The Fly (1958) Review
Bad science and body-horror have been the mainstays of the macabre almost from the very beginning. Frankenstein is possibly the ultimate example of good intentions-gone-appallingly-awry, but in this genre, it appears that the eggheads rarely get it right. Once he started meddling, Dr. Moreau only made his island creations much, much worse. As did Dr. X andDr. Cyclops. There are those noble aspirations designed to end world hunger that have only resulted in giant mutations going on the rampage, or even humans being recycled into food-stuffs. Atomic radiation has played havoc with practically everything on or under the surface of the planet and machines simply cannot be trusted to do just as they’ve been programmed.
But even when they have the right ideas and their contraptions actually work, something completely unexpected sticks its little oar in and their experiments still go completely pear-shaped.
“Good day in the lab, dear?”
“Erm … not exactly …”
Even the concept of super-transportation – in this case, the awesomely time-saving device of teleportation – is fraught with unlooked-for bugs in the machine. Quite literally, as it transpires. When Andre Delambre invents a means by which organic matter can be disassembled in one location and then reassembled, whole and complete and just as it was before, in another, it seems as though the world, and possibly the entire universe, has become his oyster. But the best laid plans of mice and men tend to come unraveled almost as soon as their potential becomes recognised, and after all his tests point towards great success Andre opts to try the machine out himself. And, of course, the telepods do their thing with admirable flash-bang-wallop, taking his cells from one and rebuilding them in the other, successfully transporting the erstwhile boffin across the laboratory in the blink of an eye. Except, Andre wasn’t alone in the pod when he undertook the experiment. There was a common household fly in there too … and the process combined and spliced their genes together into one hybrid at the other end. With the head and arm of the fly, now grown to monstrous proportions, but the terrified, embittered and disconsolate mind and body of a man, the scientist takes to wearing a towel to hide his horrific visage away from his lovely wife and inquisitive son, and desperately undertakes a search to find the fly that is now scuttling about with his own little head and arm attached in order to reverse the grotesque process if at all possible.
Famously and brilliantly remade by David Cronenberg, for whom the project seemed God-given, in 1986, the story became one of “insect politics” and corrupted evolution, an intelligent treatise upon a subject that, here, in fifties bug-headed paranoia, seems altogether much hokier and preposterous. The dazzling notion that is the surefire kicker every time you think about either version of the story is that the bloody teleportation devices actually work and it is just sheer infernal luck that mucks them up! Of course, with stringent and less egotistical brains than Andre’s in this one and Jeff Goldblum’s bohemian Seth Brundle in the remake working on their respective projects, such careless little stowaways would be far less likely occurrences. In a proper facility these lab-junkies would have teams of assistants and equipment specifically constructed to sweep the pods for alien matter that shouldn’t be there. Thus, the chances of such a “Eureka!” moment turning into such a calamitous “D’oh!” moment would be considerably reduced. But there’d be no fun in that, though.
I mean in these escapist terms, we don’t want that actual science to work, do we?
The key ingredients of Kurt Neumann’s The Fly are both its humanity and its surrealism. It paints a picture of youthful endeavour and the commitment and love of a young and devoted family on the cusp of great success. David Hedison (known as Al back then before he joined on the USS Nautilus for TV’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and then helped 007 as the CIA’s Felix Leiter) is the dedicated scientist Andre Delambre who, at the start of the film, is found to be dead, his head and his arm crushed beneath a big industrial press. His distraught wife, Helene (pretty redhead Patricia Owens) confesses to the deed and babbles on about how they must find a strange fly with a white head. Clearly in a state of shock, she is taken back home and sedated. Finally, she recounts the outlandish events that led up to her husband’s apparent mercy-killing to his aghast brother, Francois (Vincent Price).
The Fly started out as short story by George Langelaan published in the June 1957 issue of Playboy. Fox immediately saw the potential in a tale that combined cutting-edge scientific work with extreme horror and suspense and snapped up the rights, assigning Shogun’s James Clavell to create the screenplay. Clavell already had some SF titles under his belt – Rocketship X-M and the very interesting and moody robot drama Kronos - and he would prove to be incredibly versatile, with scripts for The Great Escape, 633 Squadron, The Satan Bug and even To Sir, With Love following on. What he focuses upon is the central relationship between Andre and Helene, and their home life, all of which is told in flashback. Andre may be dedicated and virtually lock himself in his basement laboratory for a couple of weeks at a time, but there is no denying the affection that he has for both his wife and his young son. Which, of course, makes the disastrous turn of events all the more devastating.
But Neumann has not made the type of horror film that follows the normal monster pattern. We don’t have killings every few minutes. We don’t have a beast on the rampage. What his unusual story does is to present a truly abominable situation from a distinctly human perspective. Viewed nowadays, it seems quaint and slow-moving, lacking in incident and not supercharged with horror. The events remain largely housebound, locked within the family, and the last act is the one that piles on the emotions and the hysterics, and keeps the shell-shocked drama intimately wrought. There are no townships or cities at risk from being crushed underfoot. The army isn’t needed to combat horror hordes of insectoid beasts. In many ways, The Fly is a breath of fresh air. There is no denying how silly it all ends up being, but even though it can raise a giggle or two, it still tugs at the heartstrings and makes the skin crawl.
