The Fly (1986)

tn_theflyDavid Cronenberg’s THE FLY is about a best case scenario for a remake. It takes the premise of a fun but very dated old sci-fi joint and gives it context, tone and emotional substance more fit for its time of 1986. At the same time it’s a great stealth-Cronenberg movie that was normal enough to be a big hit at the time but artful and weird enough to be different from anything we’d seen before. This was his brief Hollywood period with DEAD ZONE, which was sandwiched between THE BROOD/SCANNERS/VIDEODROME and DEAD RINGERS/NAKED LUNCH/M. BUTTERFLY/CRASH/EXISTENZ/etc.

It starts cute with undiscovered genius Seth Brundle (DEATH WISH‘s Jeff Goldblum) awkwardly hitting on magazine reporter Veronica Quaife (THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT‘s Geena Davis) and somehow getting her back to his lab, which she’s not happy to learn is also his bachelor’s pad. She’s skeptical and probly a little creeped out until he demonstrates what he’s secretly been working on: “telepods,” a set of chambers that can disintegrate matter on one end and reintegrate it on the other. Teleportation. Star Trek shit! He points out that it will revolutionize transportation. In one of the few corny bits in the screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue (PSYCHO III, KULL THE CONQUEROR) we find out Brundle gets car sickness as extra motivation for inventing such a thing.

He’s proved to her he’s gonna change the whole world forever, but he can’t let her write about it yet. It needs work. I mean it’s perfect for inanimate objects, but it can’t handle living organisms. The poor baboon he experiments on gets taken apart just right and put back together real wrong. He’s not getting his deposit back from the zoo, I bet.

So he lets her stick around to document his experiments and also they start a relationship (WHAT HAPPENED TO ETHICS?). There’s a complication in that her editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz – I did not notice that was Ray from BLOOD SIMPLE! Wasn’t I just wondering what happened to him?), is also her jealous ex and a creep who lets himself in to her house to take a shower and says inappropriate things at work. And he’s trying to push her into publishing before Brundle is ready.

The experiment scenes are great, a strong mix of dread for the inevitable horrors of science gone wrong and excitement for problem solving and discovery. I think we all know about the turning point when he tries to teleport himself without realizing there’s a fly in there with him and the computer is like “shit, I don’t know what to do with this… I guess combine the DNA sequences?” I mean, if that’s what happens with telepods it would really limit the use of this technology. You don’t want to end up with some dude turning into The Lice, somebody else The Crab.

The accident is set up well too. It’s not his plan all along to experiment on himself. He gets upset at his new girlfriend, gets drunk and then he does it. And what he’s mad at her about is a total misunderstanding. If he would’ve just talked to her it would’ve been straightened out. You know how it is. A mix of jealousy, stupidity and beer, you do something you’ll regret your whole life. Which in this case won’t be that long. Fucking idiot.

mp_theflyAt first doing fly shit is cool. He feels great and strong, so he thinks teleporting is purifying. He turns it into a sexual thing and a religious thing, a push to purify a sexual partner. In other words he’s in a Cronenberg movie. He pulls a Cronenberg. You know what would be a funny mashup t-shirt, it says Cronenbergers and it looks like a burger place but with weird misshapen flesh on the burgers ha ha.

The gymnastics and the ceiling crawling are cool but disconcerting, a similar feeling to my favorite part in POLTERGEIST where the mom laughs while playing around with the weird ghostly thing she discovered in her kitchen. The physical transformation starts gradually enough that Brundle ignores it. At first his splotchy face could be anything.

Because it came out in the ’80s this is widely considered a parable about AIDS, and it definitely captures the terror of an unknown disease. But it’s not a direct correlation, for example it’s not sexually transmitted and AIDS doesn’t give you powers. This is more generally “body horror,” the fear of your own physical deterioration. His skin rots, his fingernails and teeth fall out, eventually his eyeballs too and his face peels off. This might be the best ever depiction of this classic type of tragic monster. He loses it slowly, it’s a believable jump from eccentric scientist to The Fly.

