A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong.
“Be Afraid. Be very afraid”
So went the tagline to director David Cronenberg’s “The Fly”, more a re-imagining than a remake of the original 1958 shocker. I remember seeing the posters for this film all over back in 86′ and the excitement I felt as I bought a ticket and saw it with an audience for the first time. What I walked away with back then was the feeling that I had just seen an incredibly terrifying film featuring state of the art special effects and an amazing, award winning performance from Jeff Goldblum. But now after umpteen viewings of it I discovered (To my delight) that it isn’t a horror film per se, it’s actually one of the most tragic love stories ever put to celluloid. That love story just happens to be wrapped up in a film about a man who’s slowly turning into a fly. Let me explain…
The aforementioned Jeff Goldblum stars as Seth Brundle, an extremely private and offbeat scientist who has been working on a teleportation device for over six years. As the film begins he’s at a party where he meets Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), a magazine reporter who’s attending the party looking for a story. After a short conversation she accompanies him back to his home where he shows her what she snidely refers to as “The Phone Booths” but are actually telepods, two large devices that can teleport objects between each other. She scoffs at his claim but upon demonstrating them (By teleporting one of her stockings) Seth proves that they are indeed functioning teleportation devices. She is amazed by his achievement and after a few questions she pulls out a tape recorder to correctly record his responses but Seth, being the private person that he is, doesn’t want anyone to know about what he’s created because he hasn’t perfected it. But as any good reporter would do, Veronica takes off and plays the tape back to her editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz) who immediately scoffs at it and claims that it was some sort of elaborate con job that Brundle is pulling on her.
Just as the discussion is over & Stathis gets up to leave the office, Seth arrives and is told that Stathis doesn’t believe any of his claims. Seth takes Veronica out to lunch where he makes her an offer: He’ll let her film him as he perfects his telepods and keep a record of his progress for use as an article or even a book about his work. But she must remain silent about it until he’s done, no articles or books…no mention of it to anyone. He explains to her that his parent company, Bartok Enterprises, would be furious with him if word of it leaked out but more importantly it’s just not ready yet. He hasn’t been able to figure out how to teleport living tissue, the telepods only work with inanimate matter. Until he can crack that nut and teleport people…he doesn’t want his work publicized. She agrees and the two of them embark on a journey during which he successfully manages to teleport a living being (A baboon actually) and the two of them fall in love.
On the night that Seth has accomplished what he set out to do and the two of them are discussing a short vacation before unveiling his devices (They have to wait for tests on the baboon to be taken) Seth points to a package that arrived earlier in the day for Veronica. When she opens it she finds a mock up of a magazine cover featuring Seth’s face and announcing his discovery. It was sent to her by Stathis who is intensely jealous of the relationship that’s developed between the two. It seems that he was Veronica’s lover not too long ago and he wants her back although she’s moved on. She tells Seth that she has to run out for a few hours to “Scrape off” what’s left of her old life from the bottom of her shoe. After she leaves, Seth incorrectly figures out that Stathis is her boyfriend and she’s gone off to see him. Depressed over all of this he gets drunk and in his depression decides to teleport himself through the telepods as a final test. Unfortunately he doesn’t notice the housefly that had flown into the telepod chamber with him…
From then on the film shows us the slow and excruciating transformation of Seth Brundle into what he calls “Brundlefly”. At first Seth believes that the process has been something of a “Rebirth” for him as he’s become incredibly agile, strong and as Veronica finds out soon afterward, sexually insatiable. But that is just the way the transformation begins. He soon becomes hyperactive, speaking louder and faster, constantly in need of something sweet to consume. His face is getting red & blotchy, his hair thinning and his moods becoming more erratic. Veronica discovers some very coarse hair growing out of a small wound on his back and when she has them analyzed she’s told that they are most likely insect hairs. Seth is indeed turning into a amalgam of a human being and a fly! When Veronica confronts him with her concerns he dismisses her and angrily throws her out of his home proclaiming that she’s afraid of the possibilities that the telepod can afford to her.
