Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ante Meridiem Theatre: “The Fly” (1958)

Ante Meridiem Theatre is a new feature at the Cafe to focus on those movies that, years ago, would crop up on TV in the wee hours of the morning, when you were only partially awake, and right before the network turned to snow.
A night watchman at a factory finds a woman standing next to a hydraulic press and a crushed body. The woman, Helene (Patricia Owens), flees and later calls her brother-in-law, Francois (Vincent Price), to tell him that she’s killed her husband (and Francois’ brother), Andre. Francois is initially skeptical but his brother’s death is quickly confirmed and made all the more confusing when Helene claims that she operated the press but Andre had lain his head and arm under the machine. Francois and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) find Andre’s laboratory (a madman’s lab, according to Francois), and Helene is seemingly obsessed with flies and becomes hysterical when her nurse swats one of the insects. Eventually, Helene tells the story of Andre (David Hedison), who had invented a device capable of transporting matter, suitably titled the Disintegrator-Integrator. His invention is successful, but one day, he locks the lab door. Slipping notes under the door, Andre informs his wife that he cannot speak and that he needs her help, though she must promise to not look at him. Inside, Andre’s head and face are covered by a cloak, and he keeps his left hand hidden. Helene must find a specific fly, one with a white head, for Andre to correct the ghastly accident which occurred when he transported himself -- not realizing that a fly was in the machine with him.

When I was younger, some of the local cable channels would show numerous horror and sci-fi films late at night and into the early morning hours. Vincent Price was the star of many of these movies, and my brother and I were huge fans, my brother filling a stack of VHS tapes with Vincent Price films. Some our fav
orites were House of Wax (1953), The Last Man on Earth (1964), and the Dr. Phibes movies (1971-72). Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958) is perhaps not the best film to watch for Price fanatics, as over half of the film is Helene’s flashback, in which Price’s character, Francois, only appears in a couple of segments. But despite Price as a supporting character, the actor’s presence has made The Fly a Vincent Price movie.
The Fly is a superb film, and its structure works wonderfully. Rather than open with the genesis of a scientist’s creation, it starts with the aftermath, the shocking image of Helene -- in a dress and with her hair up -- standing next to a bloody body. The first act of the movie consists of Francois and the inspector investigating the crime scene and Andre’s lab, while Helene provides only a few details. The flashback slowly and effectively builds to the accident and invariable reveal of Andre’s new head and arm. Andre as the fly is finally seen with only about 20 minutes remaining, but the gradual suspense -- including Helene and her son trying to catch the fly that Andre says he’ll need to reverse the procedure -- makes the long wait anything but disappointing. Unfortunately, the more overt qualities overwhelm the movie’s subtleties, as the intriguing concept of Andre’s waning humanity is given little development. But the film remains engaging throughout and has a terrific ending -- Francois finds the much-desired white-headed fly.

A sequel followed in 1959, called Return of the Fly. In it, Andre and Helene’s young son has grown and is trying to redeem his father’s name and reputation by continuing his work. Similar results ensue, courtesy of dissimilar circumstances. Price reprises his role of Francois. A second sequel, Curse of the Fly
(1965), was produced in the UK and follows the son and grandson of Andre -- though the son now has a different name. They experiment with teleportation, and before long... well, you can guess what happens. Brian Donlevy, who portrayed the titular scientist in two of the Quartermass movies from British studio, Hammer Films, stars as Andre’s son. Director Don Sharp also made movies for Hammer.
Some viewers see the 1958 film as campy, particularly Andre the fly -- though I think he looks creepy, and I especially enjoy his thousand-eyed point-of-view of Helene. There was no sign of campiness in Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg’s remake in 1986. The movie starred Jeff Goldblum as scientist Seth Brundle who impresses a beautiful journalist, Veronica (Geena Davis), with his Telepods -- devices that can teleport an object from one machine to the next. The most significant difference between the remake and the original is that, while in the original the scientist and the fly “swapped” molecules (and body parts), in the remake the biological makeup of both fuse and create a singular being. This causes Seth to metamorphose into a new creature -- he calls himself “Brundlefly.” The movie is decidedly more horrific and more grotesque, and though the 1958 movie is good, Cronenberg’s remake is even better. There was also an okay sequel to the ‘86 movie: The Fly II (1989), with Eric Stoltz as Seth’s son who -- blah, blah, blah, he becomes a fly!

Suffice to say, teleportation never seems to work out well in movies, or literature, for that matter (example: Stephen King’s short story, “The Jaunt”, from the collection, Skeleton Crew). People are often excited about technological advances, but The Fly represents a fear of new technology -- Helene explicitly voices her apprehension -- and the potential (and feasibly harmful) side effects of unfamiliar machinery. Most technology is about convenience. Sure, it’d be great to quickly teleport to a place miles away, much like the speed of messaging via texts and email. But would I take a fly head and arm in exchange for Apple’s new iTeleport? Nah, I’ll just walk.


  1. Great job on two real favorites of mine -- the original Fly and Jeff Goldblum's Fly! I love that picture of multiple Helene. That scared me more than the fly itself when I was a kid. I guess because you knew he was really becoming something hideous that might hurt his own wife. It was structured beautifully, as you said, and who could forget that ending!

    Goldblum's Fly was more gruesome, but one of Cronenberg's best in my opinion. Goldblum just did a standout job, and there was nso much pathos in that movie, unusual for gruesome material. I thought it was excellent.

    Good article, Sark!

  2. Saw the first, didn't see the second (Cronenberg's - I'm not one for gore.) The ending of the first Fly is so classic. I defy anyone to forget it.

    Thanks for another great post.

  3. Witty, affectionate review of the original THE FLY and Cronenberg's imaginative remake (or reimagining). I'm a fan of both films, though I prefer the remake with its black comic overtones. The original is a rather sober affair because we know the outcome due to the flashback structure. I like how it generates suspense in unlikly places; for example, the scene you mentioned where Helene and Phillipe desperately try to capture the fly, spreading sugar all over the room as the insect buzzes around. The first sequel isn't bad and boasts the wonderully weird scene in a fly with Phillipe's head shouts: "Help me!" As for Cronenberg's THE FLY, it expands on one of his favorite themes: transformation. For me, though, the heart of the film is the love between the characters played by Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. It gives the pic an emotional element that's missing in some of Cronenberg's work. By the way, another interesting film abnout teleportation is THE PROJECTED MAN, which is more of a monster-type movie. iTeleport? Eek!

  4. Nice review and retrospective of The Fly. I have only seen the Cronenberg version and liked it. I always think of the metal pods. The cold metal feeling is the way I remember the movie and most Cronenberg films. That said, I have to see the original for Price even if it will be a far cry from The Raven.

  5. Good post on a seminal 1950s sci-fi film. I like your point about the fear of technology posited by both Fly movies--sort of speaks to the Luddite in all of us.

  6. Sark, this was a wonderful two-fer, two FLYs in one! The photo of Vincent Price was filled with angst and the shot of what the Fly sees when looking at Helene was disturbing. I remember really loving Cronenberg's work and agree with Becky that Jeff Goldblum was outstanding. I especially enjoyed reading this on Halloween, too. Great choice for Ante Meridiem Theatre!

  7. I have seen both films, but.. I do not rememeber Jeff Goldblum's Fly, well enough to comment on. The "help me, help meeeee" is such a nightmarish scene watching the poor man-fly in the spider's grasp. Even though the fly is a monster I felt sorry for him.

    I always love to see Vincent Price, in scary films.