David Cronenburg, controversial Canadian maestro of body horror, created one of the most grown up and human sci-fi shockers of the Eighties with The Fly. A hugely popular mad scientist movie, it dispensed with the flashback Whodunnit structure of the beloved 1958 original, focusing on themes that preoccupied the director in his early career – the contamination of the human body by a malignant force, and hideous corruption of the physical form.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a brilliant scientist, both awkward and egotistical. He meets Veronica (Geena Davis), a journalist, at a fund-raising bash. Taking her back to his warehouse pad, he shows her his telepods, a teleportation device he believes will change the world.
The pair quickly fall into the sack and in love, and Brundle persuades Veronica to keep his ground-breaking work a secret until he’s perfected it. As in all such scenarios, there is a glitch. While Brundle can transport inanimate objects without any bother, living things prove more tricky – trying to transport a baboon from one pod to the other has horrifying results, with the hapless creature re-materializing inside out.
After a few tweaks and his judgement impaired by booze, Brundle thinks he’s cracked it, and decides to transport himself. Unknown to him, a fly has entered the telepod with him. While Brundle seems normal when he emerges, he soon notices unusual side effects – increased agility, senses and sexual prowess.
Like Ray Milland in The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, Brundle initially enjoys the unexpected perks of his teleport trip. Soon though, he becomes increasingly manic and irrational, trying to convince Veronica to take the journey. His body begins to deteriorate, and Brundle realizes that his genes merged with the fly’s during teleportation, and he is rapidly mutating into a human-fly hybrid.
Best known for quirky, smart alec supporting roles, Goldblum makes the most of a rare lead part and gives the best performance of his career. With his innate sense of aloof, eccentric intelligence, he fits the character of Brundle perfectly. With his bug eyes, gangly frame and trademark idiosyncratic line delivery, he seems like someone not quite human anyway, and his transformation into the “Brundlefly” is never less than convincing.
Geena Davis supports him capably, and The Fly is basically a two-hander, building a stifling sense of claustrophobia and decay by largely confining the action to Brundle’s lab. Initially a spartan living and working space, it gradually turns into a foetid rubbish and body-part strewn lair as Brundle’s mutation intensifies.
The Fly is a pleasingly paranoid and Luddite fantasy honouring the tradition of mad scientists in film, whose attempts to change the world or “Play God” back fires on them, usually with horrific results. The key change from the original is the nature of the transformation – in the original, the scientist emerged with a hand and his head transformed fully into that of a fly. Cronenburg, who also co-wrote, focuses on the gradual metamorphosis and the ravages it plays on Brundle’s body, fitting nicely into the director’s canon of body horror.
Apart from a few costume choices and Geena Davis’s presence, The Fly has aged well. The special effects by Chris Walas are grotesque, but never detract from the storytelling – they exist solely to enhance the narrative. No matter how deranged and psychotic Brundle becomes, Cronenburg always maintains sympathy for him, culminating in a heart-breaking, disturbing climax.
Always an uncompromising director, I can’t help wondering what Cronenburg’s take on the original ending might be like if he’d kept it. The fly with the human head and hand, trapped in a web as a hungry spider advances – perhaps it’s for the best he didn’t. In Cronenburg’s hands, that might have been unbearable…