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The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Eleven: The Fly (1986)

Ah…this is the one where things divert a bit from the pattern of his later films from 1988 to present day. First off, as we work our way backwards through David’s chronology–this film represents the first break in what I’ve dubbed the “S” team. Howard Shore does compose the music (an operatic score for some–more on that later), and Ronald Sanders is indeed the official editor. Dave’s Sister (Denise Cronenberg gets inclusion in the “S” team through blood) compliments with her expert costume design and Carol Spier is the production designer. But this was the finale of a 6-film run with cinematographer Mark Irwin, before “S”-teamer Peter Suschitzky was put in charge for the last ten straight. Also, as touched on in Phase Ten of the “Chronicle”, this is where I really sat up and took notice of Cronenberg. My girlfriend in the 1980’s dragged me to “The Fly” in August 1986 because she was a fan of Jeff Goldblum. I was reluctant to go because I have a solid affection for the 1958 “The Fly” starring Vincent Price (Price actually plays the brother of the scientist character who eventually becomes the “fly”), and I’d heard that this remake focused on a lot of “gross-out” special effects. Immediately after the film was over, she apologized to me for making me go. My response? Something along the lines of: “are you kidding me…that was great!“. She had hated it, and I became a Cronenberg geek for life. The remake trumps the nostalgically cheesy original in every imaginable way. “The Fly”, btw, also represents Cronenberg’s only Oscar-winning film as of 2013—for Best Makeup via Chris Walas (who would go on to direct the sequel “The Fly II” released in 1989) & Stephan Dupuis. The summer of ’86 also saw the release of James Cameron’s “Aliens” (itself a somewhat belated sequel to 1979’s “Alien” from Ridley Scott) four weeks prior to “The Fly” hitting the big screen, so it was a fantastic season for re-imagining classic sci-fi from past decades. I recall the duo being paired as a double feature later in the year of 1986 after their solo box office runs began to peter out. And who of a certain age in 1986, will ever forget the fantastic promotional tagline created for “The Fly”: “Be afraid…be very afraid.” Awesome stuff.

Seth Brundle (Mr. Goldblum, in a performance that was worthy of a Best Actor Oscar nomination–at the very least) is a brilliant, but nerdy scientist who we first meet trying to “pick up” a gorgeous woman at some type of science industry event. He ropes her in by claiming that he’s “working on a project that will change the world as we know it”. I’ll say. The woman is Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis, who would become Goldblum’s wife the year after the release of “The Fly” and then also win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1988’s “The Accidental Tourist”), and she reluctantly agrees to visit Brundle’s lab/apartment that night, that is a short drive away in a huge warehouse. Note that Brundle gets a bit carsick during the trip…he comments to Veronica that he has difficulty handling the motion of vehicles. Upon entering his lair she lays eyes on what she mockingly dubs “designer phone booths”. Seth calls them “Telepods” and they’ve been created by Brundle with a grant from Bartok Science Industries (more instrumental in the admittedly vastly inferior sequel—but it’s hardly a complete disaster)–the company that was throwing the event they just left. The “telepods” are the result of a genius mind of a man combating lifelong motion sickness. In a nutshell, something is put into telepod #1 and is molecularly broken-down and then re-integrated into telepod #2. It’s essentially the same process that involves being “beamed” in “Star Trek”. Veronica watches an inanimate object get transported, and she is wildly impressed. When she reveals that she is a reporter for Particle magazine, Brundle is taken aback. She immediately wants to do a story on the invention and he protests that he’s not ready for that yet. For instance, whenever he tries to transport a live test animal, it pops up in the other pod deformed—and then quickly dies. He hasn’t yet taught the computer to understand living matter. The “flesh”, so to speak (and boy do we eventually get a full dose of body-horror in this film, baby!). He pleads with her not to go public with his creation, but she brusquely walks out claiming that she’s just doing her job. When repeating her find to her editor, Stathis Borans (an effectively slimy John Getz), he determines she’s been duped by a magician’s trick. Ecstatic upon finding out that Borans didn’t believe her find was real, Brundle enlists Veronica to partner with him and document the continuation of his experiments, so that she can present the findings properly when the time is right. She agrees, and Seth and Veronica soon begin a love affair after working so closely together. When Seth finally discovers how to transport a living thing (successfully putting a baboon through the process), their champagne celebration is cut short when a note from a belief-converted Stathis Borans threatens to derail the secrecy of the situation. Veronica leaves to confront Borans, upon which Seth figures out the man is an old boyfriend of Veronica’s, and the drunk, jealous Brundle transports himself from pod-to-pod while alone–to prove that humans can travel safely through the process. And everything appears to go perfectly. Until Seth begins to go through a steady change in appearance and demeanor–and he figures out that a common housefly was trapped in the pod with him. His re-integrated body is now beginning to take on the characteristics of the insect. And before long the fly traits begin to overtake the human ones. Veronica tries to help a physically deteriorating Seth, without exposing publicly what has happened. Soon, to her horror, she discovers she is pregnant with Brundle’s baby.

