by Mark Cappelletty
Nineteen eighty-six was a particularly good movie year for me. I worked in a video store after school and on weekends, so I saw a lot them — especially horror films; the more outrageous the better. But The Fly, David Cronenberg’s reinvention of the 1958 horror staple starring Al (not yet David) Hedison and Vincent Price, is something deeper and more unsettling. It became a game-changer for the way I looked at the genre.
Instead of merely retelling the original film — particularly the visually gripping if ridiculous head-swapping between man and fly — Cronenberg, working from a screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue (Dragonheart), completely turns the switcheroo concept on its head by having his lead, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, in an amazing career-defining performance), transform into a combination of man and fly that plays as being both believable and tragic.
Flashing back to that Friday night at the beginning of August 1986 (which I remember almost like it was yesterday, while I can barely recall what material I’ve read the week before), I was struck dumb watching the movie — less by the effective horror element than by the emotional subtext and wrenching drama. The climax is brutal and abrupt, without the feel-good or gotcha coda that most studios glue onto features, specifically horror films (though one was filmed and wisely discarded).
I had just turned 17 a couple of weeks before and double-dated with my pal Doug (still one of my best friends) and our respective high school girlfriends that night. Out of all of us, I was the Fangoria magazine-reading horror nerd who knew who Cronenberg was and, based on movies like Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983), what to expect: hopefully a smart, scary thriller with some (literally) jaw-dropping special effects. But what we got was a deeply emotional morality story that marries an accessible mad-scientist trope to the director’s own fascination with the transformation of the human body.
Brundle’s transformation from man to “Brundlefly” begins just as accidentally as in the original, with a fly making its way into the telepods as Brundle, tipsy and fueled by jealousy, decides to test out his teleportation experiment on himself — with disastrous results. He thinks he’s turned into a superman, with increased libido, stamina and strength, but soon realizes that something terrible has happened, first manifesting itself as some sort of malignant disease and then as a monstrous cross between man and insect. For a movie that is ostensibly a creature feature, Cronenerg opens it up into a story of death and decay, where the monster isn’t the villain, but the victim.
Brundle first treats his situation glibly, but soon the reality of his situation sets in. In the film’s most chilling and poetic moment, he tells love interest Veronica (Geena Davis), “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake… I’m saying, I’ll hurt you if you stay,” before balling up his fists and crying as he sends the woman he loves away.
Heavy stuff to watch on date night as a teenager, to be sure. The Fly shook me — badly. After I broke up with my girlfriend (not because of this movie, fortunately), I tried convincing a girl on whom I had a tremendous crush to watch it; I failed miserably. Her loss.
The Fly holds up, and after many viewings still packs a wallop both viscerally and emotionally. What it taught me as a writer (and later a story analyst) is that the best stories are able to sneak in deep emotion, psychological depth and metaphor in the trappings of genre filmmaking; you can take a picture such as this and both deliver the goods — the scares, the familiar narrative elements and conceits, the makeup effects and gore — while slipping in themes of loss, mortality and existential dread.
Some critics at the time called the The Fly an allegory for AIDS, which Cronenberg himself underplayed. But it’s clear that there is a personal element to what happens to poor Brundle, especially after one learns that Cronenberg’s own parents wasted away from disease. In the years since the film was released, I’ve faced the deaths of my grandparents and my father and have seen first-hand the ravages of illness and the stubbornness of not being able to accept what’s happening around us.
These are weighty conceits for a monster movie — and for a film I saw on a double date the summer before my senior year of Catholic high school. But in capturing the humanity of his characters before and during the terrible things that befall them, Cronenberg transcends the horror tropes and, as with the best stories, grabs us by the throat with the truth of what lies beneath the surface of the familiar.