Like Father, Like Son: Revisiting The Fly II

History repeats itself in this sequel to David Cronenberg’s horror classic. Is it better than many say?

Three years after David Cronenberg repulsed audiences with The Fly – a superior remake of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 cheapie – 20th Century Fox greenlit the inevitable sequel. The success of Cronenberg’s film must have been a surprise to many people, including the director himself. It remains his most profitable picture, and was greeted with great reviews despite the OTT gore effects. Yet it was filled with genuine emotion and characters that the viewer could identify with. The auteur has always possessed a talent for filling his films with meaning, often through the most unlikely of stories. The Fly is also his purest use of the “body horror” theme – a thread evident in most of his work, from his ultra low-budget debut Shivers to modern examples like Crash and eXistenZ. With the poor Seth Brundle (sympathetically played by Jeff Goldblum), the director explored his fascination with flesh to the full as Brundle slowly deteriorated before turning into the creature of the title. He even included an effective romance, giving the fantastical story an emotional anchor.

The Fly II is hardly in the same league, but I must admit I have a soft spot for it. Released to poor reviews in 1989, it’s a million miles away from Cronenberg’s thoughtful, nauseating masterpiece, though you get the impression they weren’t really aiming for pretension. Yes, the gore effects are still top-notch, but aspects like story and characterisation aren’t as grounded. The directorial duties passed to Chris Walas, who handled the make-up effects on the previous picture, making him an ideal candidate in the eyes of studio moguls. Some audiences might be pleased that Walas went in a different direction with the film’s story, but anyone with a knowledge of the ageing franchise will know that The Fly II takes its cue from Return of the Fly – the original sequel to Neumann’s classic. Hollywood must have been getting desperate when they essentially rehashed an entire series of films. Like Return, the sequel follows the exploits of the The Fly’s spawn; in this case, Martin Brundle (Eric Stoltz).

As the film begins, we see a Geena Davis look-a-like (Saffron Henderson) giving birth to Martin, who is squeezed out in some sort of insect pod. The doctors split open the larvae to reveal a seemingly normal baby boy. Unfortunately, his mother dies during the procedure, making Martin an orphan. From his birth onward, he is kept and raised in a research laboratory at the sinister Bartok Industries. Due to his fly genes, Martin possesses accelerated growth and becomes an adult in five short years. The head of the corporation, Mr. Bartok (Lee Richards), manipulates Martin into helping them perfect the telepods Seth Brundle left in his lab – the dreaded machines that fused man with fly. However, as Martin gets deeper into the project, and as he falls in love with late night co-worker Beth (Daphne Zuniga), he begins to uncover Mr. Bartok’s nefarious plans. Soon, he starts to exhibit insect characteristics and attempts to find a cure before his human self is lost completely…

Despite its flaws, time has been rather kind to The Fly II. I remember the first time I saw it, which happened to be on television. Like many people at first glance, I downright loathed it, especially since I watched it in quick succession with Cronenberg’s effort. Perhaps it was the absence of anticipation, but I enjoyed The Fly II much more on repeat viewings over the years. Certainly, no-one should go into the sequel expecting the same kind of film. Walas doesn’t care about the deep, emotional story arcs or subtext. He made a simple, straightforward monster movie. There’s nothing intelligent about it. If you treat The Fly II in the same way you’d treat a Friday the 13th or Halloween, then you’ll probably enjoy it for the simple elements it gets right.

Remarkably, the film is attributed to four screenwriters, based on a story by Stephen King regular Mick Garris. Among them was future Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, who has clearly come a long way since. The progression of the story and the simple, exposition-riddled dialogue help to undermine the enterprise, but for the first thirty-minutes, The Fly II holds some promise on a narrative level. Martin’s incarceration in Bartok Industries is actually pretty interesting – the government conspiracy aspects of the tale are a logical route following the events of the first film, but the writers never make the most of it. Instead, we get a few old-fashioned scares as the young Martin (played in the early scenes by Harley Cross) sneaks around the compound, uncovering its secrets. He discovers a room filled with animals – all used for experimentation – and becomes rather attached to a dog. On his return, the cage is empty, but Martin soon finds his treasured pooch, who is placed into one of the telepods by a foolish scientist. Those who remember the baboon sequence from the first film will know what to expect; the poor animal emerges as a deformed monster, relegated to a dark observation room, where scientists monitor their latest “creation.” It’s a cheap attempt to pull on the audience’s heartstrings, but I’ll be the first to admit that the tactic actually works. It really sells the heartless nature of Mr. Bartok and his colleagues, getting a brilliantly ironic pay-off in the final scene.

The problem with The Fly II is that we never once care about the characters. In fact, that damn dog is the only being we ever feel sympathy for. There’s two reasons for this, beginning with the weak script and ending with the performances. The cast is disappointing to say the least, yet the material didn’t give them much room to breathe. Zuniga is entirely wasted as Martin’s love interest and doesn’t project the inner turmoil that Davis’ character did so well. While it was important to allow Martin to confide in another character, she’s just too poorly-written to register. She also has little chemistry with Stoltz. The only actors to make an impression are Richardson and John Getz, the latter returning as the unlucky Stathis Borans. Richardson is perfectly slimy as Bartok, revelling in the chance to play a complete bastard. Getz meanwhile, appears only briefly in two scenes, effectively stealing the film with his limited screentime.

Which leaves us with Stoltz. The Pulp Fiction star is no bad actor and he has proven time and time again that he has the chops to pull off demanding roles. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem right for the good-willed Martin, with little in the way of range. He’s either subdued or over-the-top, depending on the scene. That isn’t to say his performance is awful, far from it. Stoltz has always been better-suited to darker, more sinister characters, and in that respect, we never really root for him. We do, after all, want to see him transform into the fly so we can get what we came for… gore!

Most of the mayhem doesn’t occur until the last act, but it’s definitely worth waiting for. Walas excels in this area – the make-up effects certainly match the first film for overall creativity. The director doesn’t go into the details of Martin’s slow change into Brundlefly, but he doesn’t need to. The prosthetics on Stoltz are great (at least as far as 80s techniques go), yet the eventual creature is a mite underwhelming (it just doesn’t look like a fly). That said, the climax is pretty satisfying, as the creature begins rampaging around the bowels of Bartok Industries. It’s a very familiar scenario, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Among the gory highlights is a man’s face burnt off by fly-juice, another’s head crushed under a lift, and Bartok’s inevitable comeuppance. The violence is certainly the film’s best element, and Walas manages to provide some indelible images. He also wraps up the film in a satisfactory manner, with the final frame lingering in the memory.

Ultimately, The Fly II is an underrated sequel. It’s no classic and conforms to the law of diminishing returns, but it’s not the abomination some people will lead you to believe. As a stripped-down, simplistic horror yarn, it pushes the right buttons and provides decent genre entertainment. Fans of the series are advised to give it another chance.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Vincent D’Onofrio was the first choice for the role of Martin Brundle and was nearly cast for the part but his screen tests didn’t go well.
  • The Telepod props from the The Fly were destroyed after filming was completed and were rebuilt.
  • The first videotape of Seth Brundle (where he theorises that the teleporter improved him) is actually part of a deleted scene from The Fly. The scene was slightly edited for this film, and Veronica’s (Geena Davis’s) voice was dubbed over by Saffron Henderson.
  • The book next to the sleeping technician in the control room at the beginning of the film is The Shape of Rage, an anthology of writings about the films of David Cronenberg.

Dave James

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

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