The Fly (1986)
Written by Charles Edward Pogue & David Cronenberg
Directed by David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg will be forever associated with some of the best body horror in cinema. Though his film career is not limited exclusively to horror, his most celebrated works fit into that genre. Cronenberg has a great interest in exploring the line between the psychological & physical, how technology behaves like an infection, and the ultimate frailty of our material forms. The movies he has had made are not carving a new path but taking the one created by the first body horror pictures like Frankenstein and Dracula and going more in-depth with their themes, re-examining these ideas of humanity & identity through a contemporary lens.
Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) is a science journalist looking for the next big story at an event in Toronto. She meets Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), an eccentric man who claims to have made a scientific discovery that will change the world. He’s charming enough in a geeky, awkward sort of way, so Veronica goes home with him where he showcases his teleportation pods that actually work. Veronica is so taken with Seth and his invention that she wants to do a story for her magazine about him. Seth isn’t quite ready to go public and suggests a book that can chronicle the entire process and be a bigger launching pad for the writer.
Veronica agrees, and she ends up becoming romantically involved with Seth quite quickly. Her editor and ex-lover Stathis becomes jealous and tries to sow seeds of discord. One night, Seth drunkenly tries his device on himself, unaware that a housefly has entered the pod with him. He emerges re-energized, and as the days pass, his agility, stamina, and strength increase. Veronica senses a disturbing change in Seth’s psyche, aggravated by sudden horrific mutations of his body as it becomes clear that what emerged from that teleportation pod was an entirely new being.
The Fly’s success hinges on two elements: a script that keeps things structurally simple and the chemistry between Davis & Goldblum. The narrative has only a couple sets, with mostly everything happening at Seth’s warehouse laboratory. There are only three central characters, with everyone else being a background player or a very minor supporting part. This tightly written script allows the story to be centered on the relationship between Seth and Veronica. As a result, when the stakes are ratcheted up to the grand finale where everything collapses into tragedy, we don’t just feel the horror we experiencing the heartwrenching emotions. I’ll be honest that The Fly had me tearing up in its final minutes, particularly the last act of Seth accepting his fate and begging Veronica for help.
It’s interesting to note that the original script by Charles Edward Pogue was a very different film. You still have a core trio of characters, but the scientist has a wife, and the third character is the scientist’s employer. The scientist still goes about becoming The Fly in the same way and showcases many terrible mutations, growing extra limbs & using corrosive vomit to digest food. This original version is much more exploitative and ends with a fake-out dream sequence of the wife giving birth to a wriggling maggot only to wake up and find the baby healthy. Cronenberg would take a lot of these elements but bring his own interests and themes into the mix. The end result is a film that is less centered just on Seth and more on him and Veronica mutually. The original script has the scientist turning into a human-sized fly while Cronenberg goes a different route, having Seth fusing more and more to become a new species.
The Fly is not a film for the faint of heart. It contains some of the most unsettlingly visceral moments that will still cause an audience to cover their eyes as Cronenberg doesn’t blink or look away. This would not be possible if not for the makeup effects of Chris Walas. Walas first designed the final mutated form of Brundlefly and then created stages of makeup inbetween to subtly push Seth into transforming throughout the movie. Not until the end do we ever lose sight of Seth’s humanity, though. It’s still Jeff Goldblum’s face but horribly scarred and changed. This is why we can feel the weight of his pain even into those last moments because we were always being reminded this was a human being.
The Fly is a Horror Masterwork because Cronenberg understood that you cannot rely on gory special effects alone and at the heart of all great horror & science fiction are extremely human stories, narratives about pain & loss. The director has stated that he saw The Fly as a metaphor about watching a loved one succumb to age & disease. Many audience members found themselves drawing parallels to the AIDs crisis of the 1980s, where friends and family would deteriorate before your eyes. It’s not surprising that The Fly became such a massive box office & critical success because it spoke to a deep part of ourselves, a reminder of why horror is an essential genre in all media.