One thing that’s great is how intimate it is. There are a few different locations, but most of it takes place in Brundle’s lab. There are many long dialogue scenes. There aren’t very many characters, and most scenes are between just the two leads. If not for the incredible makeup effects transformation this could easily be a stage play.

And that really helps to make it feel so human, so sad. If there was a remake of THE FLY now, even a really good one, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have a big final showdown with him on a rampage in a city, most likely flying around smashing things, the military coming after him or something. A traditional studio movie climax. In this movie he tries to combine himself with another person. It’s an insane violation, but not a rampage. The horror ends in the same place where it began, the lab. There’s not a hero who defeats him, there’s the uncomfortable situation of the asshole ex-boyfriend trying to protect her. It ends with a mercy killing. The whole movie is leading up to the gut-punch of the look on the monster’s face when he’s ready to die. It’s a pretty different take on the original’s “help me.”

The worst part is he really didn’t need to push so hard for teleporting living beings. Just the object part was incredible. Can you imagine how different the world would be if he sold that shit to Amazon? If they somehow got it to where there were public telepods around and not prohibitively expensive it would change everything. You’re at work, you spill something on your pants, BAM, buy new pants. Online shopping addicts would be fucked. Just ordering ordering ordering. And sure, you’d still have to fly across the country, but you wouldn’t have to worry about if you can fit your carry-on into the overhead luggage. Or renting a car, if you own one you could send it over.

In fact, if you did want to rent a car, they could have one central location with every type of car that they could send out to different cities. The Amazon model for everything, and instant. Man, people would get so fucking lazy and entitled. Careful what you wish for.

Could’ve been useful though. You blew it, Brundle.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 12th, 2014 at 10:36 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

49 Responses to “The Fly (1986)”

  1. One Guy from Andromeda

    November 12th, 2014 at 11:08 am

    If it came out today there would be a whole nerd movement on the internet about how it is unwatchable because any normal person would have made millions by cashing in on teleporting objects.

  2. This is one of my absolute favorite movies. It’s got all the Cronenbergian ickiness you could ask for (the inside-out ape, the maggot baby, Jeff Goldblum’s decomposing dick) but with a very human and believable romance at its core, which gives the grossness more of a kick than Cronenberg’s usual cerebral unapproachability. It’s got great characters, witty dialogue, superb special effects, and one of the most definitive “The movie is over no seriously you can go home now” final shots of all time. (My theory is they wouldn’t let Cronenberg begin SCANNERS with an exploding head, so he ended this one with one instead.) I first saw THE FLY when I was maybe nine years old and I think it was the first truly adult movie I ever loved. Studios get so antsy about unhappy endings but I knew even at that tender age I knew that I was watching a tragedy with its own inescapable logical and thematic momentum that could not and should not be thwarted. This was no adolescent geek show; it was a serious drama that just happened to have a guy’s foot getting dissolved by mouth acid. I respected that, and I still do.

    Basically a perfect movie. I kind of want to watch it right now.

  3. Remember how Cronenberg was all set to write (maybe he actually wrote it?) and direct a remake-ish/sequel-esque new Fly and Fox passed on it so the whole thing died? This was only like a couple years ago. I feel like there was never enough outrage about that.

    Anyway, The Fly is one of my favorite movies ever and it made me terrified to arm wrestle as a kid.

  4. Like Mr M, I was at a tender age when first exposed to the insides-out world of Cronenberg, but I entered through the SCANNERS and THE DEAD ZONE door, only to be shat out through the orifice of CRASH, which I could barely stand to watch. And I mean all this as a compliment, and praise for Cronenberg.

    The impression that sticks the most from THE FLY (like flypaper!) is the romantic tragedy. I hate it when lovers are thwarted by jealous ex’s and the inconvenience of turning into an insect. Christopher Walken’s Johnny in THE DEAD ZONE was similarly derailed in his love life by an unwanted gift/curse.

  5. Yeah, for some reason Jeff Goldblum is THE FLY played many times as a weekend afternoon movie on local television in the early ’90s, and I never sat and watched the whole thing

    (and thank god because the editing-for-content surely would mangle the thing into a PG atrocity
    (though I do remember the Sci-Fi Channel’s airing of SCANNERS showed Cronenberg’s famous watermelon head moment in full))

    but what I did remember from the channel-surfing
    (only on rainy days that precluded baseball & bicycling, of course)
    was a couple of quiet people conversing at a table in a modest domestic setting. Like a little stage play.

