February’s Love Bites: THE FLY (1986)


Towards the end of January, Deggsy and I put our heads together to come up with a list of love-themed horror films. Apparently Deggsy knows how to follow through on a discussion because he’s been relentlessly watching and reviewing lovey-dovey horror films. I’ve been in la-la land lately and have been instead knocking films off my ever-growing list. So enjoy this timeless love story and I’ll get with the program, Deggsy … I promise!! – AHS


As part of Scott’s and my discussion, AnythingHorror wants to celebrate February, the Month of St Valentine’s, by featuring horror movies with a Valentine or love theme to them. After all, love and fear go hand in hand, both of them producing the same physical reactions of quickened heartbeat and increased appreciation for people who can dispose of unwanted bodies…

I got lucky, or at least selfishly indulgent, and chose to start off with what I think is not only one of the best love stories in horror films, but one of the best horror films, ever – and a bloody remake, too: David Cronenberg’s THE FLY (1986). Journalistic objectivity? Screw that, I bloody love this movie, and rewatching it now after so many years has helped me appreciate it further.

12THE FLY started out as a short story of the same name by George Langelaan, which was first published in 1957 in Playboy Magazine, and told the tale of a luckless scientist experimenting with teleportation, and ending up horribly changed after a fly entered the teleportation booth with him (Langelaan, by the way, was a friend of Aleister Crowley, and worked as a spy with the Special Operations Executive during World War II, at various points having been dropped into enemy territory, captured, condemned to death by the Nazis and escaped, only to return later and participate in the Normandy landings. All of which sounds equally as interesting as whatever he might have written as fiction).

I think something went wrong...

I think something went wrong…

The first adaptation appeared a year later, starring Al Hedison, Patricia Owens and the legendary Vincent Price, and stayed very faithful to the original story, while earning itself two sequels and a place within the annals of horror film history (“Help me… help me….!” I used to do the voice to my little sister and scare her, every single time… Yes, I was a bastard in my day.

"Genetically-engineered dinosaur theme park? Preposterous."

“A genetically-engineered dinosaur theme park? Preposterous.”

The remake of THE FLY appeared almost thirty years later, and while making many changes to character, setting and story for various reasons, it retained the essential meat of the tale. It opens with some strange visuals of indistinct lights milling about (an approximation of a fly’s vision of the world) before clearing to reveal a press event held by Bartok Science Industries, and awkward, eccentric scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, JURASSIC PARK), chatting up Particle magazine journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis, EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY). Cynical Veronica has heard it all before, but Brundle’s insistence that his own work is worth coming back to his place to see gets to her, and she accompanies him back to the warehouse that serves as his home and workplace.

I tried a similar experiment involving knickers, and all it got me was a court order...

I tried a similar experiment involving knickers, and all it got me was a court order…

Brundle lives a solitary existence (“Bartok Industriees leaves me alone because I’m not expensive, and if I need anything like a computer or a molecular analyser, I just farm it out to one of Bartok’s technicians, and none of them know what I’m working on”), and proves to be unpolished but still charming in his attempts to impress his guest, jumping behind a piano at one point to tinkle the ivories and offer her a cup from a genuine espresso machine, before revealing his big project: a set of teleportation pods (the iconic design was inspired by the engine cylinder of director Cronenberg’s vintage Ducati 450 Desmo motorcycle). After demonstrating its efficacy by teleporting one of Veronica’s stockings (and hey, let’s get a look at those legs, too!), he then baulks at the idea that she might tell the world, because he’s not quite ready to let the world know: the telepods work fine on inanimate objects, but use it on something living and the results are… Cronenbergian.

Well, I'm off my beef cannelloni (just kidding)...

