Looking back at The Fly II

Unlike its predecessor, The Fly II was poorly received. Ryan looks back at a daft yet highly entertaining horror sequel...

If you’re unfamiliar with Chris Walas’s name, you’ll probably have seen his work. He helped produce the gallery of melting and exploding faces at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark – a nightmarish glimpse of PG-rated horror which had a generation of kids either covering their eyes or tittering with glee.

Having subsequently turning in similarly icky work for such 80s films as Dragonslayer and Gremlins, Walas got his first job as a director – a sequel to David Cronenberg’s horrific yet extremely popular remake of The Fly. As the creator of the first film’s elaborate and extremely gory special effects, Walas was considered to be a decent fall-back choice for directing the follow-up, since Cronenberg had little interest in tackling it himself.

The Fly II was released in 1989, and while it did decent business (though not to the extent of the 1986 film), critics were unkind to it. Even in reviews written in the last 10 years (as harvested by Rotten Tomatoes), the general consensus is that The Fly II is thoroughly sub-par, with an aggregate RT score of 27 per cent and words including “worthless” and “unnecessary” summing up the overriding attitude.

At first glance, those detractors seem to have a point. Of The Fly’s cast, only John Getz returns for the sequel, showing up in all of two scenes to talk bitterly about the past. Jeff Goldblum appears in some archive footage left over from the original, while Geena Davis is replaced by  Canadian actress Saffron Henderson and promptly written out in the opening reel.

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Gradually, though, it becomes apparent that this isn’t just one of those bad, largely unrelated horror sequels which sprang up like mutant daisies in the video shops of the 80s and 90s.  Its performances are very good, its story enjoyably daft, and as you’d expect from Walas by now, it revels in its grotesquerie.

Following on from the events of The Fly, the sequel opens in the headquarters of Bartok Industries. A shadowy company only mentioned by name once or twice in the original, Bartok financed Seth Brundle’s ill-fated teleportation research, which ended with the scientist consumed by housefly DNA and shot dead by his longsuffering lover, Veronica.

Before all that, though, Veronica fell pregnant, and The Fly II begins with a hideous sequence in which the poor woman gives birth to an oozing mutant – a fulfilment of the maggot birthing nightmare she suffered three years earlier. But as Veronica’s former magazine editor Stathis (the returning Getz mentioned earlier) looks on aghast, it’s revealed that this yoghurt-covered foetus is just a cocoon – within lies an apparently normal human baby.

Veronica promptly dies, leaving the infant in the care of the seemingly paternal company boss Anton Bartok (Lee Richardson) who’s in the process of trying to figure out how to get the late Seth Brundle’s teleportation pods working again. While his pen-clicking scientists puzzle over that problem, the baby – mysteriously called Martin Brundle, even though he should legally be named Martin Quaife after his mother – grows from toddler to young boy at an accelerated rate.

As a precocious 10-year-old, Martin (here played extremely well by Harley Cross) gets his hint of how cruel Bartok Industries can be; having befriended a Golden Retriever he finds in one of the laboratories, he later watches as the poor animal is turned into a wretched mutant by a malfunctioning telepod.

Within two years, Martin has grown into the physical equivalent of a 20-year-old, and now played by Eric Stolz. Employed to fix the pods his father invented, Martin’s given his own apartment within the Bartok company grounds, and falls in love with an employee  – Beth, played by Spaceballs‘ Daphne Zuniga.

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Soon, however, Martin learns the full extent of Bartok’s cruelty. Not only has the company kept the mutant Golden Retriever in a darkened dungeon in its basement (though it’s never explained why), but they’ve also been lying to Martin all along – unless a cure is found, he too will start to transform into something hideous and hairy.

Just as he learns all this, the transforming begins. In a bravura display of rod puppetry and goo, Martin changes into the same four-legged, twitching insect-beast his father became. And like all movie monsters worth their salt, the Martinfly uses his new powers of acid puking and limb snapping to exact vengeance on every Bartok worker who looked at him askance.

Victims include a gaunt scientist, whose spine is broken like a twig against a railing, a security guard whose face is reduced to the consistency of soup, and another security guard whose head is squished like a pumpkin under the floor of a lift (a seen which initially prompted the MPAA to give The Fly II an X rating).

Walas clearly relishes the production of these scenes, and there’s a certain childish delight evident as the camera lingers over every minging detail. The schlocky fun reaches its peak at the end, when Anton Bartok – who’s shown a strange desire to keep the Martinfly from harm until now – suddenly decides he’ll “Kill him if he has to.” After taking a few bullets in the thorax, the Martinfly drags the evil Bartok into a pod, and teleports himself through space – something his father had tried and failed to do three years earlier.

In an unexpectedly upbeat ending, Martin emerges in the other pod as a normal human being, while Bartok has somehow sucked up all that bad fly DNA and turned into a slithering monster. As Martin heads off on a happy future with Princess Vespa, we see Bartok crawling about in the same straw-filled dungeon the Golden Retriever had occupied earlier in the movie.

“I’d have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for that meddling Stoltz” his rolling eye appears to say as he laps at a bowl of gruel.

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If you think the above sounds like so much thinly-drawn pap, you’re probably half right. Where The Fly did what all great sci-fi horror films do, which is to flirt with B-movie conventions while adding its own touch of class, The Fly II gives into its schlocky roots almost immediately – had it been another 50s sequel, it probably would have been called Son Of Fly.

At the same time, The Fly II is produced with such conviction that it’s difficult not to enjoy its pantomime villainy and bloody excess. It’s not in the same league as its predecessor, inevitably, but there’s a sense that Walas knows this; while clearly respecting what Cronenberg did before (a loving tribute to the Canadian auteur can even be spotted in one scene, where a security guard reads a book called The Shape Of Rage), Walas appears to understand that what he’s making isn’t high art, but a fun horror flick.

Appreciated as such, The Fly II is one of the better-made genre movies to appear in the late 80s, with a sympathetic performance from Eric Stoltz (which is just as well, given the grotty things his alter-ego gets up to later in the film), some good early work from Frank Darabont on co-scriptwriting duties, and lots and lots of messy practical special effects – a cocooned Martin is a particular favourite.

If you wanted to pick fault with The Fly II, you could probably do so for hours. Like so many sequels, very little happens for a logical purpose (Martin grows into 20-year-old Eric Stoltz because it gets the story moving along more quickly, for example), but that’s hardly a particular fault of this film alone.

At one point, The Fly II was planned as a more level-headed sequel than the one we ended up with. Only tenuously related to the themes of the original, an early treatment had Seth Brundle’s consciousness surviving inside a telepod computer, which falls into the hands of Bartok Industries. In a cross between the final movie and a cyber thriller like The Lawnmower Man, Brundle takes controls of Bartok’s building and kills everyone, before Veronica helps him to reform his old body with the help of his telepods.

While this sounds like a reasonable idea in itself, it strays far from the body horror roots of the original – something the finished Fly II does well. Admittedly, the sequel recycles those themes rather than building them into something new (and those tender moments of tragedy and pathos which punctuated Cronenberg’s film are sorely missing), but in a weird sort of way, a straight horror movie is probably a more fitting way of following the 1986 story than a movie about a Demon Seed-like rampaging computer.

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The Fly II wasn’t big, and it wasn’t particularly clever, but as an exercise in pure, claret-stained entertainment, it deserves far more credit than it frequently receives. 

You can read our retrospective of The Fly here.

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