It was 3 a.m. when I sat down to watch David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly. I shoved the tape into the VCR and sat down on the sofa. The house was deathly quiet…except for a single insect trapped in the room. With an ominous wing-buzz, it went tap-tap-tap, butting its many-thousand-eyed head against the pane of glass. It was trying to get out, escape to the great Alaskan outdoors.
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I didn’t blame the little guy. I, too, wanted to be anywhere but on my sofa with Cronenberg.
I raised the remote and pressed the “Play” button. I was afraid. Very afraid.
I was about to be teleported into a deja view of this gross-out horror flick for the second time since it was released. I’ve seen worse, but Cronenberg’s The Fly is one of the more squeamish entries into that genre I call Ick Cinema (also known as “Look, Ma! The Studio Just Gave Me $100,000 to Spend on Slime!”).
The reason my trapped Musca domestica friend and I were sitting through nearly two hours of toe-curling special effects? The Great Epinions Fly Write-Off (or Buzz-Off, if you prefer)! Organized by Epinions members pyallen and knix, we’re also joined by artbyjude, mrsgrimm, redwolfoz, hearseman, megasoul, stone77777, fdknight, Mike_Bracken, Momento-Mori, rfr, psychovant and mangiotto. Please, when you’re through here, go check out the buzz over at their reviews by following the links at the bottom of this page, or by going to their member profiles.
By strange coincidence, at the same time I was preparing to watch Cronenberg’s thoroughly-80s version, the cable channel American Movie Classics was showing the 1958 version with Vincent Price. Though I’ve seen both movies (and disliked both to the same degree), I was duty-bound to watch the remake for this write-off. Nonetheless, I sure was tempted to tune into the black-and-white original…if nothing else to hear that classic campy line uttered by the doomed fly-man at the end: “Help meeeee!”
Cronenberg’s version has little of the camp factor, playing it mostly straight (no Phantom of the Paradise here!). It’s all tortured mad scientist and tortured love interest and, eventually, our tortured stomachs when Cronenberg starts laying on a thick ick factor in the movie’s third act.
I will say this for it, though: Cronenberg’s script knows what it’s doing. The Fly zips right along, wasting little time in developing the story of the mad scientist (Jeff Goldblum) working on “something that will change the world as we know it” (natch). Scientist meets lovely lady (Geena Davis) at a cocktail party and invites her back to his place to see his etchings—er, designer phone booths—er, telepods.
Davis, a reporter for Particle magazine (okay, so there’s a little camp), smells a good story and persuades her editor/ex-boyfriend (John Getz) that she’s onto something that will change the world as we know it. At first, this involves moving panty hose from one side of the room to the other. Soon, however, baboons are involved…with unfortunate results.
Goldblum’s character has plenty of mad-scientist pluck and dedication. That, along with his furrowed brows, causes the soon-to-be-screaming heroine to fall in love with him and his telepods. One night, the doc gets a little tipsy and teleports himself along the same route as stockings and monkeys. Little does he know, there’s a fly trapped in the contraption with him (“Help meeeee!”), which also teleports and gets mixed up with his genetic structure.
He emerges on the other side of the room just fine—naked, but otherwise okay. And the experiment appears to be a success. But wait! Don’t break out the Nobels just yet. There are a few little odd side effects: sprouting coarse hairs, mainlining sugar like it was cocaine, really intense sex and, um, walking across the ceiling on all fours. And I didn’t even mention those scenes where he barfs acid onto his food to make it easier to digest.
We don’t get a thousand-eyes POV shot, but it’s darned close. Little by little, Goldblum starts wearing more special effects rubber, adding a pound of goo here and a blood pack there until, by the end of the film, he’s a slimy, sucking mess. In fact, it becomes the theater of the absurd when the whatever-it-is breaks through the Goldblum shell and starts walking around the laboratory on thin fly’s feet. I wouldn’t exactly call it a fly—it resembles nothing like those things I’ve swatted off my arm—it’s more like a six-foot alien (think Close Encounters of the Third Kind) who laid out in the sun too long, then rolled around in a vat of Vaseline. You get the picture…and it ain’t pretty.
In fact, nothing is pretty about Cronenberg’s vision here. What begins as a stylish thriller-romance (closer in spirit to Batman than King Kong), eventually does an acid-melt into an over-the-top stomach-churner. Witness the one scene where, in the space of thirty seconds, Goldblum barfs on a donut and then his ear falls off. “That’s disgusting,” he says in the film’s truest line.
That’s also Cronenberg. The Canadian director has never met a bucket of slimy blood he didn’t like. Films like Scanners (exploding heads), Dead Ringers (oh, those obstetric instruments!) and eXistenZ (which I liked, despite the fish guts) all showcase his twisted talents. Like that other David (Lynch), Cronenberg puts his original stamp on every frame of every movie he makes. Even that gentle tale about car-wreck sex (Crash) is unmistakable Cronenberg territory: the universe flipped inside-out so the guts are plainly showing.
In The Fly, however, the stew of special effects slime boils over. I wished he’d exercised a little more restraint, depending on good old-fashioned suspense and not shock-and-schlock. Let me give you an example: when the first baboon is transported from one pod to the other, Goldblum and Davis approach the pod with trepidation, not knowing if all the flesh got successfully broken down then reassembled on the other end. They put their faces up to the glass window and peer into the fogged up interior. Suddenly, a bloody hunk strikes the window, leaving a smear of blood.
It’s a well-done make-’em-jump moment. But then Cronenberg goes one step further by showing us the thing inside the pod, the bloody, quivering, slimy thing that used to be a baboon. Some sights I’d rather leave to my imagination. I don’t always need to watch a guy barf on his donuts.
One final note: as the end credits were rolling, I thought I heard a tap at the window. I got up from the sofa to investigate. It was the trapped housefly. I kept my distance—hey, I know the power of their barf by now!—but I cracked open the window and released the little fella from the thick-with-gore atmosphere of my house.
As he winged his way into the Alaskan breeze, I swear I heard a thin little voice say, “Thank youuuuu!”
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