Author Archives: Alex Good

Vivarium (2019)

*. Vivarium is part of the New Weird in terms of genre, meaning it’s a mix of dark fantasy and SF. Whenever I get into a NW book or movie I suspect some kind of allegory is intended. I think that’s the case here as well, but it falls short.
*. Here’s the story (read no further if you want to avoid spoilers). A young, unmarried, childless couple — Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) — go to a new townhouse development named Yonder, a place which makes the usual “cookie-cutter” appellation seem quaint. After a brief tour their creepy guide leaves them, and they find out they’re trapped. No matter how far they walk or drive, or in what direction, they always end up back at Unit 9. They are the only people around. No cell phone coverage, naturally. Boxes are dropped off with food and other supplies. Then a baby arrives. They are told to raise it. It grows up quickly, and gives signs of being some kind of alien life form despite looking human. Then Tom and Gemma die and their now adult (adopted) son goes to work in the same real estate office that they visited at the beginning.
*. Allegories have two levels of interpretation. On the literal level, as far as it is explained, Yonder is an extra-dimensional space constructed by aliens, or some other species native to Earth but unknown to us, whose purpose is to force humans to raise Yonder young.
*. Just on the literal level my basic problem is the same one I have with most such alien movies, or movies involving supernatural creatures like devils or demons. If these other beings are so smart/technologically advanced/powerful, then why are they wasting their time preying on humans? Don’t they have better things to do? The Yonders put all this effort into building their nests just to end up dressing like Mormon missionaries and selling real estate? I guess cuckoos have no imaginative life of their own, but these particular creatures are technologically sophisticated and even write books. They have a culture. So I don’t get it. Their existence seems far more complicated and even less fulfilling than Tom digging a hole in the yard.

*. That’s the macro problem I have, on the literal level. I’d also wonder why Gemma and Tom weren’t put on their notice right away by an estate that looks even more like a Guy Billout picture than the town in The Truman Show. Much more. Those clouds! Also, where are the garages? It’s obviously a commuter development but there’s no place for anyone to park their cars except on the street. There aren’t even any driveways! Did this not strike them as odd right away?

*. Then there is the message, or allegorical meaning of what’s going on. This is pretty grim. The suburbs are hell. Work is pointless drudgery. And once you have a kid your life is forfeit, as you no longer have any purpose except to serve the little monster. Are we all so alienated today, from where we live, what we do, and each other? Well, this movie seems to be saying, Yes we are. And the virtual world next door is even worse.
*. Not very uplifting, or profound. And indeed I thought it all got a lot less interesting as it went along. Obviously we’ve been here before, in what I’ve dubbed the Simulacrum movies (The Truman Show, The Matrix, Dark City). I suppose the only thing different here is that we have become even more complicit in our own destruction. The cuckoo Yonders (it’s an analogy the opening credits introduces, crudely), are taking advantage of our nurturing nature, the sort of thing that helps us endure the stations of the cross of parenting. The moral of the story being that . . . we shouldn’t give in to these feelings? That it’s all just a conformist scam? I don’t know.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the Black Christmas remake (if that’s what it was) that Imogen Poots was growing on me. She grows some more here, as she carries the movie, distracting us from a super-creepy and annoying boy (he likes to scream) and an only slightly less annoying Jesse Eisenberg. I’ve also noted before how Eisenberg is not growing on me, and while he’s not bad here I still don’t care for him. And playing a landscaper?
*. Neat to look at, and given the premise it doesn’t matter that Yonder seems like a movie set or virtual environment. The artificiality of the design is something you’re supposed to appreciate. The characters, however, don’t seem any more three dimensional than the sets, and the point of it all struck me as glum and uninsightful.

The Lookout (2007)

