The Fly (1958)

DECEMBER 2, 2009


As a young man, I had no qualms about seeing a remake before I saw the original (if I was even aware of such things when I was 7 goddamn years old), but that’s no excuse for it taking me this long to finally see the original The Fly. Since I both love Cronenberg’s remake and Vincent Price, you’d think I would have gotten around to it quicker (I also watch a horror movie a day, for the love of Mike).

Oh well, no matter; I finally saw it, and it is good. I was pretty surprised how good it was, and it works both as a cheesy 50s monster movie as well as one of the rare films of the era that stepped outside of the mold. For starters, it starts at the end, and stays there for a half hour (even Titanic got to the Leo stuff sooner I think), with the scientist already dead and his wife (Patricia Owens) obviously responsible. She’s also apparently crazy, admonishing a nurse for trying to kill a fly and offering a police officer some coffee after admitting to killing a man (even dumber, the dude accepts!). Finally, we flash back to what all this is about. The only issue with this setup is related to time and legacy - we know perfectly well what happened, due to years of parodies and references, which makes this possibly the only movie where one could consider the beginning of the film to be more of a surprise than the ending.

There are also a number of interesting choices made on the part of the filmmakers. For example, during the scene where the wife follows her fly-husband’s wishes and puts him in a hydraulic press, there is no music and hardly any sound. So many movies of the era have that bom-Bom-BOMMMMMM music playing over every single action moment, it was completely refreshing to see one played subtle for once. And even though he is Vincent Price, no one ever really suspects him of any wrongdoing (the cop suggests it and dismisses it practically in the same sentence, so that doesn't count), which is nice. A more common approach would find him under suspicion and leave it up to the grieving widow to clear his name, but seeing it the other way around was, again, refreshing.

But there’s also a great deal of humor, and I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not. The guy teleports his cat, and the poor thing disappears into the ether. Later, when his wife asks him where she is, he replies, quite casually, “Into space... a stream of cat atoms....”. I was also tickled by Price telling the cop that the wife is no more of a murderer than he was, “You killed a fly with a human head; she killed a human with a fly head!”

One thing that I am sure is NOT intentional is how lazy the science was. In the remake, Cronenberg put enough thought into it to make it so Goldblum was naked when he went through. But Fly-man goes through fully clothed and with a towel over his head to boot. With mixed up atoms being the entire problem, you’d think he’d worry about coming out being fused to a towel and his slacks, but I guess the machine was smart enough to distinguish clothes from people (but not flies). Also Fly-man has the brain and the body, yet his head on the fly is somehow able to scream “Help me!”. Now, I don’t really care about the silliness of such things, but like I said, the rest of the movie was made with surprising care, so it draws a little attention to itself.

I also noticed that it’s a movie that likes to reveal things instead of simply show them. Like I said, the first half hour is supposed to be some giant mystery as to why a woman would put her husband in a hydraulic press and why she would be obsessed with flies, things that the film reveals to us later. And then we never actually see him go through with the fly, he just suddenly becomes withdrawn and won’t talk to anyone in the house. Even when he finally lets his wife into the lab, we see about 3-4 scenes before the reveal of his awesome fly-head (he accidentally shows his fly-arm a bit earlier). And then near the end, we even hear the “HELP MEEEE” in a scene without any explanation, only to have it revealed a few scenes later. If this was 1958, I would be watching this entire movie going “Huh? Huh? Ohhhhh.....” over and over.

I was also surprised that the Fly-man never freaked out and killed someone. Apart from him and that poor cat, the movie is body count free, which is pretty rare. Hell, is this even a horror movie? Shit. Let me wrap this up and watch something else!

What say you?

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  1. I think the horror here was less the "OMG it's coming to get me!" style than an early example of the Body Horror thing. Maybe for audiences in the 50s just the idea of being a fly-man was horrifying enough. This is a great movie, though, and if the "Help Meee!" ending doesn't make sense, it makes up for it in sheer creepiness for my money. As 70s Italian horrors taught us well, something doesn't have to make sense to be RIGHT. :)

  2. I watched this movie as a kid and the ending -- with the fly in the web -- really upset me. It didn't scare me, it just made me upset and freaked out and shaky. It was the first film to have that effect on me and I really appreciated the experience. The horror came from feeling the other character's terror on such a visceral level. It's one thing to scare an audience with shocks and bangs. It's another thing entirely to make them sympathize with another person so much that they agonize along with them.

  3. If Dragon Wars is a horror movie, so is this.

    It's a really good movie, I was just kind of disappointed when I found out that Vincent Price doesn't play the scientist or do anything villainous. I was expecting that going in.

  4. Sorry, I hated the Cronenberg take, but I love the original. And I'm sure the humor was intentional, the product of the same writing talent that kept the complex structure of the original story and turned it all into a great black comedy. The screenplay was by James Clavell, years before he wrote "Shogan."

  5. This was the first movie I ever owned, back when I was like 8 or 9. I would watch it at least once a week. It's still at my folk's house, but I no longer have a VCR to play it in.

  6. So happy you reviewed this, a childhood favorite of mine, along with Cronenberg's remake. My dad and I had a double screening over the course of a weekend and then got to the awful 80's "The Fly 2", which he had picked up from the video store, for some convinced it would be awesome. I mean, you can't blame a 10 year old for not picking up on such things, but you would think a grown man knows better...

    Anyway, I wanted to point out, that the trailer you posted clearly answers your question as to whether or not this is horror.

  7. Actually, the ambiguous nature of the "help me" scene has always struck me as one of the most subtly terrifying aspects of the film. It makes you wonder... what really happened? How much of the man was in the fly, and vice versa? Could it be that the thing in the lab was really an insect that only thought it was a man? That the mind and memories of the scientist were but echoes of the human being who went into the machine, and the creature's regression into an animal state was merely a return to form?
    Or were the bits of humanity in its thoughts truly pieces of Andre? The brain of a human is surely greater than the brain of a bug, so couldn't it have been dominant in both beings? Because the pitiful thing screaming for help in the web clearly did not have the mind of a fly! Were there really two Andres?
    What was the experience like for that poor creature, the moment it flew from the box? Did it mirror its person-sized counterpart? Could it be that it began its wretched life as a confused fly, only to slowly "wake up" to being a man trapped in that nightmarish condition? In which case, what hideous twists of fate. Which of the creatures had it worse? At least the fly-man had the comfort of a loved one acting out of love. The man-fly was lost and alone, finally coming back to himself only in time to scream for help before a gruesome end.
    That's what really gets to me. Thinking that, in a very real sense, for his perversion of nature, Andre Delambre died a horrible death... twice.


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