“Charming” is not often a word associated with horror films; it’s counterintuitive to what the genre usually stands for—you know, terror and tension, followed by release and a sense of ease, then repeat—but yet here we are with a romantic tale about a boy, a girl, a teleportation device, and the insect that comes between them. Welcome to the world of The Fly (1958), where the hosts are welcoming, the police polite, and the monster bug-eyed.
Released by Twentieth Century Fox in July, The Fly pulled in $7 million against its $300,000 budget, enticing audiences with a tale often told at the time—sold as another Atomic Age Monster Mash, The Fly instead uses a much smaller (and human) canvas to convey a message of obsession and the love that ultimately ends it. Having said that, you also get a man with a fly head and some neat-o transportation sequences, lest we forget where we are and what the hell we’re talking about.
Which would be this: as our film opens, a night watchman comes upon one Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens – Hell To Eternity) fleeing from a running industrial press in an electronic factory (Radio Shack?) owned by her husband, Andre (David Hedison, listed here as Al – Live and Let Die) and his brother Francois (Vincent Price – Theatre of Blood). His living brother that is, as it turns out to be Andre chillin’ under the flattened press, which we discover when Helene phones Francois immediately after and confesses to killing her husband.
Under occasional police supervision in her home (this takes place in Quebec, and there’s no need for your ill-mannered arrest procedures, thank you very much), Helene recounts to Francois and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall – Foreign Correspondent) the events leading up to her inventor spouse’s demise; such as his experiment with transporting matter, which works great until a fly climbs into the chamber with him and they swap body parts. Now, if they can only find that darn fly with the white head…
In the light of David Cronenberg’s 1986 classic re-imagining, the original The Fly is often viewed as a somewhat quaint relic of its time. Pleasant, a few decent effects, and a good evening to you, sir. And I myself was certainly guilty of this; having grown up in the Shadow of Seth with its perfectly doomed romance, state of the art effects, and finely honed suspense, how could it be taken as anything but a diversion, a trifle?
But… that’s not really fair, is it? We have to judge it by its peers, I think; and back in the day, in the middle of nuclear sea creatures, giant lizards, and gargantuan arachnids, The Fly, much like its namesake, is small, but purposefully so. The easiest way to frighten a kid or teen in the ’50s was through the Cold War Scare, which was tangible, palpable, and all too real. The horror/sci-fi movies of the day dealt in that fear and paranoia and brought the kids in. Perhaps, then, The Fly was meant to sway the parents, even though there’s just enough sugar to tempt the youngsters. Whoever the target demographic, it manages to set itself apart due to its intimate nature.
This was writer James Clavell’s first film credit; of course he would go on to write the novel and TV adaptation of Shogun (1980), among many others. It’s a solid first script that goes easy on the melodrama, perhaps to a fault; the kids want big moments, but other than Andre’s shocking third act reveal, it tends not to get too excited. Clavell seems to be aiming for a Phantom of the Opera grandeur filtered through the pages of LIFE magazine, and he gets it in his unmasking to Helene; Andre’s multi-paned POV of her screaming amplifies her fear, cushioned in the lushness of Cinemascope’s anamorphic widescreen.
The script is the true star here; director Kurt Neumann (Rocketship X-M) stays out of the way, with little flourish, but a good feel for the characters—Price is always a delight, and here he offers a sympathetic turn as Andre’s brother who secretly pines for Helene. Speaking of, Owens keeps it grounded until she can’t resist the urge as the stakes are raised. But it really is the love story between her and Hedison that, as I said, gives the film a real charm considering the subject matter. Hedison, while consumed with his experiments, dotes on his wife and child when he can, lending weight to the scenes where she tries to communicate with him post transformation. And Hedison, who spends most of the runtime concealed under black cloth, is terrific at conveying the sadness and anger inherent with his condition.
The effects hold up very well, too; the transportation scenes give the film some wanted (and needed) action and are filled with color and wonder, again appealing to the kids who need the eye candy to stay invested. (I’m not averse to it, either.) And while the ending has been shown in countless clip shows over the decades, it still holds a macabre charm (there it is again) for a reason: it’s incredibly creepy. (Plus, fu** spiders. All of them.)
So, is the remake better than this? It doesn’t matter; they both come from different times, technologies, and temperaments. But for me, the biggest draw of the remake, the thing I keep returning to, is the romance between Seth and Veronica. It’s the human element, removed from the latex and toxic bile, that is the heart of the film. And while it borrows the basic plot from this one, Cronenberg, with his most emotionally open film, drew on what makes the original work so well: a tragic love story with a real sense of resolution. And all the bloodied bells and whistles in the world can’t disguise the fact that Neumann and Clavell did it first. Whether it does it better is irrelevant; the world can always use more love stories (even with tragic endings), and I’m glad both exist.
The Fly is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox.