The good folks at Twilight Time are like the Criterion Collection’s weird cousin, capable of great things and also not so great things. Though Criterion is like the jock with a sports scholarship in the hearts of cinephiles, they are, in all honesty, both valuable for their contributions. For, even though Twilight Time’s output is more overtly mixed than Criterion’s (remember when they released Tiny Furniture?), their curatorial skills are to be weirdly admired. They manage to release remakes of two films that Criterion has the originals of: The Blob (1988) and The Vanishing (1993). It’s a good, novel thing to do, I suppose. For, while one is moderately fun, the other is kind of terrible, but somewhat fascinating given that it was remade by its own original creator.
The writing and directing team behind A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 explains, to some degree, the weird tonal (im)balance in the 1988 remake of The Blob. Slashers of the ‘80s, I guess it would be fair to say, always wanted it both ways, always dipping their toes into a mode of tongue-in-cheek humor, whilst tangoing with overt slasher aesthetics. Movies like the later A Nightmare on Elm Street entries, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and B-horror standbys like Sleepaway Camp all enjoyed walking that line. They were never terribly earnest, and so neither is The Blob, a remake of the 1958 accidental hit which featured Steve McQueen in his first leading role. But without having seen the original film, there are, for me at least, some lingering questions about the film.
How earnest is this really? Even without exposure to the source text, there’s this impression that it’s an update in special effects only. Though, that accusation would be fairly disingenuous due to the fact that much of the film’s humor, aware or not, is derived from its very ‘80s-ness. It’s ever so subtly a part of that Reagan-era idealism: a small town featuring any number of typical archetypes of nice small town people, and your garden variety hooligans who are, of course, reprimanded by the town’s authority figures. Take for instance a scene in which a pretty boy is getting ready to sleep with his girlfriend, buying condoms at the pharmacy. He’s met unexpectedly by a priest, and cops out by saying he’s buying the prophylactics for a friend. The pharmacist pops up and asks if the kid wants ribbed or regular, and without breaking gaze with the priest, he says, “Ribbed, I guess.” Jump to the boy arriving at his girlfriend’s house, and said girl introduces the boy to her father. Both boy and father aghast, the latter gasps “Ribbed!”, a revelation indicating that her father was the pharmacist. Funny!
So, there’s the winking eye, I get. But behind this, the film’s morals are intact: both characters end up dying, so the norm line is being towed as usual. In a way, it’s both earnest and aware: Although The Blob in its original form wasn’t a slasher (it was a warning against Communism), this 1988 iteration fits into slasher conventions. Slasher films basically exist to reiterate what is the norm, what is acceptable. On the list of what is not acceptable are premarital sex, teenage angst, and alcohol. Twilight Time staff writer Julie Kirgo asserts that the film is “better than Scream”, but it’s hard to buy into that because, while Scream certainly self-consciously buys into the conventions and archetypes that it has inherited, it comments on them as well, which The Blob never really does. Hard to agree with, too, is the idea that the film is satirical, beyond its gentle prod at Reagan-era ethics.
For, its funny balance in tone is dead set more on trying to scare the audience in a jokey way, rather than comment on its own silliness. It isn’t exactly fair to criticize the film for something it isn’t, and its self-awareness regarding its B-quality is fine, but it is not, as Kirgo says, “a hoot.” It’s fine and enjoyable, but it is slight. Its new and improved special effects does not make it any scarier, and the fact that it has been drained of its political subtext also blood lets much of the intrigue that would work in the film’s favor. It is not entirely unpleasant, by any means, and even its approach to tone isn’t a bad thing, but even in its desire to be B-movie weird, the film seems vaguely disappointing. There’s this unconscious desire for the film to get weirder, and weirder, kind of like something terrible and schlocky like ThanksKilling, which might be a horrendous film, but at least has, er, surprises to keep the audience awake and cringing.
Though Twilight Time writer Julie Kirgo asserts that, “Right out of the gate, The Vanishing (1993) had the misfortune of being the American remake of a deliriously acclaimed Dutch-French thriller [of the same name] (1988)”, the actual misfortune “right out of the gate” is Jeff Bridges. His job is to be the idiosyncratic psychopath who preys on Kiefer Sutherland’s girlfriend for no apparent reason beyond his psychopathy. The first 10 or so minutes of the film features Bridges carefully planning out every detail of his kidnapping (not specifically of Sutherland’s girlfriend), testing out all the variables because he can. But while every personal procedural, as it were, needs a villain with unique tendencies, Bridges channels his in the most distracting way possible. Bridges’ villain is hampered by these patterns of speech and these strange gestures that serve more as distracting than particularly creepy.
It doesn’t even seem that indicative of any kind of personality, such as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Detective Robert Goren on TV’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent, who, though not villainous, had traits that were supposed to point to him being strange, off kilter, but brilliant. That character technically falls into this problematic archetype of characters with Asperger’s Syndrome-like characteristics, but that’s something else. The point being, however wild and unbelievable D’Onofrio’s actions were, they seemed to fit within the context of the character and remain intriguing. Bridges, who is certainly a talented actor, on the other hand, kicks off his character as if he’s trying to mimic having a Scandinavian accent. His smile makes him look not so much dumb, as mentally challenged. There’s nothing frightening about him. And though reviews slammed this remake by cleverly asserting that the original was “about the banality of evil” and the remake was about “the evil of banality”, if the former is supposed to ring true, it doesn’t. He’s just silly.
So, George Sluizer’s remake of his own film is off to a poor start, and the whole of it ends up being weakened by an unsuccessful villain. And what about the hero? I would hesitate to call Kiefer Sutherland’s performance interesting, especially when we’ve seen other actors do the same thing. By that, I mean, watching The Vanishing in 2014, especially without prior exposure to the original, means that such a story of obsession isn’t as new as it probably was in 1988 or 1990. Context notwithstanding, memories of films like Zodiac, Prisoners, and others jump to mind, their performances less outwardly transparent and better at inhabiting the desperate and obsessed mind of someone trying to solve an unsolvable puzzle. So, it isn’t that Sutherland is bad, by any means, but somehow he fails to really compel. He is average, especially next to Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in Prisoners, whose panic, anxiety, and delusions shake the audience to their core. We can certainly sympathize for Sutherland, but not much more.
The rest of the film, with its vague cat-and-mouse structure (reminiscent of another American remake, Insomnia), and subsequent claustrophobia and palpable anxiety is fine. It is, for a Hollywood remake of an allegedly much better film, proficient. There is nothing particularly stunning about it, given that the two main performances are either too ridiculous to be convincing or too restrained to matter, and there is little to grip the audience by the necks like the best psychological thrillers can do. By the time that Sluizer wants to gear up the tension of the film (in its controversial final act), I was hard put to really care.
The ability for these films to stand alone are questionable not because their predecessors were ostensibly better (remember, I haven’t seen them), but because the quality of the films in and of themselves are mildly enjoyable to not very enjoyable at all. The Blob is at least recommendable to a point (The Vanishing, not so much), but to have these would be to have them in your collection with an ironic smirk on your face. Which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.
The Vanishing is available as a Limited Edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment. The Blob was offered as a Limited Edition Blu-ray from Twilight time but is currently sold out.