Of course, he’s slowly losing his mind but Seth is about to lose a lot more than that and as the film moves forward we are witness to the slow disintegration of both Seth’s mind and body. And in between all of this Veronica discovers that she’s carrying Seth’s child but did she get pregnant before or after his teleportation? She decides she’s not going to take any chances and wants to have the fetus aborted but Seth finds out and he REALLY thinks that’s a bad idea. His plan is to put the pregnant Veronica in one telepod and himself in the other in order to form the “Ultimate Family”, three people in one.
The casting here is as close to perfect as perfect can be & Jeff Goldblum gives an Oscar worthy performance as Seth Brundle. His natural appearance suits the character well, he’s very tall with slightly bugged out eyes that are oddly reminiscent of a fly’s. He is very quiet and quirky in the beginning of the film but after his transformation begins he becomes a larger than life force of nature. Goldblum worked out to change his appearance for the film and he is indeed physically different when he emerges from the telepod, he looks stronger & more muscled. His inherent quirkiness suits the character as well, he has a quick, staccato style of recitation that fits an odd yet articulate scientist or inventor. As he changes he practically radiates pathos and sadness and it’s totally believable when, in a later scene, Veronica hugs him when his appearance is horrifying and his ear falls off in front of her (This scene never fails to make an audience both horrified and queasy at the same time). Geena Davis might turn on the googly eyes a bit too much but she’s otherwise perfect as Veronica. She has a air of authority about her yet as her character falls in love with Seth her feelings surround her like an aura that I could actually see. There’s a scene in which she tells Seth that he’s “Cute” and you can practically feel her falling in love with him. She has a dreaminess about her in that scene that’s palpable and wonderfully effective. Actually the both of them were in a real life relationship as they made this film and their actual feelings for each other helped to make their actions both relatable & believable. John Getz makes the oddly named Stathis Borans someone who the audience hissed at initially but eventually sways them to his side. The character really does love Veronica and in the end she comes to him with her problems and he stands at her side, ready and willing to protect her despite the cost. Another great performance in a great film.
But the real stars of “The Fly” are it’s incredibly moving script and it’s Oscar winning special effects. Charles Edward Pogue’s script takes a hokey premise and turns it into a literate, touching love story that inevitably turns to a tragedy of monumental proportions, the “Insect Politics” speech Goldblum gives to Davis in the middle of the film is a classic bit of dialog that carries a lot of weight. It’s an emotionally wrenching script that pulls at the heart strings while it horrifies & disgusts us. It’s really a story of a love triangle that happens to include a man turning into a fly! Chris Walas’ makeup effect work is an example of a craftsman at the peak of his abilities and Brundle’s various stages of transformation are all realistic and believable. The fact that Goldblum could still emote underneath all of that rubber is both testament to his acting prowess and to Walas’ ability to create makeup’s that allowed him to do so. I should also make mention of Howard Shore’s amazingly bombastic (Almost operatic) score that sounds too loud for what is essentially a character piece but is actually perfect & underscores the more dramatic scenes in the film just right.
Much has been said about “The Fly” being an allegory to AIDS. I can understand why some would feel this way, especially after Goldblum describes his malady as “A disease with a purpose” and “Unrelenting”, “A bizarre form of cancer”. But if you listen to Cronenberg’s DVD commentary he says that it had nothing to do with the disease at all, rather it was just his rumination on aging and the way our bodies slowly disintegrate as we get older. Maybe not to the degree that Brundle’s body is disintegrating but disintegrating nevertheless. Only a mind like Croneneberg’s would make a connection like that and although I am a fan of all his work I think that this will stand as his ultimate achievement. “The Fly” was extremely successful and led to a sequel called (What else?) “The Fly 2”. Sadly Neither Cronenberg or Pogue had anything to do with although it was directed by Walas. I’ll get to that one next time out but if you haven’t seen this film (And really…who amongst us haven’t?) then please drop whatever you’re doing and find it then watch it. Be witness to what I think is one of the most perfectly realized horror films ever made. A true classic of the genre and a genuine masterpiece.
“The Fly” – 5 out of 5 shrouds
The Fly (1986)