Friday Editor’s Pick: The Fly (1986)

by on January 27, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Feb 3 at 7:30 and Fri Feb 4 at 3:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]

We’ve still got three more weekends left of MOMI’s David Cronenberg retrospective. Don’t miss Nathan Lee’s paean to the director’s prevailing awesomeness for Alt Screen.
It must be a sure-fire hit, as The Fly is the only film screening more than once. Says Andrew Sarris, “”Not since Psycho has there been a movie so completely drenched with modernist malaise and yet also such a deeply felt work of art.” Two less justifications for not making the Queens trek.

Eric Henderson for Slant:

David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of the sci-fi schlockfest The Fly is celebrated as perhaps the most perfectly balanced of Cronenberg’s pre-prestige films, with as much attention paid to the director’s infamous knack for exploiting the audience’s own hang-ups about the deficiencies and unpredictability of their own bodies as is toward his almost completely humorlessness take on the splatter genre. Admittedly, the tale of a scientist accidentally fusing his own body with that of a housefly might not on the surface have as much potential to spur our icky introspection as the violent couch potato epic Videodrome or his uncompromising examination of life and death at the end of a hood ornament Crash (still his most underrated film). Thankfully, Cronenberg’s draft of Charles Edward Pogue’s screenplay switches focus from the damsel in distress freakshow of the original 1958 film to (predominately) the slow transformation and decomposition of the human body and what it does to that body’s owner.

Though The Fly rewards a generalized reading as a metaphor for terminal illness without too much unused, leftover thematic material (hell, it’s a pretty fantastic little horror flick/chamber tragedy on the surface, hence the easy tag line “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”), almost every one of The Fly‘s viscous substances reflect the of-the-moment AIDS panic, re-characterizing the film as something of a requiem for the pool orgy abandon of the director’s decade-earlier They Came from Within. In its galvanizing portrait of a body ravaged and sexual stasis infected by bugs, The Fly might be Cronenberg’s most direct horror film ever.


Time Out (London):

What am I working on? I’m working on something that will change the world and human life as we know it!’ So Seth Brundle (Goldblum) promises in the opening line of Cronenberg’s inspired remake. Sure, he wants to get science reporter Davis into bed, but he means it too. Not that Cronenberg evinces any interest in teleportation – Brundle’s hokey invention. Nor does he hang his scientist for Frankensteinian hubris. Rather, this is a film about fusion. That of man and insect, of course; but also the emotional and physical fusion between man and woman – liberating and painful as that may be. The playful, quirky chemistry between Goldblum and Davis in the first half of the movie ensures that this gothic horror is heartbreaking as well as stomach-churning (the special effects by Chris Walas are still staggering, 16 years on).


The Playlist reports that Fox has passed on a proposed sequel written by Cronenberg. Cinema Blend has further details on its conception, and the more likely Eastern Promises project rejoining Cronenberg once again with Viggo Mortensen. Stay tuned.


Film School Rejects features “33 Things We Learned from David Cronenberg’s The Fly Commentary.”


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Tribune:

David Cronenberg`s The Fly is that absolute rarity of the `80s: a film that is at once a pure, personal expression and a superbly successful commercial enterprise. In a summer already blessed with the finely crafted thrills of James Cameron`s Aliens, The Fly still stands out for the intensity of its shock sequences, which must rank with the most fiendishly imaginative and ruthlessly gut-wrenching ever recorded on film. Yet the film also is a droll black comedy and an unexpectedly moving love story. Though his films are filled with powerful, original images and driven by fresh and disturbing ideas, Cronenberg has never been able to put together a fully functional narrative, with action that develops smoothly and logically and characters who can command our complete identification. The Fly changes all that. Cronenberg finally has become a complete filmmaker, weaving both visual concepts and convincing emotions into a full-bodied creation.
The Fly presents human sexuality as an irredeemably dark, destructive force, a point of view that isn`t easy to accept in these supposedly liberated times. But horror movies–the best of them, anyway–exist to give form to the unthinkable, to allow us to confront our most irrational feelings, our darkest impulses, and to exorcise them. The Fly seizes on our ingrained, instinctive horror of sexuality, the sense of shame that our fundamentally puritanical society can`t help but teach us, and by confirming our worst fears, helps us, for a moment, to move beyond them.



