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The Fly (1986,USA)


Director: David Cronenberg       Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

The word “remake” usually sends shivers down my spine. It’s an automatic reaction, especially when it’s prefixed by the word “Hollywood” but it’s a trained reflex, nurtured by the increasing trend to rehash old classics or foreign films into multiplex friendly nonsense usually robbing them of any craft and dignity in the process. It’s actually a rather unfair reaction given that there are a surprising number of remakes that are not only good but serve to improve on the originals. This seems to me especially true of updates of classic fifties B-movies, sci fi and horror films that are spawned from brilliant ideas but which tended to be under-realised in that decade due to a lack of financial backing and a disparaging view of the genres. Philip Kaufman managed to improve on The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. John Carpenter rebooted (to use that cringeworthy 21st century attempt to pretend they aren’t remakes) The Thing From Another World as the startling and spectacular The Thing. With The Fly Canadian maestro of body horrror David Cronenberg set about updating the 1958 Vincent Price classic with grotesquely effective results.

Seth Brundle (Goldblum) is a lone scientist, his life’s work to develop technology to allow objects and people to be teleported from one spot to another. When science reporter Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (Davis) crosses his path he convinces her not to reveal his secret research to the world in exchange for the exclusive scoop on the project. With her chronicling his research they develop a much more personal relationship. Things start to go wrong when Brundle rashly decides to teleport himself. When a fly inadvertently finds its way into his teleportation pod it becomes spliced with Brundle on a molecular level with horrific consequences.

Unlike the original, where the accident with the teleporters resulted in two distinct half man/half fly entities, Cronenberg’s approach is a more complex and (dare I say it) realistic one. The procedure initially appears to have been a success. Brundle looks perfectly normal, the only indication that anything may have gone wrong being the fact he is possessed of more strength and stamina than before. His deterioration into ‘Brundlefly’ is a gradual process, typical of the sort of corruption of the flesh we’ve come to expect from Cronenberg. Slowly the apparent advantages of the splicing give way to horrific mutations as Brundle becomes more and more like the fly, not just physically but mentally and emotionally, eventually resulting in a horrifying hybrid of man and insect.

This process of deterioration is the film’s greatest strength. In a series of makeup effects, each more grotesque than the last, Brundle is stripped of his humanity and gains more and more insectoid attributes. The scenes where Brundle, displaying a disturbing mixture of revulsion and curiousity about his new state of being, begins to explore his new found fly-ness are genuinely stomach churning. It’s the sort of shuddering, creeping horror that Cronenberg does best, exploiting our fears of illness and deformity by rubbing our noses in it, each horrid moment played out in realistic, gory detail.

As always with Cronenberg, the manifest corruption of the flesh is also closely related to sex and sexuality. The fear of penetration, of being bodily invaded by something other, something alien and the physical consequences thereof play a big role. Ronnie’s editor Stathis (Getz), also her ex boyfriend, is a sinister, perverse borderline stalker and yet is a notional hero in the film. Brundle ostensibly uses the suggestion that Ronnie chronicle his work as a means to get her into bed. There is the sneaking feeling that she, at least initially, is using sex as a means to further her career.

The performances are excellent. Goldblum’s trademark mad scientist routine (see also: Jurassic Park) is perfect for Brundle and he handles the transition from eccentric scientist to progressively insane scientist maserfully. Geena Davis becomes convincingly more and more terrified as the story unfolds, her indistinct dread giving way to full blown terror by the end. Oddly it’s Getz’s skin crawling portrayal of Stathis that steals the, show though. Maybe it’s the beard but he completely nails the sinister, predatory editor with an effortless performance that makes me bristle with discomfort and rage. In a lot of ways he is actually scarier than Brundlefly.

Like the other films I mentioned, The Fly is an improvement on the fifties original not because the original was a poor film but because it has utilised a sophistication of concepts and execution that was denied to the original makers. I happen to rather like the Kurt Neumann/Vincent Price original which broadly follows the same lines although is a far tamer experience. Cronenberg’s film is a darker, grubbier and frankly more scientifically rigorous approach to the consequences of teleporting man and fly at the same time and one far more reflective (even twenty five years on) of a modern era where technology is viewed as the solution to all human suffering.

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