You’re no doubt familiar with David Cronenberg’s 1986 shocker The Fly but are you as familiar with it’s source movie and the sequels that followed it? Did you ever see the 1989 sequel to Cronenberg’s masterpiece? If the answer to those questions is ‘no’ then read on, as we take a look at the films that make up this sometimes fun, sometimes disturbing but always creepy franchise.
The Fly (Kurt Neumann, USA, 1958)
Beginning life as a short story in Playboy magazine in 1957 (see, some people do read the articles!) The Fly was adapted into a film by British author James Clavell. At a time when horror films had taken a more sci-fi direction with various genetically deformed monsters being brought to the big screen – giant tatantulas and ants, bacterial blobs, killer plants, Godzilla, the Gill-man and several types of alien invaders – The Fly took a different turn as it wasn’t just people being attacked by monsters but an innocent man being transformed as a result of a tragic accident.
Scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison) has been found dead, crushed by an industrial press. His wife Helene (Patricia Owens) admits to killing him but refuses to call it murder, insisting that it was a mercy killing. Confiding in Andre’s brother Francois (Vincent Price), Helene reveals that Andre was working on a machine that can teleport matter from one place to another. After tests on small animals seem to have worked okay, Helene was concerned that she hasn’t seen Andre for a while and went downstairs to his lab where she found the door had been locked. Communicating by passing notes under the door, Andre let Helene know that he tried the experiment on himself but something went wrong when a fly got into the chamber with him, and now he has the head and arm of the insect, his only hope being to find the fly that now has his head and arm so he can try and reverse the process.
Containing one of the most weirdly eerie scenes of all time – you’ll never hear the words “Help Me!” in the same way again – looking at The Fly now it does come across as a bit silly but rewind yourself back to 1958 and this would have been terrifying stuff. Very similar in feel to Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers – arguably the two most notable sci-fi/horror films of the decade – it could be said that the film may have been rendered to the vaults of obscurity had it not been for David Cronenberg’s gruesome remake bringing it to the attention of a new generation of movie fans, but, if truth be told, the film is strong enough to stand on its own. The presence of Vincent Price – who got third billing in the credits – was a welcome one, although he still hadn’t become the fully-fledged horror star he would go on to be (he also starred in The House on Haunted Hill the same year), and also probably goes someway to explaining the film’s popularity. Like most films from the era there are some glaring faults and flaws but these don’t really matter once the main story kicks in, which is told through flashback. The special effects are pretty good considering when the film was made – the reveal of the insect head on Andre’s body no doubt caused a sensation when it was first screened, although the reaction may be slightly different now – and the memorable ending lingers long after the film has finished. Despite the fact it was a B-movie The Fly does have an air of quality about it, Kurt Neumann’s understated direction keeping everything under a tight reign and never blowing up into melodramatic territory, and because of this it remains a classic example of 1950′s genre film making.
Return of the Fly (Edward Bernds, USA, 1959)
Coming out the following year from The Fly, Return of the Fly would nowadays be called a ‘quick cash-in’ as it re-uses the sets from the first film and was shot in black-and-white – anything to save a few quid, it seems. Due to his rising profile as a horror film star in the same vein as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, Vincent Price returns as Francois Delambre, although no other original cast members appear.
Fifteen years after the events of the first film, Francois (Price) and his nephew Philippe (Brett Halsey) – the son of Andre and Helene Delambre – are attending Helene’s funeral. After begging Francois to tell him the full story of what happened to his father, Francois takes him to the laboratory where all of Andre’s experiments took place. After being told of the tragic circumstances of his father’s death Philippe vows to carry on with his father’s experiments, enlisting the help of his colleague Alan Hinds (David Frankham) and blackmailing his disapproving uncle to help fund his research. However, Hinds isn’t all that he seems and before long Philippe falls victim to the same fate as his father, leaving Francois to explain everything to the police and to try and reverse the experiment before it’s too late.
Taking on a more heightened sense of melodrama than its predecessor, Return of the Fly follows the rules of sequels by trying to be bigger and bolder than it’s predecessor. One look at the trailer and you would think you were getting some sort of monster-fest on a par with the old Universal mash-ups – flies with human heads, humans with fly heads, a man with the claws of a rat, a zombie rising from the grave (not strictly true but that’s how the trailer tells it) – but in reality all those things appear in the last twenty minutes, and not for very long. As well as the promotional campaign the fly effects also go into overdrive with the fly-head being significantly bigger than the one in the original, and as we all know, black-and-white films hide a multitude of sins when it comes to special effects.
