Bucket List Movie #452: The Fly (1986)
If Alfred Hitchcock is synonymous with suspense, John Ford with westerns, and Judd Apatow with comedies about insufferable man-children who inexplicably win women who are miles out of their league, then David Cronenberg will forever be associated with Body Horror.
You're familiar with the trope of Body Horror, right? Where any nasty, painfully nightmarish thing that can happen some poor slob's body does? Basically, if it's vomiting, bleeding, breaking, rotting and falling off, or mutating in the most horrific way possible, it's Body Horror, and Cronenberg is the undisputed king of this trope. His recent films have shown a quieter side more intent on human behavior (such as Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method), so either Cronenberg is getting soft in his old age, or feels his work in grossing out his audience is done. I'll give Cronenberg this: his Body Horror movies may be hard to watch, but you can't accuse them of being boring or cliched. In fact, I think one of his greatest strengths as a director is his emotional investment in the plot and characters. What makes the onscreen terror so effective is that it's never gratuitous; we feel for the characters because we get to know them, so when their bodies turn against them, it's both sickening and poignant.
Never is this more evident than in Cronenberg's 1986 masterpiece, The Fly. Based on a 1957 short story and a remake of the beloved, if campy, 1958 film, Cronenberg's The Fly is one the most disgusting, gruesome, peek-through-your-fingers horror films ever made; it also happens to be one of the heartbreaking movies I've ever seen. Once the initial wave of disgust passes, tears threaten to take over.
Tiresome Rant of the Day: Unfortunately, The Fly is also responsible for bringing one of the most irritating and overused taglines/movie quotes into the lexicon: "Be afraid, be very afraid". Yup, it originated in The Fly. Be annoyed, be very… no, I've already run that joke into the ground in the summary, best not to press my luck.
The Fly stars Jeff Goldblum… and already some of you are probably doing mental impressions of his trademark stammer and verbal tics that have made him popular with comedians everywhere. I know I did, and it doesn't help that the movie immediately opens with him in his feathered 80's hair glory and normally sleepy eyes bugged to Boston Terrier proportions. Let me state that I honestly have nothing against Goldblum, but I confess he rarely wows me as an actor. When any actor comes off exactly the same in movies as they do in interviews, then I consider that a bit of a problem. Not that I have any right to mock Goldblum, considering he has an impressive roster of classics on his resume (Annie Hall, The Big Chill, Jurassic Park, and today's BLM), and I… don't.
But sometimes I like being proven wrong, and Goldblum proved what a presumptuous dope I was with his sweet, shy, lovable, increasingly unhinged, and ultimately tragic portrayal of our protagonist, ambitious scientist Seth Brundle. We meet him trying to impress reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis, who was later briefly married to Goldblum) by taking her home to see his miraculous invention: "telepods", which can teleport items from on place to the next. All Seth needs to do is to type in the commands on a computer (cue the inevitable chuckles at the outdated technology), and presto! Seth hopes to teleport living things, and he experiments using a lab baboon, but with very bad results (for the uninitiated, "very bad results" in a typical Cronenberg film translates into as "oh my God, so much blood, WHAT IS THAT THING, MAKE IT STOP, GAAAAAHHHHH!!!").
While Seth tries to figure out how to make the telepods work on living matter, he and Veronica start a romance, but it appears to be threatened by Veronica's slimy editor with the very Game of Thrones name of Stathis Borans (John Getz). He also happens to be Veronica's ex. When are people in movies going to learn to stop dipping their pens in the company ink?
Eventually Seth successfully teleports another baboon, but his feeling of triumph is short-lived when he suspects Veronica still has feelings for Stathis. He tries to ease his distress with booze, and if you've ever done something stupid under the influence, trust me, it has nothing on what Seth does: failing to learn from Mike Teevee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Seth decides to test the telepod on himself. The good news? It works. The unbelievably bad news? A tiny fly innocently found its way into the telepod with Seth. "Computers are stupid," Seth tells Veronica at one point, "they only know what you tell them". Well, the poor computer doesn't know what to do with two living things at once, so it fuses Seth and the fly.