*. The defining characteristic of the condition of the arts in the twenty-first century (thus far) mirrors what’s also been going on in the broader economy: the establishment of a winner-takes-all lottery where a few bestsellers, hit albums, or blockbuster movies get all the attention/audience/money and the rest essentially disappear.
*. I guess for a while when it was in development The Lookout seemed as though it might have been in the running for being one of these winners. There was a script by Scott Frank, who had an established record of writing major hits. There was talk of Spielberg being interested, and then of David Fincher coming on board. One can imagine the budgets being discussed.
*. But those deals fell through and that movie didn’t get made. Instead, Frank himself took the reins as director and the shoot traveled up to Winnipeg to stand in for Kansas, with a budget of around $15 million. What they ended up with is a fine little modern noir heist movie, but one that disappeared at the box office. As with the mid-list, the mid-tier (and the middle class in general) are getting squeezed.
*. This is disappointing, as there are some good performances here, especially by the two leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Matthew Goode. Where the movie falls down, ironically, is with Frank’s script. It just isn’t all that interesting. I think Amy Simmons, writing in Time Out, summed it up well as “forgettable fun”: “a straightforward genre piece in which double-crosses and surprise twists lead to the inevitable.”
*. As per the standard noir plot our hero Chris Pratt (not the actor) is a bit of a wimp and a loser after being in a car accident that has left him mentally impaired in a very slight way. The only job he can do is pushing a mop after-hours at a bank. This makes him an easy mark for Goode’s Gary Spargo, who wants to rob said bank. Things get messy, the thieves fall out, but (more than a little improbably) everything works out in the end for the good guys.
*. Franks wanted to make a movie more about character than story, considering this to be “European.” He may have been getting this idea from a distinction Roger Ebert made between American and European movies, with the former driven by story and the latter being about characters. Alas, while the story here is pretty thin and free of twists, I didn’t find the characters all that interesting either. Chris is bland. Gary is a bad dude, only made human or distinct by his asthma inhaler. Jeff Daniels is just a dude dude, and blind. Isla Fisher is “Luvlee” Lemons, who is about as deep a character as her name implies. Even the blind dude can see through her.
*. Also worthy of mention is Greg Dunham playing Geddy Lee playing the venomous gang member “Bone.” Movies like this need these silent, sinister figures to give them an extra spark. Bone is so bad he even wears shades in a dark basement. Maybe he’s blind too. You never know.
*. Still, this is a decent, clean movie, nicely photographed in a way that brings out the stark, barren atmosphere of Kansas/Manitoba in winter, places where people don’t go outdoors very much. I don’t think it stands out as anything special finally, but it’s better, and by that I mean both more substantial and more creatively executed, than many blockbusters. But has the non-blockbuster audience left the building? I don’t know where little movies like this fit anymore.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

*. Like any successful franchise, Star Trek quickly spawned a cottage industry of parodies that never let up. The only comparison I can think of is to the wave of spy spoofs that followed in the wake of Bondmania and which have never gone out of style.
*. I’m not just talking about movie take-offs. The Star Trek formula has been parodied most recently by such popular SF authors as John Scalzi in Redshirts and Steven Erikson in Willful Child. Because Star Trek, like Bond, never went away the send-ups could continue, mining the same nostalgic ore year-in and year-out.
*. In the case of Star Trek there was also the phenomenon of its fandom, the conventioneering covered in such films as Trekkies and Free Enterprise (Fanboys would do the same for Star Wars fans). Trekkiedom is a cult, but a good-natured one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. They constitute the sort of crowd expected to get all the jokes in a movie like Galaxy Quest, and laugh.
*. Galaxy Quest is very much a movie in this same spirit of spoof, sending up both Star Trek and its fans in a way that generously affirms the spirit of both. This even lets it get away with the shameless trick at the end of the crowd at the convention standing to applaud the cast, sending everyone home happy.
*. Star Trek is also like Bond in that the formula is so well known even outside of the fan base that you don’t have to be steeped in what’s being sent up to get the joke. When Gwen (Sigourney Weaver) rants about having to repeat all the captain’s instructions to the computer, or at the giant pistons they have to navigate without being crushed, it’s funny regardless of how well you know the original show.
*. I don’t think there’s anything special about the script here. It’s basically Three Amigos! in space. But the cast is impeccable, with Tim Allen as the captain (or commander), Weaver as his sexy lieutenant, Alan Rickman as a very jaded Spock, Tony Shalhoub as the easy-going engineer, Daryl Mitchell as the Wil Wheatonesque wunderkind who’s grown up, and Sam Rockwell as the redshirt. Together they go through the usual stages of a Star Trek plot, beaming down to a deceptively innocent-looking planet and saving some peace-loving aliens from the Klingons, with the help of a time-reversing device that would later be adopted, out of sheer laziness, by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And then everyone cheers.
*. So it’s good-natured, and given what it’s sending up doesn’t suffer for its small-screen feel. An aware film that never goes full meta. One for the fans who were, in turn, so appreciative that there have since been many calls for a sequel. I don’t know if that’s necessary though, given how thoroughly they blew everything up here. Not to mention the fact that the basic premise wouldn’t work a second time around. In any event, it’s a genre that, along with its parody versions, has basically become a self-replicating loop. And, of course, there are always reruns.

