The Fly (1958) / The Fly (1986)

The Fly (1958)

written by James Clavell

based on the short story The Fly by George Langelaan

directed by Kurt Neumann

The Fly (1986)

written by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg

based on the short story The Fly by George Langelaan

directed by David Cronenberg

I first watched David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly around the time it came out. It shocked me then, as most of Cronenberg’s films usually do, and it still holds up incredibly well after all these years. Interestingly, though, I had never felt the slightest urge to watch the original version from the late ’50s. Having seen stills of Al Hedison wearing an oversize “fly head” costume, I thought it would just be a laughable B movie. Nope.

The Fly, Al (David) Hedison, 1958. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection
Al Hedison as The Fly.

Based on a short story by George Langelaan, The Fly from 1958 is a sci-fi slow burner. Brilliant scientist Andre Delambre (Hedison) has created a machine that can teleport matter, but it only works on inanimate objects. Flesh and blood seem to be a problem; in a memorable sequence, a cat is lost to another dimension when its atoms fail to reintegrate (it can be heard meowing from… somewhere). After many tests, Delambre succeeds and decides to teleport himself. But in the device with him is a fly, and their bodies get mixed up: Now he has the head and arm of a fly, and the fly has the head and arm of a human. If it’s creepy now, I can only imagine what it was like for audiences back then.

The Fly faces Helene (Patricia Owens).

The movie is anchored by Delambre’s relationship with his wife Helene (Patricia Owens), who watches in horror as her husband starts to lose his human faculties and eventually has to kill him out of mercy. It also works as a procedural, as a police inspector (Herbert Marshall) and Delambre’s brother (Vincent Price) look into the reasons for the scientist’s murder. It’s quite interesting, with top-notch effects and a famous finale where the fly with Delambre’s head, trapped in a spiderweb, screams “Help meee!” in a teeny voice.

Jeff Goldblum as The Fly.

Cronenberg takes all this and amps it up to 11 in his 1986 remake. Jeff Goldblum plays the scientist, Seth Brundle, with nervous confidence and charisma, an awkward genius on the brink of greatness. Aiding him on his quest is Ronnie, a reporter (Geena Davis) who hopes to use Brundle’s story as a stepping stone in her professional career. In keeping with the original, Cronenberg and co-writer Charles Edward Pogue smartly concentrate on the couple’s tragic love story. But they also have bigger, bolder plans for their characters.

If you’ve seen any of his work – from The Brood (1979) to Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999) – you know Cronenberg is a guy who pulls no punches when it comes to body horror: The Fly is gruesome stuff. Brundle is altered at the genetic level, meaning he slowly transforms into a fly. There’s pus, falling limbs, broken fingernails, vomiting. It’s pretty harrowing but completely believable, impressively brought to life not only by Chris Walas’ makeup and creature effects but by the excellent performances by Goldblum and Davis. When Brundle tells Ronnie, well into his metamorphosis, that she should leave because soon he will hurt her, Davis’ reaction – the pain, dread, and sheer frustration at not being able to help the man she loves – is devastating.

The Fly is probably the closest Cronenberg has gotten to a more streamlined emotional narrative while still staying firmly rooted in horror (1983’s The Dead Zone, while similar, is more of a thriller). He would soon go back to fucking with audience’s heads with his adaptations of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1991) and J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1996). But The Fly remains a high point in his career. It is not easy to reimagine a cult classic, but he updates the original film in ways that are both creative and tragically poignant. Check both films out. You’ll be afraid. Very afraid.

The Fly (1958) – Rating: ***

The Fly (1986) – Rating: ***½

Carlos I. Cuevas

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