Before America had claimed the mantle of the great superpower of the Western world, the following premises would have been the stuff of B-movies and serials: Killer Plant-Man From Outer Space! Scientist Switches Bodies With Housefly! Killer Sludge Ball From Outer Space! For a certain breed of fuddy-duddy even today, combing such stories for subtext is not worth the effort. But for me, the prospect is too juicy to pass up, not least because all three of these movies have been made twice. We have a trio from the 1950s, followed by one from the 1980s, the latter representing a solid decade-long vogue for updating the science-fiction/horror classics of an earlier generation. The most convenient frame to put around these two periods is, of course, the Cold War. Each of these superficially silly stories plays into the societal anxieties of the times. Watching them chronologically, we see the evolution of those anxieties and the increasing freedom to let them loose. Combined, The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951), The Fly (Kurt Neumann, 1958), The Blob (Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., 1958), The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982), The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986) and The Blob (Chuck Russell, 1988) run a bit over nine hours, so let’s make an evening of it.
For the 1950s trilogy (an informal designation, since it’s really only the similarity in titles that made me pick these particular films), the gradual rise in paranoia, distrust and revulsion is tempered by the confidence of the era. Or, conversely, the obligatory happy endings are subverted by the darker buried themes. The self-censorship and comparatively limited special effects of the time make for the most blatant contrast with the relentlessly violent remakes. There were also conventions learned from the previous two decades of horror movies — the tactics of suggestion and disguise. So it is that the first “appearance” of the alien in The Thing ’51 is off-camera. What we are shown is the terrified reaction of the airman on watch. The inventor in The Fly ’58 spends much of the film hooded by a black towel, hiding his frightful appearance from his beloved like the Phantom of the Opera. Much of the plot of The Blob ’58 and its remake involves teenagers trying to convince adults about a monster that’s disappeared somewhere. These movies rely to varying degrees on the time-honored campfire storytelling that can bring a monster to life in the imagination. They are also driven by the fact that monsters aren’t all we have to worry about. As I wrote last month, so it is again: nature itself, not to mention other human beings, can be just as serious a threat.
The Thing ’51 makes the most explicit allusions to the Cold War of all six films, with its references to the Atomic Age and its military heroes. A film marked by the camaraderie of its ensemble (which is the primary reason it’s been suggested that Howard Hawks, who produced the film, may have had a hand in directing it as well), The Thing shows a group of intelligent people putting their heads together to solve problems. Their main problem is an alien attacker, but they also have to contend with a group of scientists whom they’ve joined at an Arctic outpost. It’s interesting to compare Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) to the Takashi Shimura character in the original Godzilla. They both are of the opinion that the monster is fascinating and should be studied, not merely destroyed. They both fail to get their way. But the latter is significantly more sympathetic than the former. Every detail of characterization in The Thing points to Dr. Carrington’s wrongness. By the end, he literally prefers science to the lives of everyone around him. In a way, The Thing is an argument for applied science over pure science. The heroes figure out how to use electricity to stop an unstoppable force. The insidious intruder is defeated, but we are left with the famous warning, “Watch the skies.”
Both versions of the The Fly have Canadian associations, as it happens, so their connection to specifically American fears is less pronounced. Still, The Fly ’58 is all about the perils of rapid progress. The Space Race had begun, and everything seemed possible. But there was also the fear that humanity had gone too far, that perhaps our bodies could never survive space flight, that a million things could go terribly wrong. It could be said that nuclear weapons hung some distance above these fears as well. And so, in The Fly the dream of teleportation becomes a nightmare after the smallest of mistakes. As much a domestic melodrama as a creepy tale, the story leans into the tragedy of a husband who must cut himself off from his wife while begging her to save him. The flashback structure, unique among these six films, makes the mid-film switch to the wife’s (Patricia Owens) point of view a welcome surprise. She’s a complex figure, alternating real terror and feigned madness. Once again, the scientist’s quest for knowledge goes to fatal excess. The film’s notorious ending may be ripe for parody, but it’s still mightily effective as pure horror, lingering maniacally on a gruesome fate.
The Blob ’58 is both the shortest and undoubtedly the lightest of these films (much as The Thing ’82 is the longest and heaviest), starting with the bouncing Burt Bacharach tune that plays over the opening credits. The alien sludge that absorbs every human who touches it is a true threat, but it takes a long time to become a serious one. Most of the film is about the Generation Gap — the first intimations in this cycle of a mistrust of domestic authority figures. These kids with their hot rods, their rock-n-roll, their midnight movies, are automatically suspected for a mysterious case of vandalism. It doesn’t help that our hero (Steve McQueen, in his first starring role) lacks the vocabulary to describe what really happened — not that we can blame him, since the thing is quite literally formless. The Blob ’58 isn’t exactly a classic of teenage rebellion. The director, Irvin Yeaworth, was a Christian whose heart wasn’t quite in it. But the idea of an attack from the sky, a foreign invasion, still resonated with people. As in The Thing, our hero ultimately finds an ingenious solution to the problem, though this time it’s basically by accident.