The film relies heavily on the casting of Vincent Price, who is obviously not taking the whole thing seriously as he goes through the film adopting an almost quizzical expression on his face. The other cast members are pretty interchangeable, with nobody really giving anything other than a passable performance. Ultimately Return of the Fly is, at best, pulpy fun that never really comes near to the class act of the first film. It passes the time inoffensively and the creature scenes are fun to watch, but as far as a quality sequel to a classic B-movie goes it falls slightly short of the mark.
Curse of the Fly (Don Sharp, USA, 1965)
Milking the franchise one more time, this belated second sequel to The Fly is a bit of an oddity as there isn’t actually a fly in it. And no Vincent Price either, as he no doubt had the good sense to avoid this mess, although it’s doubtful he was even asked as the makers probably couldn’t afford him by that point anyway.
Opening with what was probably seen as a bit of a risqué scene at the time, we see Patricia Stanley (the not-very-ugly Carole Gray) climbing out of a window in the middle of the night in just her underwear. She bumps into Martin Delambre (George Baker) – the grandson of Andre Delambre – and they embark on a romance, falling in love and getting married. However, skeletons start coming out of the closet as it turns out Patricia was running away from a mental institute and Martin – along with his father Henri (Brian Donlevy) and brother Albert (Michael Graham) – has been performing experiments in teleportation, with some pretty disastrous results. Martin also suffers from a condition brought on by insect genes that makes him age rapidly so he has to take a special serum to keep him youthful. Before long, Patricia discovers the rejected results of the Delambre’s experiments – several disfigured mutants, including Martin’s first wife Judith, are being kept hidden in the family’s stable – and the manager of the mental asylum, along with the police, come sniffing around the family home to find out what happened to Judith.
As well as not featuring a fly in it the film is also a bit misleading when it comes to following the continuity of the first two films. There is no mention of Francoise, Helene or Phillipe and Andre is just mentioned as “your grandfather”. And who is Henri anyway? That would make him Phillipe’s brother, but there was no mention of him in any of the previous films; some may call it contrived but odd would be a more suitable word.
The film itself is just a total letdown, and a plodding letdown at that. It doesn’t take long to establish Martin and Patricia but the rest of the characters just seem to float in and out of scenes not really doing much, a bit like the plot which just doesn’t engage at all. The premise of having the results of botched human experiments hidden away is an intriguing one but it just isn’t handled well here, and the overall tone is one of downbeat gloom. Not that there’s a lot be jolly about but once the credits roll there is a sense of satisfaction that has very little to do with any story resolutions and more to do with the fact that the film is over. There’s a little message that flashes up after the credits that says “Is this the end?”. The answer to that is no – the end happened after the credits of the first film finished but 20th Century Fox thought they’d stretch it out, and they just about got away with it for the second film but they really should have stopped there. Luckily nobody thought about doing another Fly film until the mid-1980′s, when a new generation of film makers armed with a fresh take on the original story and a shed-load of amazing special effects decided to have a go…
The Fly (David Cronenberg, USA, 1986)
Often mentioned alongside John Carpenter’s The Thing when the subject of quality remakes is brought up, Canadian director David Cronenberg’s vision is not only a great remake but also a classic film in its own right, as well as the ultimate expression of body-horror, something that Cronenberg specialised in and had been building towards since his debut feature film Shivers back in 1975.
Eccentric scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) has invented a teleportation device for instantly transporting matter from one space to another. Showing off his device to journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), who wants to cover the story for her magazine, Brundle says he cannot yet transport live matter and sets about trying to perfect the experiment, whilst Veronica documents his progress. The couple soon begin a romance and after a bungled attempt at teleporting a baboon that doesn’t go so well, Brundle finally cracks it and sends another baboon through the telepods unscathed.
While Veronica is reporting to her editor Stathis Borans (John Getz), with whom she used to be involved with, a jealous Seth gets drunk and decides to put himself through the telepods, not noticing the fly that has entered the pod with him. Soon after, Seth begins to experience several changes including heightened sexual stamina, greater phsysical strength, a taste for sugar and some coarse hairs growing from his back. Although at first he thinks he has improved his phsyical being his body soon starts to break down, with body parts falling off and his digestive system becoming that of an insect, and he soon discovers that his DNA has been spliced with that of a fly. To top it all off, Veronica discovers she is pregnant with Seth’s child, but not being sure if the child will be human or not she turns to Stathis, who arranges an abortion. Before the procedure starts, Seth – now calling himself Brundlefly – kidnaps her and takes her to his lab in a bid to merge himself, Veronica and the baby into one physical entity. But can he be stopped before the insect genes fully take over and his plan gets put into action?