The Jigsaw (2014)

*. Just a campfire ghost story, and I have a feeling it’s one I’ve heard before somewhere. Even the set-up is so old it creaks. If you’re looking for another turn of the screw in 8 minutes that’s expecting a bit much. You know anything bought in that antique shop is going to be cursed. And the old man (Pedro Monteiro) is even given a warning!
*. Just by the way, for various reasons not worth getting into I’ve been doing a lot of jigsaw puzzles myself recently. A number of these come by way of flea markets or yard sales (they are quite expensive if you buy them new). And the percentage chance that a puzzle bought in that store, in that box, still had all the pieces is approaching zero. But of course it’s a magic puzzle so that doesn’t matter. I also think it’s strange that the puzzle doesn’t have a picture on the front of the box, or anywhere else, showing what it’s supposed to be of. That makes it a lot harder, though not impossible, to solve. I have a neighbour who thinks that looking at the picture is somehow cheating, but she’s a bit weird.
*. Of course the real puzzle, given all this, is why the old man wants to buy that puzzle anyway. There are some clues. He seems to live alone but there’s a photo of a younger man and a woman. He and his wife? Then he puts on a record and it plays “We’ll Meet Again.” Does this amount to some kind of death wish? How does one interpret the chiming of the clock? His time is up? And washing his face? A sort of ritual ablution before crossing over? I mean, clearly he doesn’t seem that interested in saving himself from the doom peering over his shoulder.
*. But while I can understand wanting to die so — perhaps to be reunited with his wife but maybe just to put an end to such a dull and lonely existence — why choose such a nasty way to go? Embracing one’s fate is one thing, but this particular fate?
*. I ask these questions because they’re all the puzzle the film has. I liked it and though it was nicely turned out by the Al-Safar brothers (Basil and Rashad), but I wouldn’t call it scary, suspenseful, suggestive, or surprising. I’d say it’s made for the campfire but I think we have to update that reference to the Internet. Short films are for browsing, and I’m not sure how much that changes our response to them. The world of doing jigsaw puzzles while a record plays in the background belongs to another age entirely. Can we still relate? With so many windows open, how concerned are we by the bogeyman appearing in one?

Dead & Buried (1981)

*. A couple of preliminary points. First, Dead & Buried is a movie with a bit of a twist ending, or a couple of twists, and I’ll be talking about them here so consider yourself warned.
*. Second: I love the work Blue Underground puts into their special editions. This one comes as a 2-disc DVD with three commentary tracks and a bunch of other extra features. But, and I’m sure I’ve said this before, if you’re going to go through all this trouble why not have subtitles, or at least closed-captioning? Even the most bare-bone DVD releases usually have closed-captioning.
*. Now, on to the movie.

*. Potters Bluff, Maine. Though I thought Rhode Island was mentioned at one point. In any event, it was shot in Mendocino, California. A very foggy Mendocino. Even foggier indoors than outside at night. This was done quite deliberately by photographer Steven Poster, as he explains on his commentary track. All kinds of steps were taken to diffuse the lighting, from hanging a giant sail from a crane to block out the sun in the opening scene to using a smoke machine indoors. The point was to have the audience leaning forward in their seats trying to see what was going on before springing a surprise at them. It’s not an effect I care for, but it is a distinctive look.
*. “A New Way of Life.” Ho-ho. Potters Bluff (yes, another giveaway) is a town with a Fulci-esque feel to it, a feeling only deepened by the fog and woeful dubbing. Not that the dialogue is worth much anyway. Note the way the concerned mother repeats the line about needing a “cold compress” for her kid’s head while exploring the spooky old house. Why not check the fridge? Sure to be a cold compress in there, even if it looks as though the power hasn’t been on for years.
*. They had to dub that scene because of the presence of a child actor who wasn’t allowed to shoot at night. This meant the house had to be covered in a tarp, which made things very noisy because the location then had to be ventilated (requiring the sound to all be put in later). But then many other scenes seem badly dubbed as well and I don’t know what was going on with them.
*. Commentary tracks can be really helpful. The legendary Stan Winston did the effects here, and it was one of his first theatrical projects. The effects are generally very good, and I only thought the doctor’s death stood out as being below par. But Sherman explains this: Winston didn’t do the fake head of the doctor because (as I understand the story) that scene was added later at the request of the studio, who wanted more gore. It’s too bad, as the head is clearly a dummy and it really strikes a wrong note.
*. The DVD box tells us that it’s a movie that’s from “the creators of Alien.” I’m never sure what exactly is meant by the elastic term “creator.” It doesn’t refer to Stan Winston, who worked on Aliens but not Alien. Instead, what is meant is that the script was by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien. Though apparently it was all Shusett here and O’Bannon had actually wanted his name taken off the credits. Not because he didn’t like the film but just because he didn’t think any of it was his work.
*. As far as the script goes, I think it’s a good concept, working very much like an extended Twilight Zone episode or Tales from the Crypt comic. I could see it as being one of the stories in Creepshow.

