A number of my Agony Booth articles have made reference to The Fly, so I thought my latest one for the site should be one celebrating its 30th anniversary.
The Fly is a remake of the beloved 1958 movie of the same name starring Vincent Price. That film in turn was an adaptation of a short story by George Langelaan, which was published the previous year. Cronenberg’s version came out the same year as fellow gems Aliens, Labyrinth, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and actually managed to be superior to its ‘50s predecessor. This is because it drastically toned down the tongue-in-cheek elements seen in the earlier version.
The first scene features Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) at a gathering for his employer, Bartok Industries, where he immediately becomes smitten with Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). He persuades her to come with him to his home/laboratory, where he shows her his invention, which he’s calling “telepods”. These devices basically do the Star Trek trick of beaming things from one place to another. Alas, Seth’s fascination with Veronica blinds him to the fact that she’s a journalist who, following a demonstration of the machines, excitedly (and to Seth’s chagrin) leaves in order to give the story of this breakthrough to her editor/former flame Stathis Borans (John Getz).
As it turns out, Borans couldn’t care less about Seth’s invention, since all the proof Veronica gives him is her taped conversation with Seth, and sadly, cell phone cameras are still decades away. Naturally, this comes as a huge relief to Seth, who tails Veronica to Borans’s office and offers her a proposition: write a book about the progression of the telepods, which will conclude with Seth teleporting himself.
But first, Seth reveals to Veronica that there’s one issue with the telepods that must be addressed: they can only successfully transport inanimate objects. A short time later, the duo is attempting to teleport a baboon... without success, as the poor thing is turned inside out.
Seth’s frustration leads to a heart-to-heart with Veronica, which then leads to them beginning a romance. Unlike many other movie romances, this one actually serves the story. For instance, the sweet nothings Veronica whispers to Seth inspire him on how to reprogram the telepods to not harm any more living things.
At the same time, Veronica tells Borans to piss off when he angrily reveals that he followed her to Seth’s. Yeah, stalking your ex is a surefire way to get her back, pal.
Seth and Veronica’s next attempt to teleport a baboon ends up giving them reason to break out the champagne. And this moment is one reason why this film is better than the original. In the original, the title character (played by David Hedison) is so excited by the success of his work that he immediately tries it on himself. Seth, however, rightly decides that the next step is to test the baboon to confirm that it’s fine.
In the meantime, the lovebirds plan to spend some time together. But those plans are temporarily halted when Veronica finds a threat sent from Borans to Seth, in the guise of a potential cover story which reveals the telepods. To Seth’s dismay, Veronica quickly drives off to confront Borans. Although he’s a jackass, Borans tells Veronica that he’ll keep his mouth shut as long as she remains in his life, at least on a professional level.
However, Seth misinterprets Veronica’s actions in a less than flattering light, and filled with champagne, he pours his heart out to the baboon before deciding that prudency can fuck off and he hops into the telepod himself. Alas, Seth’s drunken state prevents him from noticing the housefly that finds its way into the telepod along with him. But the teleportation is apparently successful.
After Veronica returns and she and Seth make up, he begins to experience the aftereffects of his experience by showing off his improved physicality. Other side effects include sexual potency and an insatiable appetite for sugar. Seth begins to think that he was somehow improved by the teleportation process.
But the bad news begins to come when, after another sex romp, Veronica finds strange hairs on Seth’s back. He then wants Veronica to be teleported so they can both be super-strong, and become “the dynamic duo”, as he puts it. When she refuses, he lashes out at her and darts off to find a new sex partner.
He finds one at a nearby bar, whom he brings home after giving her boyfriend a compound fracture during an arm wrestling match. Seth impresses her with the telepods before they get to the quick sex. The next morning, however, she has the same reaction to Seth’s offer of teleporting as Veronica did. Fortunately for her, Veronica appears and tells her she’s right to be scared. After Seth’s one night stand departs, Veronica tells him that he’s changing, and that the hairs on his back are likely insect hairs.
Seth doesn’t listen and throws her out. But he goes into his bathroom and realizes that he’s losing his fingernails. He then goes to his computer and looks up his first teleportation. The records inform him that a fly was in the pod with him, and the computer fused the two occupants on a “molecular-genetic level”.
Weeks later, Seth reaches out to Veronica again. She arrives to see him in a deteriorating state as he tells her what happened during that first teleportation. She’s also horrified to see that, just like a fly, he has to vomit acid on his food in order to liquefy it before consuming it. And if all that’s not bad enough, his ear falls off in front of her. But in a truly touching moment, Veronica embraces him as he asks for help.
She reveals this to Borans, who says she should stay away from Seth, as his condition could become an epidemic (the AIDS virus was making headlines at the time, which makes the movie’s constant references to the disease somewhat timely). But Borans does ask Veronica to record Seth on camera so he can see for himself.