So as you can see this film is a little more intricate than the 1958 original. In truth, this version only shares it’s basic premise with that film, with Cronenberg concentrating on the releationships between the three main characters and the almost Shakepearean tragedy nature of the storytelling. Of course, the gore soon gets piled on but none of it is ever gratuitous and only serves the story and the nature of Brundle’s deterioration.
Jeff Goldblum is perfectly cast here, doing his awkward, bumbling intellectual schtick before it became the cliched Goldblum performance we get nowadays. His chemistry with Geena Davis fills the screen when they appear together – they were an item in real life at the time – and you totally buy into their performance. John Getz also has an interesting character arc, starting off as the sleazy ex-boyfriend but coming off more heroic towards the end of the film as a desperate Veronica has nobody else she can turn to.
Plenty has been written about this film since its release over a quarter of a century ago, such as it’s allegorical take on the AIDS virus, and with good reason. Despite its age it has that timeless quality that makes it a classic, and only Goldblum’s mullet and Davis’ shoulder pads give you a visual clue as to the era in which it was made. It has been reported that Cronenberg is helming a remake of this film – a remake of his own remake – but watching the film now its quite difficult to see where he could go with it. Doubtless the great man could pull something out of the bag, but until that happens this gooey 1986 version stands as the definitive version of this tragic tale.
The Fly II (Chris Walas, USA, 1989)
Of course it was going to get a sequel; this was the age of the home video market. David Cronenberg was not involved so this one was directed by Chris Walas, who also handled the special effects for this and the previous film, and continues the ideas set up in the previous film.
Set a few months after the horrific events of The Fly, Veronica Quaife gives birth to the child she conceived with Seth Brundle under the watchful eye of Bartok Industries, the faceless corporation that was funding Brundle’s work. Veronica dies during childbirth and the baby, named Martin, is brought up in a laboratory environment, with company CEO Anton Bartok (Lee Richardson) assuming the parental role. Aware that Martin has a genetic defect the company regularly give the boy, who is growing at an accelerated rate, several different intellectual tests and, on his fifth birthday Martin (Eric Stoltz), now a fully grown man, gets given the chance to work on his father’s telepods.
Having had the telepods since Brundle’s death, the company have been unable to work out how to teleport live matter and believe that Martin will be able to solve the mystery, all the time waiting for his dormant insect genes to spring into life so they can use him for their own experiments. Martin soon discovers that Bartok has been lying to him all along and also the truth about his father’s demise. He also learns that the only way to cure his condition is to splice himself with another human being using the telepods, and now that his insect side is starting to materialise he escapes the lab with the help of his girlfriend Beth (Daphne Zuniga) – a co-worker at the laboratory – and seeks help from Stathis Borans (John Getz) before being captured by the company. Now encased in a cocoon, Martin’s final transformation is about to come to fruition as Bartok watches over his prize experiment, but what he gets may not be the result he was looking for.
A pretty straightforward story, The Fly II is well-made and looks good but is slightly lacking… something. We don’t get Jeff Goldblum – except for a tiny archive footage shot on a TV screen – so a lot of the manic energy from the first film is missing. Eric Stoltz is fine as the sheltered and naive Martin Brundle but he just doesn’t have Goldblum’s eccentricites, making his character rather flat in comparison. Daphne Zuniga and Lee Richardson are very good in their respective roles, creating another central character triangle with Stoltz. John Getz returns as Stahis Borans, obviously bitter with his lot but having another character arc that veers from hostility to reluctant helper, so obviously the makers were trying to stick as closely as they could to the previous film.
Much like Return of the Fly and Curse of the Fly – both of which this film borrows from – The Fly II is inferior, unecessary and shows the limitations of the original concept. It isn’t a bad film – on the contrary, it does have some great gore scenes once Martin has transformed into the creature, and the scenes with Stoltz and Zuniga are handled well, although they’re not quite as electrifying as Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis – but with no David Cronenberg or Jeff Goldblum it comes across as the movie equivalent of a good tribute band, i.e. very similar to the real thing but you know that it isn’t. It exists, it isn’t terrible but you won’t remember much about it once it’s over.