    Then I guess I saw the The Simpsons homage in “Treehouse of Horror. One of Professor Frink’s lowest moments starts after the 8 minute mark here:

    Oblivious to the source[s] material[s] at the time, I still loved & love everything about that Simpsons segment, especially the way the spider shakes multiple outraged arachno-fists at Bart as the fly-boy escapes.

    When finally I saw THE FLY ’86 in full, twas a revelation. So dark, so perverse, so inspiring & optimistic before it quickly becomes a disgusting tragedy. The startling conclusion leaves zero room for narrative expansion or direct sequelization, yet the concept lingers & flourishes in the imagination. Sure, THE LICE or THE CRAB would be interesting, and what about if a person had a tapeworm, or if someone’s appendix was acting up due to a war among all the inner-body bacteria that help us disgusting human beings function everyday? What if Brundle hadn’t realized that a small spider had nested in his earhole the previous night?

    What if al-Qaeda took over a medical lab in Damascus and flew in some suicide-viralist from Sierra Leone and had a sleeper agent steal a pig with Swine Flu from a lab in London and then they used the Telepod to mix ebola with H1N1?

    What if you Brundle’d a UniSol with a Terminator?

    I’d pick Lebron James as my Telepod hybrid-er partner. Make him take a shower & inner-cleanse first, though.

  6. Paul Whose Computer Is No Longer Fried

    November 12th, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Well this is an interesting one. I’ve never been a huge fan of either Cronenberg or body-horror (not to be confused by bodyshock horror, which is a very different animal and the one genre of film that I can watch almost any example of, no matter how bad) but there are lots of things to love about this one. It’s been years since I’ve seen it and I still remember the maggot. I mean… uuugh.

    One thing that struck me at the time is this: is this a horror movie that’s aimed mostly at women? They’re so rare. So much of the “horror” elements in this one seem specifically tailored towards fears that would mostly affect women. Again… the maggot. Uuugh.

    I think the reason this film works so well is because it’s almost the anti-EXISTENZ – it keeps things intimate and personal, not trying to set up a wider world or explore the ramifications that Mouth has talked about too much, just making it a story about two people. Like Darren, this to me is first and foremost a romantic tragedy. To the best of my recollection it mostly takes place in one claustrophobic location, meaning that the actors really have to sell it.

    Plus, y’know, there’s the maggot. Uuugh.

  7. Have to say I’ve always found Cronenberg’s FLY to be the most over appreciated film in his canon and one of the most over appreciated horror films in general. Strongly disagree with Vern’s low key dismissal of the 1958 film as “fun but very dated” – dated, sure, but it also covers most of the same ground as the remake with a good deal more subtlety, and a lot of what is “new” in Cronenberg’s film feels like flashy air-bladdery literalizations of what is understated in the original. Contrast Dandelion the cat, disintegrated and unable to be put back together, a cloud of dematerialized kitty atoms mewling in agony as it fades to nothingness, with Brundle’s baboon, disintegrated and brought back as a pile of throbbing rubber-latex monkey meat. The former plays on the uneasy tension between our existence as beings endowed with self-consciousness and our existence as physical matter, and is (to me) deeply unnerving. The latter a well-executed gore gag. Most of the film plays like that to me – excellent performance from Goldblum excepted – a showy retread of the original juiced up by Cronenberg’s infantile fixation on body fluids.

    And was there some unseen studio politicking involved in the 1986 film winning an effects Oscar? All of its best tricks were borrowed from Carpenter’s The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

  8. I for one hate it when an f/x-heavy movie takes the lessons & techniques learned from previous f/x-heavy movies to make good f/x.

  9. Didn’t say I hate it, just that it doesn’t do anything as innovative/mind-blowing as the transformations of Norris in The Thing or the murder of Tina in ANOES, and both those films went unrecognized. Do you disagree?

