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The Fly Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 17, 2008

    The Fly Review
    Something went wrong in the lab today ...

    Celebrated Canadian auteur David Cronenberg had explored the “body-horror” concept ad-nauseum (literally in most cases) quite thoroughly even before he tackled a big screen, fully explicit adaptation of the original Vincent Price shocker The Fly, but his remake, with the then-hot property Jeff Goldblum in the lead role of the unluckiest scientist in genre history, went far beyond his own fans' expectations. But what nobody had really bargained for was the level of humour and pathos that he would bring to the ghastly dinner-table at the same time, both elements that he had rarely employed in the past, the domestic hate/jealousy of The Brood and taboo-searching obsession of Videodrome notwithstanding. His dynamic and visceral take on the admittedly daft scenario would prove that he was also a director with innate sensibilities and possessing of a true grasp of the Grand Guignol, his sharply updated version becoming almost a carnival of the grotesque, yet also sprinkled with the tragedy that the travelling freak show carries as well.

    “I bet you think you woke me up about the flesh. You only know society's straight-line about the flesh! You're afraid to dip into the plasma-pool.”

    The plot is actually incredibly simple and all boils down to that old chestnut - love. But only in Cronenberg's world could romance be given such a stomach-churning spin and then put to the ultimate test of subverted, genetically-modified Darwinist survival of the fittest. Not only is the genre-pushing and morality-baiting director tackling the concept of disease and its horrific effect upon all those who come into contact with it but also the notion of one-night-stands and unwanted pregnancies. In a way, The Fly says more about relationships in the 80's than it does about body-horror. Jeff Goldblum is on superbly twitchy and laconic form as Dr. Seth Brundle, an unwittingly reclusive but thoroughly obsessed scientist working round-the-clock on his ultimate discovery - teleportation pods, devices that will truly revolutionise the world. When Geena Davis' investigative journalist Veronica (or Ronnie) happens upon his project and strikes up a relationship with him, Brundle makes the leap from testing plates of meat and oblivious baboons to placing himself in the trial to prove his theory. I don't know - the nerd not only gets the girl but his outlandish experiments seem to be working and then fate steps in and just has to put a fly in the ointment, doesn't it? Well, ok then, a fly in the pod alongside bulbous-eyed Brundle, whose molecules, whilst displaced in time and space, will intermingle with those of the fly's, fusing both their DNAs together and creating ... wait for it ... Brundlefly, a monstrous hybrid of both boffin and buzzin'. But in another large departure from the original schlocker, in which Price literally swapped his head with a passing fly (and ended up looking like a Doctor Who alien), Brundlefly starts off as just a stronger, fitter, more sugar-fixated Goldblum and gradually mutates throughout the film into something more conventionally gruesome, cleverly evolving into an entirely new species. The smart move that Cronenberg makes is to keep Seth perpetually fascinated by his transformation, his inquisitive mind eagerly awaiting its next phase, studying it and coming to terms with it. Even inexplicably proud of it, too, as a whore-snatching, forearm-snapping night on the town prove. This acceptance can't last for long though as the fly part of him becomes ever more dominant. When it transpires that Ronnie is pregnant with Seth's child, a gut-wrenching chain of events take place that drive the family-dynamic into hitherto uncharted territory, the film making a surprisingly tender statement about parental rights ... albeit one that contains ghastly flesh-shedding, eye-popping transformations and vomitous belchings so deadly that they make the Alien's acid-blood look like treacle syrup by comparison. I can clearly remember an entire cinema aisle convulsing with shock almost in unison during one of the film's more notorious fx-gags, and even a patron or two leaving in a hurry with a cautious hand over their mouth when I first saw this at the flicks.