*. Thinking of how much it looks like Creepshow made me think of various other connections. I already mentioned Fulci and I had to wonder if the needle-in-the-eye scene was inspired by the splinter-in-the-eye from Zombie (or Zombi 2). Carpenter’s The Fog had come out just the year before, and its seaside town overrun with murderous ghosts might have also been in play. Then there is the central conceit of the protagonist (Sheriff Dan here, played by James Farentino) not knowing who he really is, which may remind you of Carnival of Souls, or later characters like Harry Angel and Malcolm Crowe.
*. Though there are all these connections, Dead & Buried still feels fresh. Part of this may be due to when it came out, a time when theatres were saturated with slasher flicks and horror cinema had reached a kind of nadir. But more I think is due to the character of the town’s “official coroner-mortician” Dobbs, played by Jack Albertson in his final role.
*. Dobbs has his progenitors as well. Sherman says that the horror film he was most inspired by was the 1953 House of Wax, and Dobbs is clearly an artist-madman in the same vein, even using many of the same materials as Vincent Price. But Dobbs is also a comic figure, perhaps a leftover of early drafts of the script where the movie was imagined as more of a dark comedy. And he is also a sleazier kind of artist, with his library of Super 8 snuff films and Platonic necrophilia. His zombies, after all, are “even more beautiful than the living,” which is a doubly-charged boast since he is one himself.
*. The other element that gives Dead & Buried an extra bit of juice is the ambiguity with which the zombie townsfolk are presented. In the first place we may wonder how many people in Potters Bluff are zombies. It’s impossible to say for sure because not all of them know if they’re alive or dead (though surely they should be, since the dead all need frequent touching up). Then there is the question of their moral character. Sherman describes them as mere puppets, and directed the actors to play them cool and not villainous. They kill their victims in what seem to me to be cruel ways, but even this may be by direction, in order to conceal cause of death. By the end we’ve come to see them as being, like Janet, sympathetic figures, a sad community of the dead who care for each other. And has Janet found release in being finally dead and buried? Or will she wake up tomorrow morning and make Dan breakfast?
*. I’m not being entirely facetious. Why is she going on about what’s going to be for dinner at the end? She sounds like Bobbie having her mechanical meltdown at the end of The Stepford Wives (1975).
*. One of the selling points of the film today is that it has Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund in a bit part as a tow-truck driver. One of the featurettes included with the DVD is an interview with him as well. Which is fine because he’s an interesting guy to listen to, but I can think of a half-dozen other people who might have had more to say.
*. Despite the deluxe Blue Underground treatment I don’t think Dead & Buried is a classic. It is, however, a fun little movie with some style and originality. Poster comments on how a lack of experience made them more likely to take chances, and I think there was a real attempt to make something good. Sherman had a strict colour scheme worked out, for example, which he enforced to the extent of changing the taillights on the cars so that bright reds would be kept out. There were also some impressive long takes, some of which ended up being pruned.
*. I’m not sure these efforts panned out, at least in terms of making this a better, or scarier, movie. As with the fuzzy picture, it was all deliberate but I don’t think the results had quite the effect they wanted. I guess the picture quality adds something to the atmosphere, but to me it just looks blurry. The colour scales are dull. The effects in the final graveyard scene are disappointing. I wanted to see whole faces falling off! I wanted House of Wax plus!
*. Still, it is a movie that I think lasts, mainly on the back of the weirdo Dobbs and his perverse battle with the indignity of death. That Albertson himself was dying adds a poignancy to the proceedings. Many if not most actors go out on less distinguished notes.

