Once in a blue moon, a great science fiction film of the 1950s will get a modern day makeover that actually manages to surpass the source which inspired it. Such was the case with John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World and nowhere is that truer than David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 science fiction horror classic The Fly. Based upon the 1957 Playboy Magazine short story of the same name by George Langelaan, The Fly told the terrifying and tragic story of a scientist who invents a teleportation device which accidentally scrambles his DNA with that of a housefly. While both told tales of scientific breakthroughs gone awry, focusing on the physical and mental transformation of its shape shifting mad scientist as well as the grief of the woman watching the man she loves become a mere shadow of his former self, how each film explored those themes couldn’t have been more different or extreme. Where one film depicted the switch of a man’s head with a fly’s body, the other presented the fusion of human and insect as a cancer spreading like wildfire, infecting every ounce of the poor man’s being until there’s no humanity left. There’s debate to this day by horror purists over which film is the superior of the two, including but not limited to the 1958 film’s star Vincent Price lambasting Cronenberg’s remake for the choking amount of grotesquerie on display. Others view each film as products of their era, although an argument can be made for the 1986 film’s timelessness versus the dated CinemaScope venture from 1958. With that, The Movie Sleuth paves the way for another controversial movie battle in which two films cut from the same cloth will be debated over which individual version of The Fly is stronger than the other.
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The Fly – 1958
Scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison) is found dead with his head crushed between a hydraulic press. His wife Helene (Patricia Owens) confesses to the crime but won’t provide a motive while displaying a peculiar fixation with flies. Determined to unveil the truth behind Andre’s death, his brother Francois (Vincent Price) plays along with Helene’s fixations and through extended flashback we learn the true reasons for the murder were far more horrifying than we could have possibly imagined. Thus begins Kurt Neumann’s The Fly, a science fiction horror classic that forever burned the words ‘Help me! Help me!’ into the minds of moviegoers forever. Playing into Frankenstein tropes such as the mad scientist drifting further away from his loved ones in the pursuit of discovery, sophisticated machinery with bright lights and loud sound effects and finally the monster lurking in the dark, The Fly like Alien is a B movie with an A-list production behind it. It also manages to prey on our own fear of insects and begs the question as to whether or not technological innovation is necessarily in our best interest.
Shot in CinemaScope color 2.35:1 widescreen with one of the earliest 35mm films to utilize 4 track surround sound, The Fly opens on silence as our ears follow the sound of a housefly buzzing about the room. While stereo and surround sound was becoming more commonplace in film around then, this was one of the earliest examples of purely directional use of sound as the fly buzzing travels from speaker to speaker, in front of and behind the viewer. There’s also the ambience of the hydraulic press and the otherworldly noise generated by the teleportation device, making this one of the earliest examples of sound engineering for a film. While the charm of Vincent Price no doubt factors into film’s enduring popularity, this is most certainly Patricia Owens’ picture as she carries a majority of the film in flashback and confronts the monster herself. Much like Mystery of the Wax Museum with Fay Wray, the terrifying payoff comes when the beast is unmasked and revealed by the central heroine with the buildup only amplifying the unbearable tension.
Much to the surprise and delight of 20th Century Fox, The Fly proved to be a massively profitable endeavor for the studio. Costing a mere $500,000, which was no small fry at the time of its inception, the film went on to gross $3 million at the box office and earned an additional $1.7 million in revival showings over the years. Picking up the sweet smell of success, the studio spawned a sequel with the black-and-white Return of the Fly in 1959 with Vincent Price reprising his role from the first film. Unlike the first film however, Return of the Fly was not as successful with audiences and critics who took umbrage with the script and significantly lower budget than the first. Further still, yet another sequel The Curse of the Fly was produced and released in England (the only entry in the series made this way) which unfortunately was an even bigger box office flop than Return. So maligned was Curse that it was never released on VHS or laserdisc and waited until 2007 before receiving a DVD release in a box set alongside the first and second films. From here on, the studio’s future with The Fly indeed seemed quite dead, until Mel Brooks and David Cronenberg took an interest in remaking the film in 1986.
The Fly – 1986
David Cronenberg’s The Fly might in fact be the finest remake of a major film ever produced, managing to surpass the original both artistically and technically. Starring Jeff Goldblum in the role of his career alongside Geena Davis, the film plays in linear fashion (no flashbacks but a grisly nightmare sequence appears) until reaching its logical conclusion whether an audience could take the pain or not. Jettisoning the idea of an instant monster in favor of a gradual physical as well as mental transformation, Cronenberg’s take on The Fly has far more in common with Michael Haneke’s Amour than George Langelaan’s short story. Using Langelaan’s plot as a framing device, Cronenberg imbues The Fly with all of his obsessions from abject body horror, psychosexuality and the loss of individuality. Rather than going for startling jump scares as with the 1958 film, the new Fly instead watches it’s subject slowly slip into madness, murder and eventually death, all filmed from a clinical, at times gynecological and ultimately an intensely precise perspective. Ignoring nearly all traces of the 1958 film, Cronenberg forms with The Fly a sterilized laboratory with Jeff Goldblum as his rat, beautiful and innocent at first before disease forces him into the shadows like a leper. Produced by Mel Brooks (of all people) and rewritten by Cronenberg himself, The Fly is that rare special effects driven sideshow whose director in lab coat manages to keep the technological breakthroughs from interfering from his singular vision. Try to imagine what The Fly might have been like if Tim Burton (who was an early consideration) directed it. It would have been a campy romp tipping its hat to creature features of the 1950s. In Cronenberg’s hands, it’s a deadly serious metaphor for what it means to care for a loved one well after physical and mental breakdown have transformed them from someone you know into a stranger.
