It’s no secret that most American horror films of the last 50 years are teen centred. Many classics of this period from various slasher films to supernatural thrillers feature younger protagonists in an effort to appeal to a younger audience. Though commonplace now, horror wasn’t always a teen-centric genre. That all changed in the late 1950s with a little film called The Blob.
For those who haven’t seen it, The Blob tells of one horror-filled night in the small community of Downingtown Pennsylvania. Following a meteor impact on the outskirts of town, a strange plasma that consumes flesh on contact crawls from the crater. The alien organism begins to absorb the townsfolk, growing larger with each victim. Several local teens are aware of the threat and try to warn the adults, but are only balked at as the monster grows ever larger.
Prior to The Blob, most horror films followed a similar formula. The heroes were usually scientists or military men who would discover the problem and ultimately fix it, and they were always adults. There obviously had been teen-centered horror films and thrillers before, but few sparked any interest and most died quick deaths at the box office. The Blob, however, proved a huge hit when it was released in 1958, so what was it that it did right that so many others did wrong?
While it wasn’t the first film to feature teens as the heroes, The Blob did do a few things differently that made it a big hit with the youth of the 50s. For starters, the 50s were a more rebellious time when American teens were starting to defy their elders more openly. This gave rise to fears of teen delinquency, with films about the subject such as Rebel Without a Cause proving massive box office draws. The heroes of The Blob fit such a trope.
The film’s hero Steve Andrews (played by future superstar and obviously 28 year old Steve McQueen) embodies teen rebellion of the 50s. In one of his first scenes, he’s pulled over by the police for drag racing backwards. After he’s confined to his house for the night, Steve defies his parents to sneak out along with his girlfriend Jane to try and find the Blob. Steve is not a character trusted by the authorities, even his own parents. But the film validates his rebellion. Him being disobedient to his parents allows him to prove the Blob is real, and rally the town up to fight it.
The adults in this film prove more hurtful than helpful. Every time an adult is involved in the story, the situation further deteriorates. It’s an old man that initially unleashes the Blob on the town. Later on after Steve witnesses the death of a local doctor, an elderly neighbor casts doubt on his story. Perhaps the most hurtful to the heroes is Burt, a belligerent cop with a prejudice against teens. Burt repeatedly dismisses the claims of Steve and the others, even as evidence they may be telling the truth continues to pile on. He admits that a strangely deserted bar was odd, but never makes the connection that perhaps Steve’s monster dined on the patrons. The police only accept the threat when it’s impossible to ignore: after it grows to the size of a building.
Unusual for a film of the time, authority figures are portrayed as inept, with all of their efforts to stop the Blob ending in failure. Immediately after it claims its first victim, a pair of unlucky doctors try to douse the Blob with acid and then shoot it, neither of which help. Perhaps the best example of this comes when the police chief hatches a plan to electrocute the Blob. While it’s enveloped a diner and trapped several characters inside, the chief has a power line dropped on the monster in hopes of killing it. Not only does this plan fail, but it also sets the diner on fire, putting the teen heroes in greater jeopardy. Naturally, it’s the unhelpful Burt who fires the shot that drops the wire. The Blob’s stance is clear. Even when the adults accept the problem, they lack the smarts to solve it.
As the teens become more aware of the threat, they try repeatedly to raise the alarm in the town, an effort which earns them nothing but scorn. A young couple is laughed out of a party, another is kicked out of a bar. Perhaps the worst example is again the belligerent Burt. After trapping the monster in a department store, the teens attempt to call the police, only for Burt to shout them down and end the call. Failing to convince their elders by traditional means, the youngsters are forced to once again become troublemakers. With the help of his friends, Steve and the gang blare their car horns, and even set off the town’s air raid sirens to rouse the denying adults from sleep.
So in this town, who is it that discovers the solution to the problem? The teen heroes of course. It’s due to Steven directly confronting the threat that he learns of the monster’s vulnerability to cold. This is confirmed when Steve blasts the monster with a super cooled CO2 fire extinguisher. Now that Steve has the crucial knowledge needed to defeat the monster, the adults are forced finally listen to the youngers to get things done. The film makes a note to show that most of the fire extinguishers needed to stop the Blob are at the local high school. In a final humorous twist, the uptight principal is forced to break into the building to retrieve them. In the final showdown, it’s the teens on the front lines rather than the adults, something that was no doubt empowering for the youth of the 50s.
While it shows its age more than other classic horror films of the era and certainly isn’t short on cheese, The Blob may well be the most innovative. Many films attempted to bring teens to the forefront of the horror genre before, but The Blob was among the first to really capture the attention of audiences, altering the landscape of horror cinema to this day. With now almost all horror films centered around teens, it seems The Blob’s impact on cinema, like the creature itself, is still growing.
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