Recent lackluster reboots like “Total Recall” and “Robocop” have given remakes a bad name. However, when done right they can bring fresh and original ideas to a classic story. David Cronenberg’s 1986 reimagining of the 1958 Vincent Prince horror “The Fly” is a prime example of a remake that gets it right.
By taking the central premise of the original – a scientist accidentally transforms himself into a half man, half insect mutant – and updating it with modern fears and state of the art special effects, Cronenberg takes the film into dark and disturbing directions. The film was one of Croneneberg’s most commercially successful films as he managed to fuse his own personal themes of death and disease with an entertaining Hollywood sci-fi film. “The Fly” at first glance looks like a mainstream Hollywood horror, but underneath its deceptively simple exterior lurks some truly powerful undercurrents.
Geeky, socially awkward scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) meets journalist Ronnie Qauife(Geena Davis) and takes her back to his lab to show her a ground breaking invention; a matter teleporting device. He convinces her to tell his story and over the weeks they fall in love.
When Brundle tests the teleporter on himself, a fly gets into the pod with him without his knowledge. Genetically fused with the insect, Brundle begins to change, at first with increased strength and energy. However, things get worse as the transformation takes hold, Brundle slowly becomes a hideously deformed mutant who begins to lose his grip on his sanity. Ronnie watches terrified but is powerless to help.
The original 1958 film had the scientist immediately switch heads with the fly. Here, Cronenberg makes the smart decision to make the transformation slower, so that it develops as a disease would. Not only is this much more dramatically satisfying, as Brundle remains an articulate character throughout the film, it allows Cronenberg to explore his favorite themes of disease and death.
When the film was released, critics read the film as an AIDS metaphor, a common theme in 1980’s horror. However “The Fly” works in broader and more primal terms than that; it is essentially a story of death. Brundle goes through the stages of adulthood, awkward adolescence to sexual potency and finally his body and mind disintegrate. The universal fears of disease and death give the film an emotional power that few horror films have been able to match. Cronenberg also touches on other powerful themes like abortion and Brundle’s story can also be read as a metaphor for drug addiction. It’s incredible that Cronenberg managed to sneak in such dark and troubling themes into a Hollywood blockbuster and shows how skilfully the film is made.
Cronenberg also teases out a level of performance from his actors that is not usually found in horror. The film is almost unique in the horror genre in terms of emotional depth. The characters and their relationships feel real. Brundle is such a vivid character, who retains his intellect and humor even as he descends into madness, he is so alive especially compared to David Hedison’s dull hero from the original. Goldblum’s performance is incredible and he has never really demonstrated the range he shows here in any film since. Brundle is initially the quirky scientist we have seen Goldblum play before although as his character develops, Goldblum first becomes a sexy, romantic lead before believably becoming a tragic, terrifying monster. Goldblum’s work is even more impressive when you consider he had to act through Chris Walas’ elaborate and Oscar winning make-up effects.
Davis is a match for Goldblum, in both the early romantic comedy style scenes and as a shell shocked victim in the final act. The chemistry between the two makes you believe in their relationship giving the film its tragic power as the horror emerges. John Getz is also impressive as Davis’ ex-lover. Initially, he appears to be the antagonist as a seemingly creepy and possessive ex but as the film goes on it is revealed that he genuinely loves Ronnie and almost becomes the hero (albeit totally out of his depth).
The film cannot be discussed without mentioning the horrifying gore and special effects. Cronenberg creates some of the most shocking imagery ever seen in a Hollywood movie. Highlights include inside out baboons, broken bones piercing skin, giant maggots and limbs being melted by Brundlefly’s digestive fluid. Cronenberg is the master of shock horror and whilst lesser talents try to hide a lack of scares with lashings of gore, Croneneberg keeps these scenes to a minimum, meaning they have maximum impact when they occur. The special effects are all pre-CGI and surprisingly have not dated. There is a physical reality to the effects that adds to be believable feel of the film, accentuating the feeling of pain that Brundle experiences.
Cronenberg made his masterpiece with “The Fly” and used it as a springboard to move towards the arthouse. However, as interesting as some of his later films are few have matched the power of “The Fly.” By sticking to a lean, simple story and by fusing his dark and disturbing themes with an entertaining sense of romance and dark humor, Cronenberg made a horror film that has an impact that few others have matched.
Be afraid. Be Very Afraid.
by – Craig Adgie
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