FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - The Fly (1986)

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.



Adapted from the story by George Langelaan (also the basis for the 1958 version), The Fly tells the tale of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a scientist who is clearly exceptionally brilliant, but also a bit socially inept. He's been working on a teleportation device that he manages to convince journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) to see. She witnesses it working and decides to follow Seth as he continues his experiments, the pair of them developing a romantic relationship at the same time. In a drunken moment of hubris, he decides to use the machine himself, not realising that a fly has entered the pod with him; the transportation process fuses them at a genetic level and Seth slowly finds himself transformed.

I've already done the Darwinian thing in the earlier review of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (incidentally also starring Jeff Goldblum) so I won't do it again too much here, but a large part of the anxiety that grew out of The Origin of Species was to do with humans being aligned with beasts. Monsters in fiction often depict this by presenting a corruption of humanity; think the vampires who can transform themselves into animals and werewolves to name the two most obvious examples. Transformations have also been used to explore humanity and the loss of it in other literary works, the most obvious of which is probably Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, in which poor Gregor Samsa is transformed into a large insect for no real reason.

That's the work that probably comes to mind most whilst watching The Fly, but the idea of the bestial corrupting the human body and destroying it is in there too. David Cronenberg not only operates at this level, but also within the very late 20th century world of health scares and viral epidemics. The transformation into the fly is not only a corruption of humanity, but a betrayal of the human body itself. Seth compares his ongoing plight as a transformative disease, eroding him like a cancer. Veronica's pregnancy too taps into fears surrounding that particular experience, though thankfully I've never heard of anyone actually giving birth to a maggot baby, but what she experiences is invasive and just as unpredictable as the Brundlefly. 

I like to think of myself as having a fairly high tolerance for body horror, but the fingernails and teeth scenes even managed to defeat me. Watching it before a meal time was not the best idea I have ever had. There were goosebumps and queasy feelings. In fact, that reaction pretty much sums up my response to the film. The effects are so impressive, particularly the make-up work with Goldblum in the latter stages of Seth's transformation. There's a tangibility that can only be achieved practically and it aids every aspect of Goldblum's performance, transforming himself physically as the make-up allows whilst retaining, at all times, the semblance of humanity that is needed.

It's the human element that makes the more outlandish moments in the film work, but it takes a while for the film to find it. The relationship between Seth and Veronica happens too quickly to feel invested in it straight away and as such, Seth's drunken jealous moment feels like it comes out of nowhere. Cronenberg is clearly interested in getting to the meat of the story far more than he is in setting it up, but as the film progresses, it's understandable why he does it. The transformation is the interesting bit, not only visually, but thematically as discussed. Post-transformation, the urgency in Seth and Veronica's relationship suddenly works as well as the ease with which it starts to fracture. 

I'm not sure I'll ever want to watch it again or at least for a long time, simply because I'm still feeling pretty nauseous over an hour after it finishing, but The Fly is a fascinating piece of film-making that ties into a long tradition of using the monstrous to explore the human, albeit in new and certainly ickier ways.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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