Friday, October 25, 2013

Beat It, Essay: Blob Me Gently

Welcome to my first official academic post of the semester! Most of my classes this time around are technical, so I haven't gotten a chance yet to wow you guys with my unparalleled wordsmithy. But the time is nigh! As I have mentioned (repeatedly - there's a three part feature on this already), I am taking a class called American Film Genres: The Horror Film, which as you may have guessed is focused on the history of horror.

This class has been fascinating as a horror buff. I've gotten a chance to really delve into the sociopolitical backgrounds and implications of horror films spanning from German Expressionism in the 1920's to the Universal Monster Movies of the 30's to the Val Lewton RKO Unit of the 40's and so on as we progress our way chronologically through time and terror.

As midterms season draws near, our first essay has been assigned and I have never been more excited to write a paper in my life. Seeing as I spend basically every day writing about horror films, it wasn't really much of a stretch.

So here's my second official academic paper about a horror film (the first being my Scream essay for my Media Aesthetics class last semester)! I hope you are all as pumped as I am! You're probably not, but here it is anyway!

(I've added in pictures to keep y'all entertained.)


The Prompt
A) Compare and contrast The Blob from 1958 with the 1972 Beware! The Blob and the 1988 remake, The Blob. Which works better and why, and what does each film tell us about the time they were made?
B) Using two of your favorite sci-fi/horror films, cite five elements necessary for a great sci-fi/horror film and discuss each in detail. Which works better and why?
Horror, more than any other genre, reflects the cultural mores and societal issues of the time and place it is born from. Nothing describes a people better than what they're afraid of, and since the very beginning of cinema itself we have been using horror films as catharsis to face our fears in a safe and adrenaline-fueled (and endorphin-releasing) environment.

Horror is cheap, easy to make, and usually a guaranteed return on investment so it's no surprise that studios pump out horror franchises with great efficiency. By the time of writing in 2013, the world has seen 12 Friday the 13th movies, 9 Nightmare on Elm Streets, 10 Halloweens, 5 Exorcists, 4 Psychos, and 7 Saws. As the years progress, the villains and plots must adjust themselves to properly resonate  with modern audiences, resulting in some tremendously fascinating sociological insights.

One of the most absorbing (pun absolutely intended) franchises is the three part Blob series, with each of the films being released more than a decade apart. Much can change in ten years, and each film shapeshifts into something totally new and mired in the advents of new American cultures.

The original The Blob in 1958 was released during a time of national complacency. World War II was over, the depression had ended, televisions were readily available, and people flocked to the cookie cutter suburbs with their nuclear families, content to be exactly like one another. As the rock 'n roll Baby Boomer youth culture emerged, many older Americans (a minority in the population for the first time) felt that their way of life was being challenged.

At first glance, The Blob is a typically 50's horror film. It's more silly than scary (Because who wants to be scared anymore? The horrors of the war are still in the back of everybody's minds.) and has an overt fascination with the dangers of outer space. The world was at peace (more than it had been recently, anyway) and since the at home threats had been reduced, people began to fear the night skies and their unknowable power.

When a mysterious asteroid carrying a ravenous gelatinous beast crashes into the forest nearby, the citizens of Downington, PA must overcome their fear and distrust of teenagers to work together and eliminate the threat. Their sheltered suburban lifestyles have met an even greater challenge and the adults slowly begin to realize that maybe the young men and women they've been so afraid of are, in fact, on their side.

In this film, the blob is an agent for social change, a common enemy to unite against. Yes, it may be a silly monster in a dumb sci-fi/horror hybrid picture. But when Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut struggle to be heard in a community that has long since given up on them, it resonated deep within the hearts of the young audiences who were just trying to find their voices in a world that persecuted anything Different.

1972's Beware! The Blob is easily the worst of the franchise. It's a cheap film that embraces the camp humor of the original to a severe degree, merrily crossing the line between silly and scary that the original was so precariously balanced on. Shot like an exploitation film on thin sets with flat lighting with what appears to be an even lower budget, Beware! The Blob is the only film in the franchise where the amorphous being absolutely does not feel like a credible threat.

This overly goofy and resolutely unfunny tone absolutely destroys the film (in which a sample of the blob is taken from the Arctic and accidentally unfrozen to wreak havoc on a small town) as a work of horror cinema, but there are still elements of interest here that could only ever have existed in America in the 1970's.

In a film so haphazardly made it is perhaps not fair to apply this level of analysis, but it is hard to ignore the salon scene. It is a brief, three minute chunk completely divorced from the rest of the characters or events in the film in which a young hippie asks a male hair stylist for a haircut. As the man begins to shampoo his hair, the boy begins to groan with pleasure.