Key to the film’s artistic success and emotional complexity is a daring and heartfelt performance by Jeff Goldblum. Always a great character actor in bit parts over the years, The Fly is the greatest performance Goldblum has ever given. Unafraid of the makeup which gradually accumulates until we no longer recognize Goldblum’s voice and facial characteristics, this is a performance which, like Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Aliens, proves that science fiction horror can most certainly prominently feature fine acting which elevates it far above its B movie origins. Equally strong is Geena Davis as the gentle and loving woman who cannot help but cry for the soul inside her lover’s body despite his eventual complete loss of his humanity. One of the strongest and most telling images in the film comes near the end as the fully transformed Goldblum crawls to Davis and looks up at her with a lamenting groan, begging for death. Outside of Carlo Rambaldi’s work on E.T: The Extra Terrestrial, Gremlins creature effects maestro Chris Walas’ human fly represents one of the few times a prosthetic alien creature is able to elicit sympathy and terrible sadness in the viewer. The film is structured with a gradual tonal shift over the course of the movie driven by cinematographer Mark Irwin whose restrained and precise cinematography gradually grows more and more deranged and surrealistic with heavy blues and reds flooding the frame. Of course the mood of The Fly wouldn’t be the dark and depressing tale that it was without the haunting and occasionally terrifying score by regular collaborator Howard Shore. Take for instance the scene where Goldblum is almost completely transformed into a human insect and he unravels on a demented rant about ‘insect politics’. The score plays softly in the background with overwhelming despair before roaring to a grief stricken howl. The scene itself is very strong but the score pushes it right over into being monumentally powerful.
So strong was Cronenberg’s vision of death that initial test screenings repulsed and horrified viewers to the point of walkouts, forcing the director to excise certain sequences including an infamous episode where Goldblum uses his telepod to fuse a monkey with a cat before killing it and biting off a newly formed insect appendage. The film also originally had an unnaturally upbeat coda which was in direct contrast with Cronenberg’s tonal foray into darkness, which was also ultimately cut. Despite all of this, The Fly was released to enormous critical and commercial success, earning the top spot at the box office for two weeks and winning an Academy Award for Best Makeup Effects. For an underground Canadian director like Cronenberg, it quickly catapulted him into the mainstream. Years later, the film has since been regarded as one of the top science fiction horror films of all time with the poster and trailer tagline ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid’ forever etched into horror aficionados’ subconscious. Inexplicably, Jeff Goldblum was not nominated for Best Actor, a move which prompted Chicago Sun Times critic Gene Siskel to call Goldblum ‘stiffed’ out of his nomination. A shame as Goldblum hasn’t had anything this electrifying before or since. As it stands today, The Fly is an unparalleled masterpiece, the best remake ever made and metaphorically speaking one of the most realistic portraits of senility, decay and eventual death ever committed to film!
No competition here. David Cronenberg’s 1986 reimagining of The Fly is the obvious winner of this Movie Sleuth battle. While the 1958 The Fly is still a classic science fiction tale of science gone awry, Cronenberg’s The Fly is an auteur driven masterpiece which uses an absurd and potentially hilarious premise to hammer home very tangible fears and sorrows of dying. In other words, it took a simplistic idea and turned it into a tale about so much more and beyond. Not to mention the performances are passionate and full of raw emotion and where the edges of the 1958 film have softened with age, the 1986 film remains just as shocking and despairing as it did when it was first released. As previously mentioned, the film has a lot in common with Michael Haneke’s Amour in terms of observing the dying process of a loved one slipping away in mind and spirit. But what you may not be aware of is that Amour actually drew influences from Cronenberg’s The Fly in its depiction of caring for someone else as time and time gradually drive the person in need out of their mind. What could have been just another souped up remake of a classic thriller instead was crafted into an enduring work of art that people still talk about to this day, one which has lost none of its ability to horrify and heartbreak in equal measure. And for those of you who think you know Jeff Goldblum, you haven’t seen his astonishing performance in David Cronenberg’s fusion of mainstream science fiction with his uncompromising portrait of human disintegration.
- Andrew Kotwicki