Following up The Blob ’58 with The Thing ’82 reveals a few parallels. John Carpenter’s film returns to the premise of the story by John W. Campbell on which The Thing ’51 was based. The alien being isn’t composed of self-replicating plant matter but is instead a shape-shifter that absorbs and copies its victims. It does feel more like a “thing” than an intelligent entity this way, although its instincts for blending in are sophisticated. Carpenter took a sharp turn away from the original film by making the characters a much less tightly-knit group. The researchers in Antarctica may have relationships among themselves, but they are all prepared to doubt the humanity of each other. Long gone was the conviction that the enemy could be defeated by a simple, unified strategy. In fact, the idea that the enemy was purely external suddenly felt extremely naive in a nation that had experienced a couple decades of foreign policy controversy. Here we have the only truly ambiguous ending among these films. The prospect of the end of the world was no longer a shocking new idea, but a cold (frigid, even) certainty.
David Cronenberg’s The Fly retains the male-female relationship from the original. This time, she (Geena Davis) is a reporter researching an article on his (Jeff Goldblum) teleportation device. The film zeroes in on their developing romance immediately. Thanks to its smaller cast, The Fly ’86 is an even more tightly focused story than The Thing ’82. It devotes all its energy to developing the plight of both its main characters. The body horror of the scientist’s transformation has been described as a timely reference to either cocaine addiction or the AIDS epidemic. Certainly, he can be seen as the victim of a couple botched operations. At the same time, there’s a nuanced treatment of the journalist and her relationship not only to her deteriorating boyfriend but also her unborn child, a life form of unknown attributes slowly growing inside her. This film is too intimate to allow any grand statements about nations or governments, though there is some commentary about corporate entities. Again, the apocalypse doesn’t need to come from anywhere but right here.
Last of all is The Blob ’88, a movie that could be said to take the “fast zombie” approach to its monster. This remake follows the plot and basic structure of the original much more closely than the other two. An old man living in the woods comes across a meteorite. A gelatinous substance emerges from the rock and latches onto his hand. Some high school students discover him screaming in agony. They take him to the hospital and soon find out just how bad the problem is. This time, we’re told the origin of the blob, that it isn’t an alien organism but a biological weapon that’s now out of control. And now we are at the farthest point away from the pro-military, and by extension pro-government, stance of The Thing ’51. A Cold War measure has backfired disastrously, and forces representing Science and the Military, claiming to be here to help, are equally shady. The Blob ’88 may be the nastiest film in this bunch. Neither an attractive potential lead character nor a cute kid is spared a brutal death. The movie even savages the religious origins of its predecessor by throwing in a doomsday obsessive at the last minute.
If the 1950s films were still taking cues from Karl Freund’s reaction shots and Val Lewton’s shadows, the sci-fi/horror of the 1980s was entirely under the influence of Ridley Scott’s Alien and the jarring assaults of the slashers. Makeup and prosthetics reached their pungent zenith during this decade. The Thing ’82 has its chest-bursting moment as well as all manner of horrifying mutations. The bathroom-mirror horror of The Fly ’86 was culturally tectonic, and the movie also explores what an animal would look like inside-out. The Blob ’88 can’t seem to decide whether the blob is acidic or just really heavy, but the creature messes with people’s bodies in an impressive variety of ways. All these things can be called unsubtle, to be sure. The special effects were more striking, more gruffly physical than ever before, so the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to keep the audience in the dark for too long. But even at their most exploitative, these movies are concerned with more than just shock. They emphasize personal and social disintegration along with the literal kind.
These six films are all located right in the sweet spot between the self-importance of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the incoherence of Plan 9 from Outer Space. They take their subjects seriously but are also fully dedicated to genre frissons. They stretch and distort the foremost fears of their eras into something fantastic and, yes, very much funny if you look at it a certain way. America is reflected in these funhouse mirrors: the greatest power in human history, but also a fundamentally young soul that has at times been afraid of its own shadow. The cultural verdict, upon watching the 1980s remakes, is inconclusive, so in a sense it’s all right that new versions of these stories are currently in development. (A prequel to The Thing already came out, in 2011, though I haven’t seen it.) Periodically, we need to return to some of those same stories, told in a new way around whatever campfire is available.