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David Cronenberg's The Fly
A perfect fusion of director and subject matter

David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a masterpiece of ‘80s filmmaking, created during the brief cinematic sweet spot when art, commerce, technology and storytelling were all in perfect alignment. It features career-making performances by two brilliant actors who were not major movie stars at the time, but were unquestionably the ideal choices for their respective roles. And it is a quintessential example of what happens when a visionary director at the height of his creative powers finds the ideal subject matter for his specific talents and obsessions. Perhaps most importantly, it is a thematically timeless film that just happened to be released at a point in history when its impact would be the most powerful.

It’s rare that a remake achieves such universal acclaim from critics, audiences, and die-hard fans of the original film, but The Fly is no simple re-imagining of a great old movie. In fact, it's not really a remake at all, but a highly original picture that draws inspiration from several sources. George Langelaan’s short story “The Fly” was published in the June 1957 issue of “Playboy” (it won the magazine’s Best Fiction Award that year). Inspired by Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis," Langelaan tells the tale of a woman who kills her research scientist husband in his lab and refuses to explain why. It’s eventually revealed that the murdered man invented a machine capable of disintegrating matter in one location and reintegrating it in another. These experiments progress from using inanimate objects, to animals, and ultimately to the man transporting himself through space. But by a freak accident, a housefly gets into the teleportation machine at the time he sends himself through. When the man emerges, his head and one of his arms have been replaced with the fly's. 

The year after the story's publication, 20th Century Fox produced a film of The Fly starring David Hedison, Patricia Owens and Vincent Price. A major box office success that was praised by critics of the day, the picture went on to become more of a camp classic. By the early 1970s, most audiences regarded The Fly as an amusingly dated B-movie, like The Blob or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Part of what makes the picture so goofy is the absurdity of its science: not only does the machine accidentally create a man with a giant fly-head, it makes a fly with a tiny man’s head. An even bigger cinematic problem is that once the transformation occurs, Hedison dons a fly-head mask for the remaining two thirds of the picture, which renders him totally silent and robs him of all facial expressions--hardly a movie character we can identify with or take very seriously. But The Fly remained a well remembered of classic of sorts, with the tiny man-fly uttering the iconic line “Help me, help me!” when he is caught in a spiderweb and about to be devoured by a giant arachnid.

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The idea to remake The Fly in the mid 1980s began with producer Kip Ohman and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue. Pogue approached the story from a more realistic direction, making the transformation from man to fly more complete, but also much more gradual so as to avoid both the questionable science and the incapacitated protagonist. This draft attracted the interest of producer Stuart Cornfeld who, along with Mel Brooks, had just made the tragic and disturbing The Elephant Man with director David Lynch. Brooks, clearly attracted to dark, sad material as much as to his trademark broad comedy, excitedly entered into a production deal with 20th Century Fox, which owned the rights to the property. As he did on The Elephant Man, Brooks left his name off the credits and took no part in promoting the movie; for fear that any association with his satirical comedies would taint audience expectations for the film.

Thumb the fly cronenbergThough Cronenberg was Cornfeld’s first choice to direct The Fly, it would be a full year before he became involved, deep as he was into pre-production in Italy for Total Recall at the time that Cornfeld and Brooks were developing the project. Fortunately, Total Recall stalled when Cronenberg and producer Dino De Laurentiis had a major falling out, and the script for The Fly was immediately sent to the newly available director. Cronenberg expressed interest in taking on the picture as long as he could rewrite the screenplay and make the film in Canada with his usual crew. He asked for a salary of $750,000 to write and direct the movie and Brooks, who had the enthusiastic backing of 20th Century Fox, countered with an offer of one million, just to show the director how much he believed he was the right man for the job.  

Brooks could not have been more correct. Over the previous decade Cronenberg’s low-budget films Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome had practically invented a new subgenre of horror by exploring the specific fear of bodily transformation and infection--which has come to be known as “body horror.” The Fly was already layered with many of the filmmaker’s signature themes and obsessions and, working from Pogue’s screenplay, Cronenberg refined and heightened these elements. He also tightened the narrative and brought the love story to the forefront. Unnecessary characters were jettisoned or combined into one, and the protagonist’s gradual transformation became less a literal metamorphosis from a man into a fly and more of a progressive disintegration of a human body--an unmistakable metaphor for terminal illness.

Thumb the fly dyingThis disease analogy is why The Fly is both a timeless story and a timely picture. Cronenberg has always maintained his intention was to draw parallels in the movie to any affliction that caused the breakdown of the human body--cancer, Huntington's, ALS, or just old age--but when it was released in 1986, a time when mainstream Americans were becoming acutely aware of the AIDS epidemic, it was difficult not to see it as a metaphor for HIV. The film’s protagonist, Seth Brundle, experiences many symptoms that directly parallel the experience of living with AIDS, but even more on point is the perspective of his lover, Veronica Quaife, who must watch powerlessly as the person she loves suffers through this ever-worsening affliction. The sad, confusing, and often terrifying emotions Quaife undergoes mirror the experience of anyone caring for a loved one dying from an unknown terminal condition. But The Fly, safely grounded in genre fantasy, manages to convey these ideas and feelings in a highly entertaining and even exhilarating way.

Cronenberg’s The Fly belongs in the company of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), as these are all powerful love stories about people who watch helplessly as someone they care deeply about is eaten away from the inside. On the surface, The Fly would be considered the least serious of these movies (the others won Oscars for Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film respectively, whereas The Fly won an Oscar for Best Make-Up), but I would argue it is the most effective of the three pictures, specifically because it is the least cerebral. The Fly sneaks up on you in the guise of escapist entertainment and engages you on a visceral, as well as an intellectual, level. And as Oscar-worthy as Chris Walas’s distinctive make-up and creature effects are, the craftsmanship across every department on The Fly is exceptional. 