Seth is all too happy to oblige on her next visit, when he’s seen delightedly climbing up walls and the ceiling, with his attitude towards his “disease” now a bit more open-minded. To that end, Seth states he’s now becoming “Brundlefly”, and insists that Veronica videotape him eating. Thankfully, we’re not shown his acid-vomit trick again; Borans’s look of disgust at watching the tape is all that’s needed.
But something more horrifying is revealed at that same moment, when Veronica tells Borans that she’s pregnant. We next see them at a hospital, where Veronica finds herself on a bed apparently giving birth to a huge maggot. Fortunately for her, it was just a dream, but this leads to her going to Seth again.
It turns out Seth is working on a project which could remove all his fly genes. When Veronica sees him in his even more deteriorated form, she’s unable to tell him she’s pregnant. Seth, however, painfully rambles on about how insects don’t have politics, and how he’d like to be the first insect politician before telling her that he’s losing his humanity. He tells her to leave so he won’t hurt her.
Veronica tearfully goes to her car and demands that Borans take her to get an abortion. But Seth overhears this and abducts her from the clinic before the abortion can take place. He then begs her to keep the baby, saying it could be all that’s left of the real him, a request she tearfully refuses.
Borans, with shotgun in hand, follows them to Seth’s place, where he discovers Seth’s plans to fuse himself, Veronica, and their unborn baby in one gruesome body. Seth then leaps out and uses his acid-vomit on Borans’s hand and foot before a terrified Veronica tears off his jaw, triggering another gruesome transformation.
She’s then tossed into one telepod while Brundlefly goes into the other. But Borans has enough strength to use his shotgun to disconnect the pod holding Veronica. This leads to Brundlefly smashing his way out of his pod just as the sequence is initiated.
In the only moment of the movie that I wasn’t initially clear on, Brundlefly is teleported along with a portion of the telepod he was in (I was confused as to why the computer elected to just take a chunk of the pod itself after Veronica’s pod was detached). The wounded Borans gets Veronica out of her pod just as Brundlefly and the pod are reintegrated in the third telepod (the original prototype).
The horrifically fused telepod-Brundlefly painfully crawls to Veronica, and silently tells her to ends his suffering with the shotgun, which she tearfully does.
The ending is another reason this film is better than the one it’s a remake of. The title character of that film ends up swapping heads and an arm with a fly. This leads to an ending where the Vincent Price character encounters him shrieking “help me” as a spider is about to eat him. Price would later admit that the sight kept giving him the giggles, and many audiences agreed with that sentiment. But when Seth asks Veronica to end his pain, laughter is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Another plus is Borans. In any other movie, his jackassery would have meant an automatic death sentence. However, Cronenberg, who co-wrote this movie’s screenplay with Charles Edward Pogue, makes sure that Borans becomes sympathetic by having him actually put his life on the line for Veronica, losing appendages for his trouble. Like Miguel Ferrer in the following year’s Robocop, Getz plays a jerk who’s not as close-minded as you initially think.
This is to take nothing away from the two leads, though. Both of them are instantly likeable and their romance (which was no doubt helped by the fact that Goldblum and Davis were real life partners at the time) is at the top of whatever list you’ll find Anakin/Padme at the bottom of.
Goldblum in particular had the unenviable task of pulling off pathos under what looks like a ton of latex. I’d say this performance, along with his later one as a similar but more fortunate scientist in the equally classic Jurassic Park, has become for all intents and purposes Goldblum’s acting legacy.
The makeup itself was designed by Stephan Dupuis and Chris Walas, who would deservedly win Oscars for their work here. Walas would go on to direct the watchable but routine sequel The Fly II starring Eric Stoltz and Daphne Zuniga, with Getz reprising his role as Stathis Borans, while Davis’s character is (briefly) played by another actress and Goldblum only appears via deleted footage from this movie.
For Cronenberg, the success of The Fly became something of a double-edged sword. He had previously scored with beloved cult movies Scanners and Videodrome, but it was The Dead Zone, adapted from the Stephen King book of the same name, that prompted Hollywood to take notice of him. Indeed, both The Dead Zone and The Fly share many themes. But this back-to-back success led many people to classify him as a horror director. For instance, the trailer for his follow-up movie Dead Ringers reuses Howard Shore’s dramatic Fly score, even though the movie is more of a psychological study than a horror film.
But the brilliance of this movie can’t be denied, and another aspect of the movie that contributes to that is the fact that (the first baboon notwithstanding) the only person who actually dies in this movie is the title character. Sure, Borans and also Seth’s arm-wrestling adversary get mangled badly, but unlike a movie like Hollow Man, there are no sequences of people getting killed to remind us this is a scary movie. Indeed, much of the horror of this movie centers on Seth, having voluntarily locked himself in his home, studying himself as he slowly and horribly disintegrates into something inhuman.