The Fly [35 Year Retrospective]: Tragedy & Transformation
It has been 35 years since the release of Cronenberg’s Body Horror spectacle, The Fly, a hybrid of a tragic love story, a hopeful science experiment and a grotesque bodily mutation. It is seen as one of Cronenberg’s greatest films and is often in the high end of top ten Horror movie lists. All of this to say, I’m a slightly ashamed Horror fan for having never watched it before, so this anniversary has given me the opportunity to delve into this classic and find out why it is held in such high regard.
This 1986 film may have started as an adaptation of the original 1957 short story by George Langelaan, and a remake of the 1958 film The Fly, but once Charles Edward Pogue’s script was altered and collaborated on by director David Cronenberg it definitely became its own film and concept, loosely inspired by what came before but definitely not a straightforward remake. Cronenberg’s The Fly follows eccentric scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) who meets journalist Ronnie Quaife (Geena Davis) at an event held by the company funding his work into teleportation. As their relationship develops so does his research, culminating in a human trial that goes terribly wrong and causes Seth to mutate and become a hybrid human-fly creature. This may read like a typical B-Movie Sci-Fi Horror mash-up plotline, but it’s in the human side of this meld that makes The Fly stand out from what came before it.
Howard Shore sets the tone for the film instantly with his beautifully menacing score that merges romantic notes with suspenseful pauses and peaks, creating the perfect atmosphere for the film before the first scene has even begun. As the film begins there’s no wasted time, no long drawn out introductions, instead there is instant character development and intrigue. Seth Brundle is going to ‘change the world’ with his invention, and there’s something about his idiosyncratic nature and sweet honesty that makes us, and Ronnie, believe this. Within five minutes of The Fly it feels as if these characters are more well rounded than many other film protagonists are at their narrative halfway mark. This is the delight of the script and these characters who have a strong set up and plenty to develop and play with as the story unfolds.
Brundle is isolated, driven entirely by his work and minus a life beyond it, which makes him an incredibly interesting character who lacks a true external ego at the beginning of the film. His worth comes from his inventions and he sees himself through their success or failure. His genuine disheartened feeling at the failing baboon experiment proves his love for his work, and provides us with the first splash of gore in the film, without it being drawn out or grotesque for the sake of shock factor. It’s an intimate film, with minimal characters and isolated locations, mostly set in Seth’s apartment and following a love triangle in a way.
Seth’s work finds its breakthrough after a ‘sexual awakening’ on his part that makes him realise the missing ingredient in his methods, the understanding of human flesh and living tissue. Davis and Goldblum were a genuine couple at the time and there’s something to be said for their chemistry and the affection they show to each other during the blossoming romance between their characters, they are the heart of the film. Their growing feelings are contrasted by the affectionless and deteriorating relationship between Ronnie and her editor Stathis (John Getz) who is misogynistic and controlling in comparison to Seth’s openness. By keeping the human element strong it makes the horror of the upcoming events all the more effective.
The Fly seems like a superhero origin story but without the expected outcome. Instead of a radioactive transformation followed by a lycra suit and some world saving it becomes a nightmare, a warping of the human body into a creature of disgust. As the changes begin to take effect it’s disturbing to see the internal transformations first, Seth changing into an ego driven and aggressive being who cannot control his strength, or his urges. This ‘insignificant’ insect that is often viewed as a simple household pest, is the transformative push for Brundle, a confidence boost and opening to a whole new experience. He is no longer the kindhearted intellectual and is instead a quintessential ‘alpha male’ who wants the world to see everything he has become. At least, that is, until those changes begin to take an external effect on him.
“The premise may be pure sci-fi fantasy; teleportation and transmutation, but the emotional resonance of watching a loved one suffer is all too real.”
After the denial stage Seth begins to accept what happened to him and is failed by his body, left weakened and mutilated by the splicing of his genes and his demeanor changes back to his softer self. The comparison to cancer made by Brundle seems apt, but it could be a metaphor for many diseases and illnesses that change the body and deteriorate the person, making this film feel immensely personal for every spectator. Each person watching this will see something slightly different in his distortion but the similarity amongst them all will be the feeling of anguish and sadness towards what is happening to him. His intelligence stays for a long time, his ability to vocalise what is happening to him, his hope that there is purpose to his illness and his scientific nature all becoming a protective shield against what is happening to him.
The metaphor of the aging process and the devastation of disease is clear within the deterioration of Brundle. Through the genuine romance set up between him and Ronnie there’s a tragedy to be seen about watching a loved one slowly change and be ravaged by something that cannot be stopped or fought. This isn’t a Horror with a physical antagonist who can be defeated or killed nor is it about a curse that can be reversed through magic, this is almost an inevitability that simply has to reach its end. In this case an end through the assisted suicide of a partner, a tragicly heartbreaking closure to what begin as a realistic and affirming romance. The premise may be pure sci-fi fantasy; teleportation and transmutation, but the emotional resonance of watching a loved one suffer is all too real.
The use of practical effects makes this film feel timeless, nothing overly dates it and instead it is truly a masterpiece of makeup and puppetry. By the time the final act is in full swing so is the magic of these effects artists. Body horror isn’t just gross out gore and torture, it needs to be driven by psychology to effect us as deeply as it does here. Each transformation stage Brundle goes through combines the horrific with the beautiful, each slimy detail executed with wonderful precision to make an audience gasp and gag simultaneously. It’s no wonder that Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis were awarded an Academy Award for their special effects makeup skills.
Of all the horrors within The Fly one that stuck with me the most was the gynecology sequence. There’s a touch of monstrous motherhood, the idea of Ronnie not having control of what is within her body and her desperation to remove it and take back her agency against what may be inside of her. The bloody nightmare of a wriggling maggot birth had me squirming just as much as the fly vomit and tear away jaw in later scenes. As much as this film is a star vehicle for Jeff Goldblum that doesn’t mean that Geena Davis is neglected as his affectionate but suffering lover. Her bodily autonomy is challenged by Seth’s insistence on creating the ultimate nuclear family by merging himself, Ronnie, and their unborn child into one entity, denying her the solution she sees as best for herself. This exploration of a woman choosing abortion as her own solution is one that rarely makes it into the Sci-Fi landscape and proves that turning into a fly monster isn’t the only body issue Cronenberg wanted to address in this film.
It may not be a hot take, the film has been around for 35 years and loved by many Horror fans since it’s release, but this film is astonishing. There is a fear sometimes with watching work that is so built up within the Horror community that the actual film itself will crumble under the weight of it’s praise and infamy, but The Fly carries it’s legacy with ease on it’s bristled shoulders. Since watching this combination of body horror and human tragedy I have only one regret, that I didn’t get to it sooner.