The Fly (1986)

*. My DVD box cover for The Fly has a pull quote calling it “a true Cronenberg masterpiece.” This it is, which is a little odd given that it began as a less personal project and not something he’d dreamed up on his own. Still, like a band covering a song and making it their own, he certainly took it over.
*. The script helped. At the beginning of his commentary Cronenberg says he thought it “felt, in fact, so much like me that I was kind of surprised, I’d never really seen a script that had so many things in it that felt like me, to me.” In other words, he was a great fit for the material.
*. Sticking with that script, as well as most of the promotional material, let’s mention the line “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Apparently this was suggested by producer Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks), and it would go on to become a very popular tag line that would crop up in other contexts over the following decades and be nominated as one of the greatest lines ever in one of those silly AFI polls. All of which goes to show that classic lines are funny things, depending almost entirely on context. Because what’s so special about “Be afraid, be very afraid”? Who would think that was a great line if they just read it? A great screenwriter, William Goldman once said, has to imagine the dramatic and visual context for their dialogue, which is what transforms lines like this, or “You’ve got to be kidding,” or “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” into something memorable.
*. The practical effects by Chris Walas are first-rate (leading to Walas going to the top of the credits and being picked to direct the sequel), and the design elements are excellent, capped with those transporter pods patterned after the engine cylinder on Cronenberg’s Ducati Desmo motorbike. I also wonder how much those pods might have been influenced by the sensory deprivation tanks in Altered States. The two movies have a lot in common.
*. When he saw the original film as a kid Cronenberg was upset both that the fly had such a big head (he could see no logical reason for this) and that the fly-vision effect where the screaming Hélène is duplicated dozens of times was not actually how an insect’s composite eyes work. I don’t think these things upset many people though. Meanwhile, a change he insisted on that really did make dramatic sense was allowing Seth to continue to be able to talk up till the very end. This allows his character to continue to develop and reveal itself and gets rid of the clumsy business of having to type notes out all the time. A win-win.
*. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis worked so well together they’d get married the next year. What I like the most is how light they play it. Goldblum’s Seth Brundle keeps cracking jokes throughout his metamorphosis (I love his line “Oh, that’s disgusting” when he first vomits on his food in front of Ronnie), and this actually makes him more threatening at the end. Davis, meanwhile, was only known as a comic actress before this, which is something Cronenberg liked.

*. The original was one of those minor genre classics that didn’t seem to have any extra meaning. In 1986 it had become necessary to read more into these things, and some critics concluded that Seth’s sickness was a metaphor for AIDS. Cronenberg didn’t understand this, as the movie is pretty explicit in linking his transformation to cancer, a longstanding bugbear of his. Brundlefly is another instance in his oeuvre of a body turning against itself, making a man into a monster.
*. Also Cronenbergian is the linking of disease with sex. Brundle’s experiment in gene splicing leads to a wave of “cocaine exuberance” (Cronenberg), with a buff Goldblum (who was pumping up between takes) becoming a gymnast and superman both on the bars, at the bar, and in bed.
*. Speaking of the bar fight, that’s Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo getting his wrist snapped. He was also killed with an ice cream cone in Prom Night III: The Last Kiss. Not a lot of respect for someone who was never knocked down in 93 professional fights, including two against Muhammad Ali.
*. I like how Stathis Borans (John Getz, who Cronenberg had liked in Blood Simple) is redeemed at the end. He certainly starts off being quite the sleazy heel. With a beard in the fashion of I believe nearly every Canadian male at the time.
*. Yes Stathis Borans. And Geena Davis plays Veronica Quaife. These are Cronenberg names.
*. One of the last great monster flicks done with all practical effects. Cronenberg’s commentary: “Who knows how this would be done in the modern era. I mean certainly there’s a man in a rubber suit playing the scene and it’s obvious. Of course there are many ways to do that now, where you might have the actor acting a completely computer-generated character, although doing the acting himself would have been more extreme or more effective in the sense of body shape that an actual human body could not have. But there’s a sort of immediacy and physicality and a realness to the man in the rubber suit routine that’s very effective as well. So I suppose it might look very, mm, tacky and a few other things to a modern audience but at the same time there’s an immediacy and a physical presence that you don’t get with CGI and I would wonder in about twenty years’ time how something like this will compare with the way CGI looks to a future audience because CGI also has its drawbacks and it too might look quite tacky and primitive in twenty years, or even fewer years than that.” Damn right.
*. It seems perverse to me to make a movie like this with only three significant parts and basically one set. But Cronenberg knew this minimalist theatricality would work, especially with the soaring score by Howard Shore backing it up. Indeed, I think it was later made into an opera with Shore’s music, but I don’t know when or for how long it played.
*. The maggot birth is a showstopper, and did in fact end the movie in some early drafts of the script. It’s so shocking that Cronenberg even gets away with the old wake-up-screaming gag. As it stands the film ends quite abruptly but in a way that I think is completely satisfying. As Cronenberg explains, there was no where else to go so we get “the same ending as The Dead Zone basically, although in this case the woman actually does the mercy killing.” I think he was right. Do we really need a coda? Why do so many movies end with these superfluous send-offs anyway? And don’t get me started on post-credit scenes.
*. In sum, the material, the moment, and the man all met together to make this a thoroughly successful reinvention of a classic. I’ll say it’s not a personal favourite of mine, and not even my favourite Cronenberg, but at the same time I can’t think of anything it does wrong and there are many things it unquestionably gets right. A true Cronenberg masterpiece then, and not just one for his fans.

6 thoughts on “The Fly (1986)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Rewatched this on the Sony channell, and it stands up great, with strong central performances, and a director fully in tune with the material. This elevates what was a mystery story, and puts the best bits on a chopping board for dissection. It’s got the gross-out scares, and the political commentary; hard not to like this movie….

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, he made some interesting creative decisions that I’m sure I wouldn’t have thought would work (like restricting the cast down to the bare essentials, and shooting most of the film on one set), but he pulls it off.

      Reply

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