The Coolidge Corner Theatre's Science on Screen series pairs experts in scientific fields with popular films. For the Dec. 7 screening of the 1958 schlock classic, "The Blob," starring Steve McQueen, the Coolidge has, believe it or not, found a blob expert.
Ferris Jabr, a writer at Scientific American magazine, wrote the 2013 article "The Science of the Great Molasses Flood," about the 1919 disaster in Boston. As most New Englanders know, that's when a mass of the gooey stuff burst from a storage tank and snaked through Boston's North End, killing 21 people and injuring another 150.
" 'The Blob' takes something usually innocuous and makes it threatening," says Jabr. "It's similar to what Hitchcock did with 'The Birds.' With the molasses disaster, it seems ridiculous that syrup is dangerous and something that people have to run from."
Jabr lives in California but he earned his undergraduate degree at Tufts University and his master's in science journalism at New York University. It was while living in Cambridge that he took a stroll through the North End and happened upon a plaque commemorating the molasses flood. "I'm interested in the eccentric in science, so I was curious about it," he says. His subsequent research included the definitive book on the subject, Stephen Puleo's 2004 "Dark Tide."
Jabr will speak to the audience before the 7 p.m. screening, detailing how more than 2 million gallons of molasses burst its holding tank and surged through the North End at about 34 miles per hour in a wave that, at its peak, was nearly 25 feet high and 164 feet wide. In his article, Jabr explains that "the deluge crushed freight cars, tore Engine 31 firehouse from its foundation and, when it reached an elevated railway on Atlantic Avenue, nearly lifted a train right off the tracks. A chest-deep river of molasses stretched from the base of the tank [more than half a mile] into the streets. . . . People, horses, and dogs caught in the mess struggled to escape, only sinking further."
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction. In "The Blob," directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. and Russell S. Doughten Jr., an alien life-form wreaks havoc on a small town, with McQueen's rebel teen trying to warn residents about the jelly-like invader. Unlike many low-budget horror films of the '50s, "The Blob" was shot in color so that the creature's red hue glows brighter as it gathers strength.
"The Blob" fits the movie-monster formula in that at first the characters are not sure what to make of it, says Jabr. "It's just a pile of slime on the border of creepy and terror. It's so amorphous that people project their own theories on it," including critics and audiences who saw "The Blob" as a metaphor for the Cold War-era communist threat.
"It's terrifying to have something 'harmless' become the exact opposite," Jabr says. Just like molasses.
For more information, go to www.coolidge.org.
Out of Liberia
"Out of My Hand," which has its Boston premiere Dec. 6 at 2:30 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, offers a modern twist on a classic immigrant story. It's about a Liberian rubber-plantation worker who leaves his country and risks everything to seek opportunities as a taxi driver in New York. Director Takeshi Fukunaga is from Japan but has lived in New York for the past 10 years. According to the MFA, he wanted to depict "an authentic immigrant experience [about] the people whose labor allows us everyday commodities like rubber or taxi service."
For more information, go to www.mfa.org/film.