Monday, September 28, 2015

Silver Screen Stories: The Blob

It's that time of year again, with October just around the corner. So let's kick off the festivities a bit early......

Now THAT, is poster art.

It's well documented by now that around age 8 or 9, around 1989 or 1990, I became a "monster nut". It had started at an earlier age, as for many years in my early childhood I was obsessed with dinosaurs. By the late 80s, this evolved into also loving movie monsters, and all manner of creatures from mythology and folklore that I could possibly learn about. And of course, my passionate love affair with Godzilla. Part of what helped this love along, of course, was the fact that by the late 80s, at some point, we finally got a VCR in my household. Before that, it had just been basic network channels or cable TV, so I certainly saw movies on TV, even monster movies from time to time, but I don't really have strong memories of any of them. With an introduction to VHS and home video in my life, however, two things happened. One of them, was that we started renting movies from local video stores (something young people today, I'm sure, are becoming increasingly unfamiliar with). The other, was that we bought blank tapes, and would record various things when they were on TV.

It was in this way that I slowly but surely started getting introduced to, but also being allowed repeat watchings of many old classic sci-fi, horror and monster films. One of the early tapes I remember us buying, aside from ones that would later become "mine", such as Godzilla vs. Monster Zero or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, was the 1958 gem entitled The Blob. Now, mind you, by today's sadly desensitized standards, this movie is probably kind of corny (because of it's super strong 50s stylings, and the lack of gore), but for 1958, I'm sure it was terrifying. And to a little kid, who had not yet been (somewhat) desensitized to graphic gore and killing depictions on TV and movies, who also took movies at face value and got caught up in the stories they were telling no matter what (with very few exceptions), it genuinely creeped me out when I first saw it too.

The Blob, as it was first discovered.

Shoulda left that shit alone, pops........

So for those unfamiliar, the basic setup for this tale, deals with the titular Blob, naturally. At the beginning of the film, a "shooting star" is seen falling to earth, and what's left of the fairly tiny meteorite, happens to land out in the boondocks, near some old man's cabin. Now, of course, as you can see above, the old man is impossibly curious (if he wasn't maybe there would be no film), so he goes poking around, and comes in contact with what at first looks like a small, clear/colorless pile of snot. The Blob itself, though never really explained (on purpose) in the movie, seems to be some sort of amorphous organism from, one would assume, somewhere in deep space, that had been drifting around for who knows how long, dormant in the cold vacuum.

You might wanna get that looked at...

So of course, the colorless goop that he's inspecting on a stick, starts gooping it's way towards his hand, and when he turns the stick upside down, to try and use gravity against it (because really, who wants space snot on their hand?), it reveals itself to be alive, and keeps coming for his hand, quickly enveloping the whole thing. The man screams in pain, and (understandably) freaks out, running off into the night. Meanwhile, our intrepid young heroes, who had seen the "shooting star" while sitting out at (where else) "Lover's Lane", had taken off in their car, to try to find the meteor for themselves. They instead find the old man out in the road, almost hitting him, before they see the grotesque thing that is by now covering most of his arm, and decide to try and rush him to the local town doctor's office.

Dr. Hallen is on the case.

Now the young heroes, of course, are actors Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut, both of whom were starring in their first feature film roles. That's right, the legendary Steve McQueen, got his start in a "cheesy" monster movie. You'd be surprised just how many big stars of yesteryear did (just ask Clint Eastwood). Corsaut would go on to be a prolific television actress, most well known for a long stint on the Andy Griffith Show, while of course McQueen would go on to be one of the biggest actors of his era (until his unfortunate death). They managed to get to "The Doc" just in time, as fate would have it he was just leaving to go out of town (he should have). Dr. Hallen tried his best to treat the patient, even calling his nurse Kate back into work to help him. But the damn unidentified snot-like thing just kept enveloping more and more of the man, and there was little time to really study the case, let alone help him. The kids are sent off by the "Doc" to go see if they can find anyone out in the boonies who knows who grandpa is, and he and his nurse are soon left alone with the creature of the feature.

