by Joel Bocko
[Joel Bocko, who goes by the name of MovieMan0283 at his blog The Dancing Image, joins us with a post comparing the virtues of Cronenberg's The Fly with its "viscerally horrifying" fifties predecessor.]
Some horror concepts enter the popular consciousness and take on a life of their own. Oftentimes, these are cinematic manifestations of mythic or literary antecedents—the Frankenstein monster predated James Whale's 1931 film by over a century, though it's Boris Karloff whom readers tend to think of when re-visiting Mary Shelley's original. Other pop icons, like Dracula or the Wolf Man, are merely individual variations on long-known archetypes—while later, more human monsters like Norman Bates, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger have established an enormous cultural presence without transcending the films that made them famous. They are their personalities, not just their images; whereas older monsters seem to exist as pure icons, talismans of the unconsciousness. We know, without quite having to recognize on a personal level, a Dracula or a "Frankenstein" (the creature having taken on his creator's name in a kind of osmosis which The Fly would appreciate).
Likewise, perhaps, The Fly. Even if one does not know the behavior of the mutant insect-human or the plot surrounding it, one probably recognizes and shivers at the image, the idea. First crafted by George Langelaan as a short story, the narrative—losing little in translation—was first presented onscreen in the 1958 film of the same name. In the movie, a scientist builds a teleportation device but in the process of disintegrating/reintegrating him across space, a fly buzzes into the machine and the confused computer mixes up the two creatures. This results in a dreadful fly-headed human, whose inner state detoriates until finally, with his wife's help, he has himself "swatted" by a gigantic hydraulic press.
Certainly this is the version which gave the "fly and man switch body parts" concept its widespread recognition. Whether nicked for a Ninja Turtles villain or parodied on The Simpsons, the fly-headed scientist is usually derived from the '58 version. David Cronenberg's 1986 remake is a bit knottier and headier, more difficult to pin down in a simple image or idea. It is itself a riff on the earlier film, so that's no surprise—yet it has its own distinct cultural legacy, and very much its own flavor. The two Flys share similar outlooks and tap into similar anxieties, but they take the material in different directions, demonstrating its potential for various tangents as well as differences between the 50s and the 80s (culturally and cinematically), and the distinctive stamp of David Cronenberg himself.
Ironically, Cronenberg was a bit of a latecomer to the project, and the most Cronenbergian touch—the decision to focus on a gradual transformation from man to fly, rather than an instant displacement—actually predated his involvement. Following several rewrites and a tragedy involving the initial director (Robert Bierman, whose daughter died in a plane crash while he was preparing the film), Cronenberg was brought onboard. The finished film reflects his sensibility—a dark, gothic atmosphere, a focus on decay and disease, a romance between a curious, attractive young woman and an obsessive loner—but is a streamlined version of what he shot. Among the deleted scenes: the disastrous "fusion" of a baboon and an alley cat (unfortunately axed) and the vomiting-upon and devouring-of a homeless woman (fortunately so). The end result remains of a piece with Cronenberg's lower-budget early 80s work, like Scanners and Videodrome.
Aside from its central conceit, the '86 film differs quite dramatically from the '58 version. The original, starring Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall in supporting roles, with the lesser-known David Hedison and Patricia Owens as the central couple, is a bright, widescreen entry in the late 50s Cinemascope horror field. It begins where the later film ends: with Helene Delambre (Owens) having crushed Andre Delambre's (Hedison's) head and arm under a hydraulic press. She calmly confesses to the crime, refuses to admit her motive, and obsessively tries to catch a white-headed fly. Finally, Andre's brother Francois (Price) tricks her into revealing everything leading up to her husband's death—and the meaning of the white-headed fly. It turns out that just as the fly's head and arm were attached to Andre's body, so his own head and arm were attached to the housefly's. Francois and Inspector Charas (Marshall) find this story incredible, but at the last moment they discover the white-headed fly in a web, screaming "Help me! Help me!" as it is devoured by a spider. A close examination reveals that it is indeed Andre's appendages attached to the insect and Charas mercifully kills both fly and spider before, ashen-faced, agreeing not to arrest Helen for her husband's murder.
In Cronenberg's interpretation, Dr. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a precocious Nobel nominee who works alone, has built the teleportation devices by farming out various parts to different experts, Manhattan Project-style. He meets Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) at a party and impulsively invites her over to witness his handiwork—only to panic when she reveals she's a journalist and will take the story to her boss/ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans (John Getz—the remake has much better character names). Stathis of course finds the sci-fi conceit ludicrous, while Veronica and Seth fall in love and become lab partners-with-benefits. Eventually Seth succeeds in transporting a babboon in one piece (an earlier experiment results in a grotesquely inside-out ape) and then, drunk and jealous of Veronica's relationship with Stathis (which he's just discovered), sends himself through transportation, not noticing the fly in the works. Mayhem ensues—but slowly; at first Seth thinks he's just become an increasingly athletic, increasingly virile version of his former self.
In most ways, the remake is a much better film than the original. The storytelling is more involving (the early passages of the '58 film are largely a bore with Owens' grief/madness unconvincing and Price phoning it in; even Marshall seems bored, though his response to Helene's "Was I wrong to kill him?" is perfectly droll: "Mmmmm, who, the fly-headed man? Nooo..."). Director Kurt Neuman's staging of the original is initially plodding and dull—the limitations of early Cinemascope are apparent—and while the bright blues and greens of the whirring computer are a delight, one feels that the terror might have worked better in gothic, cramped black-and-white. The central romance seems canned and as it's a long time before the fly-man makes his appearance, the viewer may become restless with the crawling domesticity and low-rent intrigue preceding the flashback.