    The original film was very popular in its day and even garnered positive critical reviews. Based on George Langelaan's short story of the same title, the film still ditched the intense psychological drama that the characters underwent and, as such, when viewed nowadays it comes over as quite camp and one-dimensional and far from the classic that it is often cheerfully (and with a wink in the eye) referred to as being. Although much more accessible than most of his work, the subject matter would, nevertheless, play right into Cronenberg's hands. When screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue turned in his first script, Cronenberg wasn't satisfied and reworked it himself, to bring the emotional plight of the characters much more to the fore and contain the story in a more linear and tightly-reined, intimate fashion. Always one to explore the outer realms of physical possibility and to do so in decidedly visual terms, Cronenberg found the opportunity to indulge in what would become even more celebrated makeup milestones after his parasitical outrages in Shivers, his exploding head in Scanners and his sensual New Flesh in Videodrome. The Fly may not be his goriest movie, but it is certainly his ickiest. However, the fearless director wasn't just after the knee-jerk, gag reflex in his audiences.

    “It mated us, me and the fly. We hadn't even been properly introduced.”

    Chris (Gremlins) Walas handled the special makeup FX and became justifiably renowned for his perverse twisting of Goldblum's flesh. But beyond the disgusting prosthetics, girder-strong hairs and horribly bulked-up, sticky, translucent skin, Brundle's transformation into Brundlefly has a more emotional than physical effect upon us, though, which shows how Cronenberg was maturing as a filmmaker. Our wonder and disgust at Brundlefly's hideous appearance, his enzyme secretions and the artefacts in his own anatomical museum of bodily cast-offs (you look for it, don't you? And, to his credit, Cronenberg puts it in there, too. You know what I'm referring to, don't deny it!), is tempered quite magisterially by our own sympathy for his plight. Harking straight back to the halcyon days of Universal's famed monsters, Cronenberg imbues the creature with pathos, intelligence and, for all his ever-consuming wretchedness, dignity. It is a clever, and believable, notion that Seth Brundle, albeit hidden away beneath his new roiling, bristled overcoat of mutating flesh, is still a fascinated scientist at heart and so totally in awe of his own metamorphosis that he can study it without falling into panic and despair. “What's this?” he wonders at some new wiggly lump of still-forming gristle. “I don't know,” he smirks, happy only in the knowledge that whatever it is it is part of some greater, still developing scheme. The tragedy of the predicament is compounded still further with the distinct knowledge that his discovery would have worked. Yet the gene-splicing abilities of the telepods are an even more powerful incentive for Brundle's continual research. It is, of course, accidents in the lab like this (well, maybe not quite like this) that tend to provide the most profound discoveries anyway. The slow dissolution of his human brain and thought processes becomes the powerful stepping-stone to what Brundle knows could be a clever new evolution for Mankind. If he could harness the abilities of the fly, perhaps, utilise certain components unleashed by the hybridisation of man and insect, his discovery could very well be hugely beneficial. His misfortune could become a spectacular sacrifice if he could keep his new mindset from interfering, leading to another tragedy occurring. The Fly part of him doesn't want any involvement in such scientific exploration - basic instincts hardwiring Brundle's motivations as the film progresses onward to one of the most overwrought climaxes that Cronenberg has fashioned for a genre film. With Brundlefly learning of Ronnie's pregnancy, a powerful combination of species-and-fatherly devotion consumes him and we feel the same rage and terror that he/it does at the thought of losing his offspring.

    I know people who simply can't see beyond the imagery and, thus, can't take any of the scenario or its heartrending implications seriously - which is exactly the subtext that Cronenberg is addressing. The belittling of deformity and the condescension or dismissal of those different to the norm is the key stance that Charles Edward Pogue's script and Cronenberg's motives take. Cronenberg embraces such differences, but in spite of his unique “understanding” of extreme outsiders he is no saint, either. Whilst he stands back and admires the grotesque for simply “being”, there is also a side of the director that enjoys the “big reveal”, the showing-off of the freak and the whole ribald pride at being the one holding the leash. This is what makes his films - his earlier ones on up to The Fly and Naked Lunch - such gleeful gross-out cavalcades. He may be saying wow, look at how Brundlefly can climb walls and look at how he eats and how he can maim enemies and rivals, but he is also revealing his own predilection for gawping at the unfeasibly shocking. This dichotomy is what makes his films so challenging and so avant-garde. Chris Walas would go on to direct the surprisingly enjoyable sequel Fly II in 1989 (love the final pay-off revenge-shot!) - and, this time out, he would actually deliver the glorious image of the fly-enzymes eroding a man's noggin that we were craving for in the first entry!