Get Smart (2008)

*. Get Smart isn’t so much a movie as a product. There’s a brand name, going back to a beloved television show from the 1960s. There’s a big budget (an $80 million comedy!) and an impressive collection of talent in front of the camera. Plot-wise there’s a little something for everyone. Necessarily, in the judgment of Brian D. Johnson, because as a summer blockbuster it was “obliged” to be not just comedy but action and romance. With all these boxes being ticked how could it go wrong? Or right?
*. Well, they really did blow it. There are maybe a couple of laughs here but the overall sense is that of waste. In my notes on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) I questioned the whole idea of putting “bigness” together with comedy. Watching Get Smart I was thinking the same thing. You can’t just throw stars at a big property and expect it’s going to work. To what purpose were all these players assembled? Bill Murray appears in a cameo as a lonely agent stuck in a tree. It isn’t funny. James Caan is the president, and he isn’t funny. Alan Arkin is an actor I miss, and I think he can be funny but he sure isn’t here. Terence Stamp was made to play the heavy but is given nothing to work with. Dwayne Johnson . . . you get the point.
*. There’s nothing interesting in the action part of the plot either. A terrorist organization (KAOS) is going to blow up Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb unless they get so many billion dollars. Our hero, Maxwell Smart (Steve Carrell), recently promoted to field agent, is sent along with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to stop them. So it’s a buddy flick with a mismatched pair of good guys. There’s a case of mistaken identity. A capture and an escape. A break-in to steal some important secrets. A bad guy with a giant sidekick. A race to stop the bomb from going off.
*. At least in the romance department there’s a bright spot. Anne Hathaway has the rare ability to project as both sexy and funny and she’s the only reason to watch this movie, totally upstaging Carrell at every turn.
*. Where did things go wrong? The usual suspects. The script doesn’t seem to me to have anything worthwhile in it. Take the fat stuff. I guess seeing Carrell paired with a large woman in the ballroom dance-off scene is basic odd-couple comedy, but I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be funny about Max having been obese once. Just seeing Carrell in a fat suit?
*. Then there’s the direction. David Ansen in Newsweek referred to Peter Segal as “a comedy specialist lacking any apparent sense of humour.” That’s an assessment I’d agree with, and I was really surprised when I checked out Segal’s filmography. His big-screen directing debut came with Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994) and he then went on to Tommy Boy (1995), My Fellow Americans (1996), The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000), Anger Management (2003), 50 First Dates (2004), The Longest Yard (2005), this movie, Grudge Match (2013) and My Spy (2020). How can someone work for 25 years in this genre directing so many not-funny movies? He’s like the Rob Zombie of comedy.
*. Well, I mentioned the big budget and the fact is Get Smart made it all back and then some. So perhaps that answers my question. I guess three Austin Powers movies hadn’t killed audience appetites for retro-flavoured spy spoofs yet. There were (of course) plans for a sequel but Carrell didn’t like the initial script, which I think means it must have been really bad. Then Carrell wrote his own script but it never went anywhere. I think that’s fair, as this movie was more than enough.

Charlie Chan in Paris (1935)

*. In my notes on Charlie Chan in London I mentioned how little time Charlie actually spent in London. In this movie he arrives in Paris, which is actually where all the action of the film takes place. Though Paris is only evoked quickly through glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, Opera, and Arc de Triomphe in the background. Most of the characters have French names, but none of them even try to affect a French accent. In fact, it feels so much like the same cast as the previous film that I even thought the drunk fellow was being played by the same actor. He wasn’t. He’s Erik Rhodes here, Paul England in London.
*. It’s a very similar film as London, as you might expect given how they were turning these things out. Charlie has come to Paris to investigate a scam involving counterfeit bonds being issued by a French bank. There are a bunch of suspects who all seem guilty of something. There are a pair of young lovers who are in trouble, but they get to marry at the end thanks to Charlie catching the counterfeit gang by faking being shot. This is how Charlie Chan in London ends as well.
*. Introducing Keye Luke as “Number One Son.” What a delightful idea for a sidekick, his natural exuberance, and greater fluency in colloquial English, playing well against Charlie’s solidity and constipated speech. Detectives are often paired up as odd couples, an eccentric being teamed with a straight man (Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin), but here it’s something sweeter. They have real affection for each other, and work well together as a team.
*. I’m always impressed by how quickly the movies of this era moved. There’s a full slate of characters to be introduced here, a lot of plot to work through, and a really athletic “Apache” dance number all in 72 minutes. These flicks were efficient.
*. For a long time this was a movie deemed to have been lost. Then a print was found in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. Given how many earlier films in the series are still considered lost this isn’t too surprising. In the 1930s I don’t think a lot of people thought these movies were worth keeping. And were they wrong? From our point of view, it’s nice to have them as a bit of film history. And they’re enjoyable enough in their own right. But I can also put myself in their shoes. At the time, would you have thought people would be watching Charlie Chan in Paris in the twenty-first century?