"We'll have to moisten you a little bit." "Hey that feels good. You are good." "And you are dirty." "Oh yeah." "You do grow a great deal." "I think you're purring."

No, I didn't accidentally grab a DVD from the adult section at the video store. This is a scene smack dab in the middle of Beware! The Blob in which it is almost impossible to see anything but two men having implied intercourse and then being devoured by a metaphor for their own semen, as a punishment for their "sins."

In the 70's, gay culture was finding its first real foothold, and the "traditional" American way of life was being threatened once again by these queer newcomers. In similar (but less emphatic) scenes, the blob also attacks hippies and a bizarre overweight man with a heavy Eastern European accent. The rampant homophobia, xenophobia, and conservative fears of the burgeoning hippie movement are reflected here in the town's police force.

The sheriff and his deputies completely ignore the protagonists' warnings when the blob is attacking hippies or foreigners or gays, but when the wholesome townsfolk at the bowling alley are endangered, they spring into action. In this manner, Beware! The Blob is almost the polar opposite of its precursor, depicting a world that's more threatened by societal change than the alien menace.

The 1988 remake, also titled The Blob, brings the franchise back to its roots with another high quality camp classic, this time heavily informed by the slasher movie trend that had been going strong in American cinemas since the release of Friday the 13th in 1980. A practical effects bonanza, The Blob successfully wrings whatever amount of tension it can from its remarkably silly premise.

The most major change from the original is the nature of the blob itself. Instead of an alien being, the monster is a government experiment gone wrong. This film's palpable fear of the government certainly wouldn't have been so credible in the days before Watergate, a fact which would immediately mire it in time if the rest of the film (and Kevin Dillon's hair) hadn't already done so.

By 1988, the Baby Boomers had children of their own and the tables had turned. The new youth culture was enacting social change left and right, quite ironically scaring them to no end. The decade that saw the rise of punk, slasher films filled with nudity and buckets of blood, androgynous musical role models galore, and the growing appeal of teen rebellion fueled by John Hughes also saw a lot of terrified parents.

The female protagonist of The Blob isn't fighting to have the adults listen to her. She's fighting to get anyone to listen to her. She's fighting the homogenization of suburban society and embracing the idea that young people can enact real change in the world.

The blob in this case represents her biggest fear as townspeople are literally homogenized into one giant quivering mass. This theme is hit heavily in the first act as her vanilla jock boyfriend (and Steve McQueen stand-in) is messily devoured by the creature before the audience can even blink. She trades him up for a motorcycle-riding, leather clad love interest and saves the day by daring to be different and refusing to follow the rules set down for her by her parents and the government.

While Steve McQueen and his posse are struggling to find a foothold in the world of their parents, Kevin Dillon and his girl reject the notion entirely.

Thus, all three films synthesize the three main ingredients (the enormous man-eating blob, youth culture, and the rejection faced by people who are different) in three completely unique ways in the context of three totally different genres (sci-fi romp, cheapie exploitation film, and slasher movie).

The film that works the best is, by a hair, the 1988 Blob, because it has the ability to draw parallels between the old youth culture of the 1950's and the new youth culture of the 1980's, something which would have been frankly impossible in the original. By drawing the themes of the original into the context of late 80's culture and smashing them into a brand new slasher movie framework, The Blob 1988 shows that they are universal.

Young people will always be struggling to find a voice in a world that's afraid of being left behind. That, at its core, is what The Blob is about. Not alien monsters devouring people. Not the evils of gelatin. The timeless story of The Blob is at once eternally relevant and intensely human.

That, at its core, is what sci-fi and horror are all about. While horror shows us the fears and social issues of today, sci-fi shows us where those issues might take us tomorrow. When combined, those two ideas can provide immensely intelligent and hard-hitting commentary. Unfortunately, true sci-fi/horror hybrids are few and far between. Alien and The Thing come immediately to mind, but other than that, there is a paucity of films in the subgenre.

Most of the other horror films that dabble in sci-fi elements are campy little microbudget pictures, but that doesn't mean they're inconsequential. Look at The Blob, for instance. Nobody would place it in the same pantheon as Ridley Scott or John Carpenter's masterworks but it and its remake nevertheless have sharp and perceptive minds hidden beneath their goofy shells.

Campy films are often forgotten by critics but receive huge cult followings due to the brain buried in the cheese. Two such films (and two of my favorites of the genre) are the tenth Friday the 13th film, Jason X and the 1984 cult classic Night of the Comet.

Jason X brings our hockey masked villain to the farther reaches of outer space on a training ship for young students, where he defrosts after centuries of cryogenic sleep and begins the cycle of blood anew. Night of the Comet's titular entity blasts across the sky turning anyone who isn't in a solid steel shelter to dust, reducing the population to ribbons and leaving the rest to battle radioactive subhuman monsters.