  10. Whoops, slipped into an argument over an awards structure that I believe possesses the validity of a… housefly.

    Sorry to misinterpret your tone or intent for the sake of a snarky riposte, Fanshen. I enjoyed your unique, negative reaction to THE FLY and can’t wait to comprehend “air-bladdery” someday so as to add it to my own lexicon.

    I, for one, put much more stock in the opinions of certain Fangoria subscribers than I do Oscar voters, so I feel like these fine films have received their rightful due.

    And yeah, obviously, THE THING and parts of ANOES (which inexplicably hasn’t yet to my knowledge had a Christmas spin-off called FREDDY CLAUSE) totally own in the f/x department.

  11. (And they don’t need statues to prove it.)

  12. The best makeup Oscar almost never goes to the best makeup. It goes to the makeup in the movie the Academy liked best. i doubt they even saw NIGHTMARE or THE THING.

    Either way, THE FLY’s Oscar was richly deserved. I don’t see what other movies not winning in different years has to do with it. If anything, you could make a case that LEGEND (nominated that year) had more impressive and ambitious work, but I think THE FLY’s effects had more impact in terms of drama so I think THE FLY was a better choice for their purposes.

  13. A truly great movie. I saw it a few times on HBO? back then, scared the shit out of me, but also I was totally taken by the sadness of it. Must be one of the truly saddest movies I’ve ever seen.

  14. And there was a very good 1986 movie literally titled F/X.

    Its shortcoming in f/x awards that year must feel like, like… Taylor Swift being named the 7th most prominent “Taylor” of the year. Or something. Quit leaning on Mouth for analogies.

  15. Oh, and? The sex scenes really stuck in my adolescent mind. Their sheer exhaustion from intense pleasure – I didn’t quite realize that’s what it was, but something about their performances together made it very erotic.

  16. Actually, this kind of was turned into a stage play – Howard Shore composed an opera around it. Reviews were pretty dismissive, so I figured I’d skip it for a movie rewatch instead. Which I haven’t done, because its an exhausting, gutting experience.

    Opera clips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiOVFc_FW4w

  17. More than anything, I’m sad no one took up my lead on imagining an ideal Telepod swap-hybrid partner.

    Vern probably wants Bruce Lee. Or maybe JK Rowling, due to book sales acumen.

    Paul should want to do the Brundle with Michelangelo the Mutant Ninja Turtle, due to nunchaku appreciation harmony.

    Stu wants to Telepod with Karen Gillan, due to they are both Scottish and under what other circumstance will he ever be in the same room with her?

    AsimovLives of course wants to Telepodinally cross DNAs with JJ Abrams, so that someone may mercifully shotgun him/them in the face.

    Mr. Majestyk would like to matter-transport-combine with… I wanna say Emily Dickinson due to their matching[ly] eloquent disdain for life outside their small world… I don’t know. Dude once told me he likes most movies more than he likes human beings (a sentiment to which I fully agree), so maybe we need to give him the THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO treatment somehow. Or force him to share DNA with Jackie Chan, that kung fu artist that annoys him.

  18. My love for this movie is unparallelled, but Brundle had to have created the dumbest computer in movie history. Gene splicing is the first solution it comes up with to an unforeseen problem? It couldn’t even bring up a “Preparing to turn you into a monster, click ENTER to continue” screen? Hindsight is 20/20, I guess. Or 20/2000 when you have giant compound bug eyes.

  19. Surely an opportunity to correct the perceived-by-Mouth erroneous filmatism/doctrine of one Ms Bigelow is ripe for a Brundlefied transmorphing mash-up of Katie and Mouth in order to complete a revisionist/alternate “re-imagining” of ZD30?

  20. The movie never won an Oscar for best special effects, it won an Oscar for best make up. Just saying.

  21. Would have to happen after 1995, though. I would never endanger the existence of POINT BREAK or STRANGE DAYS.

    So… Back off, Warchild. Seriously.

  22. Paul Whose Computer Is No Longer Fried

    November 13th, 2014 at 2:37 am

    Mouth – well you’d have to merge with your exact opposite, wouldn’t you? Which I guess makes my ideal telepod partner Oprah Winfrey – my exact opposite in every conceivable way. The only problem I can see is fitting us both in there – she’s, ahem, a little “large” right now. Sorry, Oprah.

