Of all the Hollywood studio logos that appear before a film begins, my favourite is Twentieth Century Fox. Not because they deliver a higher or more consistent level of quality than anyone else (certainly not), but because they have given the world some of the all time greatest science fiction films and franchises. The Day The Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Alien… all are perfect in their own way, and nestle near the top of my favourites list.
In the mid-1980s Fox hit the jackpot. Over the course of 12 months, between the summers of ’86 and ’87, three superior works of sci-fi/horror were unleashed: Aliens, Predator and The Fly. The first of these, Aliens, was of course a sequel to possibly the greatest sci-fi horror of all time, Ridley Scott’s Alien, and somehow emerged as the equal of its predecessor. Released a year later, Predator was an attempt to capitalise on the success of Aliens by melding the same soldiers vs. ETs plot with Schwarzenegger’s particular brand of unshackled violence. Whilst not quite scaling the heights achieved by Aliens, it was nonetheless a gory and highly enjoyable action suspenser, and gave cinema a memorable new monster (as well as a whole host of new Arnie quotes).
Sandwiched between these two was David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. It too can be labelled as a sci-fi horror, yet it is a vastly different beast from its stablemates; instead of expertly choreographed shoot-em-up splatter, Cronenberg makes his monster movie a full-on romantic tragedy. One should perhaps have expected this from a director as unconventional as Cronenberg. He throws out everything but the core idea of the original 1958 film: that of a scientist who develops a teleportation machine, which he tests on himself and, inadvertently, a common house-fly at the same time, with pretty disastrous consequences. Gone is the over-ripe melodrama and nonsensical science (just how did that fly’s head manage to grow so many times larger? And why did it still seem to house the scientist’s brain inside it?). Gone too is the lush widescreen photography.
In their place is a beautifully tender relationship between scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, never better) and journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis, equally good) who he persuades to document his experiments; science that is at least far more credible, if no less fictional; and a production design that is immeasurably more atmospheric and appropriately downbeat.
What I love most is the way it starts off in such a romantic and funny vein. You are instantly won over by the nerdy Goldblum and his hapless attempts to woo the sophisticated Davis (“…cheeseburger!”). It’s totally unexpected, and beautifully sets up the relationship that slowly and painfully implodes during the course of the film. The joy of new-found love has never felt so tangible in a genre film of this kind. Goldblum and Davis were dating at the time of the film’s production, and the wonderfully erotic moment when Veronica removes one of her stockings so that Seth can prove his invention works underlines their very real chemistry.
Gradually however this joy gives way to jealousy and resentment, before changing to pity, fear and finally outright terror. It’s an emotional transformation that mirrors the physical one undertaken by Brundle himself after he tests his own teleporter in a drunken fit of jealousy. Initially he seems fine; better than fine in fact, as he bubbles over with more energy and life than he has ever known. Then his body slowly begins to change, deteriorating as his hideous evolution begins. If it’s body horror you wanted, then you’ve come to the right film. Who can forget the infamous ‘Brundle Museum of Natural History’? And then there’s the maggot dream sequence, which gives the Alien‘s birth scene a run for its money in the squirming stakes.
But the real horror is etched on Veronica’s face, as she witnesses the slow and wretched death of the man she loves. Parallels have frequently been drawn between Brundle’s condition and the outbreak of AIDS that was taking off around the time of the film’s release, but I don’t think it was deliberate; it could be any disease, any condition. The pain of witnessing a loved one physically waste away is an all too frequent occurrence in this world, and all the more painful when it happens to someone in their youth. Cronenberg’s fascination with the body and mind has never been as moving as it is here.
The classical story structure – a doomed romantic triangle created by the intrusion of Veronica’s boss and unwanted ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans (John Getz), with hardly any other characters to speak of – lends the film a timeless quality, and over 25 years later it doesn’t feel dated at all, bar the occasional special effects shot. Indeed the film feels quite operatic, especially when Howard Shore’s magnificently dramatic score kicks in (no wonder then that Cronenberg and Shore reworked the film in to an actual opera in 2008). The gore and goo still horrifies and repulses, and the devastating ending still packs a hell of a punch. Not bad for a remake of a 50s B-movie, itself adapted from a short story first published in the pages of Playboy magazine. It’s easy to overlook this masterpiece – don’t.