’s been exposing the local natives and turning them into fungi-covered monsters. Or should I say soap suds-covered monsters because that’s what the filmmakers used to represent the blob. Layers and layers of soap bubbles. Are you kidding? What is the scientist trying to do? Clean all of South America? You haven’t lived until you’ve seen actors screaming in terror and running away from layers and layers of scrubbing bubbles. A real low point for us blob lovers. The less said about this sorry excuse for a blob movie, the better.

Quotable Movie Line: None

5. THE FLAME BARRIER (United Artists, US – 1958) Director: Paul Landres

Another low point for all of us blob lovers. Even though I saw this movie as a young boy (through uncritical eyes), this was greatly disappointing. There are hardly any monster chills. Instead we get another derivative jungle thriller. Arthur Franz and Robert Brown play geologists who agree to take Kathleen Crowley deep into the jungle to see if her millionaire researcher husband is still alive. (I wonder if they ran into Mala Powers’s brother?)  After a torturously boring jungle trek, they find him dead and cemented to the wall of a jungle cave along with a returning satellite and a mass of protoplasm (here represented by a lot of cellophane). There’s a lot of hand wringing about the force field that surrounds the blob and how it’s growing at a tremendous rate (and could destroy the world of course). Yet the crisis is averted after about five minutes. There is really nothing here to recommend. The acting is strictly by-the-numbers, there’s very little life in Paul Landres’s direction, but worst of all, the blob doesn’t move. It just sits there forlornly until it’s destroyed. Yuck.

Quotable Movie Line: None

6. SPACE MASTER X-7 (20th Century Fox, US [Regal] – 1958) Director: Edward Bernds

An alien fungus (called “Blood Rust” in the film) bought back from a returning US space satellite threatens to engulf the world (what again?).  Despite the clichés present, this is a vast improvement over The Unknown Terror and The Flame Barrier.  Director Edward Bernds generates a fair amount of suspense and tells the story like an episode of TV’s Dragnet. The fungus doesn’t start as a menace. It only becomes dangerous after it comes in contact with human blood. The heart of the movie is a search for a scientist’s wife who unknowingly has some of the fungus with her. This film is a prime example of a good script and a no-nonsense approach winning out over a very tight budget (reportedly just $90,000). This low budget seems correct since the film uses no name actors, extensive location footage and a good amount of stock footage as well. Also, the blood rust fungus (blob) is represented by huge sheets of latex and doesn’t move much.  Bernds overcomes this by making Space Master X-7 a chase film. Bernds constantly has his two heroes (Bill Williams and Robert Ellis) on the go and, as a result, the audience gets swept along as well. Even after 50 years, this is still a solid B-movie. Also, keep your eye out for that old stooge himself, Moe Howard, in a cameo as a cab driver.

Quotable Movie Line: Satellite Terror Strikes the Earth!

7. THE BLOB (Paramount, US – 1958) Director: Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.

OK. This is the granddaddy of all blob movies. Yes, after 50 years, it feels dated, the special effects now seem crude and the teen cool-speak of the time is quite ridiculous (“Oh, that’s Steve Andrews and that’s his container” [e.g.: car].) Nevertheless this is still a sci-fi original. Steve McQueen and Aneta Corseaut desperately try to warn their small town of the growing, creeping alien menace from space that’s slowly gobbling up residents. It isn’t until the Blob attacks a movie theatre and oozes out of the projection booth that everyone (including the police) realizes what’s happening.  The meteor monster idea was cooked up by producer Jack H. Harris and partner Irvine Millgate while crisscrossing the country to promote and distribute a Boy Scouts of America film!  For its creation, Harris turned to effects man Bart Sloane who used silicone with vegetable dye to create the slithering menace. Though the film is overly talky and stiff, there are still pleasures to be had. Especially affecting are the scenes where the Blob slowly consumes veteran character actor Olin Howlin from underneath a blanket; and McQueen witnesses the town doctor being absorbed while desperately clawing at his office window to escape; and when McQueen and Corseaut are trapped in the local supermarket with the Blob. And I haven’t even mentioned the title song written by Burt Bacharach! McQueen is excellent as the responsible teenager. Even in such an early role, he could flash his winning charisma.  My one regret is that the Blob never eats Kieth (not Keith) Almoney, the young actor who portrayed Janey girl’s cloyingly cute brother.  I would have loved that.

Quotable Movie Line: “Look. This thing has killed probably 40 or 50 people since last night. In a few hours we’re going to have the sun overhead.”

8. THE H MAN (Columbia [Japan] – 1959) Director: Inoshiro Honda

Toho’s entry into blob cinema was the first Japanese monster film to ever scare me. Even as a kid, I knew Godzilla, Rodan and the other giant monsters were just guys in ill fitting suits, but this was different. This was the first time I saw victims of the blob monsters actually disintegrate. Yikes! In the film, Pacific A-bomb tests turn the crew of a Japanese cargo ship into amorphous blue blobs that threaten to… (Well you can fill in the rest).  This colorful tense film also features
gangster trying to recover some missing narcotics, stalwart Japanese scientists looking constipated and scantly clad dancing girls (definitely a highlight for any pubescent boy from the 1960s). Especially creepy are the scenes on the cargo ship where a rescue crew first comes in contact with the H men, the final scenes in the sewers of Tokyo where the blobs meet their match from Japanese Defense Force personnel and the scenes where victims of the H men slowly dissolve. For these scenes, Toho effects guru Eji Tsuburaya used air-filled dummies and slowly let the air out of them. The H Man is sci-fi goulash – It has a lot of ingredients and doesn’t look appetizing at first, but somehow it all comes together and hits the spot. A definite highlight in blob cinema history.

