Something Wild (1986)

Jonathan Demme | 1hr 53min

In the challenges posed to the 80s conservative mentality of Something Wild, there is something of a sentimentality for 60s bohemia, and so what better time would there be to revive the screwball comedies of the 30s? A call back to a genre that had long since grown out of fashion might just be the perfect challenge to the stagnant lifestyle of middle-class yuppie Charlie, who keeps plugging away at his white-collar job in New York City under the happy pretence that his wife didn’t pick up and leave him nine months ago. His sudden meeting and blossoming affection with free spirit Lulu who whisks him away on an impromptu road trip is not unlike the offbeat relationship between David and Susan in Bringing Up Baby, with Melanie Griffith embodying a similar force of pure chaos as Katharine Hepburn. With his nuanced control over this Hawksian gender comedy, Jonathan Demme settles us in for a rollercoaster of a narrative as unruly as his film’s title suggests.

Something Wild never grows so comfortable in this unhinged dynamic as to become predictable though. The fact that the catalyst for this adventure is Charlie’s own decision to dine and dash from a café indicates that there may already be something of a repressed rebellious streak to him, and all it takes is this freewheeling woman to draw it out of him, throwing him into a sexual tryst at a motel, forcing him to call in sick for work, and eventually crashing their car. Demme’s eclectic soundtrack of reggae and 80s rock makes for perfectly offbeat accompaniment through these ventures, driving home several renditions of “Wild Thing” to the point that it becomes a theme for these unorthodox lovers.

Charlie’s robbed of his agency and forced into the passenger seat, while Melanie Griffiths takes over this wild first act as Lulu/Audrey.

Where Demme’s narrative takes its first major turn beyond its impulse-driven path of eccentric escapades is in Lulu’s Pennsylvanian hometown, where she essentially transforms into a whole new woman. The reckless brunette disappears, and in her place emerges Audrey, a blonde woman with a more moderated attitude, though still maintaining enough spontaneity to pull Charlie into her high school reunion. In Demme’s fluid pacing and Griffith’s shifting cadences, there is a fascinating depth to this character that keeps peeling back layers of insecurities, and which reaches an apex with the introduction of Ray – a figure whose volatility makes even her look stable.

One of Ray Liotta’s best performances – vicious, dangerous, and magnetic.

Just as Audrey’s ex-husband comes into the picture, so too does something shift within Charlie’s own sense of self-worth and motivation. Seeing the manic pixie dream girl act crumble before his eyes pushes him to start tearing down his own façade of pride in his lonely life, finally admitting to his own separation from his wife. On one level, Demme reveals a darkness to both the conservative and liberal lives on either end of society in Reagan’s America, but Ray also manifests as a repressed shadow version of Charlie, revealing the adversary he could be to himself should he push too far in the opposite direction. Where Jeff Daniels’ New York banker is meek and ineffectual, Ray Liotta is sharp and unstable, soaking up every second of screen time with a screen presence that is dangerously magnetic. His charisma seems to permanently balance on a knife edge, drawing Charlie in to believe his good-natured affability before robbing a store and ruthlessly beating up the cashier.

Though the two men appear to be wildly different, on a raw, psychological level, there may not be so much separating them besides the circumstances that led one into a life of privilege and the other through the prison system. Either way, they have both attracted the attention of the same woman, falling in love with her and the life she offers. Still, this is an objective only one of them can accomplish. It is satisfying to see Charlie finally assert some agency in his own story as he silently tails Ray and Audrey, plotting her rescue, but even more so to see him pull the exact same cruel trick on Ray that Audrey inflicted on him earlier, landing him with the bill in a diner after he has already departed. Still, as Audrey reminds us, there is still a careful balance for him to strike in uncovering his dangerous potential.

“What are you going to do now that you know how the other half lives?”

“The other half?”

“The other half of you.”

