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Vertlieb's Views
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Vertlieb's Views

Commentary on movies past and present by Steve Vertlieb

How I Met... The Blob

Before you jump to any conclusions, this is not going to be about my checkered dating history. Okay, she was just a tad overweight, but she had a great personality. No, actually, this torrid news flash concerns the real Blob…you know, the one who rolled through town one night with an enormous appetite, then stopped off at the movies for a quick flick.

The Blob, of course was a low budget science fiction extravaganza filmed in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, acquired by Paramount and released nationwide in 1958.

Don't miss the RUN OUT OF THE THEATER at the 7th annual Blobfest, taking place from July 13-14, 2007 at the Colonial Theater, 227 Bridge St, Phoenixville, PA, 19460.

Scheduled appearance by Wes Shank, owner of The Blob!

Phoenixville was one of the locations where The Blob was filmed.

The critics never found it particularly "yeah" worthy, even though the picture was directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth. The public, however, embraced it…decreasing the surface population substantially, yet making a great deal of money for the studio. It was a kind of "Rebel Without A Cause Meets X-The Unknown", starring a young New York actor just getting started in the business. Oh, what was his name? Oh, yeah, Steven McQueen. Whatever happened to that guy? The picture also had a nifty song written by another up and comer, a fella named Burt Bacharach. Well, we all have to start somewhere.

Actually, the picture was, for its time, pretty scary. The kids on screen weren't the only teenagers screaming over this steamy arrival from outer space.

When a meteor hits the Earth, landing in a wooded area near an old man's shack, the crusty old geezer pokes at the burned-out cinder with an extended tree branch. I guess he hadn’t heard that you couldn't beat it with a stick. The gooey mess inside the burning cylinder oozes out onto the branch, crawling precariously down the stick toward the old man’s hand.

Inverting it quickly away from him, the expendable character actor (Olin Howlin) is slowly devoured as The Blob jumps onto his hand in anticipation of a hearty meal. Mr. Howlin should have known better, having previously encountered giant ants in the sewers beneath Los Angeles in Them!. Warner Bros., who produced the picture, could easily have afforded to "make him a sergeant, and charge the booze." This time around, however, Paramount merely acquired the independent production. With little money at its core, Howlin was to suffer a crueler fate.

The Blob, despite its low-budget origins, made a ton of money for Paramount, and packed teenagers into movie theatres from coast to coast. The picture turned out to be a major hit for the studio, and turned young Steven McQueen into a box office king.

It spawned an underwhelming sequel, a big budgeted remake, and dozens of uninspired rip offs, including The H-Man produced in Japan that same year.

Part of the charm of The Blob is its almost archaic sweetness and fifties innocence.

McQueen had an edgy sexuality that, even in his first starring role, spoke tellingly of his potential as a latter day Rebel With A Cause and the premise of the story, in spite of its obvious budgetary limitations, was sufficiently creepy to scare millions out of its spectacular box office receipts.

There were some genuinely frightening moments in the film, which caused movie goers to gloss over, perhaps, some of the chintzier set-ups and silly dialogue. The sequence in which the pathetic old man, an object of genuine pathos and sympathy, arrives at a local doctor's office for treatment is quite chilling. His body is being consumately consumed by the growing fungus which then attacks the physician in his own examining room, as well as his terrified nurse, devoured in darkness. As human tissue feeds the alien organism with increasing frequency, its mass begins to grow at an alarming rate…as a man-eating snake might inflate with each successive meal.

Another memorably ghoulish sequence involves an automobile mechanic devoured, head first, as he writhes convulsively beneath the weight of a lone car being serviced at an empty, after hours filling station. The Blob, pulsating…reddish…and gelatinous, owed its popularity, perhaps, to Bill Cosby's admonition that "there's always room for jello." In this perverse scenario, however, the Jello is eating us for dessert, rather than the other way around.

Some years later, in September of 1965, my brother Erwin and I were invited to New York by Forry Ackerman to attend the very first Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine convention. I'd been in touch with the beloved Acker-Monster by mail, and he asked us to join him in the city at Loew’s Midtown Manhattan Motor Inn for the celebratory event. Erwin and I took the train to New York from Philadelphia, and scoured the small hotel looking for Uncle Forry. Either he hadn’t arrived yet, or we were looking in all the wrong places.