These are fun films, certainly, but both have surprisingly positive things to bring to the genre, much like The Blob and its cohorts. It's not as easy to marry camp and clever as I'm making it seem though. To properly do so, a film must contain these five necessary elements.

First, a good sci-fi/horror film should have a solid commitment to camp. For a movie with a budget as low as some of these flicks can be, it doesn't pay to take oneself seriously. It's important for filmmakers to work within the restraints they have to avoid releasing a film that's merely unintentionally terrible drivel. And a film that embraces camp can deliver its message successfully to a much larger cult audience than it would be able to otherwise.

The campy hook for Jason X is obvious: "Jason's in space!" But the film is also full of tongue in cheek dialogue, cyborgs toting pistols in both fists, and a Cyborg Jason built by nanobots. Night of the Comet masters the craft with action heroines straight out of the cheerleading squad at the local high school. Valley girls, boom boxes, and bloodthirsty monsters are the perfect setup for a classic.

The second necessary element is having something to say about modern times. If a film that is both sci-fi and horror can't find anything useful to say, it has no right being put into theaters. Both genres are so intimately connected with the pulse of modern society that it's almost impossible not to have some amount of sociological import.

Night of the Comet works in a similar vein as 1988's The Blob when the teenage protagonists discover a top secret underground bunker populated with government scientists who predicted the catastrophe but saw fit not to inform the public for their own personal gain. The government was a major antagonistic presence in the United States at the time, and many such films (including John Carpenter's They Live) have similar themes. Jason X works in the same register. The professors in charge of the Starship Apache decide to defrost Jason's perfectly preserved corpse so they can sell him off to the highest bidder, inadvertently dooming the entire crew.

Third, a perfect sci-fi/horror film must have a fundamentally unfathomable villain. Because there is, in fact, a horror element to these films, the primary antagonist must be something completely alien to the audience and characters alike. People are afraid of the unknown, and working within a sci-fi framework allows for a lot of freedom in creating a supremely unnatural villain, much like the blob itself - there is nothing on Earth like it.

Jason X has Jason, a hulking beast that resides in the shell of what used to be a man. He has long since died multiple times but keeps coming back to kill again, driven by mysterious forces of pure evil. And Night of the Comet never adequately explains its monstrous creatures, insinuating that the power of the comet is something that we'll never be able to understand.

The fourth important element is evidence of a world beyond what we see onscreen. For a sci-fi universe to be whole, it can't have just developed within the very limited space in which the primary story takes place. Whatever technological advancements or new discoveries we see onscreen have affected various cultures differently across the globe and encountered hundreds of permutations depending on a variety of contexts. The film doesn't have to show this in its entirety, but the implication that there is a broader universe beyond the capsule of the plot is a must.

In Jason X, the sinister cartel in charge of the student ship is never fully explained, merely seen briefly and sporadically mentioned, implying that there is a much larger governmental and economic structure in place that we only get glimpses of. In Night of the Comet, we see only what happens to LA. The comet has afflicted the entire Earth and there are presumably thousands of different stories that could be told across the globe of the different ways the survivors deal with their desolation.

The fifth and final element is the element of surprise. Each new sci-fi film, horror or not, needs to have something new to bring to the table. Whether its a new technology or merely a new use for a previous idea, in order to have any real agency, it needs to be something audiences haven't already seen a million times before.

Jason Voorhees is something audiences have seen a million times before. But blowing him up and using medical nanobots to secure him to a metal exoskeleton is a completely new idea. A desolate and abandoned city is old hat, but throwing in mutant creatures and a couple valley girls spices it up.

While both films do an admirable job with these five elements, Night of the Comet is the obvious standout of the two. With an impeccable blend of superficial high school humor and abject horror that would later be mirrored in the cult TV hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the film is consistently clever and sprightly.

But a final act that witnesses the ultimate grotesqueries of human behavior as portrayed by an underground scientist cult sends Night of the Comet into the stratosphere as a work of camp cinema. With razor-edged satirical wit, the film dissects the issues inherent with its protagonists and antagonists alike.

Perhaps these films will never reach mainstream acceptance as works of art, but that may be for the best. If Night of the Comet, Jason X, and The Blobs received immediate acceptance, they wouldn't have paved the way for all the films like them that are in circulation today. Camp, sci-fi, and horror are very important tools in our cinematic exploration of the human condition and the fact that these films have always been underdogs give them their raw power.

All hail The Blob.

UPDATE: I got an A-! I think I was a little too loquacious, I ran way over the page limit. But hey! I'll take it.
Word Count: 3041

No comments:

Post a Comment