As much as Something Wild is a tale of two Americas, it is also a story of psychological dualities, splitting Charlie between his conflicting desires and Audrey between her two identities. Soul-sapping routines can’t sustain them forever, and neither can a violently unpredictable life on the road, as both degrade their own holistic humanity. It is only in destroying the forces that pull them to either side of the spectrum that some sort of resolution can be found, and for Charlie this is not only achieved in rejecting the safe life he is familiar with, but also in effectively killing his shadow self. Though much of the film is weakened by a relative lack of cinematic style, Demme marks the final confrontation with the characteristic close-ups that would define his later career, and that he would perfect in The Silence of the Lambs. As Charlie stands facing Ray with a knife lodged in his chest, Demme cuts between them staring right down the lens, dripping with sweat and drenched in blood. There is shock in their expressions, but also pain, sorrow, and weariness, carried through especially in Liotta’s piercing blue eyes which almost cut through the screen.

Demme’s trademark close-ups arriving in the climax, wonderfully framed and accentuating this shocking confrontation.

Though Demme does not possess the same mastery over abstract symbolism as David Lynch, there are certain psychological parallels between Something Wild and Blue Velvet in the probing of psychosexual instincts and villains representing darker, alternate versions of a naïve protagonist. In place of a surreal journey into the depths of the human mind though, Demme pulls off an extraordinary blend of tones and genres. With a steady command over the comedy, thriller, action, romance, and drama elements of his narrative, he sends Something Wild spinning off in hilarious and terrifying directions, drawing us into the orbit of characters simply trying to reconcile their own contradictory, innate desires.

A reggae rendition of Wild Thing delivered straight to camera to close out the film – one of its many strange pieces that shouldn’t work, but does.

Something Wild is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on YouTube.

Blue Velvet (1986)

David Lynch | 2hr

Evil is very real in the films of David Lynch, and so it stands to reason that there also exists a naïve, pure goodness in opposition to it. His binary worlds of light and darkness do not suggest a lack of complexity though, but rather an intricate symbiosis that exists between the two, and which he draws right through the mind of Jeffrey in Blue Velvet. The young college student’s idyllic hometown of Lumberton warmly welcomes him back when his father suffers a heart attack, and during his stay with his mother and aunt, the community’s happy mundanity eats away at his patience for such sterile living.

Perhaps it is the taste of mortal danger that comes with his father’s illness that motivates his new macabre interests. It certainly at least opens a gap in his life for a new patriarchal figure to step in, tantalising Jeffrey with the prospect of something darker and more exciting lurking beneath Lumberton’s artificial small-town veneer. Bit by bit, the layers of a mystery behind a severed human ear he finds in an open field are peeled back, revealing conspiracies and corruption far more psychologically disturbing than anything he might have ever conceived. His struggle to appease a craving for both knowledge and security is thus the battle that Blue Velvet wages on temperamental, psychological terrain, striving to find resolution between the conflicting desires that shape minds and cultures.

Red, white, and blue, the national colours of America announced in this mesmerising opening shot, though moving forward Lynch will primarily focus on those primary colours as his main palette.
A severed ear crawling with ants, decomposing out in an open field. The surrealist iconography starts small here, but still completely unsettling.

Blue Velvet’s stark duality is one that Lynch paints right into his expressively bold mise-en-scene, in part evoking the patriotic red and blue of America’s national colours, though primarily using the heavy contrast between these hues to set apart the danger and tranquillity of two co-existing worlds. It makes sense then that within the apartment of psychopathic drug dealer, Frank Booth, the carpet, couches, and wallpaper are dyed a shade of deep maroon, and that his captive, Dorothy Vallens, dresses similarly. When she first changes into that titular blue velvet dress though upon meeting Jeffrey, there is a subconscious attempt in her sartorial choice at soothing those harsher tones with a melancholier countenance. Whether in the curtains and lighting of Dorothy’s cabaret performance, or the eye shadow and lipstick decorating her face, Lynch’s primary colours constantly clash against each other, composing a chaotic world of stylistic dissonance that breaks down our desire for visual harmony.