The Fly II (1989)

*. The Fly II didn’t receive many positive reviews. In fact, it was panned. And I remember not thinking much of it at the time. Returning to it thirty years later I have to say I appreciate it a lot more. It’s not bad at all.
*. Why the change in opinion? For one thing, I think the critics who dumped on it may have been giving Cronenbergr’s The Fly a bit too much credit for being something more than a creature feature. Yes, Goldblum and Davis are strong as the leads, so we do buy into their relationship (which was a real one at the time). But it’s still a monster movie, with their characters taking a back seat to the make-up in the end. The same kind of story plays out in The Fly II, and while it dials up the gross-out effects I think it does so less than is imagined. Director Chris Walas (who’d been the effects man on The Fly) “specifically avoided” going full gore. We even have to start off with a version of the shocking maggot-birth scene from the first movie in large part because that’s all the gross stuff we’re going to get for a while.
*. Another reason for my changing evaluation of The Fly II is my increased appreciation for practical effects. As Walas says on the commentary, CGI does some things remarkably well but there’s “something about the reality of the moment that it just hasn’t captured yet.” And while Walas didn’t want to just make an effects movie he obviously didn’t have any issues with returning to what worked well the first time. This movie would have been so bad with CGI, especially the CGI they had in 1989. Instead we get some really good stuff (Martin in the cocoon, the man’s head dissolving in acid vomit and the other head being crushed by the elevator) mixed in with some merely OK parts (the mutant dog and transformed Bartok, primarily).
*. I also really appreciated Eric Stoltz playing Son of the Fly. As an aside, I’m not sure why they didn’t call this Son of the Fly. On the DVD commentary track Walas says that he tried to have a different title and “would have preferred Son of the Fly,” but this was “back in the day when sequels had to have a 2 in them.” Well, at least he got Roman numerals. That’s class.
*. Back to Stoltz: he’s very relatable without the goofiness or charisma of Goldblum. But then that wouldn’t fit with this story, which I find to be darker. Martin Brundle is a victim of his father’s original sin, and it’s hard to imagine him happy at the end (even in the deleted ending, which leaves him fishing off the dock with Beth). Let’s face it, he had a pretty traumatic, if accelerated, childhood.
*. I’ve read that Keanu Reeves, Josh Brolin, and Vincent D’Onofrio were all considered for the part of Martin as well. You always hear stories like this. I think it’s likely that everyone tries out for or is interested in every part at some point in their career.
*. The rest of the cast are role players. Daphne Zuniga is the girl. Lee Richardson is the usual cruel corporate head, going by the name of Bartok (a Cronenbergian moniker if ever there was one, just as Simon Fraser University provided an authentic Cronenberg location). Gary Chalk is slimy as the security chief Scorby. They all take a back seat to the monster.
*. It’s fitting that the DVD commentary has Walas conversing with monster memorabilia curator Bob Burns. They spend a lot of time talking about growing up as “monster kids” and their shared love of monster movies, which Burns sees this as being an old-fashioned example of. To which I’d say Yes, and perhaps a bit of No.
*. The script is actually pretty tight. I like the way the young Martin’s helmet that squirts water returns at the end with his ability to spew vomit. And the way the fate of the dog is worked back into the story. At first I took the bonding between Martin and the dog to only be a typical pat-the-dog bit of business, but it’s not superfluous. Beth’s fly-fishing was also a meet cute that worked.
*. There’s real darkness at the end too. Indeed, it’s quite a bit darker than the first movie. I say that despite the far-fetched notion that somehow Martin can re-integrate by being genetically spliced with Bartok. But it’s the fate of Bartok that is the kicker. Walas doesn’t mention Tod Browning’s Freaks on the commentary, but the ending here seems to me to be a pretty clear nod to the end of that nightmare, with Bartok in the role of the transformed Cleopatra. And just as with Freaks I think it may have been too much for audiences. There seems to be a line, not directly related to gore or shock value, that even horror audiences don’t want to go over. There may be a rule that the punishment of the wicked not be so severe that we feel poetic justice has transgressed moral bounds.

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.