A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong.
OSCAR winner for Best Makeup
CLICK HERE and read Classic Movie Reviews from every year and every genre!
Remakes are notorious for failing to live up to the originals, and when you throw the horror genre into the equation, the results can be disastrous. Awful horror remakes aren’t hard to find, and updates that actually improve on their inspiration are extremely rare.
But they do exist.
Take David Cronenberg’s dramatic and gruesome 1986 remake of The Fly. Kurt Neumann’s 1958 film adaptation of George Langelaan’s short story is a cult classic, and even today, it is still enjoyable and actually quite chilling. However, Cronenberg’s version on The Fly takes the creepiness of the original and elevates it to new and horrific extremes.
Jeff Goldblum stars as Seth Brundle, a young scientist whose social awkwardness is only matched by his brilliance. After escorting worldly-wise journalist Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (Geena Davis) back to his laboratory, Brundle reveals his self-proclaimed life’s work: teleportation booths, or “telepods,” that will make all other forms of transportation irrelevant. At first cynical, Ronnie quickly sees her opportunity to document a monumental discovery, and the two strike up a partnership.
The special effects in The Fly must be seen to be believed. Chris Walas’ team won an Oscar for their work here, and they couldn’t be more deserving. While seamless makeup does the trick for most of the film, the final “Brundlefly” creature is brought to life with the now-overlooked magic of animatronics. It’s remarkable that although this last version of our hero is robotic, it doesn’t lose our sympathy. It’s actually fitting that we sacrifice the humanity of a live actor’s performance, because by this point, Seth himself has been swallowed up by this monster. Yet there is a profound sorrow in the animatronic Brundlefly’s eyes, artificial though they are, that makes this transformation memorably devastating.
Now, while the effects are incredible, they alone do not make The Fly work. What truly elevates this film is its core love triangle. Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Seth Brundle is magnificent throughout, his portrayal ranging from shy loner to brutal monster. It is difficult to be consistently believable in a role based on such extremes, but Goldblum pulls it off beautifully. He doesn’t come across as uninteresting without the makeup, and once he is buried under pounds of latex, he still emotes powerfully. This is so important to the lasting power of the film, since the effects can only do so much. Take for example the scene in which one of Seth’s ears falls off, only an early sign of the impending horror. The effect itself makes the audience wince, but what makes it more disturbing is the character’s distressed reaction. The slime might turn your stomach, but it’s the fear in Goldblum’s eyes and voice that tugs at your heart.
Equally impressive is Geena Davis, who has the unenviable job of still standing out in a movie where her leading man turns into a giant insect. Davis succeeds wonderfully, eliciting our sympathy as strongly as Goldblum does. The two have a rare chemistry, which may have either stemmed from or inspired their real-life romance. Davis also excels where so many horror heroines fail: when reacting to her frightening situation, she really goes for it. The audience can’t get caught up in Seth’s horrendous evolution if Ronnie doesn’t, and her fear and grief are acutely felt. In fact, Seth’s final transformation into the full-blown Brundlefly creature only works so well because Geena Davis makes us believe it. At that point, she isn’t even reacting to another actor anymore, but to a disintegrating puppet. Still, Ronnie’s shrieks of disgust and terror elevate a great effect to a truly nightmarish moment. Without giving too much away, Davis’ ability to see the animatronic Brundlefly as a living, suffering thing – and to make us see it that way – is absolutely essential to the film’s finale.
As Ronnie’s sneering ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans, John Getz portrays a decidedly subtler kind of metamorphosis. He starts out as an unlikeable jerk so utterly convinced of his own wit and sexual magnetism that he can’t understand why Ronnie rejects him. Not only that, as Seth’s condition gets more and more desperate, Stathis is the one urging Ronnie to leave her lover to his fate. But as the film builds to its final showdown, Stathis emerges as a truly courageous figure. He puts his life on the line to protect Ronnie, and his determination to save her is unexpectedly touching.
Apart from our three leads, there are some memorable bit parts. George Chuvalo plays a tough-talking bruiser who unwisely goes up against Seth in an arm-wrestling match. As Chuvalo’s grimy arm-candy, Joy Boushel manages to convey sex appeal while still somehow looking nearly as diseased as Seth himself. Also, keep an eye out for David Cronenberg himself during a particularly cringe-inducing scene, paying tribute to his admitted fascination with gynecology.
It is also important to mention the gorgeous musical score of Howard Shore, who also lent his talent to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Instead of a simple score full of “stings” to emphasize the shocks, Shore’s treatment of The Fly is unashamedly operatic. When the strings aren’t sweeping grandly, they’re shuddering in apprehension of the horror to come. In fact, Shore recently completed an opera based on The Fly, and given his work in the film version, that idea doesn’t sound quite as far-fetched as one might think.
The Fly is a must-see for horror fans, of course, but it should also appeal to those who just like a compelling story. It helps to have a high tolerance for gore, but if you can go beyond that, you will find a haunting, heart-rending drama about the torment of losing a loved one.
Note: For the best viewing experience, try to get your hands on the two-disc collector’s edition DVD. This baby’s got more extra features than Brundlefly’s loft has stale donuts! There’s a feature-length documentary that covers just about everything you could possibly want to know about The Fly, from the film’s pre-production to its legacy. Especially interesting are the deleted scenes, which include the disturbing “monkey-cat” sequence and four versions of the moving “butterfly baby” alternate ending. While the theatrical version of The Fly is brilliant just as it is, it is exciting to finally see this material.