Anthony Timpone talks to Cronenberg for Fangoria:

What first appealed to you about Charles Edward Pogue´s script for The Fly?

The reconceptualization of the original´s basic premise attracted me, the idea of this scientist´s gradual transformation. The film really becomes a metamorphosis, a different kind of story altogether, not just a quickie head switch. Though it is certainly true that there have been many transformation films – it has become something of a sub-genre in itself – Pogue´s The Fly was so well done and the details were so interesting and physically right, that it really got me. It´s ironic, but the stuff in The Fly that people will call “most Cronenberg” was already in Pogue´s script before I rewrote it. The stuff that they might not notice as being mine – the characters and the dialogue – are mostly mine. I hope they notice.
Did you ever expect to make a horror film for Mel Brooks?

No, but that´s what´s nice about the movie business. These things come out of the blue and suddenly, unexpected connections are made. I never thought of Mel Brooks as an extraordinary producer before he made The Elephant Man, and I could have imagined myself asking Brooks if I could direct it. During our meetings on The Fly, we primarily wanted to make sure that we all felt the same way about the project in general and not hold any mistaken illusions of what we wanted to do.
Would you object if The Fly is labeled as your “monster movie?”

The Fly is the closest thing I´ve ever come to making a monster movie. It is a monster movie in a certain sense, there is a monster in it so I couldn´t resent that.
In some ways, then, The Fly downplays the schlock horror elements of your earlier offerings?
I´m not saying that there aren´t some very disgusting scenes in The Fly, there are some very strong scenes and it is a horror film with sci-fi elements. But (laughs), there´s also a great deal of acting, dialogue and characterization. The movie´s beginning is very much that, as opposed to blood from beginning to end. It´s nothing like that, though I´ve never been afraid of blood. The Dead Zone was relatively restrained for me because that was the movie´s tone. Each project takes its own tone, and I didn´t have any impulse to impose gore on The Dead Zone because it was really a different story, a psychological thriller rather than a horror film. The Fly is definitely a horror film.


James Rocchi for the San Francisco Chronicle blog:

Susan Sontag told us about disease as metaphor; with The Fly, Cronenberg gave us an incredibly potent ultimate expression of that idea. It’s no coincidence Cronenberg’s film was recently turned into an opera; The Fly has the intimate, close feel of a stage play, with a handful of characters on a few sets. That intimacy — between the characters, often trapped in one room — makes The Fly into a pressure cooker, where tension builds in a confined space with no possibility of safe release. But The Fly is intimate in other ways, too; the romance between Goldblum and Davis feels real and sincere but also fresh and funny, like a classic romantic comedy that takes a sharp, ugly left turn into darker, grimmer territory.
And, finally, putting aside all highfalutin’ talk about emotional authenticity and structural craft, The Fly is really scary — creepy scary, gross scary, grisly scary. When Seth knows what’s happening to him — and how he can’t stop it — he paraphrases Kafka: “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake.” Goldblum’s motormouthed verbal style works with the character perfectly — brainy bravado turning to alienated angst as the transformation re-makes him — but by the finale, all the quips and quotes and talking from the opening of the film are gone, replaced by buzzes and shrieks and brutal, hungry yowls of anger and need. The Fly doesn’t stick with us because of the fantastic idea of as Seth’s DNA being mashed up with that of an insect; it sticks with us because of the raw and real fear and worry Brundle feels as his body changes, forcing us to worry and wonder and really think about the monstrous possibilities inside us all.



Tom Huddleston for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

David Cronenberg’s early preoccupation with the flesh has been well documented. In Rabid he explored the concept that flesh is both integral to the self and yet able to rebel against it, in The Brood it was the ability of the flesh to reproduce itself, and the uncertain outcome of such an event. Scanners depicted the mind fighting back against bodily dominance, while Videodrome examined the introduction of technology to the human equation, imagining a world where machines and bodies become fused, creating a ‘new flesh.’ Cronenberg’s obsession reached its feverish conclusion in his 1986 remake of The Fly, taking all of these different variations on a single theme and splicing them into a single, faultless whole.

