Now I know I rant against remakes frequently, but I’m also the first to admit there’s a time and a place for film ideas to be revisited (or reimagined, or rebooted, or whatever the trendy term of the day is). I talked about one a few weeks back – Philip Kaufman’s 1979 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and no doubt I’ll cover others here too.
Cronenberg’s THE FLY is a masterful reworking of the 1958 B movie starring David Hedison and Vincent Price which was, in turn, an adaptation of a George Langelaan short story which had been published in PLAYBOY a year earlier. Here’s a brief summary of the Cronenberg version, followed by a trailer. My thoughts are after the cut.
By the way – the movie features a wonderful soundtrack from composer Howard Shore
Seth Brundle, a brilliant but eccentric scientist, offers investigative journalist Veronica Quaife a scoop on his latest research in the field of matter transportation, which against all the expectations of the scientific establishment has proved successful. To a point. The machinery cannot yet transport organic matter. Brundle and Quaife’s burgeoning relationship helps him rethink the problem of ‘the flesh’. After successfully transporting a living creature, Brundle attempts to teleport himself, not realising a fly has enters the transmission booth with him. Brundle emerges a changed man.
So why is Cronenberg’s version of THE FLY a worthwhile second take on the story? The key reason, I believe, is that this is an excellent example of a film-maker taking an original concept and adding to it, rather than diluting. What we have here is the theme of Langelaan’s original story, updated both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. 1958 cinema audiences were aghast when our intrepid scientist teleported with the titular fly and assumed the creature’s head and arm, but in 1986 such an approach just wouldn’t have cut the mustard. Putting to one side the implausibility of teleportation for a moment, Cronenberg’s decision to splice man and insect at a molecular level makes far more sense (and also makes for far more gore). From a purely practical perspective too, it’s doubtful if the special effects experts of the fifties could have pulled off the level of slime-drooled grotesqueness on display in Cronenberg’s movie, and if they could, I doubt audiences of the time could have handled it.
The ground-breaking effects are a main talking point of the 1986 remake, but they’re not the be all and end all of the film. It was great to watch THE FLY again in high definition and a decent-sized screen, and to see that the practical gore effects still held up well. For a movie that’s almost thirty years old, that’s no mean feat. The metamorphosis and disintegration of Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle is still shocking and startling in equal measure. Fingernails being peeled off, ears dropping off, bones breaking, vomiting over food, my daughters were well impressed (and that’s no mean feat).
For me, though, the true strengths of THE FLY lie elsewhere. First, huge credit must be given to Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davies and John Getz as the three leads. Between them they add a layer of plausibility and gravitas to what is an undeniably implausible, B-movie premise. It struck me last night that the whirlwind Brundle/ Quaife romance upon which the story hinges is almost as implausible as the DNA splicing of man and fly, but it’s written and performed so well that it’s easy to put such thoughts to one side and invest completely in the film.
David Cronenberg is a master of body horror (if you’ve not seen SHIVERS
As a writer, I’m fascinated with characters who don’t realise they’re wrong. Characters who one hundred per cent believe what they’re doing is right and correct, no matter what the impact on anyone else. The three main characters in THE FLY all fit that template to an extent. It’s a real treat how Cronenberg plays with their individual motives. The heroes become villains. The villain becomes a hero. In the end, does anyone really win?