    “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

    The worlds of early Cronenbergian stories tend to be frighteningly claustrophobic. Think of the room-by-room infection spreading through the hotel in Shivers - the parasites, themselves entering us via our most intimate areas. Then The Brood takes on the prison of the mind and the walled-in paranoia of a domestic split. Even Scanners, whilst certainly the most active and location-hopping of this first stage in Cronenberg's own filmic metamorphosis, feels insular and contained, the conflict revolving around the two brothers and their struggle with the same problem. And Videodrome is entirely composed of sensations and hallucinations within the mind, it story's trajectory heading decidedly inward all the time, and The Dead Zone, with its far-reaching implications, still finds its strength from Christopher Walken's lonely and haunted path. Thus, The Fly, despite its globally-affecting potential - teleportation and the unusual education that could be gained from Seth's mutation etc - carries on the introversion of “Big Ideas” by containing them in what, like The Brood before it, amounts to little more than a domestic dispute. Most of the action takes place in Seth's lab-cum-home-cum-lair and this setting anchors the emotion and stops The Fly becoming a conventional rampaging-monster movie. Nor is he concerned with a bodycount - Brundlefly, however terrifying a sight he may be, isn't out to devour hapless human victims at all. He just wants to exist, to survive. The left-field element of his new-breed family isn't all that strange, either. Of course he wants to keep his family unit together - not only is he protecting his own flesh and blood, but he is honouring his obligations as a father. Thinking about it - now that's a costume for the Fathers For Justice league! This all gets somewhat chaotic in the final reel, though, when Brundle's microscopic human side demands one last shot at becoming the dominant factor in his molecular-maelstrom of a body and wires up a third telepod for a reluctant Ronnie.

    “My teeth have begun to fall out. The medicine cabinet is now the Brundle Museum of Natural History. Wanna see what else is in it?”

    It is hard to think of somebody better able to portray a tormented man-child scientist than Jeff Goldblum. The actor possesses that undeniable intelligence and sharp wit of a highly educated man, but he is able, via his own quirky eccentricity, to imbue the character with a sense of adaptability and an almost perpetual air of wonder. His style in this and most other films, for that matter - his chaos theorist Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park being a major case in point - can grate and put people off. There is an immediacy to his eyes, a probing, inquisitive “you'll look away before I do” quality that can be irritating and intimidating but also holds the attention like glue. However, I have always liked Goldblum and his odd, vulture-ish face and that strange, half-completed voice which is so apt for a character such as Brundle whose mouth and tongue are fusing together and mangling his speech. Despite some big roles in some impossibly “big” films - the afore-mentioned Jurassic Park and its first sequel and Independence Day, for examples - it is for The Fly that he will always be remembered. His incessant chatter and excitability, his innocent zeal at his newfound condition and temporary lack of horror at it, and his profound obsession for keeping the baby all go towards painting an indelible portrait of man losing his humanity but retaining a triumphant sense of purpose. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the world's first fully-fledged renaissance monster. But Goldblum, sweating away beneath a mound of bulky prosthetics, suddenly finds the essence of his loss of identity (or, rather, his transition from identity to another) when, in a quiet and morosely reflective moment, he tells Ronnie that he is “an insect who dreamt he was a man ... and loved it. But now that dream is over and the insect is awake.” It is a remarkable moment that would be purely comical if handled even slightly less mournfully than Goldblum manages. As it is he brings out a small bastion of remaining humanity that is actually and horribly “aware” of what is happening from a non-objective point of view. It is an acutely delicate and harrowing scene ... even more so when you consider that he is pushing away the one he loves because he fears for her safety.

    “What does the disease want?”

    “It wants to... turn me into something else. That's not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.”

