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David Cronenberg's "The Fly"

"The Fly"

David Cronenberg's "The Fly" (1986) is among a very few movies that give me a sense of hesitation as soon as the credits appear. I've owned a couple of home video versions since its release twenty some years ago, according to the technology in favor, but I doubt I've played them more than a handful of times (including that for the purpose of this review). For such a well made and entertaining movie this is particularly odd but among the great horror flicks (it certainly fits the bill) this one hits you a little bit below the belt for enjoyment's sake.

"The Fly" deals with Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), an eccentric inventor who meets reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) at a science convention and (somewhat unwillingly) spills the beans about his latest creation, one that will "change the world as we know it". The contraption in question is a teleportation system for inanimate objects, which is basically the same concept used for getting characters on and off the Starship Enterprise in "Star Trek". With Veronica alongside him to document his progress Seth is able to take the next step, giving his invention the ability to transport live beings. After a failed attempt (that's putting it mildly!) with a baboon that should have given him some pause, Seth unwisely decides to rush testing the system with himself as passenger, unaware that a seemingly innocent house fly has hitched a ride alongside him (at least they weren't joined by that other baboon!). After the initial apparent success, an oblivious Seth will find himself gaining incredible agility and strength but will progressively become a mean, selfish, stench-filled and tragic individual, illustrating in the process the nature of those insects in much higher detail than we would ever want to learn. By film's end we'll end up seeing these creatures in a very different light and Seth will not be able to regret enough the fact that he did not provide his device with an UNDO command.

Much like he previously did in "The Dead Zone" (1983), Cronenberg creates a very convincing couple for the audience to identify with before tragedy strikes. The difference in "The Fly" is that he doesn't show them the slightest bit of mercy (the fates of Christopher Walken and Brooke Adams in "The Dead Zone" amounted to a happy ending in comparison). This doesn't necessarily make one movie better than the other (though "The Dead Zone"'s conclusion is truly sublime). Both entries were treated correctly according to their very different subjects but the ending in "The Fly" is not quite as easy to appreciate. The audience here is even taunted for a while with the possibility that the experiment's results are going to be for the best and that makes the lead's fate all the more painful. What can you say about a movie in which the villain of the piece (Davis' egotistical and sexist boss played by John Getz) suddenly finds himself becoming the hero? Perhaps that Getz' initial evil was no match for the enormity and wrongness of the situations in this movie.

"The Exorcist" (1973) aside, I can't think of another horror film as intense as "The Fly". They are both almost unbearable to watch and certain sections of the latter have the upper-hand when it comes to inciting a sense of disgust, and that's saying something. Even the most conventional scene in our movie (the "it's only a dream" sequence) is so powerful that we tend to forget we are watching one of cinema's more tiresome clichés. "The Fly" isn't quiet as demoralizing as Friedkin's masterpiece but I think it is a bit too much of that for its own good. This clearly isn't a film for everybody and yet, it's also very hard not to appreciate its many virtues: It works remarkably well because the two leads manage to get you involved on what could have easily been laughable otherwise., They are able to convince the audience that these proceedings are really happening, turning us into an observing "fly in the wall" in the process (so to speak). Cronenberg goes way over the top in the last act but this is still about as convincing a movie about a subject this preposterous as has ever been made.

Cronenberg's film represents a new version of the 1958 David Hedison/Vincent Price campy entry and it destroys the much spread generalization that all remakes are gratuitous and evil. This was not just about applying more modern technology to the same concept but about giving it a whole new dimension instead, going well beyond the goals of a typical horror flick such as is the first entry. "The Fly" was released at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic and was seen by many as a metaphor for the disease. The shoe certainly can fit (according to each viewer's personal point of view of course) but it seems to me that Cronenberg's film deals with even more basic issues that just about everybody can identify, such as the fear of coming apart (the very reason why the dismemberment part in "Poltergeist" was the scariest in that movie by far) and that of completely losing control of one self. The latter is perfectly summarized by Seth to Veronica in one of the film's best and most chilling lines: "Have you ever heard insects politics?" Point being he's grasped the fact that he's becoming a creature that is all instinct.

However difficult to watch, "The Fly" does have its share of enjoyable facets such as the sight of Seth showing-off his truly wondrous, newly gained abilities or the intricacies in developing a device of this nature (a sequel dealing with questions such as the teleportation of the soul or how the machine's eventual perfection would put the courier and airline companies out of business, couldn't have been all that bad) This is obviously a preposterous concept but no more than, say, the much-used time travel. The movie certainly holds water in its own terms, though I would have guessed that if two such different beings like a man and a fly became integrated on a genetic level, there would be no reason for this process to be progressive as opposed of having them come out of the chamber already as one (for dramatic purposes, Cronenberg's was obviously the best approach by far). Goldblum's natural oddness makes him perfect for a part (he has the feel of an insect to begin with) and his quirks provide much needed comic relief (think of his owning only identical sets of the same clothes as to avoid wasting his creative energy). Davis as Veronica spends a good deal of the time crying and carrying on (more than justifiably so!) but she is much more than just a simple damsel in distress and besides, she does get to deliver the movie's one now classic line that's become part of everyday language: "be afraid be very afraid!".

Asides from a few of the fads from the 1980s, "The Fly" hardly looks dated. Goldblum's makeup is astounding from the initial sight where we see him start to lose his teeth/fingernails all the way to the closing scenes when he has to come apart (literally). The special effects may seem low-tech to some of today's audiences but I doubt they would be more convincing had they done with more modern techniques. Cronenberg makes excellent use of the "twisting room" (previously used in MGM musicals and in "Poltergeist") that shows Seth jumping effortless from wall to wall. There is a certain feel of weight and volume in that scene that I don't think today's visual effects would have done a very good job of matching. Some other sequences consist of rather rudimentary tricks like the (obvious) use of athlete stunt doubles to display's Seth's athletic abilities (used in situations where the light is dim). I can easily imagine today's filmmakers substituting the very basic trick of Goldblum carrying a girl up several flights of stairs (we only get to see his feet most of the time) with an animated version that would have shown both characters in their entirety the whole time, but that would have likely drawn too much attention to itself."The Fly" is a rather underrated film. After all these years I don't think it's never been shown on commercial TV here in Mexico, which in a way is understandable (and we're talking about the local networks here that never hesitate to place graphic ads on cures for rashes and digestive discomfort at lunch time). "The Fly" is an amazingly effective movie, one that really gets under your skin, the kind of that you can't help but admire but feel no rush to come back to any time soon and when you do, it's probably a good idea to skip the candy counter in advance.
Gerardo Valero

Gerardo Valero is lives in Mexico City with his wife Monica. Since 2011 he's been writing a daily blog about film clichés and flubs (in Spanish) on Mexico's Cine-Premiere Magazine. His contributions to "Ebert's Little Movie Glossary" were included in the last twelve editions of "Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook."

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