I’ve seen a number of David Cronenberg’s recent and less bizarre films, including A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and liked them a lot. But I’ve been curious about the earlier work that brought him fame: the phase from the start of his career through to the early 1990s characterised by body horror and transgression, although he continued to make strange films like Crash and eXistenZ. Cronenberg has been lauded for his sophisticated and sociologically conscious use of the grotesque, which I can believe judging by the sensitivity of his later work.
So I intend to take a look at a number of his films from this period, in no particular order due to availability. And my first experience – his 1986 remake of The Fly – did not disappoint.
Like The Thing, this is a gory 80s horror film that unexpectedly works because of its expert gore and horrendous makeup, not in spite of it. The Fly is so visceral, wet, and palpable in a way that horror films typically aren’t today, where a vital sense of the tangible is lost under CG assists and rapid editing. In a lesser film that presented gore for its own sake, this imagery would just be gross, but The Fly requires us to see and feel the horror. Cronenberg is challenging us not to ignore the body and its capacity for transformation. Through Seth Brundle’s metamorphosis into a human-fly hybrid Cronenberg forces us to think about death, disease, sex, reproduction, and even drugs without the relief of abstraction.
More specifically, The Fly is about how we can wreak these changes on ourselves by accident or hubris. Jeff Goldblum’s research scientist has achieved teleportation technology, but his first human test backfires because he’s impulsive and overeager. A house fly sneaks into the chamber at the last moment and the computer resolves the problem by fusing them genetically. Over time, Brundle’s new fly traits emerge.
The process is quite gradual and so the first half of the film is sedate. It’s a fun science romp, not dripping in menace and weirdness as I was expecting. Jeff Goldblum is entertainingly off-kilter as always, but he’s convincing in the serious moments too, including when he’s roiling with strength and energy. He sells both the geek and the virile, buff fly-dude, but he’s also rarely been this sympathetic.
Geena Davis is totally committed to the role too, which is especially impressive given the makeup and effects she has to act opposite later in the film, which would seem ludicrous in the wrong directorial hands. While their romantic relationship is rushed because it serves a narrative purpose, Davis and Goldblum have enough chemistry that it doesn’t matter.
Where The Fly triumphs is that it’s riveting to watch. This isn’t a body horror film you watch at a remove, admiring its audacity but too repulsed to be absorbed by it. The screenplay and editing are tight and efficient, and the numerous possible interpretations of Brundle’s transformation and how it affects his relationship with Veronica are all presented through action rather than ponderous monologue. Yet it still sneaks up on you. This is a largely restrained film until the final horrific fifteen minutes when the makeup and effects reach their moist, dripping zenith.
Brundle’s attack on Veronica’s boss/ex-boyfriend – and her oddly delayed attempt to stop it – is the only moment when The Fly feels like a regular horror film. Otherwise, this is an exploration of when nature’s power is misdirected. But it serves as an allegory for the confronting impact of degenerative disease, the impact of drugs on relationships, and even the complexities of abortion. If you can withstand the gore – and it’s so heightened that it’s easier to bear than you might expect – then you’ll discover a ruthlessly effective and engrossing movie that demonstrates Cronenberg’s remarkable range. That this director also made Eastern Promises is quite stunning.