Yet if Cronenberg's Fly is more compelling and entertaining, the original is—at its finest moments—creepier and more gripping. It's also far more tense: while Cronenberg does not spare us gore or mutilated makeup, Neuman's camera—initially dull in its remove—becomes anxiety-inducing once Andre undergoes his transformation. We do not see our hero for a while—he slips notes under the lab door, telling his wife not to look at him, and that he cannot speak. When he finally lets her in, his hand is inside his lab coat, Napoleon-style, and his head is covered in a great black cloth. He types out notes to Helene, instructing her to hunt for the white-headed fly. The scenes in which mother, son, and maid desperately chase the insect around their kitchen is brilliantly suspenseful—it takes the everday activity of pursuing of an irritating insect, and amplifies the frustration and desperation with new meaning. The difficulty of catching flies, something we can all relate to on a mundane level, is now profoundly terrifying and even poignant—and connected, by direct plot device, to questions of mortality and the attempt to rectify personal mistakes.
When the white fly slips away, Andre gives in to his despair. Finally Helene unmasks him and the bulbous fly-head is revealed. Andre, a stiff as a human, suddenly becomes vulnerable and tragic as a man-fly. Once he furiously destroys his equipment and scratches out—his mind slipping as he does so—"Love You" on the chalkboard, he and his wife's feelings seem much more real than they did during the lame "Ozzie & Harriet" second act; refracted through sci-fi/horror tropes and the weird frisson of anthropomorphism, Andre's humanity has never been more acute. And then there's that last moment with the spider and the fly—few other shots in cinema history have been at once so ridiculous, grotesque, pathetic, and viscerally horrifying. The remake, to me at least, did not achieve such pathos until its final moments, when the Brundlefly (now far more fly than Brundle) crawls out of the teleportation device and—dragging machinelike entrails in its wake—gently points the sobbing Veronica's shotgun at its own head.
Till then, though, what The Fly does offer is endlessly compelling imagery and the tingling resonance of metaphor. Unlike Andre, Seth's physical decay is gradual—hairs sprout here and there, sores emerge on his face, his teeth fall out, his body swells and bulges, finally his face and limbs crack off leaving an insectoid exoskeleton of human size. As with Andre, Seth's mind slips too but the transformation into a ruthless, single-minded insect is articulated explicitly (Andre cannot speak once his head becomes the fly's, but Brundle is given ample opportunity to express his decline, which only underlines his overall impotence). The real-world connections here—disease, mental illness, drug addiction, are obvious. Many saw the film as an allegory for AIDS, which Cronenberg denied while welcoming the interpretation. Yet there are other 80s connections too: Seth's descent into a hedonistic, selfish animal state could be read as a condemnation of 80s greed and narcissism (surely even less intended than the AIDS reading, but resonant nonetheless). Heck, the mutation could even be interpreted as a prescient and grim harbinger of Michael Jackson's physical transformation; Goldblum's hairdo at least is a dead ringer).
The remake is indeed very much of its time, especially in relation to the original. Whereas in 1958 the Delambres were established as a blissfully wed suburban couple, Seth and Veronica are a sexier, swinging couple for a more liberated era (albeit with baggage included—Veronica has her former relationship, and the newly horny Seth brings home a tramp from a local bar). The look of the film belongs more to a post-60s—and distinctly Cronenberg—palette: urban, mechanically gothic, its teleportation hives looking like a cross between H.R. Giger and M.C. Escher. Finally, violence and gore (absent from the original) are splashed all over the remake. Andre sends a cat through teleportation in a failed experiment, and it simply fails to materialize, a meow echoing through the ether (in the original story, parts of the missing cat are eventually fused with the man-fly, at which point Andre resolves to commit suicide). Cronenberg lets the babboon materialize, all right, but a bloody paw whacking the inside of the machine lets us know PETA would not approve of the result.
Once Seth is transformed, his world becomes increasingly gruesome: he rips a hand from its wrist in an arm-wrestling contest, retches upon and disintegrates his enemy's hands and feet, and watches his own body fall to pieces. Cronenberg is fascinated not with offscreen fear (like the original) but rather explicit, unavoidable decay. Where the original Fly and other "unspoken anxiety" horror films end, Cronenberg's vision begins—starting with the physicalization of brutality and destruction, and going from there. Goldblum gives an excellent performance but ultimately the makeup and costume speaks for him—by the end, the last remnants of humanity have become all the more powerful and evocative for being so slim.
The '86 screenplay also adds a provocative twist to the tale—Veronica discovers she is pregnant with Seth's child. Whether this is the result of their initial copulation or their post-teleportation marathon sex is uncertain, and with this uncertainty grows the possibility the fetus in her womb is more insect than man (the fear is tapped into brilliantly with a hideous dream sequence in which Veronica envisions herself giving birth to a giant maggot). She comes close to aborting the pregnancy, but Seth intervenes and at film's end this plotline remains unresolved. Originally the movie was to end with another Veronica dream—this one a vision in which Veronica sees her unborn child as a butterfly. It's a pity this ending was cut, forceful as the film's existing conclusion is. It could have added one more level to this already complex film: the hidden possibility that, just maybe, the insect existence is superior to the human, and it is finally our own very human hubris and fear of the "other," which blinds us to the possibility.
Then again, such latent optimism may have compromised the film's power. In both versions of The Fly, the crucial ingredient is a central irony: by playing God, man transforms himself into the lowest of beasts, and in his final moments all the flickering embers of human consciousness can do is plead, expending one last burst of energy from the ashes of their soul, for simple extermination.