Should you still be afraid? Very afraid?
As we close in on October 31, AiPT! will be reviewing and recommending various pieces of underappreciated scary media-books, comics, movies, and television-to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
David Cronenberg’s The Fly is largely considered as a high water mark in the horror genre. Simple, sleek and effective, audiences and critics alike often cite it as an example of the perfect blend between sharp direction, subtle and evocative acting (especially from Jeff Goldblum), stellar effects and memorable story. But, times have changed. With the rise of a new horror story – one that focuses on the trauma we inflict on each other through both personal conflict in films like Hereditary and societal institutions like white supremacy in Get Out – how does a gross out creature feature appeal to modern senses? Does The Fly hold up?
The answer is yes. Hell yes. Perhaps, in new, different and better ways than it did at the time of its release.
Perhaps the single most memorable focus of this iteration of the story of a man doomed to become fly (largely because of his own hubris, but we’ll get into that later) is the attention to detail in showing just how gross that process would actually be. They didn’t cut any corners here as the titular fly transitions from man to fly and fingernails, ears, and skin begin peeling away, as he begins to vomit on his food to digest it because his teeth have lost all their purpose. It’s nasty, grisly stuff brought to life painstakingly well and ramped up throughout the movie with expert pacing. From a quick shot of the main character breaking a man’s wrist in a bar onto a disgusting hand-melting moment later, the effects hold up exceedingly well today, in the same way the dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park look eerily real – because they in fact did exist in a sense, rendered for life on screen. You may want to skip on eating during this one.
The eccentric, initially affable and then very off-putting figurehead of the movie is, of course, Seth Brundle. A quirky, obviously genius scientist with a quick wit and a penchant for rants that seem initially sensible but fall apart under scrutiny is brought to life in fantastic dynamic energy by Jeff Goldblum. The performance, unlike some offered up by his contemporaries in the 80s – especially those in the horror genre – is surprisingly subtle and honed here. Brundle is, initially, a likable, relatable character who very clearly wants to do well but is frustrated by seemingly self-imposed hurdles. As they’re bounded over during the film’s runtime, they reveal a darker, significantly grosser hubristic knack that is obsessed with ego, jealousy and success. It’s a fantastic transition that grounds the character in a sympathetic light before revealing the monster within both metaphorically and literally. This is largely due to Goldblum’s fantastic sense of delivery and ability to play off the other characters. The ability to connect him to real-world figures at the time as well as current ones like Elon Musk shouldn’t be lost on viewers. The monologue about insect politics is as eerie, memorable and poignant as ever.
The Themes, Especially Those Related to Bodily Autonomy
The Fly is about a lot of things. It’s about disease (some critics, far smarter than me, say it’s specifically about AIDS), it’s about the hubris of man, about the toxicity of some relationships, the feeling of wanting to help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves, and more. Most importantly, though, it’s about our bodies and what we can do to and with them. Brundle’s journey is obvious – a man who is exceedingly monstrous on the inside through an obsession with ambition and success turns so on the outside because he has given himself the ability to do so. What is initially an accident becomes an experiment in attempts to mold his very body into what he wants to become (“I’m becoming something that’s never existed before”) to a disgusting degree before he regrets his very existence.
But, through the eyes of Brundle’s main foil, Veronica Quaife, The Fly also becomes an examination of what we can do with our bodies when they aren’t operating as we want them to be. Of course, through her willingness to help Brundle as she initially views him a sick man needing help, but largely through her decision to have an abortion when she finds she is pregnant with his child. I was surprised, and frankly overjoyed to see how prominently the abortion storyline is featured here and also how unquestioned it goes as Quaife’s ex-boyfriend offers to assist her. A doctor initially unimpressed by her uncertainty finds that she is sure and offers help as well. The issue is treated rather un-politically, without the need to give time or credence to weighing out the options once she has made the decision and wants to exercise control over her body the same way Brundle is using his. It’s a fantastic mirroring of the film’s plots that feel relevant, maybe even more so than ever, today. We control our bodies, we know what they need, and we can choose to listen as Veronica does, or we can disregard that to horrible outcome as Brundle does.
What Doesn’t Work
On the less successful side here is the strange peppiness and prominence of the score. I think, today’s viewership is probably less accustomed to music feeling so…participatory in scenes as stingers and cues seem to come and go with little reason loudly and abruptly and with a tonal mismatch to the things on scene save a few select moments. It’s easy to imagine a revamped score from auteurs like Johan Johannsson (R.I.P) or Reznor and Ross that would feel much more suitable.
The Focus on Technology
Of course, the telepods at the center of the story are integral to the plot and can’t be discarded. However, the focus on other things, like a great deal of time spent showing Brundle typing away at the keyboard or cuts to the computer screen outputting information just feel like effects grandstanding for the time. The story doesn’t necessarily make any salient points about the interplay between humanity and technology, and while there’s some key information delivered to Brundle through those scenes, they’re nothing the audience doesn’t already know or that couldn’t have been setup to be delivered by other characters or elements. It’s an obvious, unnatural, focus on set pieces the director liked but that don’t work as well given the time between then and now or in comparison to the incredible monster/costume effects at play in depicting Brundle’s transformation.
All in all, The Fly more than earns its place among the horror movie greats. It demands your attention not only with its gross effects and stellar acting but also with what it has to say about us, about our obsession with our bodies and about our fears that they’ll one day fail due to disease or worse. It’s a compelling, frightening film that loses next-to-none of its bite even today because it’s not about a fly, it’s about a man who becomes one.