Well, I’m off my beef cannelloni (just kidding)…

Veronica’s former lover and current editor Stathis Borans (John Getz, BLOOD SIMPLE, ZODIAC) is at first skeptical, and then enthusiastic as he learns more about how big a genius Brundle actually is, but eventually all agree on a compromise: Veronica will record Brundle’s continuing work, and eventually publish a book. The couple’s continued collaboration develops into a friendship, and then a romance, though the major hurdle of teleporting living things still bugs him (get it? Bah-dum-tish!), and turns a baboon into an inside-out baboon. But after they first have sex, Brundle is inspired to reprogram the computer to get “excited” by living flesh (no, I don’t get it either, but it nicely parallels Brundle’s emergence from the purely rational and scientific to embrace the physical, sensual side of himself).

If the Enterprise crew had to beam around naked, the show would never have been cancelled...

If the Enterprise crew had to beam around naked, the show would never have been cancelled…

The next time, the baboon emerges alive and unharmed. But in the meantime, a jealous Borans threatens to publish the story early, and when Veronica goes to confront him, and Brundle witnesses this, he assumes the worst. Getting drunk with the surviving baboon, he decides to put himself through the telepod, unmindful of the fly following him inside…

Brundle emerges, seemingly unharmed, and Veronica clears up his assumptions about her ex-boyrfriend. He feels energised, as if the process had purified him, and has increased strength, stamina and appetite. But Veronica is seeing the other after-effects: short temper, mania, weird hair-like bristles on his back… when she addresses her concerns, he throws her out, and thus she doesn’t witness the continued metamorphosis, as teeth and fingernails drop off, and he begins crawling on walls and ceilings and vomiting on food in order to liquidise it and swallow it.

I get that way trying to eat Marmite...

I get that way trying to eat Marmite…

Examining the computer records of the night of the drunken teleportation, his fears are confirmed: the telepod fused Brundle and the fly at the molecular-genetic level, producing Brundlefly, and the changes have been gradual, but inexorable, and his humanity is gradually slipping away, too… and if all that wasn’t enough to make Veronica’s day, she learns she’s pregnant with Seth’s child. But, is it from before or after his genetic transformation?

Cronenberg doing jazz hands with Goldblum

Cronenberg doing jazz hands with Goldblum

Upon its release, THE FLY was rightfully critically acclaimed, as was Goldblum’s performance. Despite being a gory remake of a classic made by a controversial, non-mainstream director, the film was a huge commercial success, the biggest of Cronenberg’s career, and was the top-grossing film in the United States for two weeks, earning a total domestic gross of over forty million dollars. Audiences reacted strongly to the graphic creature effects and the tragic love story, and the film received much attention at the time of its release.

Its tagline – “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” – has secured its own place in popular culture. It spawned a sequel, directed by Chris Walas, who produced the Oscar-winning effects for the first film, inspired an opera in 2008 (David Cronenberg served as director, Howard Shore composed the music and the lyrics were written by David Henry Hwang, with whom Cronenberg collaborated on M. BUTTERFLY), and later this year a comic book miniseries from IDW Publishing, titled The Fly: Outbreak.

I once saw David Hasselhoff eat a chiliburger like this...

I once saw David Hasselhoff eat a chiliburger like this…

Work on producing a remake of THE FLY had been going for years in the Eighties, with Fox Studios first offering and then withdrawing funding when they disapproved of the original storyline. Funding eventually came from Mel Brooks, who loved the idea but kept his involvement hidden as he wanted the movie to be treated seriously. The original director, a Brit named Robert Bierman, was slated for the movie, but a family tragedy forced him to eventually drop out, passing the movie over to David Cronenberg, who had initially been scheduled to make an early version of TOTAL RECALL, and agreed to make THE FLY, if he was allowed to add his own touches to the script, adding the familiar themes of sexuality, body horror and loss of identity (Brundle’s speech midway about “insect politics” smacks of pure Cronenberg).

The studios did not want Goldblum as the lead, believing he wasn’t a bankable star, having only appeared in the likes of BUCKAROO BANZAI and INTO THE NIGHT at the time, but Cronenberg pushed for him. Cronenberg, meanwhile, was unsure about Geena Davis, who was Goldblum’s then-girlfriend at the time, but quickly appreciated the chemistry between the two leads (Davis claims that the only time she felt “grossed out” by the amount of gore was in the scene where Seth’s ear falls off and she holds him).