In 1986, the deterioration of Seth Brundle and his eventual transformation into “Brundlefly” was seen by many to be an AIDS metaphor. The world was at one of the pinnacle years of the AIDS crisis at that time, and it was hardly a stretch to view things in that respect. But Cronenberg insists that it was more a commentary on the unforgiving process of aging, with the loss of hair and teeth that Seth suffers seemingly backing this claim up, along with Brundle’s coarsening and mottling skin. And is there any superior illustration of DC’s “body-horror” theme than the medicine cabinet that Seth monikers the “Brundle Museum of Natural History”? It’s at least one of the leading contenders. And all of this film’s fans have certainly asked more than once, “is that a penis in there?”. You almost don’t want to know. Cronenberg (partnered with the talents of perennial editor, Ronald Sanders) turns in his typically tight cut for “The Fly”. In fact, for a film that feels quite epic at times, many would be surprised to learn that it barely runs over 90 minutes–credits included. Early on, I alluded to Howard Shore’s emotional score being operatic in quality. Shore eventually made this contention a reality. His “The Fly-The Opera” premiered in Paris in 2008 before moving to Los Angeles shortly thereafter. I remember thinking this development ridiculous at the time, but I’ve since rethought it. For one thing, it has a libretto by the renowned David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”)! And in a world where “Jerry Springer: The Opera” is a worldwide production reality, can anyone really scoff at an opera based on “The Fly”? If it’s ever brought to the New York area, I’d eagerly give it a try. The 1986 film version of “The Fly” has an incredible collaborative script from Cronenberg and Charles Edward Pogue. The Brundlefly speech to Veronica about “insect politics” being the poignant highlight of a screenplay littered with sharp dialogue. That particular scene is equal parts heartbreaking and horrifying. Also, the uncredited producer of “The Fly”…Mel Brooks! Super-cool cameos? Well, there’s Cronenberg himself as Veronica’s gynecologist! Plus, David employed Canadian boxing legend George Chuvalo as Marky in the arm-wrestling scene (Chuvalo battled greats George Foreman and Joe Frazier–and locked horns with “The Greatest” (Muhammad Ali-twice!). “The Fly” is a masterful horror/sci-fi film, and influential critic Gene Siskel recognized this when including the movie in his 1986 “Top Ten” list. It’s reputation has only enhanced over 27 years. Like John Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing” before it–the film was way ahead of its time. And even though I sometimes find the Stathis Borans character a bit over-the-top, and at the release time I wasn’t able to quantify how I felt about the acting of Geena Davis (my recent re-watch confirms her as rock solid)–giving “The Fly” anything other than a top grade feels simply unfathomable. It’s incredible.

Grade: A (a strong A- has sometimes felt right, too)

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