The Fly (1986)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 36min

It feels a little odd to separate the “pop art” end of David Cronenberg’s body horror spectrum from the other extremity which might more aptly be labelled “high art”, but it is not hard to see why The Fly ended up being his most commercially successful film when compared to something as cold and pensive as Dead Ringers. The terminal illness metaphor is not wasted in the subtext of this intelligent screenplay, nor does Cronenberg ever falter in intelligently picking apart the mad scientist’s disturbed psyche, yet in binding The Fly’s narrative so closely to the gripping, visceral decay of Seth Brundle’s body, it becomes a film that sticks in the mind for the sort of brazen, kitschy ugliness one can’t tear their eyes away from.

Also integral to The Fly’s status as piece of pop horror is how much it is in conversation with more classical entries into the genre, itself being a remake of the 1958 B-movie of the same name. The story of a scientist’s transformation into a human-fly hybrid after an experiment gone wrong is grounded in archetypes stretching back to 19th century Gothic literature, when Dr Victor Frankenstein broke all laws of nature to create an ungodly creature. The 1931 movie adaptation of Frankenstein might be the better comparison to draw here though, especially given how much its mechanical laboratory set is evoked in the machines, steam, and pipes crowding out Brundle’s warehouse apartment. Howard Shore’s daunting symphonic score of dissonant strings and majestic horns feels especially evocative of classical Hollywood horror films, and in similar fashion to other such great mad scientist stories as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Brundle becomes his own test subject, mutating his body in a gruesome manner to expand the boundaries of scientific knowledge.

A lab of mechanical contraptions, lights, and smoke – a 1980s update of the lab from James Whale’s Frankenstein.

And yet for all its grounding in familiar narrative and genre conventions, The Fly is unmistakably a sickeningly stylistic effort from Cronenberg to leave his imprint on pop culture. An early scene that sees one of Brundle’s experiments inadvertently turn a monkey inside-out is stomach-turning, but it is simply a warning for what is to come, as the plot continues down a path of escalating confrontations with conventions of good taste. Jeff Goldblum’s body is a canvas for Cronenberg’s own experimentations, as well as those of special effects artist Chris Walas and make-up artist Stephan Dupuis, who together visualise Brundle’s malignant decay through lumpy, discoloured prosthetics. Images of the scientist’s fingernails slowly peeling off and his acidic vomit dissolving food for consumption are scrutinised up close in tight frames, but such an intimate shooting style also allows us to look past the make-up and behold the disturbed sensitivity of Goldblum’s tragic performance.

The tics, the vocal work, the physicality – this transformational performance is a career highpoint for Jeff Goldblum.

Because yes, beyond all its practical effects and upsettingly visceral imagery, The Fly is ultimately a tragedy. This malevolent force is not only taking over Brundle’s body, but his mind as well, robbing him of everything that made him such a brilliant, intelligent scientist, and replacing it with something abhorrent, cruel, and selfish. Everything we witness, from the twitching to the hair falling out, is simply a manifestation of an internal deterioration taking place, and therein lies Cronenberg’s frighteningly primal reflection of terminal illness. In a largely silent finale of pulsating lights and atmospheric smoke, the frail vulnerability of the human body is on full display, as this flesh-obsessed director rips it apart to reveal the mutation’s final, repulsive form – the ‘Brundlefly’.

As Shore’s orchestra reaches a powerful climax, and the repugnant creature we see before us crawls pathetically along the ground, we recognise an agonising loss that has taken place. The loss of a great mind, a potential romance, and a passionate scientist, reduced down to a pale imitation of nature that can barely sustain its own existence. There is no need for any kind of wistful epilogue to follow up the abrupt, violent conclusion of The Fly, as in these final few minutes, Cronenberg ambitiously reaches into the jaws of disgust, and from its nauseating depths remarkably draws out pure, desolate heartbreak.

Repulsive, yes. But you have to feel sorry for the humanity that is still trapped inside this pitifully mutated figure.

The Fly is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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