Silk and Slime: The Practical Effects Magic in The Blob

By Brian Keiper

The Blob (1958) had long stood as a great classic of camp science fiction, particularly for its introduction of Steve McQueen to moviegoers. But by the mid-1980s, it was clear to Chuck Russell and his writing partner Frank Darabont that it was ripe to be remade. “I thought I could actually remake this and make it more fun, more scary, and more colorful,” Russell said. He also knew that he wanted to take the step from the production and writing side of filmmaking into the director’s chair and, in order to do so, felt that he needed a property. “I reached out to Jack Harris,” who was the producer on the 1958 film, “for the rights to The Blob, which were not in great demand at the time.” Harris sold the rights to Russell and he and Darabont soon began work on a script.

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Poster for the original The Blob (1958)

When it was finished, he took it to the executives at the rising star mini-studio New Line Cinema, who were enthusiastic about Russell, but not at all interested in making The Blob. Instead, they asked him and Darabont to take a stab at the rough script they had gotten from Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, and if successful, give Russell the opportunity to direct the film as well. Eager to break into a career as a director, Russell put his dream project on hold to work on what became the biggest hit in New Line’s history up to that point and the flashpoint for the emergence of Freddy Krueger from intriguing new horror villain to cultural phenomenon.

When Russell was able to cash in the clout earned on Nightmare 3, he went straight back to The Blob. “The two are tied together,” said Russell, “’cause I tried to make The Blob, and in trying to make The Blob, I made Elm Street, and in making Elm Street, I got to make The Blob afterwards.” The ’80s had also given us the great practical effects extravaganza remakes of The Thing (1982) and The Fly (1986); but where those movies dove deep into the dread of social and political fears of the time such as Communist paranoia and the AIDS epidemic, The Blob generally adheres to the spirit of fun of the original while still being innovative and unique. The script is filled with rich characters, tight plotting, and a great deal of heart and humor.

Russell has said that he would have liked to use digital effects for the film. “I tried to do CGI, I really did. I knew it was coming, I’d always been kind of watching that technique.” But they had only reached a level at that time that was neither financially feasible nor realistic enough on screen. We can all be thankful that was the case because the effects in the film are some of the most jaw-dropping practical special effects ever to hit the screen and still illicit that wonderful response “how’d they do that?”

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The Blob goes to the movies. Credit: TriStar Pictures

The original film relied primarily on red-dyed silicone and a barrage balloon for its lead monster. On the Criterion Collection edition of the original 1958 Blob film, its director, Irvin S. Yeaworth, stated, “Yeah, the special effects certainly were not the star of the movie, though they held their own for the era.” For the new film, the filmmakers wanted something far more dynamic. After some experimentation, the effects crew, led by Tony Gardner, opted to use what they deemed “prom dresses:” parachute fabrics airbrushed with veins and various designs, and injected with Methacyl, a food thickening agent. When filled, these “prom dresses,” or “blob quilts,” were extremely heavy, slippery, and nearly impossible to handle. “Those quilts were two-hundred pounds of slime,” according to puppeteer and mechanic Peter Abrahamson. These quilts were then draped over fiberglass forms, mechanical armatures, air bladders, or even over the puppeteers themselves, and manipulated in various ways to give life to the creature.

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FX maestro Tony Gardner (R) on set with one of The Blob’s victims. Credit: TriStar Pictures

There was also the opportunity to update the effect that the creature had on human tissue. In the original film, people were generally just absorbed; the creature would ooze over them and they would simply disappear. For the remake, Gardner and his team felt they could do some far more interesting things. “We looked at it as a chance to show the people dissolving and melting and coming apart and being absorbed into this thing…It was all really about how do we manage this practically,” said Gardner in a recent interview. Of all the effects in the film, the death of Paul, played by Donovan Leitch, illustrates this to the greatest effect.

The effects crew was able to use all their knowledge built up over the course of the shoot for this vital scene by saving it for last. “That was a combination of a full-scale, physical rig, with blob parts that were Methacyl, silk-based — not that controllable being pulled over his head and it’s like being buried alive — so Donovan is in there, that’s Donovan with his face being pressed up,” describes Russell. Leitch himself described the feeling of shooting that scene as well. “They would say, ‘roll film’ and all of a sudden a gigantic…dump of slime comes on you and you’re trying to act your way through it…you want to do a good job and you want to die well, so it was intense.”

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Top: Donovan Leitch is feeling the pressure of a good performance. Bottom: Director Russell oversees Gardner and his FX crew working with the silk and slime. Credit: TriStar Pictures

And that is the real key to the success of the effects in the film: the performances. They are what make the gags work. In The Blob, the special effects are a means of telling the story rather than an ends in and of themselves. They are used to develop characters and advance the story. Sometimes they are used to humorous or emotional effect. But they do not work nearly as well without the performances of the gifted cast led by Shawnee Smith and Kevin Dillon.

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Look Ma — no CGI! Credit: TriStar Pictures

If The Blob were to be remade again today, it would no doubt rely heavily on computer-generated effects, which have certainly come to a point of being very realistic on screen. Still, there would be something important lost with a purely digital creature. So, I am grateful that this version of The Blob was made when practical effects were at their zenith in that last breath before CGI. The creativity and ingenuity, not to mention the unfathomable hours of work required to produce the magic of the film, will assure that it continues to grow its audience and stand the test of time.

Sources:

Harris, Jack, Audio Commentary The Blob (1958), The Criterion Collection, 2000

“I Killed the Strawberry-Interview with Chuck Russell/Part 2” Produced by Justin Beahm/Reverend Entertainment, The Blob, Shout Factory, 2019

Post Mortem with Mick Garris, Chuck Russell Interview, September 12, 2018, Fangoria Podcast Network

“The Incredible Melting Man-Interview with Special Effects Artist Tony Gardner” Produced by Justin Beahm/Reverend Entertainment, The Blob, Shout Factory, 2019

“They Call Me Mellow Purple-Interview with Actor Donovan Leitch, Jr.” Produced by Justin Beahm/Reverend Entertainment, The Blob, Shout Factory, 2019

Yeaworth, Irwin S., Jr. Audio Commentary The Blob (1958), The Criterion Collection, 2000

About the Author

Brian Keiper is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He’s also written for Ghastly Grinning and Dread Central. Follow him on Twitter @BrianDKeiper.

Follow Manor Vellum on Twitter @ManorVellum and Instagram @manorvellum.

Follow MANOR on Twitter @OfficialManor, on Instagram @manorentertainment, on Pinterest @officialmanor, subscribe to the official Manor YouTube channel, and visit the official website MANORHQ.com.

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