Venturing out into the woods behind the hotel, we got lost in the fertile foliage and, I confess, couldn't see Forrest for the trees…but that's another story. Disappointed, we took the elevator back down to lobby level. As the doors opened, I spied a familiar and distinguished looking gentleman wearing glasses and a wiry moustache. I nudged my brother who hadn’t been paying attention, and pointed toward the ominous figure standing at the doorway. As I did so, the benign satanic Santa pointed back to me in mocking glee. It was, of course, our introduction to the joyous father figure who, like the Pied Piper, had lured so many willing innocents astray. This would be the first of countless encounters with Uncle Forry over the next forty-odd (very odd) years, but it all began on this fateful morning in the city that slaughtered King Kong.

Of course, Erwin and I were far from the only young boys venturing far from home to meet our magical, monstrous host. There was a room full of like minded teenagers who had come from various parts of the Eastern Seaboard to meet the man who had coined the term "Sci-Fi," and brought a degree of respectability to a love of Monsters. Among these were Midnight Marquee Press-ident Gary Svehla, actor George Stover, writer Allan Asherman…and a young bespectacled lad by the name of Walter "Wes" Shank, who was already developing a solid reputation as a "collector" of all things fantastic.

If Forry, along with Ray’s Bradbury and Harryhausen, had grown up together in thirties Los Angeles in "First Fandom," then this motley crew may have signaled the beginning of "Second Fandom." I’ve remained close with all of these depraved souls since then, and we've each retained our love and reverence for those cherished, and Famous Monsters.

Now, Wes Shank lived in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, not terribly far from my home in Philadelphia, and was perhaps the most geographically accessible of our new found friends. Wes, bless his vampiric heart, had quite a stake in motion picture exhibition for, he not only worked in the film department of WCAU, a major Philadelphia television station, but had constructed his own motion picture theater in the dungeon of his parents home...with the blessing and participation of his lovely mom and dad. Wes’s theater would be the meeting and greeting ground for fans and friends for many years to come, many of whom would go on to find their own eventual niche in films and publishing. Wes had quite an impressive collection of posters, artifacts and films. However, the center piece of his collection "lived" in a rather imposing, transposed gasoline drum with the frightening inscription "THE BLOB" transcribed across the face of it.

Rather like the cautionary warning "Beware Of Dog," few of us would approach the troubled can individually, or without staunch support by collective souls braver than ourselves.

This was a significant and frightening warning, I’ll have you know for, like the tenants of the dreaded wax museum coffins in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, this was no "empty" threat, nor was it an empty receptacle...for, in fact, The Blob actually did take up residence within the confines of this not so silly cylinder. Wes, it seems, had developed a relationship with the producers of the film and had actually managed to purchase, not only a number of miniature sets from the picture, but the moody mold itself.

We warily separated, moving to opposite sides of the room, leaving space for Wes to walk gingerly toward the uncanny canister, rather as Moses and the frightened Egyptians stood tentatively at opposing ends of the Red Sea before the portentous parting of the waves.

Wes grinned in malevolent satisfaction as he gently pried open the lid from the brooding bucket. We each held our breath, as if watching the unearthing of King Tut's Tomb in Egypt. Wes turned the contents of the dreaded drum toward our startled eyes, and there it the flesh or, perhaps, the combined flesh of those hapless victims it had gleefully consumed. It seemed reddish in color and, thankfully, dormant...for the moment, at least. Shank had captured and tamed the creature, and brought it to civilization, merely "a captive to gratify our curiosity."

We were each invited to reach into the terrible "tin" and, if we dared, retrieve a piece of the once lethal confection. With a bravery I've never known, I reached blindly into the canister and pulled out a membrane of the monstrous molecule. It felt like a glue of some kind, and stuck to my fingers. Ever protective of the collective mass and integrity of the funky fungus, I was asked by Wes to drop the fragments back into the drum. I responded, somewhat sardonically, that it was after all only a "drop in the bucket."

He was not amused, for the sanctity of this legendary screen creature was left in his care and keeping, a responsibility he was never to take lightly. I confessed a grudging respect for his arduous task, and bid a frightened farewell both to The Blob, and its jailor. Should the beast ever escape from its egregious and humiliating confinement, I wanted it to remember "the kindness of strangers".

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