  23. The Fly is sucha great body horror movie, with the ickiness creeping up slowly till the horrifying end. It works particularly well because it feels like such a normal mainstream movie until it isn’t anymore.

    Any chance of a Fly 2 review to follow up?

  24. BTW, I just learned that Cronenberg recently released a novel. Did anybody read it?

  25. I’m with Majestyk, where it really excels is anchoring Cronenberg’s more obvious gift for touching upon the fundamental ickiness of existence to a profound, even operatic emotional core. One of my favorite films and love stories … now where the fuck is your Interstellar review?

  26. my first Cronenberg movie, which I first saw as a kid (probably edited for TV but still effective) long before I had any idea who Cronenberg was, in fact even after I did learn who Cronenberg was it took a few more years to learn that he directed THE FLY, which was surprising in a “oh really, he directed that? I had no idea….” way but also not surprising at all because it made perfect sense.

    And it’s arguably his best movie, as much as I love VIDEODROME it’s effects are cheaper and it lacks the emotional connection, THE FLY is all around slicker and manages to be a movie anyone can watch without compromising Cronenberg’s style, which is an impressive feat.

    speaking of 80’s remakes of 50’s movies, has anyone seen the also ran THE BLOB remake? I’m sure it’s not as good as THE THING or THE FLY but it seems interesting because it’s in the same vein as those two, is it worth watching?

    @Fanshen – I agree that the original is still worthwhile (hell that ending with the “help meeeeeeeeeee!” and the huge spider STILL scares the shit out of me), but the remake should not be faulted just for going in a different and more visceral direction.

  27. THE BLOB remake is awesome! It’s a lot more fun horror than FLY & THING, but full of clever touches and great gory effect work.

  28. I also really like the BLOB remake. It’s got great special effects and a plot that plays with your expectations several years before it was fashionable to do that kind of thing.

    Man, there were a couple years there in the eighties where remaking every old horror movie seemed like a good idea, didn’t it?

  29. I loved this movie so much as a kid that I remember pleading and begging to be taken to see THE FLY II At the ripe age of 5. It ended up being my first theatrical experience and that’s pretty much the only notable thing about it to me because even as a young I recognized that it was carp. Good thing KICKBOXER redeemed my faith in the big screen shortly after.

    Still this is one of those movies that proves that the 80s had hands down the best horror/sci-fi remakes. Too bad sequels were still usually pretty awful back then though. Only thing that was cool about seeing part 2 in theaters was seeing how grossed out the audience kept getting through it. That was more entertaining and memorable than the film itself.

  30. *Carp not carp. Stupid mobile internet keyboard
    and it’s word guesses.

  31. Jesus it did it again. Crap dammit crap! Lol

  32. THE BLOB remake was truly kick ass. I personally prefer it to the original. Only thing the original has over it is that catchy ass Beware of the BLOB song. Otherwise it’s probably the only movie in history that will make you say “Kevin Dillon did it better than Steve McQueen”.

  33. I like THE FLY 2! It’s more a straightforward monster movie than its part 1, but it’S well made (there is especially one super cool one-take-shot, that includes someone hiding behind a door and someone having another guy thrown at him) and has one of the most satisfying “Fuck you, bad guy! You deserved it!”-endings in history.

    Also just like the remake of THE BLOB, it was written by Frank Darabont, who back then really knew how to write a great A-class b-movie. (I wish this Frank Darabont would have made THE MIST and season 1 1/2 of THE WALKING DEAD and not the Darabont, who is too much of a respected award winning artist to just have fun with monsters anymore. But that’S a different topic.)

  34. CJ I do admit the villain becoming what he turned that poor doggy into by the end was some awesome poetic justice. One of the more redeemable parts of that movie for sure.

  35. I know a gal who worked on the special effects for the 1980s era Blob and she gave me a piece of the Blob…which is actually just a stretch of pink fabric that they injected with goo and then air-brushed. The goo was made with one of the binding agents in McDonald’s milkshakes. She said it ate through concrete after a few hours.

