[Note: This column first appeared on The Huffington Post.]
It’s no secret that many Hollywood stars got started in the horror business. Jamie Lee Curtis debuted in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), and followed that up with appearances in The Fog, Prom Night, and Terror Train, all in the space of 1980. You can see Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th (1980). Jason Alexander went to camp with the Cropsy Maniac in 1981’s The Burning. Johnny Depp debuted in A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. One year before Jennifer Connelly starred in Labyrinth, she played a psychic child in Phenomena (1985). Jennifer Aniston went toe to toe with the Leprechaun in 1993.
For my favorite example, though, we must go back two decades earlier than Halloween. In 1958, the eventual star of The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Getaway (1972) made his leading-role debut—in Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob. He was credited as Steven McQueen; at nearly thirty, he played one of the oldest teenagers I’ve seen outside of 90210. McQueen didn’t think much of the movie, opting for $3000 cash “rather than . . . profit participation,” according to this Criterion essay. But it’s McQueen’s performance that lends urgency and credibility—seriously!—to an otherwise unapologetically half-baked concept.
You know the score. It came from outer space!—“it” being, in this case, a meteorite containing a substance like Gushers fruit snack with an appetite of its own. It’s discovered in the forest by Old Man Plot Device (Olin Howland), who accidentally gets it stuck to his hand. Steve Andrews (McQueen) and his petting-averse date Jane (Aneta Corsaut), who have seen the thing crash to earth and want to investigate (note: never, ever investigate), nearly run down the shrieking Old Timer, then take him to Dr. Hallen (Alden Chase).
Steve is sent on an errand by the Doc, and returns just in time to watch him get eaten. From there the Blob just gets bigger and bigger, while Steve tries frantically to make the police and townsfolk believe him. (Telling wild lies to the police seems to have been fairly unremarkable behavior in the golden age of juvenile delinquency.) At last the Blob, now the size of a freight car, attacks the Colonial Theater during a midnight Lugosi flick. The sight of the Blob oozing through the projection booth window is memorable not only because it’s cool, which it is, but also for the heartbreaking crappiness of the miniature. They don’t make pictures like this anymore, and it’s a shame.
Cheesiness is more or less why I’ve picked this movie for Halloween weekend. Gore is good, but Halloween is about nostalgia and atmospherics. I understand that I can’t feel genuine nostalgia for a time that preceded my birth by a quarter-century. But no matter your age, watching The Blob, with its humble effects, its comic-book colors, and its dangerously infectious Bacharach & David theme song, will make you wish you were snug in a ’58 Caddy, preferably with a non-petting-averse date, at a moonlit drive-in theater in Spook City, U.S.A.
What’s for dinner? I’m not a big fan of the grad-school approach to horror movies, in which Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is about commies, Dawn of the Dead (1978) is about mindless consumerism, and the recent spate of torture-porn garbage is “about” renditions and waterboarding. Sure, fine, but when the subtext is written in red neon, it’s kind of beside the point. Do I need to tell you that The Blob played on people’s Atomic Age anxieties? (That reminds me: Don’t miss the film’s final line, which opens it up to a very modern climate change interpretation.)
Nevertheless, I can’t resist pairing The Blob with that forgotten hero of Fifties and Sixties cuisine, the quivering, hideous blob called an aspic. Unless it’s made a cameo on Mad Men—I don’t recall one—most people my age have never been face to face with this creature. I borrowed a couple molds from a friend and opened my copy of The Joy of Cooking to p. 174: tomato aspic. What followed was an unqualified disaster. I’m not even going to tell you how to make it, because it’s clear that I have no idea. What I was supposed to end up with is a delicate red mound of tomato gelatin filled with crab, jalapeño, yellow bell pepper, and avocado.
What went wrong? For one thing, the aspic was far less eager to leave its mold than the Blob was to leave its meteorite shell, and it mostly disintegrated in the process. For another, the mold was too small and the pieces of crab and vegetables far too large. It’s obvious why this dish is rarely attempted nowadays: I understand exactly what it feels like to be a diet-pill-addled housewife who spends twelve hours on a dish, only to have it fall apart five minutes before the dinner party starts. Approach this monster with extreme caution, or get a TV dinner instead.