The Fly (1958)
Dir. Kurt Neumann
Written by James Clavell based on the short story by George Langelaan
Starring Al Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price
THE FLY is one of those 1950s mad science / giant insect (spoiler?) films which we think about primarily in conjunction with Mystery Science Theater 3000. Which is to say, we think of them as comically antiquated, silly camp, if we even think about them at all. We have some hazy vision of stilted dialogue and clumsy rubber monster suits and cartoonishly square honkie scientists, and that’s about it. But THE FLY isn’t just a 1950s mad science / giant insect film. It’s also the 1950s mad science / giant insect film; the one which has emerged from the pack over the years to not simply be remembered, but to embody the very concept of this type of film. Writer Chuck Klosterman gained some attention recently for his theory which states, “As the timeline moves forward, tangential artists in any field fade from the collective radar, until only one person [or, in this case, work of art] remains; the significance of that individual is then exaggerated, until the genre and the person become interchangeable.” He used this to imagine a future where the musical genre “rock and roll” has faded completely from popular culture and is only remembered as a historical movement through the lens of one individual performer who consequently must represent the totality of the artform (he debated between Elvis, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, before ultimately settling on the correct choice, Chuck Berry). If John Philip Sousa is the embodiment of marching band music, Beethoven is the embodiment of Classical Music, and Berry will someday embody rock and roll, THE FLY is the embodiment of that particular breed of horror which in itself defines, to some extent, the genre cinema of the 1950s. Only perhaps THEM! offers it any serious competition for that honor.
THE FLY, then, is a movie that you encounter, and feel like you know, long before you ever actually watch it. Like the “twist” ending to PLANET OF THE APES --which is probably the one thing which is most known about that movie, even (and perhaps especially) by people who have never seen it-- you probably already know, at least in broad strokes, the big shock moments of THE FLY. I’ve seen most of the iconic scenes parodied or referenced in everything from The Simpsons (in their classic “Treehouse of Horror” segment Fly vs Fly) to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which features a minor character who actually has an origin story very similar to the one seen in the movie) to BEETLEJUICE (Michael Keaton quotes the title character’s final moments) to Phineas and Ferb (a teleportation accident involving mixed-up fly parts). And then of course, there’s David Cronenberg’s 1986 loose remake of the same title, which is possibly even more famous than the original, at least in the circles in which I run. Howard Shore wrote a fucking opera version of the story in 2008. That’s about peak cultural saturation.
And yet, somehow THE FLY still wasn’t quite what I expected. Not entirely, anyway. I mean, on one hand, it is entirely, almost quintessentially a 1950’s mad science film. You’d be hard pressed to find a single 30 second sequence which could not be immediately identified as a 1950’s mad science film even completely isolated from any other context. The cinematography is of the stagey, candy-coated technicolor school, full of lush, warm lighting and pristine theatrical sets which seem to owe their genesis more to the imagination of Norman Rockwell than anything which ever existed in the real world. The acting is of that theatrical, pre-method-acting variety, with broad, uncomplicated performances which could play to the back rows of a stage theater quite comfortably. The dialogue is no more naturalistic, full of turgid, purple philosophical monologues and earnest declarative proclamations (“It would be funny, if life weren’t so sacred,” emphasizes a forlorn scientist after mistakenly sending a kitten to another dimension). And the movie has that unmistakably 1950s desire to ensure that the characters are all morally upright to the point of being positively saccharine. No moral ambiguity here, no complicated motivations.
But on the other hand, just like THEM!, THE FLY turns out to be rather darker and more affecting than you’d have any reason to expect going in. I love 1950’s horror cinema, but I can’t imagine even the most sensitive soul feeling particularly horrified by THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS or IT… THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE. I doubt even their creators imagined they would disturb and unnerve. They were matinee drive-in fluff for kiddies, full of rubbery special effects, precocious child and silly featherweight melodrama. But THE FLY turns out to be a little more twisted than its brethren. In fact, David Cronenberg's “reimagining” of the film as a body-horror nightmare isn’t as radical a departure from the original as I had assumed. While not as fascinated as Cronenberg was by the messily dysmorphic transmutation of flesh, it’s definitely interested in shocking and disturbing its audience, and in doing so, successfully manages to find an unexpected vein of the grotesque running through the corny 1950’s suburban modernist milieu.