  36. “She said it ate through concrete after a few hours.”

    Sounds like they built it more realistic than expected.

  37. “I wish this Frank Darabont would have made THE MIST”

    Oh but come on, THE MIST is awesome, how many mainstream movies do you know have the balls to have that ending? (no wonder it flopped) and the whole sequence where they’re driving through the mist while that Dead Can Dance song plays, it’s awesome, only some cheap looking CGI hampers it a bit but what can you do.

    It’s also thus far the last good Stephen King movie and the last of what I like to call the “fuck you Bush” era of horror movies (see also LAND OF THE DEAD and most of the episodes of Showtime’s MASTERS OF HORROR), empathizing how in times of crisis Americans will turn to their barbaric faith, which only serves to make the situation worse.

    I love that movie.

  38. Excuse me, *emphasizing*, darn spell check.

  39. I talked several times on here about my dislike for THE MIST, which is mostly because of its heavy handed and cliched “Humans are as dangerous as the monsters outside” subplot and that I think the ending was unintentionally hilarious (in a dark humored TALES FROM THE CRYPT way), with the army showing up pretty much 10 seconds after he did what he did. So I won’t go into a deeper discussion about it again.

  40. The FLY remake series and DARKMAN share something in common which is that I kind of care more about the experiment than the actual story. And the stories in both are great, but I want to see the Brundles make those telepods work and I want to see Peyton Westlake make that skin last longer than 99 minutes!

  41. I would telepod with Nicolas Cage, Mouth.

    Another funny story, my video store had a poster showing the whole Brundle transformation and it scared me so much I couldn’t go in the store for six weeks until they took it down!

  42. I really enjoyed the black and white version of THE MIST. It captured that old drive-in b movie feel pretty well and the black and white is more favorable towards the effects. I also appreciated how despite clinging to a lot of old tropes and tricks it didn’t shy away from reflecting on the more cynical and stubborn nature of society today. There’s a lot of good commentary in there when you really start to dig into it and personally I appreciate that from the horror genre. The best ones are the ones that not only keep you engrossed on a technical level but leave you with some food for thought by the end.

  43. I also prefer the black and white version of THE MIST. It makes the shakycam feel less like a TV crew shooting on a short schedule and more like a late fifties naturalist drama, like a Cassavetes joint, crossed with some weird low budget existential horror like CARNIVAL OF SOULS. The unreality of the cinematography also makes King’s stylized dialogue go down a little easier. I really think it’s the way the movie should be seen.

  44. Paul Whose Computer Is No Longer Fried

    November 18th, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    I admired “The Mist” for what it was trying to be.

    I absolutely freakin’ hated watching “The Mist” for what it actually was. I can think of very few other movies that have such contempt for the “common man”. And while I absolutely like the balls-out ending, the moral (OMG the religious nutjob was right all along!) just killed it dead.

  45. Love this movie. It’s an all time classic in my mind. Jeff Goldblum should have been nominated for an Oscar for his role. The best thing about the movie is the fact it’s so intimate the effects his change has are mainly just on him and his girlfriend(of course it does effect the guys arm he breaks and the ex boyfriend too). The main focus of it is the tragedy of this genius who had a great idea but made a mistake out of jealousy. I don’t care how many times I watch this movie I’m gripped by the story and Goldblums performance. People seeing this in retrospect will think it’s just a normal Goldblum performance because he’s played so many characters like Seth Brundle since then. It absolutely wasn’t at the time. It was a great performance in every way. So great that he’s been playing a version of the character for what seem like forever since then.

  46. Nabroleon Dynamite

    December 3rd, 2014 at 8:12 am

    The Fly is hands down Cronenberg’s masterpiece and my only Cronenberg blu Ray. Although I do own Scanners, Videodrome criterion, A History Of Violence, and a shady version of Shivers acquired for a certain Mr. M on dvd.

    The Myst sucks on all levels to me and I wanted it to be good.

  47. Nabroleon Dynamite

    December 3rd, 2014 at 8:14 am

    From a certain Mr. M means I copped The shit from Mr. majestyk’s ass.

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