The terror begins....

Not even acid affects it!

Anyway, as you can imagine, shit starts to get heavy. By the time Nurse Kate arrives on the scene, Doc Hallen asks her to check on the patient, only for her to find the operating room empty. The old man was nowhere to be found, and instead, there was just a bigger, redder Blob, creeping about the place, ready for it's next victim. As it would turn out, this amorphous piece of monstrosity, absorbed living organic matter at a frightening (and increasing rate). It also turned out, the damn thing was fairly indestructible, as acid failed to dissolve it. Not to get too spoilerific, but things don't look too good for the Doc and poor Kate. Not even a RIFLE affects it (who's a Blob)!

Steve and Jane, the main kids, wind up running into some other 50s townies, pals of theirs, and after some 50s street car hijinks, they all take off up to Old Man River's place to see what cooks. All they find is his poor little dog left behind, and no real sign of who the dude was. Long story short, they get back into town, can't find the Doc, and get into some shit with the police (though to be fair, while Sgt. Jim can't stand those goddamn kids, his boss Lt. Dave, is a pretty swell guy). Naturally they try to tell the cops that some Blob monster is on the loose, gobbling people right up, but adults just don't understand. Until it's too late that is.

The infamous movie theater scene.

The kids sneak back out of their homes after the police ordeal, knowing that they've got to do something with this monster out there, so they round up their pals again, and this time try to warn people, even though people are still assholes and won't listen. Steve and Jane even wind up cornered and almost eaten (SPOILERS) in a grocery store, looking for that poor dog. So they get all their cars together and raise hell, honking and whatnot, till half the town and the firemen and cops arrive to see what the hell's going on. They make their last plea to be heard, and the cops check out the store only to find nothing, and it looks hopeless. That is, until.....the infamous scene at the now equally infamous Colonial Theater (in Pheonixville, Pennsylvania), where patrons of a late-night spook-fest, come swarming out of the place, running for their lives, after that jerk of a Blob crept in and started eatin' folks. After that, the cops FINALLY believe those damn kids, and it's off to the races, trying to find a way to stop this unstoppable juggernaut of jello.

Lt. Dave is an O-K Cat.

All humor aside, while The Blob might seem quaint and even funny by today's standards, because it is just so 1950s, it also happens to be a really good, and fun movie. It manages to pull off a handful of a genuinely creepy little moments, quiet moments when people are alone with this disgusting evil from space, while at the same time having a "period piece" humor and charm to it. It's really a perfectly distilled piece of the 50s, and is a perfect representative of what 50s era monster movies and science fiction was all about. When I first saw it, as I said, it did scare my young self, but upon repeated watching, I grew to enjoy it a lot (even though I genuinely felt sorry for all those people getting absorbed....what can I say, I've always been a bit of a softy like that). And of course in my adult years, I appreciate it for all new reasons, as well.

The climactic diner scene.

One thing to note, is that while it certainly can come off as "hokey" to many modern day viewers, The Blob is hardly poorly written, or acted. In fact the acting by some, such as young McQueen himself, is top notch, and overall, you genuinely care about these characters and their sleepy little town. There are also moments, such as (without giving too much away), the climatic battle at the diner, where the "punk kids" and the cops, etc., all come together to try and destroy this thing and save lives, that are honestly quite touching. I'll leave the ending to your imagination, as incentive to see it yourselves.

It certainly does. How rude!

 The film was made independently, on only a $110,000 budget, and it wound up becoming a modest hit in 1958, making over 4 million at the box office. It was more of a "drive in" hit to be sure, but it also became a cult classic, and is to this day highly regarded as one of the gems of it's era. And that is a status I feel it richly deserves. It's not epic like War of the Worlds or Forbidden Planet, nor is it deeply thought provoking like The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Incredible Shrinking Man, but what it does have is a ton of heart, and it tells a genuinely good and interesting story.