It is the story, of course, of Dr. Andre Delambre (David “Al” Hedison*, most recognizable for playing Felix Leiter in LIVE AND LET DIE and LICENSE TO KILL), a Montreal scientist who is discovered in the film’s opening with his head and arm crushed beyond recognition in a hydraulic press. We don’t see the messy results, but hot damn, that’s a pretty hardcore death to start a movie with in 1958. His wife, Helene (SAYONARA, a multiple-Oscar-winning Marlon Brando-starring 1957 anti-racism movie that I’ve literally never heard of before today***), denies any involvement in his death, but begins behaving extremely strangely, becoming obsessed with flies and unable to discuss what happened. Eventually, Delambre’s kindly brother Francois (Vincent Price, 1975’s “conceptual TV special” Alice Cooper: The Nightmare) shows up and tricks her into telling the sordid tale that lead to Delambre’s untimely (and squishy) demise.
Seems that once upon a time, Delambre was an apparently non-mad scientist laboring to build a matter transporter in his basement (admittedly, that description makes him sound quite mad indeed, but he seems pretty well adjusted. Also arguably this would actually make him a non-mad engineer, since he’s actually trying to build a device, not test a hypothesis, but let us not muddle the case with needless semantics). He’s a loving husband, but he’s really, really into his work and misses some meals and stuff, which mildly irritates his wife and lets us know that his tragic flaw is that he cares more about making a history-altering scientific discovery than his wife’s home cooking, which in the movie’s opinion means that it’s tragic but inevitable that he’ll eventually have his head crushed by a hydraulic press. I don’t need to tell you what goes wrong, because you already know. One day Helene ventures into the basement to find her husband unexpectedly silent, and hiding his head under a cloth of mystery while scrawling frantic messages to her with the hand he’s not suspiciously holding behind his back. Uh oh.
In one sense, this is a movie conceit which is ludicrous in the extreme -- he ends up with a giant fly head (but his own brain?) and must try and locate the pesky insect which has stolen his own human noggin. I mean, that’s downright kooky, it barely even supports parody it’s so outrageous (the Simpsons episode which references the movie actually doesn’t do anything more ridiculous with the concept than its source material does). If you start asking questions about how, exactly, this works, it quickly becomes clear that it’s utter nonsense. So hard sci-fi it ain’t, but somehow the movie doesn’t come off as comical as it really ought to, by all reasonable standards.
Part of this, I think, is the gruesome opening -- we know this is going to end really, really badly, so there’s an element of inevitability and tragedy here, combined with the engrossing mystery of how our nice scientist ended up at such a desperate point. Part is also the simple but effective imagery, from Delambre’s disconcerting silent, masked form to the elaborate animatronic fly mask and arm, which are utterly absurd, of course, but also detailed and realistic enough to be appreciably repellent. Still, for my money, the biggest reason THE FLY manages to pull off the impossible and become a genuinely unnerving 1950’s sci-fi schlock pic has to do with the existential randomness of it all. Delambre really is a pretty nice guy with a lovely, supportive wife and a genuinely inspired scientific breakthrough. He isn’t some callus Dr. Frankenstein who let his hubris overcome his humanity, he doesn’t even make some crucial misjudgment. There’s just one tiny, random complication he didn’t consider or plan for. In every other parallel universe, this experiment probably went off without a hitch and the guy went on to become the most famous and important human of the century. And yet, in this universe, he’s going to be transformed into a disfigured monster and eventually smashed to death by heavy machinery, which will be, by that point, a blessing. It’s such a terribly cruel and blatantly unfair turn of events that you can’t help but be a little affected by it. In fact, it’s perhaps even more salient today than it would have been in its own time, because of our (completely unwarranted) sense of nostalgia for this “simpler time,” which is presented with exactly the corny, sentimental treacle we expect of it, until it’s suddenly shattered by this bizarre and grotesque intrusion of random fate.
It’s traditional when discussing 1950s horror movies to blather on and on about the sense of fatalism brought on by the apparently imminent nuclear holocaust, which hovered over everything throughout the cold war but was perhaps especially anxiety-ridden in the decade immediately following the Second World War. You could, if you were so inclined, make that case for this movie -- the film’s teleportation experiment, though not explicitly related to the atomic age,*** could be seen as a metaphor for the new era of science powerful enough that a single mistake could have catastrophic and unforeseen consequences. You could even argue, perhaps --just perhaps, and especially since this was based on a French short story-- that maybe poor Dr. Andre Delambre might be a symbol for the post-war modernist ideals, forging forward with good intentions but an irresponsible naivete for how those ideals and their resulting knowledge might unexpectedly transform them into dangerous monsters. There might even be a little autobiographical allusion, strangely enough; short story author George Langelaan actually underwent plastic surgery to alter his appearance and make him a more effective spy for the Allies during WWII. Did he, like the protagonist here, find his own face suddenly transformed into something alien and unnerving?