This metaphor of splicing opposes other aspects of the production. The screenplay effortlessly blends genres—horror, romance, sci- fi, tragedy, even comedy. It is a film which rises above humble beginnings, taking the most basic outline of the original ‘50s film — man merges with fly in bizarre scientific accident — and seamlessly integrating modern preoccupations: sex and death, ageing and loss of self, love and the death of love. In the process it becomes so much more than the original, an epic tragedy in 90 minutes, one of the finest love stories ever committed to celluloid and the best American horror movie of the ‘80s.

More than any of his other works, The Fly explores Cronenberg’s conflicted feelings about flesh—it is desirable, rebellious, unpredictable, dangerous and beautiful, and will eventually be the death of us all. But there is also a sense of moving on, of laying old obsessions to rest and discovering a new fascination with human relationships in all their complexity, laying the groundwork for the next phase of his development as a filmmaker, the psychological terrors of Dead Ringers, Crash and Spider.



Walter Chan for Film Freak Central:

One of the saddest explorations of love and loss captured in one of the most underestimated films of the ’80s, Cronenberg’s The Fly is less a remake of the 1958 shocker than an operatic romance grotesque and affecting. Typical of Cronenberg, the picture is less about its special effects (which are amazing and Oscar-winning, courtesy Chris Walas) than it is about his obsessions. It’s an early culmination of sorts of Cronenberg’s auteur hallmarks: sexual evolution, the sympathy of technology and biology, the tragedy of decrepitude among sentient beings, and the primal power of dreaming and ambition. A model of “selfish cell” hypothesis as the prime mover in any discussion of cultural anthropology, the picture is motivated by a bout of sexual jealousy (mad scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) tests his teleportation device while drunk and alone) and concluded by two acts of aborted reproduction. Though the gore is plentiful and gleefully disturbing, each classic set-piece moves the film thematically and narratively: the bar tough’s broken arm a subtle fly at the ritual of masculinity; the “vomit drop” further proof of Brundle’s progressive “disease.” Fascinatingly, Cronenberg uses the video camera in The Fly as almost a commentary on his films’ slippery distance–turning away at a key moment to register the shock of an interested outsider and, in so doing, reflecting the audience reaction to his atrocities back to the self-same audience. The self-reflexivity of The Fly (Cronenberg makes a key cameo in a maggot-delivery scene) marks the picture as the most auto-critical and witty of his films if not his most personal (such distinction remaining The Brood‘s), with Cronenberg’s screenplay (written with Charles Edward Pogue) containing some of the best, most incisive observations of his career to this day. (Brundle: “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over and the insect is awake.”) Lonesome, desolate, and in its way as noble as the Pyrrhic sacrifice that concludes The Dead Zone (what is more noble, after all, than pursuing love in a finite lifetime?), The Fly is brilliant and alive.



Chan also speaks to Cronenberg:

Finding this film first to be ferociously romantic, you’ve said that this film is more indicative of aging than the AIDS culture.
Yes, I mean, certainly at that point I’d already done two movies that had a sexual disease as the motor driving them so it would not have been unusual territory for me, but the subtext of The Fly for me was stronger, if you will, than AIDS. I mean, there were sexual diseases before AIDS and there will be sexual diseases after AIDS is conquered, but the point is that there will always be more. 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.

Life as the fatal sexually transmitted disease.
Yes. The Fly is sort of a compressed version of aging and that’s where, really, I think its emotional power comes from. 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. The love story, obviously, though it isn’t developed hugely, is obviously affecting because of the talent of the performers and of their eccentricity–but obviously the love story does add a certain poignancy.

Was that love story augmented by the off-screen romance between Goldblum and Geena Davis?
Well, yes, certainly, I mean they were both professionals but there is such a thing as chemistry, it’s true, and they definitely had it. When you speak of “romantic,” though, I assume that you’re speaking of romance and not the movement in poetry?

Right–intense love between two people, not “the sublime.”
Good, right–I don’t believe that I’m looking for “the sublime” at all.

Tell me about insects, broader–bugs, really, from your parasites to flies to spiders.
People love to think about alien life forms, they’re fascinated by the possibility of going to other planets and finding alien life, but we have the most alien kinds of life you could possibly hope to find right here on Earth. In fact, it’s probably the only place they are in my opinion–we are alone in the universe and we might as well suck it up and get used to it. So, to see a life form that is so inhuman is very illuminating about human-ness. That’s what’s interesting to me and what I think so fascinates kids about animals in general–here’s life in another form and that’s a fascinating insight into what it is to be human.


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