The Fly Is Still David Cronenberg’s Masterpiece

How Stephen King may have helped David Cronenberg make a masterpiece with The Fly.

The Fly arguably remains David Cronenberg’s masterpiece, over 30 years after its release. Loosely based on a 1957 short story by French writer George Langelaan, the movie transcends the story’s pulpy origins and the well-known images of a man with a fly’s head (and vice versa) from the 1958 film version starring Vincent Price to become a somber meditation on disease and aging and a tragic love story, not to mention one of the most effective horror/sci-fi films of its time. It also marked a summation and endpoint to the first phase of Cronenberg’s career, while investing his work with a new emotional maturity and thematic resonance.

Producer Kip Ohman first had the idea of remaking The Fly in the early 1980s, recruiting screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue to write the script. The pair brought Pogue’s script to 20th Century Fox, which was initially enthusiastic about the project, but the studio was unhappy with Pogue’s work and declined to move forward. Ohman eventually convinced the studio to distribute the film if he could get outside financing for it, which he got through producers Stuart Cornfeld and, improbably, Mel Brooks (who had also financed David Lynch’s screen version of The Elephant Man six years earlier). Although he first had to turn down the film because of a commitment to make Total Recall, Cronenberg was later able to return to The Fly after the latter project didn’t work out, heavily revising Pogue’s script before shooting began.

Cronenberg’s version of the tale tells the story of an introverted, eccentric scientist named Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) who is developing a teleportation device. His efforts are documented by a reporter named Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), with whom he begins a romantic relationship, but his first attempt to teleport himself goes horribly wrong when a housefly enters the telepod with him. Over the next few weeks, as the fly’s DNA assumes control of his body, Brundle begins to mutate into a monstrous, increasingly insane hybrid of a human and an insect: “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the insect is awake.”

One idea that Cronenberg retained from Pogue’s script was making Brundle’s transformation gradual, instead of just transplanting the head and leg of a fly onto his body as in the short story and the 1958 movie. But Cronenberg made other, more extensive changes: Pogue’s version had the scientist, named Powell, happily married (as in the short story) and eventually turned him into a gigantic fly, unlike Cronenberg’s hybrid. The ostensible villain of the piece was the head of the corporation funding Powell’s experiments (an idea used later in The Fly II). Cronenberg changed the scientist into an awkward loner, making his relationship with the reporter the emotional core of the story. There is no villain except the mutation itself — John Getz co-stars as Veronica’s editor and former lover, but he redeems his rather slimy nature by the end.

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Cronenberg’s previous film was 1983’s The Dead Zone, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, which was itself a turning point for the Canadian filmmaker in many ways. With the exception of his auto-racing movie Fast Company (1979), Cronenberg had written all his previous pictures, and while those early films like Shivers (1975), Scanners (1981), and Videodrome (1983) were all outstanding horror efforts, they were also possessed of a certain clinical detachment from the characters. With The Dead Zone — on which Cronenberg also reworked the screenplay, written by Jeffrey Boam — the director was able to prove two things: that he could make a movie with very little in the way of gore or shocking visual and makeup effects, and that he could concentrate on the characters and make the audience engage with them on an emotional and moral level.

read more: How Videodrome Subverts the Horror Thriller Genre

The basis for that was already in King’s novel, which produced one of his best-loved and most memorable characters in the doomed yet heroic psychic Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken). It even offered Cronenberg a test run for the love story in The Fly, with Smith’s equally ill-fated romance with Sarah (played by Brooke Adams in the movie) serving as one of the major threads of the rather episodic narrative and giving Cronenberg a chance to develop a love story believably on the screen. He did it successfully in The Dead Zone and had a chance to take it even further in The Fly; it’s notable that both movies end with a similar shot of the female lead sobbing over the body of the dead protagonist.

The Fly fused (pun intended) Cronenberg’s new character skills with the themes and obsessions that had permeated his earlier work: the malleability of human flesh, the body horror of disease and decay, and the transformative power of both. But for the first time, a film of his was not dependent solely on the shocking and surreal nature of his imagery to wrest a response out of the audience, nor were they distant observers to the action. The Fly introduced us to two sympathetic characters — the brilliant, odd yet somewhat goofy and likable Brundle and the inquisitive, independent and sensitive Veronica — and made us care about them and their plight, while also gripping us with Brundle’s forced evolution into a new, brutal form of life that knew nothing of love but only survival and domination.

