One of the most truly enjoyable things about genre filmmaking is how obviously in tune with its era it almost accidentally becomes. Spy thrillers became more of a thing in times of political tension, film noir is a reaction to cynical post-WWII attitudes and one of the reasons that horror is unabashedly my favorite genre is how its sub-genres packs neatly into the timeline of America (and to some degree, maybe, the world – but doubtful).
Body Horror belongs in the 80s. You don’t hear much about body horror in 00s unless it is a big Netflix hit or The Human Centipede. You don’t hear about body horror in the 90s at all – horror movies were too busy dealing with its worst era ever. No, body horror, the concept of not being in control of your own body at all, of deteriorating, of your body doing things you don’t want it to do, of dying horribly and ghastly – that is only home in the 80s. And it’s very obvious why.
AIDS. AIDS came and scared up the entire population to the point that movies of body horror very well mirrored the terror people felt of catching a fatal disease that they know barely anything about.
So, along comes The Fly, a remake of 1958 Vincent Price science fiction horror film, with the ridiculous premise of a man turning more and more into a fly that sounds entirely too ridiculous to take seriously in any form (Indeed, Mel Brooks is one of the producers of the film and went uncredited to avoid people not taking the movie seriously).
Under the grisly direction of David Cronenberg, the movie became more relevant than its predecessor as a horror classic and a completely manic reminder of the mortality and fragility of man. It’s about the fact that we’re going to die and that we’re not prepared for that fact and every second we get closer, we get even more afraid.
How the premise goes about with that is that it introduces to us immediately after its opening credits to “absent-minded scientist” surrogate Seth Brundle (80s staple Jeff Goldblum) just as he is introducing himself to science journal journalist Ronnie Quaife (other 80s staple Geena Davis). He wastes no time trying to tell her about his current project just as the audience are being introduced to it as well, a teleporter that is having trouble working with flesh or living material.
Eventually, under a jealous rage with Ronnie’s involvement and a lot of stress with the possibility of the story coming out prematurely, Brundle makes himself the human test subject, without knowing a fly joined him in the teleportation process –- and comes out better. Way better than expected. He’s the pinnacle of human capability. He’s strong, athletic, fit, sexually charged, smarter and quicker.
And then he slowly begins to turn worse. Much worse.
This manner of having the characters immediately put into the scenario and explaining it just as they are enduring it tells something about both the script by Cronenberg & Charles Edward Progue and the editing by Ronald Sanders. One of the more unsung strengths of The Fly is how brisk it is as storytelling. It’s a surprisingly quick film, communicating everything it has to, for the most part, within 96 minutes. In fact, the movie feels like it has more excess than lack of content, largely in terms of scenes between Ronnie and her ex-boyfriend/editor with the name I refuse to believe is real Stathis Borans (played by John Getz), but I’ll get more on those scenes later. The fact that the movie is pretty short and gets everything done is not just an advantage of its pacing, but it also accelerates the various states of Brundle immensely, making his severe degeneration more and more of a liability. Aided by a very moving underscore by Howard Shore, the audience can’t even fathom how bad Brundle looks before his next appearance where he looks worse.
While the acting is itself just your standard 1980s work for the most part, Jeff Goldblum in himself really embodies the busybody, frenetic attitude of a fly before he even begins his transformation. He’s so jittery, so fast and shaky in his speech and mannerisms without even awareness of it that makes him perfect for the role of an eccentric scientist alone, let alone an eccentric scientist who begins becoming more and more stressed under the situation of what is to happen with his body. Even underneath the heavy make-up that the latter half of the movie throws onto him, it doesn’t appear to change his persona so much, but it mixes in perfectly well with what he’s becoming… his rapidfire speech, his sudden fidgets and all.
Borans as a character is another story. The movie spends too much time with his presence, usually sexually teasing or harassing Ronnie, when the only actual role he needs to fill is as the editor who just keeps wasting Brundle’s patience by threatening to publish the story before its ready. He does this kind of well, but also has an altogether too sleazy dimension to this that doesn’t make me want this to happen. I would hope not all John Getz roles are like this (I found out after the fact that he was The Social Network, but I really would not have made that connection by myself), but he’s a fucking creep. He really is.
If they really needed a love triangle between Brundle, Ronnie and Borans (the whole subplot seems too much to be added as a need to explain why the editor would be so hasty to publish the story – when that’s just a stock characteristic of editors and not really imperative to explain – rather than as anything organic to the story), I’d have rather they just used a new character introduced as the third wheel instead of Borans. It wasn’t as if they were overcrowded in leads. I only mentioned those three characters because they are literally the only characters save for some bit appearances and Ronnie, as much as Davis tries to bring more nuance and character into her, is there solely as a love interest object for Goldblum and a witness to his horror.
The other problem with Borans as a character in this fashion is that because of this, his heroics at the end of the film against Brundle (again preferred to be sent to the newly imagined character) undermines the tragedy of Brundle’s plight at the last act. As satisfying as it is to see Borans be harmed the way he is in the climax, they turned him into a hero at that moment and it ruins the film more than it can return from.
But mostly, I just would never ever ever ever trust a guy who would anybody while she grieves for her friend “Do I get to claim your body after this?”
That fucker was an irredeemable creep.
Now, the real star, the real showcase of The Fly by the end of the film is in fact the landmark storytelling done by the makeup work of Chris Walas (who is the very first credit at the end of film… and damn well deserves it) and Stephan Dupuis. It’s horrible and painful to watch what Brundle has to go through and that comes from every little missing fingernail, all the vomit, all the dirty and dried skin and pores… every little grisly detail is there for us to taken in and between that progressive deformity and the performance style of Goldblum, we get a symbiotic effects/man establishing of character that I have never seen so well done in film again save for Andy Serkis’ work.
In addition to that fact, the most insane of these effects occurring in climactic scenes of nightmare fuel… an abortion here, a pregnancy nightmare there, a frightening little vomit drop there, an inside-out baboon here and one of the darkest most sudden nihilistic endings upon the film following to a very intense display of force and uncertainty between characters, this movie does well to keep reminding the audience that these things are what happen to you as you age… you’re not living, you’re slowly dying, pal.
It’s an imperfect film, stuck in its dated 80s era, but The Fly’s still a pretty creepy little piece of work by the master of body horror Cronenberg – the dude totally got that genre to a T – that’ll make you want to take a shower after watching (if not in the middle of it). It’s hasn’t come out of the test of time perfectly fine, but it came out at least alive and looking like this.
Which is fine by me!