Seth is thrilled with his success, so thrilled he isn't at all disturbed by his new abundance of energy and strength, his alarming new sweet tooth, his increased sex drive, and those nasty new black hairs sprouting on his back. Veronica, on the other hand, is very disturbed by Seth's erratic behavior and his growing list of unsavory physical changes. It only gets worse as Seth's hair starts falling out, flesh and appendages start rotting off in bits and pieces, and he develops acidic vomit in order to consume food. Both distressed and corrupted by these changes, Seth attempts to go about his normal life, but as his condition only gets more monstrous, "normal" is no longer a viable option. He and Veronica realize that they're both powerless to stop his grotesque transformation into "Brundlefly".
The best horror movies to me are the ones that don't just show you awful things happening, but show you why the things that are happening are awful, why we should care that they're happening to good people. 1976's Carrie works because we feel for Carrie, we want her to be happy and triumph… but she doesn't, and everyone suffers as consequence. In The Incredible Shrinking Man, we share Scott Carey's fears of his shrinking body and his frustration at the mysterious cause of his condition. The first half of the original The Vanishing (the American remake can take a long dive off a short pier) is frightening because we have no idea what happened to poor Saskia; the second half is even more frightening, because we find out.
That's why The Fly is such an emotional punch in the gut: it's not just a gross-out horror film, but a tragic romance. Even if you're completely desensitized to everything, it's difficult not to get caught up in Seth and Veronica's plight. The Fly was released during the time when the world was just barely beginning to understand the AIDS virus, in this passage retrieved from Wikipedia:
"David Cronenberg was surprised when The Fly was seen by some critics as a cultural metaphor for AIDS, since he originally intended the film to be a more general analogy for disease itself, terminal conditions like cancer and, more specifically, the aging process:
If you, or your lover, has AIDS, you watch that film and of course you'll see AIDS in it, but you don't have to have that experience to respond emotionally to the movie and I think that's really its power; This is not to say that AIDS didn't have an incredible impact on everyone and of course after a certain point people were seeing AIDS stories everywhere so I don't take any offense that people see that in my movie. For me, though, there was something about The Fly story that was much more universal to me: aging and death--something all of us have to deal with (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fly_(1986_film))."
Cronenberg has great empathy for his characters and their ordeal; Veronica stays by Seth despite her disgust at what he's becoming, but we see her inner turmoil and doubts about how she feels about all this. Many pose the question of whether Veronica is doing this because she loves him, or out of pity and obligation? It matters not, for she acts the way anyone else would.
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: How well does The Fly work as a tragedy? In 2008, Howard Shore adapted it into an opera. That's right, an opera.
I'm pleased to report that Stephan Dupuis won the Academy Award for his mind-boggling makeup for The Fly, and I posted as few images as I could, because spoiling too much would be unforgivable. Even if you hate Cronenberg's ickier films, you have to give him this: he's one of Hollywood's most economical, efficient directors. The Fly has a cast of three main characters, opens immediately with these three characters, and he wastes no time getting to the nitty-gritty of his story. If you look at Cronenberg's filmography, you'll notice that very few of his films crack 2 hours. It's little wonder that The Fly was adapted into an opera, considering its limited cast of characters and the fact that the majority of the film takes place in Seth's apartment.
Cronenberg also doesn't take the easy route with the characters. Seth becomes more a "mad scientist" after his experiment goes wrong, not before (I never understood how mad scientists in fiction get anything done). I appreciate that Veronica never feels like just the love interest, but an integral part of the story. I have to hand it to Geena Davis, she was frequently cast as the girlfriend, wife, or, even worse, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (such as The Accidental Tourist, for which she won an Oscar) in her heyday, but she always brought a certain warmth, grit, and quirky intelligence each time, making thankless parts memorable and real. We see Veronica's conflicting feelings of sadness, confusion, and anger reflected in Davis's expressive brown eyes, and what she's ultimately forced to do in the end makes a devastating impact on her (and us). Even pervy Stathis isn't the cliched villain, but an ultimately flawed but okay person who ends up having Veronica's best interests at heart. He even gets a heroic turn; it doesn't work out very well, but points for trying.
The Fly is a must-see, not just for horror fans, but for those who want a visual lesson in tight screenwriting, visceral emotions brought to horrible life, and a gross-out story done right.