Blue lighting running up against the red curtains, just as Dorothy’s blue eyeshadow contrasts with her red lipstick. It is a bold visual conflict that Lynch formally weaves through Blue Velvet.
Outside the Slow Club where Dorothy performs, Lynch sheds its red neon light over Jeffrey like a warning to stay away.
Then inside, we get this mournful blue light washing over Frank. Not a colour we have associated much with him up to this point, but it only fills in the complexities of his character – like everyone else, he has shades of both deviancy and melancholy.

This is the tragedy that has already broken Dorothy into pieces by the time we meet her, as we discover Frank has kidnapped her husband, taken her son hostage, and is keeping her as a sex slave. The volatility and fragility of Isabella Rossellini’s acting here is only rivalled by Dennis Hopper’s wildly loose performance, and while we are taken aback to find a sadomasochistic side to the otherwise vulnerable Dorothy, there is a sensitivity which we are even more astonished to see in Frank’s face as he tearily watches her sing at the nightclub. Both contain complexities far beyond anything Jeffrey has experienced before, and so while the danger remains perfectly apparent, he can’t help but gaze on with insatiable curiosity.

The unusually deep maroon of Frank’s apartment screams danger. It is a marvellous piece of production design which Lynch only emphasises further with Dorothy’s costumes.

The Hitchcockian undertones of Jeffrey’s voyeuristic peering through the slats in Frank’s living room closet are not easily missed, with Lynch setting up an image of forbidden desire slowly emerging from its dormancy, intrusively spying on the violent sexual activity taking place on the other side of those doors. Terror and exhilaration are inseparable at this point for Jeffrey, as within the unrestrained psychosexual dynamic of two people calling each other “Mommy” and “Daddy” there is a Freudian transference taking place. Not just for Dorothy and Frank, but Jeffrey as well, whose passive mother and ailing father have left a vacant space for him to consider substitutes belonging to the darker, unexplored side of his mind.

A progression of shots heavily inspired by Psycho, as Jeffrey peeps through the closet slats to spy on Dorothy as she undresses. Repression and desire woven deeply into the imagery, with the low-lit red hues of the apartment now taking on sexual significance.

The formal work Lynch does in mirroring relationships all around Jeffrey extends to his newfound romance with Sandy, the daughter of the local police detective handling the case of the severed ear. Between her and Dorothy, Jeffrey’s sexual self-discovery travels along parallel paths between two women in current relationships, and consequently pushing him towards a transgression of social norms in both instances. But where Dorothy dresses in the bold hues of red and blue set out in Lynch’s primary palette, Sandy is defined by her soft pastels. While Dorothy is a European woman with a shock of curly black hair leaping off her head, Sandy is a blonde, all-American girl-next-door type. Where Dorothy pulls Jeffrey deeper into his primal instincts, begging him to hit her like Frank does, Sandy questions his newfound obsession with Lumberton’s mysterious crimes. His response does not so much suggest an explicit interest in the details of the underworld as it does a novel intrigue in its mere existence, compulsively driving him towards the parts of himself that society dictates must be actively inhibited and kept out of view.

“I’m seeing something that was always hidden.”

The unsettling visual motifs that Lynch returns to in representing this war of innocence and corruption epitomise the style of suburban surrealism that he specialises in, bordering on absurd in the collision of these incongruous threads. The image of Lumberton set up in the introduction with its green lawns and white picket fences is superficially bright, making Jeffrey’s father’s heart attack the first sign of anything less than total, picturesque bliss. In the twisted hose pipe and the phallic stream shooting from his groin area, Lynch is already weaving in symbols suggestive of the father’s blocked artery and sexual impotence, relegating him to the background of Jeffrey’s story. As the camera narrows in on the freshly cut lawn, the imagery and sound design only grow darker with the emergence of bugs, fading out the smooth tunes of Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ while their skittering and mulching take over, accompanying the movement of their grotesque bodies across the lens in total domination of the space.

Genius anatomical imagery – the twisted hose pipe briefly foreshadowing Jeffrey’s father’s blocked artery, the phallic stream of water, and then we dive into the soil where bugs crawl out of sight, accompanied by stomach-turning squelching noises.

