David Cronenberg's The Fly is that rare thing, a remake that completely surpasses the original. It's also one of the most genuinely repulsive films I've ever seen, thanks in no small part to Charles Walas's hideous special effects. Microwaved baboons, anyone? How about a doughnut freshly glazed with stomach acid?
The schlocky, technicolour original was directed by Kurt Neumann back in 1958 and starred the always-game Vincent Price. It was quickly followed by Return of the Fly (1959), a cheapo black-and-white replay churned out by Edward Bernds. An even lower budget British-made finale, Don Sharp's The Curse of the Fly, brought the series to a close without Price in 1965. Effective but dumb, this B movie franchise essentially boils down to a man in a smart suit and papier-mache head chasing people around and breaking things. Nevertheless the first version remains famous for its iconic and much parodied ending in which a fly with a man's head is heard trapped in a spider's web screaming, "Help meeeee!"
Fun as those films were, they were always formulaic and unambitious and relied heavily upon established monster movie shock tactics and melodrama. This is what makes Cronenberg's film so astonishing. In this simple Frankenstein fable of a mad scientist's teleportation experiments gone awry (based on a 1957 Playboy short story by George Langelaan), the Canadian gorehound saw not only a perfect vehicle for his own peculiar brand of body horror but also for a thoughtful meditation on coping with malignant illness and loss. Released at the height of the AIDs epidemic, The Fly starts like a superhero movie but turns out to be a surprisingly touching discussion of the impotence and heartbreak of watching a loved one die slowly from a terminal wasting disease.
Casting Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle was Cronenberg's real master stroke. Rarely a dramatic lead, the actor's intense bug eyes and sweaty charm make him ideal for a role that requires him to be both a romantic Dr Jekyll and a grotesque, glucose-sucking, leperous mutant who crawls on the ceiling. His then-wife Geena Davis is also great. Her transition from sceptic to apprehensive believer is utterly credible and helps draw the viewer into Brundle's intriguing, lonely world. Their early chemistry together is vital and ensures that the film's later metamorphosis into a nastier Beauty & the Beast rises above routine, pathos-free horror. Also excellent is John Getz as Veronica's editor at Particle magazine Stathis Borans, initially an unhinged stalker but later a gallant woodsman rushing to the rescue.
Appropriately for a film about genetic fusion, The Fly absorbs and binds molecules from all sorts of other sources, from fairy tales to Franz Kafka. One example is "Brundlefly" bursting into an abortion clinic to kidnap Veronica and prevent the termination of their baby, a scene in which the creature becomes Quasimodo, Phantom of the Opera and King Kong all at once. This is also in evidence in The Fly's most memorable and traumatic scene: Veronica's nightmare, a fever dream in which she imagines going into labour and giving birth to Seth's larval offspring, which recalls the chest-bursting scene from Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). Tellingly, Cronenberg chooses this point to make his entrance in a Hitchcockian cameo as a gynaecologist.
You can read more of Joe's reviews at his blog Faded Video Labels.