The makeup fx may seem comical now – that oversized, mandible-flicking noggin – but they are a product of their time and reveal plenty of imagination and the typical flair for detail that those big head-covering masks of yesteryear tended to foster in the wake of Jack P. Pierce and Wally Westmoreland. The Fly was unmistakably an outlandish project. The gold and blue hues that comprise the grisly countenance of Andre’s proboscis-clicking noodle are a strangely beautiful combination. In the ridiculous sequel, the fly head is enlarged to a far greater degree until it looks quite, quite stupid. The third film, which arrived in the mid-sixties, when audience tastes had changed, was fuelled by a greater number of mutations and even more variety to the freaks on show. In fact, there isn’t a Fly in it!
But even if having a man wear a monster-head wasn’t exactly a novel image by this time, the little human-headed fly certainly is a wild concoction. Its web-laced face, widened in absolute terror as the comparatively monstrous arachnid advances upon it, is a truly haunting and harrowing image. To be fair, though, just the size of that web and its eight-legged constructor would be alarming enough for most people, and it is a beautiful conceit that a supposedly innocuous garden spider could become such a nightmarish creature under the circumstances. By this time in the genre, we had seen colossal spiders already. Clint Eastwood had firebombed the super-sized Tarantula and Grant Williams would become The Incredible Shrinking Man and do epic battle with one in the labyrinthine shadows of his own cellar. The spidery-type creatures lying in-wait at the bottom of the chasm in King Kong to catch and devour those poor sailors that the big ape was twisting off the giant log were deemed so damn horrific that only test audiences actually got to see the original footage before it was pruned out. This infamous climactic sequence in The Fly really lingers in the mind, and no matter pedestrian the rest of the film might be it leaves a genuinely nasty aftertaste and the possibility of a nightmare or two to follow.
The surprising thing about the film, as I have implied, is its lack of conflict and confrontation. Andre does not go around killing people in typical monstery fashion. He spends the majority of his time attempting to find a way out of his dilemma, working out equations whilst he still has a human mind with which to make such calculations. Naturally, this wouldn’t have been enough for Cronenberg, who injects more characters into the situation and supplies his Fly-man with enhanced physical aggression as well as a staggering degree of cerebral and philosophical complexity too. But for 1958, Neumann, who sadly died shortly after the film was previewed and never realized how popular it would become, took an oddly serious and emotional stance upon what many now consider to be little more than a colourful curio, albeit enlivened by a couple of intensely bravura shock scenes.
The film was hugely successful and was even well-received by the critics who tended to scoff at these beastly outings, with Variety even praising its “unusual believability”. The poignancy of the central relationship between Andre and Helene was frequently singled-out for kudos. This level of charm and chemistry would have been effective even without one of the loving couple sporting a huge fly’s head, but it certainly aids what is a preposterous scenario into becoming a more deeply affecting drama. Of course, the film could now be viewed as an observation upon how people deal with an incurable disease afflicting a close family member. Euthanasia is at the core of the tale, and if this is hardly a clear-cut and commercial option in today’s cinema fantastique, just imagine how awkward it must have seemed back then. Whilst diseases like AIDs weren’t known, there was an understanding of cancer and of mental illness … and the terrible plight of Andre and Helene would still have rung true to many people with regards to their coming to terms with forms of dementia and psychological collapse.
Whilst it may still have been quite cheap for one of their pictures, Fox bestowed lavish production values upon The Fly, leading it far away from the usual genre fare seen on cinema screens around this time. It sets are big and fun, a fine combination of the luxury homestead of the 50’s well-heeled and the wacky SF paraphernalia of the obsessed boffin. It looks expensive and emboldened by a class and stature that tended to be denied most horror and SF pictures. The Cinemascope photography from Karl Struss and the glorious Technicolor gave it the feel and aura of an A-list offering despite its absurdly over-the-top subject matter. It certainly says something that the sequel was filmed in black-and-white, although still in Cinemascope, and that the third and hugely entertaining entry, also monochromatic, was lensed over in England and cheaper still. After the early fifties, “monster movies” sort of went out of vogue, with bigger, bolder SF and Fantasy productions becoming more popular, such as Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine . Horror was still very much in demand as Hammer and Corman’s Poe series would continue to prove, but it would really be the seventies before creature-features and body-horror would return with vigour to the big screen with the likes of Jaws and Cronenberg, respectively. Neumann’s film, therefore, stands out.
The Fly is a lot more sophisticated than its premise would have you believe, but this lends it an air of respectability that can work against its reputation as a classic shocker. People tend to come to it expecting grisly murders and a monster running through the streets. The performances are good and the slow build-up helps to develop a sense of brooding inevitability, yet the menace we feel is more by proxy than by genuinely monstrous design. We don’t feel threatened all that much, but this is what makes the story a little more out of the ordinary. The makeup design isn’t quite up there with the greats, but it is effective, just the same … and that finale is sure to haunt you for a long time afterwards.
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