You can’t get into a discussion about director David Cronenberg’s best films without mentioning The Fly (1986). Sure, it doesn’t carry the same sublime weirdness as his Videodrome (1983) or the thematic depth of what may be his masterwork, Naked Lunch (1991), but it’s certainly—and ironically, for a movie titled The Fly—the most human and mature of his body of horror output. At its base, The Fly is a romantic tale of love conquering all—a tale that just so happens to have a healthy heaping of gore and splatter. Because of this, the film is Cronenberg at his nastiest, yet most accessible and humane—reasons why this remains probably his most recognizable picture.
A remake of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 Vincent Price creature feature of the same name (and proof that remakes can actually be good—if you stick some talent behind the camera), Cronenberg’s The Fly is a sci-fi/horror hybrid in the tradition of such films as the bulk of James Whale’s Universal horror output. There’s shades of Whale’s Frankenstein films here, with The Fly‘s themes of science run-amok, but it may most resemble The Invisible Man (1933). Where the scientific experiments of Claude Rains’ character in The Invisible Man ended in disaster—by meddling in things man must leave alone—the same can be said for Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle in The Fly. (This is Goldblum at his most idiosyncratic and in his best and most iconic role.) Brundle, a brilliant scientist, is working on a means of creating teleportation through small booth-like contraptions called telepods. While he can send inanimate objects with ease, living flesh is a different issue, usually ending with the subject turned inside-out in a gory display of viscera. But Brundle, nevertheless, sees himself on the edge of a breakthrough, so he asks science reporter Veronica (Geena Davis) to begin documenting the process for posterity.
Brundle, of course, does figure out how to properly send living creatures from one telepod to the next, and soon decides to try it out himself. This being a horror movie, things go awry as Brundle accidentally teleports himself with a common housefly, fusing his own DNA with that of the fly. The movie then becomes a document of Brundle’s slow transformation from man into part human/part insect Brundlefly creature. At first the transformation is welcome, since Brundle—à la comic book heroes like Spider-Man—finds himself imbued with superhuman strength and stamina.
The pros are short-lived, however, as Cronenberg’s themes of body horror and the distrust and failure of the flesh soon pop up. Brundle finds himself turning more and more grotesque and monster-like, brought to life by the creature and makeup effects of steady Cronenberg contributor Chris Walas. The one constant, however, is Veronica’s love that grows for Brundle, a love that culminates in the final scenes to create one of the most tender moments in Cronenberg’s filmography.
But don’t mistake these images of love as mushy sentimentalism. This is a Cronenberg film, after all, and The Fly is an often nasty, bloody affair. The Brundlefly itself is sufficiently gross and ugly, and still holds up today due to the use of top-notch makeup effects in the days before CGI. The final scenes in particular—while touching in their humanity—are an almost operatic outburst (in fact, Cronenberg directed a Howard Shore composed opera version of the film in 2008) of Cronenberg-ian gross-out violence. It’s prime Cronenberg—and proof of why he’s one of our great, singular directors—and a modern classic of two genres.
The Fly will be shown at 8 p.m., but as always the pre-show kicks in about 7:40 p.m., and this week it’s the twelfth and final chapter—“The Knife Descends”—of the 1934 Bela Lugosi serial The Return of Chandu and the Betty Boop cartoon Mother Goose Land (1933).