Mostly, though, I don’t think a movie like THE FLY is meant to be read symbolically. It’s a film which is meant to shock and fascinate, and that’s what it does. From its startling, mysterious opening to its big special-effects reveal to its surreal, grotesque ending, it’s a movie which magnificently threads the line between campy delights and grim body horror. The cast is solid: Owens is absolutely radiant as the doomed scientist’s wife, and has the acting chops to be convincing as both a stereotypical homemaker and a mentally shattered trauma survivor, effectively holding the entire movie together. Hedison is sympathetic as the title character (even though we don’t see much of him after his big transformation, that's him under the mask, not a double) and what the heck, we might as well enjoy Vincent Price in a rare nice guy role.**** It’s not the best use of the big fella, but his overpowering screen charisma is as intoxicating as ever, and he's effortlessly endearing. Director Kurt Neumann (a stalwart B-movie workhorse who had directed nearly 30 movies since 1933, and tragically died a few days after THE FLY’s premier, reportedly weakened by his exhausting work on it) lets the plot flag a little as the backstory begins, and needlessly lets it drag on for ten minutes after the obvious finale, but no matter. It’s a strange and affecting experience not quite like anything else.
Which leaves me with only one complaint, and one which will be rather predictable to those of you who know my usual stance on these mad science pics: Why the fuck does Delambrefly have to go and smash up his lab and burn his notes?! I think the prospect of instant teleportation would be valuable enough to endure a few setbacks. I know he doesn’t want anyone else to get mutated, but all you have to do is keep the flies out of the transportation tube! Hell, install an air curtain and you've fucking changed the course of history! The concept was sound, I say, SOUND!
Anyway, other than that, THE FLY is great. If the 1950’s mad science / monster craze has to be defined by just one film, you could hardly pick a better one -- it brings everything you’d expect from the era and genre, but also a little more. I don’t know if it is, as Vincent Price describes in the trailer, “far beyond anything your mind could conceive,” but it’s also not quite what you probably assume.
*Fun fact: his daughter, Alexandra Hedison, is married to Jody Foster. Incidentally, I can’t exactly recall the pronunciation of the Doctor’s name, but writing out “Andre Delambre” makes it look like it rhymes, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. It’s French in the original short story (Canadian here) so it’s anyone’s guess what it should actually sound like.
**Not-so-fun fact: Ricardo Montalban plays a Japanese character.
***Although one of the posters claims the film is about “The Monster Created By Atoms Gone Wild!” they must mean that it’s literally composed of carbon atoms, because unless I missed it there’s no talk of atomic energy here.
****Ironically, the huge success of THE FLY --one of the few famous roles where Price plays a completely nice guy-- seems to have been the deciding factor into making him a fixture of the horror genre, and one of the screen’s most legendary villains. He’d done HOUSE OF WAX in 1953, and THE MAD MAGICIAN in 1954, but was only a sporadic genre actor until THE FLY, from which point he began appearing almost exclusively in horror films. Or at least, that’s the way writer Richard Harlan Smith tells the story.
|Woah now, let's not overreact.|
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
Yes, from George Langelaan’s short story. Which, incidentally, was first published in Playboy magazine, if you were confused by that 6th tagline.
Two sequels, RETURN OF THE FLY in 1959, and CURSE OF THE FLY in 1965
Yes, Cronenberg’s 1986 remake starring Jeff Goldbum, which also had its own sequel (THE FLY II) in 1989.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Filmed in Canada, but made by an American studio
Mad Science / Killer Bugs! / Transmutation
Well, Patricia Owens had been in an oscar-winning prestige pic with Marlon Brando the previous year.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
None, unless you count flys.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
Yes, in the final’s equal parts hilarious / disturbing last twist
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Yes, of a sort
Yes, Mrs. Delambre seems to crack up a bit after the horror
MORAL OF THE STORY
Look, just fucking stop trying to make scientific breakthroughs, OK? It can only end in tears.