Later when Jeffrey first goes to investigate Dorothy and Frank’s apartment, he takes on the disguise of a pest exterminator, setting him up in opposition to the ugly forces that crawl beneath the surface, though when he begins to fall into their world of sexual deviancy and depravity, it is stripped away to reveal his naked, authentic self. The moment he finally submits to her desire to be hit during sex, there is something unleashed within himself as well, represented by Lynch’s dreamscape as a burst of cutaways to fiery explosions. Unlike Frank, he is not proud of this side of himself and hides it away, though the subconscious can only last so long in the shadows before it rises to the surface. It is almost comical how insignificant the subplot regarding Sandy’s real boyfriend is next to everything else, as his angry confrontation with Jeffrey quickly dissipates in the face of the much larger issue of Dorothy’s sudden appearance, naked, wounded, and begging for his love. For the first time, the two main women in his life meet, and that which represents ordered civility can barely handle the uncomfortable manifestation of his shameful, repressed instincts.

If Frank is the darkest possible version of Jeffrey, and the closet where they met signifies the threshold where repressed longing is released, then it is in a return to that setting where his shadow self must be killed. Lynch’s indulgence in Jungian archetypes rings deeply through these characters, strengthening their relationships within pseudo-families and sexual dynamics that cut to the root of their desires. The restoration of order in the lives of Jeffrey, Sandy, and Dorothy comes not as a blind withdrawal back into suburban frivolity, but rather a healthy recognition of one’s most primal impulses and their purposes. After all, it was only following his first sexual encounter with Dorothy that he was able to muster up the confidence to pursue Sandy more seriously, helping him understand the dangerous power he is capable of so he may draw on it in a controlled, judicious manner.

Another close-up on an ear, though this time it is letting us free from the dark, thrilling mystery. Everything is in its place.
The robin, a symbol of love, defeating the bug, a symbol of evil.

The appearance of a robin outside Jeffrey’s aunt’s window seems to come straight out of Sandy’s dream from earlier as an emblem of love, and with its devouring of an insect, Lynch effectively ties off the two running motifs in a conquest of evil. “I could never eat a bug,” Jeffrey’s aunt proclaims with disgust, but Jeffrey is wise enough to know that keeping a little bit of iniquity inside oneself is necessary. In place of the severed appendage that led him into trouble and Lynch’s camera wandering into its dark orifice, we now linger on Jeffrey’s own ear, whole and unharmed, and travel in the reverse direction, pulling out into a wide that restores the world to its logical order. Blue Velvet could be read as a coming-of-age film through its discovery of worlds and minds that are not what they seem, though the depths it plunges into humanity’s psychosexual awakening, disconcerting iconography, and bold palettes places it in a transcendent, artistic class of its own.

The traditional family unit restored, as Jeffrey’s psychosexual relationships are resolved.

Blue Velvet is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Top Gun (1986)

Tony Scott | 1hr 50min

There is something a little wistful in the opening exposition of Top Gun, informing us of the elite school established by the United States Navy to train the next generation of fighter pilots. It describes aerial combat as a “lost art”, practiced only by the select few men who graduate and go on to serve their nation. Before we are allowed to witness it in action though, Tony Scott leads into it with a slow, steady build, setting silhouettes of jets and pilots warming up on the tarmac against a burnt orange sky and low horizon. The early morning light is delicately diffused softly through a light mist, and then, as these men finally take off, so too does the film, playing out a montage of aerial sequences as exhilarating as they are immaculately executed.

The first time ‘Danger Zone’ turns up in Top Gun’s soundtrack, it comes as a rousing though affectionately cheesy underscore to this opening adrenaline rush, aggressively warning us of the thrills and terror to be found in this line of work. After the fifth time it plays, it hits a point of diminishing returns, edging from tactfully familiar to plainly over-used. Still, the visual awe of the tight jet formations that the song accompanies and Scott’s decision to fix his camera to plane cockpits never quite grows stale, flying us through their air with no regards to gravity or orientation. Whether these pilots are simply playing around, running drills, or engaging in real aerial combat, he keeps up an elated energy in his editing and camerawork, skilfully controlling the tension and release of every manoeuvre his characters execute.