There's also shots of Geena Davis *and* Jeff Goldblum in their tighty whities. If you like that sort of thing.

There’s also shots of Geena Davis *and* Jeff Goldblum in their tighty whities. If you like that sort of thing.

There were a number of scenes that were filmed but dropped from the final movie, including one where Brundle experiments with a monkey and cat, fusing them together but then beating them to death when they emerge in unendurable agony (test audiences immediately lost sympathy for Brundle’s character at this point; remember folks, you can have your protagonist kill any number of people, but never animals), and an aborted epilogue where we see Veronica with Stathis Borans, and dreaming of having a beautiful baby… with butterfly wings. There were variants on this ending, but all were rejected by the test audience, who were too stunned by the bloody climax to need an upbeat coda.

Fuck you, CGI...

Fuck you, CGI…

The score was composed by Howard Shore and the make-up effects were created by Chris Walas, who unusually is the first name mentioned in the end credits. After a screening the audience cheered upon seeing this first credit. Producer Stuart Cornfeld turned to Walas and said, “You’re getting the Oscar”. Cornfeld’s prediction came true when Walas did in fact win the Academy Award for Best Makeup. Many also thought that Goldblum was up for a Best Actor Oscar, but of course, it had to go to Paul Newman for his performance in the shitty THE COLOR OF MONEY, because horror movies are unworthy, right?

Walas’ work was (and is) superlative, and all practical, much of it basic (Brundlefly’s digestive vomit, for instance, was a simple mixture of honey, eggs and milk, and melting flesh was made with gelatin melted by hair dryers, a technique Walas previously developed to melt the Nazi’s face at the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK). The various stages of Brundlefly were planned backwards, from the pure puppetry of the Final Stage, to the various bits and pieces leading up to him going full tilt.

The sexual chemistry in the original movie was strangely muted...

The sexual chemistry in the original movie was strangely muted…

In a 1987 interview, Vincent Price revealed that when this remake was released, star Jeff Goldblum wrote him a letter saying, “I hope you like it as much as I liked yours.” Price was touched by the letter, he composed a reply and went to see the film, which he described as “wonderful right up to a certain point… it went a little too far.”

Sorry, Vincent, but with all due respect, you’re wrong. THE FLY still works today because everyone involved is at the top of their game. Goldblum had yet to become a parody of himself, making Seth Brundle quirky but believable, Davis is neither just a damsel in distress nor an unrealistic kickass heroine, but someone very believable caught up in an unbelievable situation, and even Getz manages to elevate his douchebag role into someone who rises to the challenge. Behind the camera, Cronenberg has made his most accessible movie, making a film that was both entertaining and intelligent, and with a strong, tragic love story at its core. Genuine pathos is generated, something you don’t see often in horror, not to mention a maturity and empathy for the characters. Really, this is perhaps the classiest movie that has ever featured a scene of a woman aborting a giant maggot (with Cronenberg offering a cameo as an obstetrician).



Get THE FLY on the more recent DVDs, which feature many of the aforementioned deleted scenes, plus a superlative documentary, Fear Of The Flesh: The Making Of THE FLY. Running at nearly three hours, almost twice as long as the movie itself, this features interviews from actors Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis and John Getz, composer Howard Shore, editor Ronald Sanders, director of photography Mark Irwin, and creature designer Walas.
The trailer is below. Enjoy.

Deggsy’s Summary:

Director: David Cronenberg

Plot: 5 out of 5 stars

Gore: 8 out of 10 skulls

Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains

Reviewed by Deggsy. Once fused with a pepperoni pizza, and never looked back.

2 Responses to “February’s Love Bites: THE FLY (1986)”
  1. garethrhodes says:

    It’s a fantastic film. Dare I say, better than the original. Great piece.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: