All October long, we’re celebrating HORROR with a series of retrospectives on our favorite scary movies. Welcome to A Very Porkchop Halloween!
Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Director David Cronenberg has achieved a bit of a reputation as a master of body horror. Whether it’s unsettling moments like joints bending incorrectly or little pieces of the body falling off to misshapen lumps of flesh that make Kuato from Total Recall (1990) look normal, Cronenberg has perfected the cinematic abuse of the human form. Most recently, the first season of Rick and Morty introduced the term “Cronenberged” to refer to hideous genetic mutations. While his horror films could easily line the shelves of any science-fiction collection, they do delve more deeply into the creepy realms afforded to the horror genre than traditional sci-fi. The Fly (1986) for instance, sounds like B-movie schlock and indeed, the 1958 version came out amidst that era. That original film, based on a short-story, also spawned a number of sequels. The definitive version, however, remains the Cronenberg-helmed remake. Frequent collaborator Howard Shore’s perfect music creates tension without relying on stings and the make-up effects and grotesque puppets wring nightmares out of the visuals with nary a jump scare in the entire picture.
The film begins with genius system manager Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) trying to convince Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Quaife (Geena Davis), a science journalist attending a party at a scientific conference, to come home with him. She’s looking for a story and he grabs her attention by claiming his invention will change the world forever. Brundle seals the deal by offering her a cup of coffee from his espresso machine. He convinces her that he’s really onto something by demonstrating the successful teleportation of one of her stockings between two of the “telepods” he’s had constructed in his apartment. The next day, she brings the story to her editor at Particle Magazine, and former jealous former lover, Stathis Borans (John Getz) who believes she was conned. Her meeting is interrupted by Brundle who offers her exclusive, unlimited, access and a book deal in exchange for her continued silence about the project. Ostensibly a story about a science experiment that fails horrifically, The Fly ends up being as much about Veronica’s relationships as she’s thrust back and forth between these two figures.
Early in the film, she finds Borans showering in her apartment, having broken in with the key she gave him when they were still dating. Fully displaying his possessive misogyny, he gives her a speech about how it’s only a matter of time before she comes crawling back to him and even directly refuses to return his copy of the key. To make matters worse, he even follows her to Brundle’s apartment where he witnesses her spending the night. After confronting her in a clothing store he abuses his position to threaten her and even delivers a mock-up of a Particle Magazine cover featuring Brundle to Brundle’s lab in order to harass Veronica into speaking with him.
Working closely with Brundle to chronicle his project, Ronnie falls for Brundle’s charms when he finally displays some real emotions after failing to successfully transport a living baboon.* The two spend the night together and seem to be having a great time but after Ronnie cancels one of their dates (Chinese food and champagne) in order to go settle things with Borans, Brundle falls into a drunken spiral and teleports himself.
Unbeknownst to Brundle (but known to his computer) he was not alone in the telepod and in order to account for this discrepancy the computer decided to fuse the two individuals together at the “molecular-genetic level”. The combination of Seth Brundle and a common housefly ultimately resulting in his grisly mutation into “Brundlefly”. Of course, scientifically, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Veronica’s stocking was already a complex combination of organic and inorganic polymers arranged as fibers and stitched into a complicated pattern. The computer had no trouble with that. Although the computer turned a baboon inside-out and made a steak taste yucky, living things are already covered, inside and out, with a multitude of microscopic organisms. Still, Brundle is correct in asserting that “computers are stupid, they only know what you tell them” and he sells the plot by speaking mostly in poetic vagaries when discussing the teleportation project.
Once Brundle and the fly are fused, he undergoes a Spider-Man like transformation. Athletic and agile, he performs gymnastics stunts in his apartment and feels flush with energy. Describing it as a benign ‘high’ Brundle becomes convinced that the teleportation process has purified him. The only sign of his impending doom are little chitin hairs growing out of day old cuts on his back. His newfound energy and stamina make him manic. As he becomes drunk on his own power he also yearns, selfishly, for Ronnie to join him. Like a drug addict, he tries to convince her how good it will feel and accuses her of being a drag when she refuses to go through the teleporter. Angry and rejected, he storms out into the night and searches for another partner. He finds Tawny (Joy Bushel) and challenges her friends to an arm-wrestling match for the right to take her home with him. Brundle fractures the man’s forearm without breaking a sweat, a real injury that can occur in matches, and it marks the second appearance of gore (the first was the baboon) in the film as the shattered bone breaks through the man’s skin.