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Working with his usual collaborators (the cinematographer Mark Irwin, the production designer Carol Spier, the editor Ronald Sanders, and the composer Howard Shore), Cronenberg fashions a tight and efficient picture with no wasted moments or gaps in logic or exposition. Every second of screen time drives the story and its thematic ideas. From the brief opening scene in which Seth Brundle and Veronica Quaife meet and form an instant attraction to each other, to the point at which, jealous of Quaife’s relationship with her boss, Brundle sends himself through his “telepods,” the first act races along, establishing the premise, the conflicts, and every main character in a mere matter of minutes. Yet not only does this first third never feel rushed, it masterfully creates the spooky and mysterious atmosphere that is essential to any good horror movie. With only three principal characters (just ten speaking parts in all) and the majority of the action taking place on a single set, The Fly could almost work as a play. But there is nothing theatrical or stagy about this picture. To the contrary: its distinctive visuals and pacing make it hard to imagine this material working in any other medium (although Cronenberg and Howard Shore did create an opera of The Fly many years later). 

Thumb the fly walisBy 1986, in-camera special effects technology had reached an apex of sophistication and realism. The Fly was made just a few years before digital CGI would rapidly replace these techniques. Walas, who had created the iconic creatures of Joe Dante’s Gremlins and was part of the team responsible for the famous Nazi melting sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark, was well aware that the visual transformations developed by Dick Smith in The Exorcist, and refined by Rick Baker and Rob Bottin in films like An American Werewolf in London and John Carpenter’s The Thing, were starting to become overly familiar. He devised numerous inventive approaches to creature and make-up effects that play just as credibly and disturbingly decades later. The Fly certainly qualifies as a gross-out movie, but its gory moments never feel gratuitous or unwarranted. Indeed, there is a certain enjoyable release in scary movies that make you jump out of your seat. It's worth remembering that The Fly is a Mel Brooks film, at least in part, and Brooks loves to make audiences react--whether they're belly laughing, averting their eyes in horror, or screaming with shock. 

In the end, The Fly would just be a lot of impressive but cold craftsmanship were it not for the two performances at its center. The casting of the two leads enable all the special effects and dynamic dialogue to live and breathe. Neither Jeff Goldblum nor Geena Davis was an obvious choice. At the time Cronenberg cast him, Goldblum was mostly known for quirky supporting roles in films like Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983), and he was by no means a household name who could carry a movie. The film's producers went to bat for Cronenberg’s unorthodox selection over the objections of 20th Century Fox’s studio head Barry Diller. But everyone was less convinced about Davis, an even more obscure TV actor whose only feature film credits consisted of small roles in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982) and Michael Ritchie’s Fletch (1985). Goldblum and Davis had been romantically involved since they met the previous year on the set of the horror satire Transylvania 6-5000, directed by frequent Mel Brooks collaborator Rudy De Luca. That film bombed with both critics and audiences, and Cornfield was nervous about casting real-life lovers as a romantic screen pair, a practice with a rather disastrous track record in Hollywood. But after auditioning several candidates, there was no question in any of the filmmakers’ minds that Davis was a brilliant actress and the physical chemistry between the two unusually tall and unconventionally attractive actors was electric. Goldblum brings his full complement of trademark idiosyncrasies to the role of Brundle, imbuing the character with a believable combination of scientific intelligence, leading-man charm, and geeky social naiveté. And Davis exquisitely conveys Quaife’s personal and journalistic fascination with the odd man she discovers, and her rapid transitions from skeptic to partner to lover are nimble, credible, and relatable.

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The casting of The Fly is yet another piece of evidence against the all-too-common characterization of 1980s filmmaking as nothing but blatant commercialism. Although the top brass at 20th Century Fox, who were distributing the film and putting up a good deal of its budget, felt the non-marquee casting was a huge mistake, they let Brooks, Cornfield and Cronenberg use the actors they believed were best for the roles. Similarly, when it came time to market the movie, the film was sold on the strength of its premise and its striking imagery. The poster that adorned theaters and appeared in ads focused not on the faces of stars with above-the-title names, but on a key image from the film--the creepy black metal telepod with the long leg of a giant insect emerging from its open door. The publicity also brilliantly capitalized on a line from the film: “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” which would go on to surpass the original film’s “Help me, Help me!” and become one of the most recognizable tag lines in all of film history. This campaign is very reminiscent of the promotional push behind Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), another film that drew in audiences on the strength of its script, director, acting talent, striking imagery, and the memorable phrase “In space no one can hear you scream,” rather than on bankable stars.

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The Fly was an impressive success. Released the same summer as Aliens, Top Gun, River's Edge, Manhunter, and Big Trouble in Little China, it faced stiff competition for sci-fi and horror audiences. But a diverse viewership flocked to the theaters for repeat screenings and critics waxed poetic about the film’s unforgettably creepy power. The Fly enjoyed a long and profitable run that made it Cronenberg’s most commercially successful picture. But it's not only his most mainstream hit, it’s also his best artistic work, and a film unlike any that has come before or since. Part sci-fi thriller, part gory horror movie, and part tragic love story, the picture is special not only for its unique and superb blend of genres, but because it's such a fine example of each. Most science fiction movies aren't actually about science and it’s most exciting and moving aspects: the quest for knowledge, the thrill of discovery, and the terrible price that experiments can exact. Almost no grizzly horror movies emphasize the humanity of their characters over the mechanics of their special effects. And I have yet to see a tragic love story that so powerfully taps into an audience’s emotions without resorting to overt manipulation. The Fly demonstrates the unique ability of genre fiction to explore feelings and issues in a more direct and visceral way than straight drama, and it is yet another example of why the '80s were such a great decade for film.