    By contrast, Geena Davis comes across as little more than disposable fluff, despite some quite emotional moments along the way. She seems to do little more than stand around reacting to the escalating visions of unpleasantness around her. I'm not entirely sure whose fault this is - the actress or the director, or whether it is merely my own interpretation of the character and her interactions throughout the movie. Certainly Cronenberg has never shied away from portraying strong and pivotal female characters - Marilyn Chambers in Rabid, Samantha Eggar in The Brood, Debbie Harry in Videodrome - but it is with his second wave of movies that he really afforded female roles considerable depth and insight. Things such as Crash, with Rosanna Arquette, Existenz with Jennifer Jason Leigh and, most notably, Maria Bello in A History Of Violence and Naomi Watts in Eastern Promises reveal a filmmaker highly clued-into bringing fully three-dimensional women characters to the screen even if they are still supporting his predominantly male leads. Yet here in The Fly he leaves Davis with too many moments of simply staring aghast at her former lover, tearful and clearly disturbed. Then again, there appears little else that she can do under the circumstances. And, to her credit, the actress is never less than convincing when playing opposite a walking mound of latex and goo.

    “They're very... brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect.”

    Also typical of this stage in Cronenberg's career is the lack of overt villainy. His bad guys may be obvious, but they are actually very rarely evil. Even the murderous offspring from Samantha Eggar's subconscious in The Brood are merely the external manifestation of her own inner demons. Michael Ironside's bad scanner in, ahem, Scanners, offers the hero plenty of opportunities to side with him, positively encouraging him to do so and is really only trying to band their kind together in the face of persecution. And the infected on the rampage in Shivers and Rabid are purely victims, themselves. In the horror genre, Cronenberg is unique for this levelling-out of the good/bad categories, this nixing of the conventional protagonist and antagonist. His thrillers, however, are a different kettle of psychos altogether. In The Fly, John Getz's Stathis Borans is hardly a nemesis - he is merely looking out for Ronnie's welfare - and yet we are tempted to view him as the villain simply because of his animosity towards Brundle and the threat that he will later present. But Stathis is a strangely likeable guy, for all his sly witticisms and snidey, sarcastic barbs. And Brundlefly, himself, may be a monster but he is not simply gadding-about devouring hapless passers-by, is he? Once again, Cronenberg mixes everything up so that nobody is inherently bad, yet all are in direct conflict and rooting for one will, inevitably, mean doing the dirty on another ... domestic strife but with added latex and gore! Boran's clumsily desperate motivations may lack viciousness but, man, look at that shotgun he sports when he heads off to the inevitable showdown! Wow - that is some piece of kit, all right. But this love-triangle set-up is the main thrust of the story, which is a true departure in the annals of contemporary horror movie plotting and another component in The Fly's genre-spliced DNA that helps the film stand out.

    “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly ... perhaps she'll die.”

    Howard Shore, a regular composer for Cronenberg, was always known for his cold, merciless scores and darkly ambient tones. Pre-The Lord Of The Rings, with which he surprised everyone with his fantastically lush romanticism, sweepingly diverse adventure and rousing heroic music, he was one of the gloomiest composers working for the movies. But his score for The Fly does seem to offer some degree of his eventual veering into new musical pastures. Able to create bolder themes and a more coherent progression, Shore's music here reflects the weirdness of the story all right, but it also sifts through the warped tragedy of Brundle's situation with an agreeably confident swagger that can be loud and aggressive when called for, yet also highly emotional and pain-wracked. In fact, to prove this point implicitly, watch the climactic teleportation scene with the sound turned down and the final confrontation is patently ridiculous. But with Shore's music accompanying it, what seemed ridiculous becomes one of the most heartbreakingly poignant scenes in the horror genre.

    “Are you some kind of bodybuilder?”

    “Yeah, I build bodies.”

    As far as remakes go, The Fly is most certainly one of the superior ones. Like John Carpenter's remake of The Thing, it takes the original concept and runs with it into wild new directions, yet does so without sacrificing the emotion and intelligence of the narrative in favour purely of the simple, cash-injected “gross-out”. More mainstream than the majority of Cronenberg's work but still decidedly odd, The Fly remains an important benchmark in the horror genre. Pushing the quality of makeup effects for their time, and coming in fully-fitted with sterling performances - I doubt Goldblum has done anything better, to be honest - Cronenberg's stylish exercise in “insect politics” is now a genuine classic. Heartily recommended.