Tawny also refuses to undergo the process and Brundle is finally confronted by Ronnie who points out all of the things that have gone wrong with him. Insect hairs growing from his back and face, his skin mottled and blotchy, juices leaking from his fingertips, Brundle accuses Ronnie of simple jealousy and kicks her out of his life. Later, after failing to cut the hairs off with an electric razor, and a particularly juicy scene of discovering his fingernails have come loose after nervously biting them, Brundle finally realizes that something has indeed gone wrong and searches the computer for help. In desperation, Brundle calls Veronica for help and explains to her that he’s either dying of a very unusual cancer or transforming into a 180 pound fly. While talking to her, pleading for help, he vomits up white digestive fluid and loses an ear. It’s not quite as wonderful as the nightmare fueled sequences of pulling off his own fingernails or his teeth falling out, but Jeff Goldblum has begun to disappear entirely beneath the blobby make-up at this point and is walking with the help of two canes.
For some reason, Veronica turns to Borans for advice. After he accosted her in her apartment and in public, she seemed to have cut ties with him for good. It perhaps would be complicated to introduce another actor at this point, but it feeds into the film’s obsessive romance plot. Veronica eventually discovers that she’s pregnant while Brundle regains his strength and becomes more chipper about his impending doom, climbing on walls and digesting his food externally. He’s also begun walking around naked, having lost the offending protuberances as part of his mutation.** Borans meanwhile arranges an abortion for Veronica and she has a nightmare of giving birth to an enormous wriggling maggot. Having seen her with Borans from his roof, however, Brundle has followed her to the hospital. Brundle bursts through the glass window directly into the examination room and escapes back to his apartment with Veronica.
The computer recently spit out that a conceivable cure would be to fuse Brundle with another human and although he at first wishes for her to keep the baby (out of the hope that it will be the last healthy and normal part of him) he eventually decides to plead and then force her to undergo the fusion process with him. His plans are cut short, however, by the arrival of Borans who witnessed Brundle escape the hospital and has come armed with a double-barreled shotgun. Brundle intercepts his romantic rival, melting off his hand and ankle by vomiting on them, and continues attending to Veronica and the machines. Borans rises to his feet at the critical moment, however, and shoots Brundle’s telepod causing a malfunction which frees Veronica. Having reprogrammed his device into a gene-splicer the computer undergoes the process, combining Brundle with one of the pods.
During the struggle with Veronica, the genius scientist had already shed his human flesh and emerged as a freakish insect-like beast. Incapable of speech or facial expressions the creature that finally emerges from the fusion pod is on the verge of death. Veronica, wielding the shotgun, watches in horror as what remains of the Brundlefly points the weapon at himself. She blows the thing’s head off and collapses into tears.
As an idea, The Fly has obviously resonated over the years. There are no stories which feature teleportation that don’t address the possibility of a similar accident occurring. Even the children’s video game series Pokémon (1998) featured a scientist who accidentally fused himself in an experiment. Helping him is necessary to complete the game but only requires the push of a button. Jeff Goldblum would go on to famously play quirky flawed scientists in Jurassic Park (1993) and Independence Day (1996) which have largely defined his career. The Fly, though, is a cultural touchstone that spawned two sequels, an opera, and constant rumours of a remake. Although The Fly might not make you sleep with the lights on, it’s firmly a horror movie without the preachy messages of “tampering with God/nature” that normally plague these stories.
* The puppet for the dying monkey is surprisingly effective. Obscured by the smoke from the machine a bloodied handprint is left on the door and then sickening squelches are applied to the pulsating writhing puppet as it appears on screen.
** When Brundle finally loses his teeth he derides them for being vestigial and goes to store them in his medicine cabinet along with his fingernails, an ear, and what looks like jars containing his penis and testicles.
(Header image of 20th Century Fox)