Quotable Movie Line: ”If man perishes from the face of the earth due to the effects of hydrogen bombing, it is possible that the next ruler of our planet may be the H man!”

9. THE ANGRY RED PLANET (American International, US – 1960) Director: IB Melchoir

Ah yes, “Cinemagic”. Who can forget the not so successful reverse negative technique that was used to represent the atmosphere of Mars?  I know I never will. The first time I ever saw this movie on TV, I thought my set was broken. It was only after switching channels and seeing that the other networks looked fine that I realized that it was the movie that looked weird. I was hooked. Four astronauts land on the Red Planet and get a decidedly hostile reception (hence the title).  Among the flora and fauna that terrorize our heroes is a woman-eating plant that tries to get cozy with female lead Nora Hayden, a giant bat-rat spider that wants to make a cracker snack out of Les Tremayne, and my favorite —  a giant one-celled amoeba which first chases our heroes across a lake and over the Martian terrain before finally digesting poor Jack Kruschen. The amoeba blob is one of the weirdest and most absurd blobs ever put on screen. It starts out as a model and has all the mobility of a tractor trailer. It also comes complete with a rotating eye that looks like a gun turret from a World War II bomber! Later when it envelopes the earthman’s spaceship, it’s represented by colorful Jello! The Angry Red Planet is undeniably silly and indefensible, but I have a soft spot for this perennial 4:30 movie favorite.  Hey, it made me want to be an astronaut… for about a day.

Quotable Movie Line: “Carry the warning to earth.  Do not come here. We can and will destroy you and all life on your planet if you do not heed us!”

 10. CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (Allied Artists, Italy – 1960) Directors: Robert Hamton, Mario Bava (uncredited)

This is Italy’s foray into blob cinema. A scientific team explores some ancient Mayan ruins in an attempt to figure out why this race disappeared off the face of the earth. While there, they are attacked by an unspeakably large one celled organism known as Caltiki. The lead scientist (John Merivale) manages to destroy the monster with fire but not before a portion affixes itself to the arm of his best friend (Gerard Herter). Once removed (in a very gruesome scene for its day), a section of the mass is kept by the scientist at his home lab (yeah, that’s what I’d do — keep an immortal monster at home where my wife and kid can be terrorized by it at a later date). Meanwhile, Herter goes mad from the experience and spends the rest of the movie stalking Merivale’s wife (played by Didi Sullivan). The movie suffers from a lot of Gossip Girl subterfuge yet director Mario Bava (uncredited here) generates a creepy mood with his wonderful control of lighting, especially in the early exploratory scenes in the ruins. He also does a pretty good job with some of the miniature work, although they certainly don’t hold up to modern standards.  In the beginning Caltiki looks like it’s a large mass of soaking wet leather. Later on when it’s attacking Sullivan in her house, it appears to be animal intestines manipulated from within. The dubbing’s terrible — what do you expect from Allied Artists? Caltiki, the Immortal Monster also suffers from one of the most blatant gaffs in cinematic history. In the opening minutes, just as the film’s mood is carefully being established, one of the actors crosses right in front of an in-camera matte painting casting his shadow on the painting, totally shattering the mood. Not a great movie by any stretch, but it must be seen to be believed.

Quotable Movie Line: “When her mate appears in the sky, the power of Caltiki will destroy the world.”

11. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS (Crown International, [East Germany, Poland] – 1962) Director: Kurt Maetzig)

This movie’s a co-production of East Germany and Poland and yet it still received a US release in1962. How strange is that? A mysterious spool is discovered in the Gobi desert in 1985. Scientists are able to determine that the mysterious spool comes from the planet Venus. An international crew is assembled and they board the spaceship Cosmostrator for the trip to Venus to see if life still exists there. Upon arrival, they are met by a scorched landscape, wind-swept patches of color, shadows of dead Venusians, bird-like recording devices, a super computer bent on destroying everything and an oozing black blob-like oil slick which briefly attacks them. This is one of those films that you really want to like because it tries to show audiences something different. It didn’t succumb to the cold war hysteria of the time. Instead Earth nations are shown as cooperative and all the astronauts display a one-for-all attitude.  However the film never really generates much interest. The astronauts go from once encounter to another in a very casual manner, so as a result the audience doesn’t really get involved. For the blob attack scene, it seems like a thick liquid was poured down the set and then run in reverse to make it look like it’s chasing the explorers.  It’s a cool scene but it’s over way too quickly.

Quotable Movie Line:  “Now everything is clear. The sphere creates an artificial force field which strengthens the gravitational field diminishing it. This very moment the power is augmented. And when the energy is inverted, the field will reverse itself.”

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There you have it. Eleven seminal films with monstrous menaces from the glory days of sci-fi cinema. It is upon these ancient building blocks that later high tech blob movies were built including The Stuff (1985), the remake of The Blob (1988), and Phantoms (1998). To these graying sideburns, however, there still has been no ultimate blob movie. Perhaps one day an adventurous producer will assemble a great team and put together the definitive blob cinematic experience. Until then, we have these cinematic excursions to delight in.

Cool References for Any Library

I stand on the shoulders of giants. I am grateful to the following authors for writing these wonderful reference works. They are an absolute joy to read and a must have if you’re a 1950s nerd like me.

Johnson John. Cheap Tricks and Class Acts. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1996.

Schoell William. Creature Features – Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 2008.

Senn Bryan and Johnson John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1992.

Warren Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1982 and 1986.

Weaver Tom. Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1988.