CINEMA CLASSICS: The Fly (1986)

David Cronenberg might be retiring. Sad face. Let’s revisit his classic monster movie take on body horror.  

Who made it?: David Cronenberg (Director/Co-Writer), Charles Edward Pogue (Co-Writer), Stuart Cornfeld (Producer), 20th Century Fox.

Who’s in it?: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz.

Tagline: “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.”

IMDb rating: 7.5/10.

If the BFI ever do a list of Great Remakes, The Fly should bag the top spot. David Cronenberg’s big-budget contribution to his own brand of “venereal horror” could very well be the definitive example of what can happen when you take dated material and give it a modern spin. In genre terms, only John Carpenter’s incendiary revival of The Thing (1982) comes close, but it doesn’t possess the intellectual beauty of this classic. There’s only one death in The Fly… and it happens before the credits roll.

The story of this man vs. insect tale starts in the pages of Playboy. George Langellan’s short potboiler received a great deal of attention in 1957, leading to an adaptation by director Kurt Neumann the following year. The original film, which co-starred Vincent Price, is now a fun reflection of 50s cinema rather than an entertaining film in its own right. It follows married scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison) who is working on a matter transporter called the “disintegrator-intergrator,” designed to teleport human beings and revolutionise travel as we know it. Convinced of his brilliance, he tests the contraption on himself, not realising that a house fly was in the pod with him. It fuses his DNA with that of the insect, and Andre emerges with a fly’s head and claw. He is forced to communicate with his wife, Helene (Patricia Owens), via typed notes and tasks her with finding the fly so he can reverse the process.

The Fly ’86 uses this core set-up but little else. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) meets reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) at a party for his research company, Bartok. He convinces her that there’s nothing newsworthy to see, enticing her back to his apartment/laboratory for a late-night science experiment. He reveals two “telepods” and tests his design by transporting Veronica’s tights from one pod to the other. The machine works, but he hasn’t been able to crack the code for teleporting biological forms, and his early attempts using animals only end in disaster. With Veronica as his muse, Brundle continues to refine his creation and, before you know it, they’re falling in love. But they don’t count on the intrusions of her editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz), who happens to be her former lover. Filled with jealously, a defiant Brundle gets drunk and decides to teleport himself… an act which has unforeseen consequences.

The Fly‘s focus on the human body’s disintegration was certainly nothing new for Cronenberg who has made a career out of viral horror. He all but invented the sub-genre and is comfortably considered an auteur for his efforts. His early features, such as Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), revealed an obsession for biology that is still present in his work. The Fly is greater than many of them because it is so personal and tragic, displaying the filmmaker’s preoccupations with the power of a studio budget.

Believe it or not, Cronenberg was a hired hand on the filmThe original screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue (Psycho III) fascinated him by being so close to his own interests and ideas. This similarity led 20th Century Fox to offer him the director’s chair. The finished script is largely his own, but Pogue’s genius was in making the scientist’s transformation gradual, turning the concept into a potent allegory for disease… or death, take your pick. As Cronenberg later noted, it would have been more difficult to make a straight drama where one of the characters got cancer and died at the end. But The Fly does both of these things, and confronts grim subject matter through the comforting veil of science fiction. Stripped of the excessive creature effects and gore, it would still strike a universal chord.

Many critics have referred to Cronenberg as a cold, clinical director, and while his films occasionally have an academic feel to them, he also understands the need for compassion. The Dead Zone (1983) displayed this most effectively and The Fly is, at its core, a love story. Goldblum and Davis were dating at the time and their undeniable chemistry makes the romance and eventual transformation all the more wrenching. It’s also worth noting the film’s structural similarity to a stage play due to its focus on the three main characters. Aside from a few welcome excursions, the picture rarely leaves the dark confines of Brundle’s workspace. This is very much a film about the human condition fighting adversity, although people are entitled to see only darkness in the director’s work.

Seth’s slow deterioration (or, should I say, empowerment) is brilliantly conceived. The splicing of his genes give him superhuman qualities, including increased strength and resilience. Brundle feels omnipotent in these scenes, choosing to see only the good things in his situation. It is only when his psychical features begin to degrade that the true terror begins. A sequence where he notices strange abnormalities in the bathroom mirror is innocuous enough to ring true, and unsettling as a result. As the film progresses, the “Brundle Museum of Natural History,” as he calls it, becomes a catalogue of his former body parts. Cronenberg’s need for exacting detail in these sequences is truly gut-churning.

Adding to the sense of despair is Veronica’s discovery that she is pregnant. The implication that this baby could turn out to be a freak like Seth is a delicious sub-plot that allows the character to share Brundle’s fear. It also affords Cronenberg the excuse to include a nightmare sequence that any mother will take to their grave. Davis sells the confusion and  paranoia, delivering a career-best turn.

Brundle would have been a difficult role for anyone, but Goldblum excels throughout. He’s always been an odd presence, but his aloofness fits the nerdy scientist role to a tee. His depiction of the character’s fate always feels genuine and heartfelt, even when he’s covered beneath a mountain of latex. His dedication to the part was Oscar-worthy, particularly his brilliant mimicking of a fly’s erratic movements and speed. Goldblum is fearless and entirely unforgettable as the title monster.

It’s just a shame that the cast’s phenomenal work was overshadowed by the nauseating make-up effects. The appliances by Chris Walas are still stunning for their diversity and realism. Elements have dated over the years, largely due to their unavoidable “man in a suit” nature, but the impact is far greater than anything CGI could provide. The effects also stop the film from becoming dour, giving horror fans what they want to see. Which, in this case, includes a man’s hand being melted to the bone by fly juice in the most graphic shot imaginable. Years have not dulled the film’s ferocity and it still makes the hardest of gorehounds queasy.

Cronenberg is celebrated by many film fans and, on the basis of The Fly, it isn’t hard to see why. Here is a horror picture that gets right down to the gritty seriousness of its subject matter and is justifiably blunt in its techniques. You’ll remember it long after the final frame and Howard Shore’s haunting score fades. It is, for lack of a better word, a masterpiece.

Best Scene

What a finish!

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Several sequences were filmed but cut from the final release, including a sequence where Brundle sends a cat and the surviving baboon through the telepods, resulting in a mutated creature he beats to death with a pipe; a scene where Brundle climbs the outside of his building as an insect limb emerges from his side; and an alternate ending in which Veronica has another dream of her unborn child, this time as a baby with beautiful butterfly wings.
  • The inspiration for the design of the telepods came from the shape of the cylinder in Cronenberg’s vintage Ducati motorcycle.
  • It took nearly five hours to apply the most extensive make-up to Goldblum.
  • Walas’ team studied books on disease as a starting point for their “Brundlefly” make-up/creature designs. The final creature is horribly deformed and asymmetrical. This reflects Cronenberg’s idea that Brundlefly shouldn’t be a giant fly, but rather a literal fusion of a man and an insect that embodies elements of both.
  • After watching some of his early work, director Martin Scorsese asked to meet Cronenberg. After, Scorsese said he looked like a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, which is why the director gives himself a cameo as a doctor in this film.
  • The line, “I’m saying I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it, but now that dream is over and the insect is awake,” is a reference to author Franz Kafka’s 1912 story The Metamorphosis, in which a man wakes from a nightmare to find himself transformed into a giant insect.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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