Today, every year in Phoenixville (home of the Colonial Theater and one of the locations the film was shot in), they hold the annual "Blobfest", where they show the original film in all it's theatrical glory, as well as other classic films of the era. And they always have fans re-enact the theater scene, with everyone running out together. There was a horribly made "sequel" in the 70s called Beware the Blob, that I cannot even recommend seeing as a curiosity, because it was so bad I didn't even get very far into it before quitting. For as low as the budget was for the original, it doesn't show. The "sequel" looked very cheaply shot, and acted, and written, etc. They also got around to making a remake in the 1980s, but I also wouldn't recommend that, personally. As with many horror remakes, all it did was up the gore, and try to market itself by grossing you out. If that's your thing, though, give it a whirl, but it has nothing on the 50s film as far as quality and class goes.

I would highly recommend including the original 1958 classic in your rotation of Halloween time movies to watch, though, as it is a very well done and highly entertaining flick. There's far more Halloween madness to come, but for now, I'll leave you folks with the super catchy intro tune....


Monday, September 7, 2015

Top Favorite Movies of All Time Pt. 2

So here we go with round two of my Top Favorite Movies of all time. Since I already covered basically my Top Five in the last article, this one will pretty much be rounding things out to an even Top Ten. So away we go!

Klassic Kaiju greatness.

6. Invasion of the Astro-Monster aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965) - Those who have followed my blog long enough know I love Godzilla. Obviously. And I've mentioned in my original Godzilla Chronicles article, that this happens to be my top favorite G-film of all time. Truth be told, most of my favorites are from the 1960s, the height of the so-called "Showa Era" (or original series) of Godzilla films. But while I love films like King Kong vs. Godzilla, Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, and Destroy All Monsters, all from that same decade, this one takes the cake on every level as far as I'm concerned.

King Ghidorah, Godzilla's ultimate enemy.

It happens to be the only Godzilla film, in any of the eras/series (Showa, Heisei or Millennium), in which Godzilla himself actually, if even only temporarily, leaves planet Earth. In this film, he and Rodan make a special trip to none other than the mysterious Planet X, additional planet to our solar system, conveniently hidden from our view behind the enormous Jupiter. They go there just to (allegedly) fight the demonic space dragon known as Ghidorah, a three headed giant terror who is able to spit electric "gravity beams" of incredible destructive force from his mouths. But beyond that novelty, I mean Ghidorah is basically the best Godzilla villain, the Planet X people are a unique and memorable "invading alien race", which would be done again in later movies with other races, but never anywhere near as well designed, written, or executed. It has the surprisingly charismatic duo of Akira Takarada and American actor Nick Adams. I say surprisingly, because as Toho tended to do at the time, Adams simply spoke his lines in English, while all the Japanese actors around him spoke theirs in Japanese. Yet in spite of that, the two have undeniable chemistry, and really do come across as the kind of close friends their characters are supposed to be. You've also got the single most annoying noise-making invention in human history, flying saucers, and of course, one of the best soundtracks composer Akira  Ifukube ever produced. Oh right, and the awesome Godzilla Dance!

All in all, to me anyway, it's the best Godzilla movie ever made.

The Dance.Yes it's cheesy. But it's also amazing.

There are honestly few pairings greater...

7. Throw Mama From the Train (1987) - In deliberating about what movies would round out this Top Ten list, this is one I kept coming back to. And beyond the fact that it is a really fantastic movie, and I can basically watch it any time, I think one of the reasons I love this movie so much, and why it resonates so well with me, is that underneath the silly circumstances and hilarious comedy, it is a story about a struggling writer. And that is a story I am very much familiar with. So I suppose that I am, as a writer myself, able to appreciate it and take it in on multiple levels.