Cronenberg was aided immeasurably in The Fly by the performances of his two lead actors. The studio resisted Goldblum at first since he was not considered a leading man, and actors like Michael Keaton, John Lithgow, and Richard Dreyfuss were all reportedly up for the role at one point or another. But Goldblum’s own quirky style made him the perfect Brundle, and he was able to powerfully emote the scientist’s downfall into insanity and psychological turmoil even through the pounds of prosthetics he wore in the latter stages of Brundle’s transformation (which took up to five hours to apply). There was even speculation that he would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, which sadly didn’t happen.

Davis had only had small parts in three previous films and The Fly provided her with her breakout role, despite actresses like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Laura Dern also being considered (Davis and Goldblum were also a real-life couple at the time and Cronenberg was at first hesitant to use Davis for that reason).

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Along with Cronenberg, Goldblum and Davis, the fourth key person in the success of The Fly was special effects designer Chris Walas. Walas — best known before The Fly for his work on movies like Gremlins and Raiders of the Lost Ark — conceived and created the title creature through a mix of animatronics, prosthetics and makeup, coming up with the final monster first and then working backwards through seven stages that got Brundle from normal human to the “Brundlepod” (the accidental fusion of “Brundlefly” and a telepod at the film’s conclusion). Walas deservedly won an Oscar for his efforts — the only Oscar ever bestowed on a Cronenberg film, incredibly — and got the chance to direct The Fly II three years later.

Walas also created the infamous “monkey-cat” creature, a horrible fusion of an alley cat and baboon which the already deformed Brundle generates in an attempt to find a “cure” for his condition. In the scene — which survived from the Pogue script — Brundle ends up beating the tormented thing to death. But when shown to a test audience in Toronto, the sequence generated outright disgust and also vaporized the audience’s sympathy for Brundle, leading Cronenberg to wisely delete it — a choice he might not have made on some of his previous movies.

Four different versions of an epilogue, known as the “butterfly baby” sequence, were also filmed and meant to provide a slightly happier ending for Veronica and some closure over the question of her pregnancy with Brundle’s child. But the film ended up playing much more effectively by closing with Veronica putting what was left of her lover out of his misery and leaving the fate of their unborn child ambiguous.

Ambiguous until The Fly II, that is, which emerged in 1989 with Eric Stoltz starring as Brundle and Veronica’s child, who unfortunately carries his father’s twisted DNA. The film was not as warmly received as its predecessor (which was an enormous hit with both critics and moviegoers, earning $60 million against a $9 million budget) although this writer has a soft spot for it and some fans appreciate the more traditional monster movie aspects of the picture. Plans for yet another remake first surfaced in 2003 and hung around until 2006, while Cronenberg himself — who has never made a sequel to any of his films — revealed in 2009 that he had drafted a treatment for a film that involved teleportation and retained some of the themes and subject matter of The Fly without being a direct sequel. That project failed to materialize as well, but Cronenberg ended up directing a rather misguided opera based on his movie in 2008, with the score by the film’s composer Howard Shore.

The Fly is one of a trio of classic sci-fi remakes — along with John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) — that are held up to this day as remakes done “right.” Each of the three films takes the basic premise of the original movie (and, in all three cases, also the literary source material) and either expands upon it or updates it in a way that improves in all three cases on the original and delivers much more than a carbon copy. With The Fly, Cronenberg re-conceived a simple monster story as both a tragic romance and a metaphor for losing a loved one to disease or aging.

He did not conceive Brundle’s mutation as a metaphor for AIDS — which was a full-blown crisis at the time — although he did not discourage some critics’ and viewers’ interpretation of it that way: “If you, or your lover, has AIDS, you watch that film and of course you’ll see AIDS in it, but you don’t have to have that experience to respond emotionally to the movie and I think that’s really its power,” he told journalist Chris Faber in the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg.  “For me, though, there was something about The Fly story that was much more universal to me: aging and death — something all of us have to deal with.”

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Veronica’s famous line that also became the marketing tagline of the movie — “Be afraid. Be very afraid” — can easily apply to everyone’s own feelings about contracting a disease, AIDS or otherwise, getting old and dying, or watching someone close to you die. That’s why Cronenberg’s The Fly is still chilling, poignant and emotionally devastating after 30 years, and will remain so long after we’ve all gone through that terrifying and still mysterious process ourselves.

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