When it comes to defining those characters, Scott opts for clean, memorable archetypes, each one embodied in their call name. There is little that the moniker Maverick leaves up to the imagination when we first meet Tom Cruise’s charming daredevil, and his rival, Iceman, similarly takes his title from his flying style and attitude, remaining cool under pressure and persistently wearing down opponents. Goose rounds out our trio of main pilots here, though joining in as Maverick’s love interest and instructor, Charlie, is Kelly McGillis, offering up a chemistry with Cruise that save even some of the corniest scenes.

Where ‘Danger Zone’ marks Top Gun’s aerial sequences, ‘Take My Breath Away’ is assigned to its romantic narrative thread, and is pulled off to greater effect if only for its slightly less prominent and more varied use. Its introductory riff often teases the sexual tension between Cruise and McGillis as they edge towards a consummation, but it isn’t until Scott brings us into that dark bedroom with dim blue light filtering through its curtains that it is played in full. In the silhouettes of bodies and faces inching closer together, Scott marks another key narrative development with visual splendour, opting for raw emotional power over any eloquent verbal expressions of love.

It is a fortunate thing too given how Top Gun’s screenplay tends to bog it down in plotting that is so signposted one could count down the seconds until the next plot point. Perhaps the main exception to this though is the heartbreaking midpoint turn, which sees Goose killed during a particularly dangerous training session. The weight that this holds over Maverick’s character arc from this point on is significant, tempering his reckless confidence with a great deal of guilt, and re-asserting the stakes that come with aerial combat.

Cruise carries this drastic shift well, shifting seamlessly from his charming action star persona into a broken man grappling with the realisation that his defining gift is also his downfall. Had the chemistry of Top Gun been slightly different with Cruise or Scott replaced by a lesser actor or director, it could have edged entirely into the realm of tacky entertainment, devoid of any redeeming qualities. As it is though, it stands as an admirable piece of action cinema, lifting the genre up to new heights and coasting along on its electrifying pacing.

Top Gun is currently streaming on Stan, Binge, and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Woody Allen | 1hr 47min

If Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s most experimentally formal film in its boundlessly creative self-reflexivity, Hannah and Her Sister’s structural ambition acts as a counterpoint to that in its far more naturalistic and composed approach, unfolding like chapters of a novel. The decades of history behind the dysfunctional family relationships that swirl around Mia Farrow’s titular Hannah feel tangible in their organic interactions, and although she is the link through which each narrative thread of this film comes together, she is not our focus. Instead, Allen shifts our attention to three other characters around her – her cheating husband Elliot, her hypochondriacal ex-husband Mickey, and her chaotic, formerly drug addicted sister Holly. Just as her self-absorbed relatives take her bountiful generosity for granted, so too does Allen relegate her own personal issues to the background of each story arc, wrapping us up in the internal voiceovers of men and women who can only perceive the world through their own narrowed perspectives, passing us from one to the next like batons in a race that each character is running only for themselves.

Formally impressive bookends in these family Thanksgiving celebrations that Allen’s camera floats through, the only times all his characters are all captured in one space.

In its bookends of two Thanksgiving parties set 24 months apart, Hannah and Her Sisters is marked by those family gatherings where relatives who might barely see each other throughout the year converge and share in moments of unity, though evidently here that comfort is only found by those willing to open themselves up to lives beyond their own. As Allen’s camera idly drifts around this upscale New York apartment at either end of this narrative, we see these important players brought together in one space, their personal arcs laid out clearly by the contrasting dynamics of both celebrations.

Of course, it is Hannah who is responsible for running these events, remaining the one constant in the lives of those around her who fluctuate and change. This image of poise and altruism that she projects may stir some gratefulness on occasion, but it also inspires insecurity. “I need someone I can matter to,” whines Elliot when reflecting upon the growing distance between him and his seemingly perfectly wife. Worsening the situation is that his secret lover is Lee, another of Hannah’s sisters, whose abuse of her sibling’s trust just piles onto the stack of characters who cannot reconcile their love for her with their own sense of value. She might agree with Elliot that “It’s hard to be around someone who gives so much and needs so little in return”, but it is barely a reasonable excuse for either of their philandering. Even so, it remains quite extraordinary that in Michael Caine’s performance we can still find sympathy for this kind of egocentric self-doubt.