But really, it is also just an incredibly well done, well written, well filmed, and genuinely funny movie. It happened to be Danny DeVito's first theatrical directorial debut, and I'd wager you can't have much more of a successful first film than this. It was a hit at the box office, and became a "cult classic" to boot. The chemistry between DeVito and Billy Chrystal is just short of amazing. Their characters just gel super well, and their dialogue and interactions are just very smooth and natural. It also features the last major acting role of Anne Ramsey, who had unfortunately gained this role's signature sound via the throat cancer that she had been battling earlier in the 80s. The cancer would sadly return, and she died less than a year after this film's release. But this was a very memorable film, for all the major parties involved, and it remains a fantastic movie to this day, and a rare combination of comedy and "Hitchcock" style drama/noir, that really works.

"I don't want to say over the phone. All I can say is that I killed her last night."

The embodiment of the 80s.

8. The Goonies (1985) - It is purely coincidence that Anne Ramsey shows up twice on my list, let alone back to back, but it just so happens she starred in two of the best films of the 80s late in her career. This being a rare "family film" turn for director Richard Donner, and based on a story by producer Steven Spielberg, it's one of those rare films where everything just kind of came together, and made movie gold. It is one of the most memorable, and endlessly quotable films of the 1980s, and out of all of the amazing films that that decade produced, outside of perhaps Ghostbusters or Karate Kid, this really embodies "The 80s". It also happens to be one hell of a fun film, with a great cast of kids, an interesting plot, and a real sense of childhood adventure. When I look back on it, the 80s was a decade ripe with these sorts of "kids going off on some unsupervised adventure" type movies. But, of course, The Goonies is the best of the bunch, even if many of the other candidates were also great (such as Monster Squad, Stand By Me, Explorers, etc.). This is one of those films that I'm sorry to report, I never got to see until my teens, but I still remember it fondly, and as far as I'm concerned, it's one of the best movies ever made.

Goonies never say "Die". good.

9. The 'Burbs (1989) - In my list deliberations, this was another one that kept popping up, and I figure, if I'm going to have a John Carpenter film represented in the Top Ten, then I might as well have another of my favorite directors, Joe Dante, as well. As it happens, Dante was similarly on fire in the 1980s, as a young up-and-coming director himself. And I was almost tempted to include another film instead, his far more famous cult-classic Gremlins, as that is a great, great film and one of my favorites. But as it turns out, my favorite Joe Dante film of all time, as cool as Gremlins is, happens to be The 'Burbs.

Just your average suburban neighborhood...

This is another one of those films where everything just works, and it helps that it has a stellar cast, led by the always great Tom Hanks as everyman Ray Peterson. It features Corey Feldman as the "metal-head" teen neighbor, Bruce Dern as the crazy ex-soldier, Carrie Fisher as Ray's more grounded wife Carol, and character actor Rick Duccomun as the annoying but lovable oaf-next-door, Art. It also features truly fantastic villain roles by character actors Henry Gibson (who I had grown up seeing on re-runs of the TV skit show Laugh-In), and Brother Theodore Gottlieb, who by the way was also the amazing voice actor for Gollum in the 1977 The Hobbit cartoon. This was one of Theodore's rare memorable live action roles, and probably his most well known, but again, just like with Gollum, he really kills it. It's a wonder the guy didn't have a more prolific career. Hell, the movie even has a great cameo appearance by Dante regulars Robert Picardo and Dick Miller as garbage men, in one of the quirkier, more memorable scenes (and that's saying something).

Where Gremlins fused comedy with horror, and Innerspace fused comedy with science fiction, with The 'Burbs, Joe Dante tried his hand at fusing a more Alfred Hitchcock type of tone with comedy. And, of course, it works beautifully, thanks in part to a great script, and a stellar cast that all own their roles and gel together perfectly. It may not have AS many readily quotable lines as something like The Goonies or Ghostbusters, but it's certainly got it's fair share. Overall, at it's core, what you have is a film that takes place in it's entirety, in one little Cul-de-sac neighborhood, and while it's certainly got those mystery and horror elements at play, what it really is at heart, is a hilarious take on typical, boring, everyday "suburban life", and what can often be hiding underneath. Silly, ridiculous films with quiet, understated social commentary layered underneath the comedy, are often the best kind.