A pair of matching shots revealing the significant Antonioni influence on Allen’s work, using architecture and backgrounds to paint out pictures of isolation and disillusionment.

Meanwhile in Mickey’s storyline we find a man wading through the murky philosophical waters of existentialism and mortality, his apprehensive medical check-ups played out in comical montages of contraptions and wires winding all over his body. Like Elliot, he too is plagued by insecurities that overwhelm his own perception of reality, in one scene hallucinating his doctor’s sombre delivery of the news that he has cancer, right before the doctor actually walks in and informs him that he is clear. In one harsh cut, he leaps out onto the streets of New York, dancing with glee to the tune of loud band music, before suddenly stopping dead in his tracks as he nihilistically reminds himself that he will still die one day.

The foregrounding of Socrates as Mickey considers the “great minds” of philosophy in voiceover.

Driven by his mid-life crisis to find the answers to life’s big questions, Mickey considers converting to different religions as casually as one might research a holiday destination, though it is only when he embraces the unknowability of his existential queries and when his story collides with Holly’s that he finds his way back into the folds of the family as a place of acceptance. She lives perhaps the messiest life of anyone else here, moving between acting, a catering business, and television writing, and struggling to find success in any of these ventures. It is clear in her thoughtless use of Hannah’s personal life as a subject for her screenplay that like the others, she doesn’t give much regard to her sister’s feelings, though in finally turning her pen inwards in self-examination she finds both love and professional success with Mickey.

Through the complex tapestry of vignettes, flashbacks, and plot threads that make up Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen keeps returning to chapter breaks and philosophical quotes, structuring the film like a piece of literature concerned with the bearing of human thought and ethics on small lives. “The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless,” Allen’s text displays, quoting Tolstoy as a means to contextualise Mickey’s search for purpose, while titles like “The Abyss”, “The Audition”,and “The Big Leap” mark new episodes over the two years this story is set across. Allen further splits up his characters by associating them with specific musical genres, underscoring Elliot’s scenes with opera, Mickey’s with jazz, and revealing Holly’s love of rock in one particular flashback that also divulges it as a historical point of conflict between her and Mickey.

Allen’s camera continuing to float all throughout the film, a highlight being at this lunch between all three sisters as it circles their table.

Even with such fantastic formal ambition in its divisions, Hannah and Her Sisters flows remarkably smoothly in its organic character drama and dialogue. When all three sisters meet for lunch in a brief collision of plot threads, Allen fluidly circles his camera around their table, letting Hannah and Holly converse over the latter’s career struggles while focusing predominantly on a silent, guilty Lee. Back at home, their discussions and volatile arguments move through different rooms of the apartment, and Allen’s camera continues to pan and drift along with them, framing these family members in doorways and against walls that confine them to claustrophobic spaces. Through their quarrels there is seemingly always some domestic chore or task for them to perform, maintaining that impression of a world beyond their own immediate issues, while keeping up a restless energy in their ongoing interactions.

Antonioni’s influence again in the framing of characters within corridors and doorways, alienated from others by the visual dividers in the mise-en-scène.

How fascinating it is though that in this ensemble of magnificently complex and flawed characters, the one who we might assume would be the lead is the least developed of them all. She too might have her own hilarious and poignant anecdotes to tell, but Hannah and Her Sisters is primarily intrigued by those more selfish lives which branch out from her own, undergoing emotional arcs that come to decisive resolutions. For someone as kind and giving as Hannah, whose life is dedicated to the endless pursuit of helping others, a tidy, gratifying ending is simply an unfathomable prospect.

Mickey and Holly’s storylines slowly coming together, still divided in this shot but eventually united in the final Thanksgiving lunch.

Hannah and Her Sisters is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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.