Theodore, Gibson, and.....Courtney Gains? The Family Klopek.

One of the greatest fantasy films ever made. Arguably THE greatest.

10. The Dark Crystal (1982) - In the 1980s, Jim Henson was one busy motherfucker. He always had that "workaholic" type personality, but it seems like he went into overdrive in the 80s. At various points, he was finishing up his classic The Muppet Show, working on Sesame Street, creating and producing shows like Muppet Babies and Fraggle Rock, making various TV specials, working with his "Creature Shop" special effects studio on various films, making content for HBO like the great Storyteller, AND working on several films. Sadly, all of this non-stop work, and over-stuffed schedule, is what eventually led to his death, as he caught what is known as "walking pneumonia", and simply refused to take time to rest and get better, because he "needed to work". Regardless, the man undeniably created magic with almost everything he touched, and he created some of THE best content in movies or television, without question. And as far as I'm concerned, The Dark Crystal was his masterpiece, THE centerpiece of the brand of "Muppetry" that he himself innovated.

Such an incredible, organic, surreal world.

Based on concepts he thought of and developed in the 1970s, this movie represented to Jim Henson, I believe, the ultimate evolution and extension of the puppetry and special effects techniques that he had been innovating and perfecting for decades. And really, what he and his crew managed to craft, is nothing short of amazing, that has never once been duplicated, or even really successfully emulated since. And that is, a total fantasy world, created using nothing but practical special effects, with not one human actor or "Familiar" element, not one creature based on anything from the real world, everything totally alien and fabricated, and every character some form of highly advanced "Muppetry". The film was the brainchild and baby of Mr. Henson, but of course he had the help of some pretty amazing talent to make it reality, including co-director and long-time cohort Frank Oz, illustrator Brian Froud (who helped forge the look of the world and it's creatures), and of course many of his regular Muppet crew members.

The ultimate end product, wound up being quite possibly the most dense, organic, living and vibrant fantasy world ever put to film, and that is including all of the massive-budget CGI films of the modern day. With a sweeping, majestic musical score, a dark but endearing story that Henson himself wanted to reflect the original, darker Grimm's Fairy Tales type material, a lot of deep spirituality and philosophy hidden in subtle layers throughout the film's world, and characters that were not only visually stunning and lifelike, but genuinely memorable. I remember seeing this movie as a young child, and having it evoke so many things from me at such a young age: fear, wonder, excitement, inspiration, you name it. I truly don't think this movie gets nearly the recognition it deserves, both for the almost impossible, monumental achievement it's even getting made and coming out like it did represents, but also for just genuinely being an amazing piece of film. And to think that the studios producing this master-work, were going to gimp it and give it minimal advertising, basically sending it out to die, because they "didn't get it". Thankfully, Jim cared so much about his baby, that he bought it back from the studio, and funded it's release himself, just to make sure it got a fair shake.

There were, of course, many other films that I thought of that could have gone in this spot, as the Tenth spot on such Top Ten lists is often the hardest to decide. But in the end it wasn't all that hard to decide, as Jim Henson is one of my heroes and his work played a huge part in my childhood. While I love all the movies I've listed, and obviously think all of them are fantastic in their own way, I think The Dark Crystal might be the only one that I would, without hesitation, call a "masterpiece". I think the rest of them all are, in their own way, but only this film was a long-term, arduous and incredible labor of love, that broke boundaries and made history, in it's own small, understated way.

The heroes of the tale, Jen and Kira (and Fizzgig).

So, that's Ten. I may come back and come up with even more, but for now, a Top Ten list is a very solid foundation, and gives you an idea of my overall taste in films (even though it does, of course, go far beyond this). Naturally, as always when I write these articles about movies (or anything) I love, I would highly suggest that if you've never seen any of these, to make it a point to try and watch them. Many if not all of them are available to rent on DVD from Netflix, and at least a couple are available to watch online in various forms. But however you watch them, you won't regret doing so, because, if I'm allowed to say so myself, I have fairly awesome taste. Cheers.