Monday, July 16, 2012

The Theory Of Insect Politics

The Fly(1986)
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

The Fly may be the greatest horror remake ever attempted. The failure of most remakes is that they merely rehash the original's plot without adding anything significant, and often losing what power the original film had.  This remake manages to capture the original film's core emotions and enhance them, making for one of the most complex and emotionally devastating horror films ever made.
In many ways, The Fly(1958) was an obvious choice for a remake. The original, while well-acted, was also scientifically improbable and limited by the effects of the time. It's certainly an enjoyable film and a minor classic of the 50s horror and science fiction genre, but there was room for improvement.
Director David Cronenberg, who was responsible for some of the most thought-provoking and grotesque horror films made in the modern era, was the perfect choice as writer and director. The filmmaker's main theme throughout his work was the "fear of the flesh," that which lurks from within. His films dealt with intense themes, often involving sex and body horror, including the brilliant, Videodrome(1983), perhaps the ultimate take on our culture's addiction to sex and violence.
Cronenberg continues his theme with The Fly, reaching perhaps, the apex of his art. The original's plot was reworked from the family unit to a single introvert and his developing romance with an attractive journalist. The film begins as a love story and is very tender, with only subtle hints at horror. Developing like an opera, the story builds in dramatic tension, before reaching the inevitable, tragic conclusion.

Jeff Goldblum is introduced as Seth Brundle, an awkward inventor who meets Veronica Quaife(Geena Davis) a reporter for science magazine, Particle. They meet at a science expo and Seth is able to lure her back to his place, which is situated in an abandoned warehouse. Along the way, he reveals that he has motion sickness, which is to explain why he has has been experimenting on teleportation. He shows her his experiment, the ominous telepods.When Veronica first sees them she describes them as "designer phonebooths," a reference to the original film's design for it's teleporters. She does not believe that they can do what he says they can, but after her stocking is transported from one to another, she gets excited and is convinced that this is the discovery of the century. She tape records him, unwillingly, and when he finds out, she heads out and spills the information to her editor, Stathis Borans(John Getz), who believes Brundle to be a conman. Brundle arrives, overjoyed that he was not believed and is eager to continue a relationship with "Ronnie" as he calls her and suggests that she cover all his experiment for compiling into a book.
Seth's invention is an incredible feat, but unfortunately, living matter can not be teleported, as we discover in one ghastly scene where a baboon is transported across to another teleopod and appears inside out.
Seth and Veronica quickly develop a relationship and are soon in bed together and begin a romance. This upsets Stathis, who had once been Veronica's boyfriend and now stalks her, even making a scene in a clothing store when Veronica buys a jacket for Seth.
Seth gets inspiration from Veronica as she kisses him and talks about how flesh drives her crazy and this makes him realize that the computer has trouble interpreting the flesh, so he reprograms it and tries out another baboon, which turns out to be a success. They celebrate, but an advance magazine cover showing Seth's discovery, prompts Veronica to go see Stathis and make sure the story doesn't leak. Seth misinterprets her actions as going back with Stathis and getting himself liquored up, decides to go into the machine, himself. Unfortunately, he does not see a stray fly go in with him and they are teleported. However, when Seth emerges from the machine, he is perfectly fine, quite unlike the original film. Noticeably, the fly is missing.

The next morning, Seth catches a fly in his hand(a nice bit of foreshadowing) and proceeds to go into the living room and perform several acrobatic stunts, much to the amazement of Veronica, who is real turned on. He explains that after going through, he feels like a new person and it seems that the telepods have made him "better." Little by little, however, small changes are apparent. He eats sugar voraciously, he develops acne to an alarming degree and strange hairs grow on his back, which Veronica cuts off. Seth insists that Veronica go through the telepods, but she refuses, causing him to curse her out, which is not in his nature. He leaves the building and goes looking for someone else who might go through with him. He hits up a bar and runs into a barfly(that's pretty funny) named Tawny(Joy Boushel, who is a babe in this, however slutty) and proposes a bet to take her home if he wins an arm wrestling contest with a burly dude named, Marky(George Chuvalo, a real-life championship boxer) and in a very tense and brutal scene, Seth snaps his wrist, showing no compassion as he does.
He takes Tawney back to his place, and they have sex. He talks her into going through and leads her to the pod, when Veronica arrives and speaks the film's tagline, "Be afraid, be very afraid."
Tawney leaves and Veronica explains that she had the hairs on his back analyzed and that they were not human, but in all probability, insect hairs. She also talks about his complexion, which looks like a painful rash and that he may be sick. Seth refuses to believe this and tells her that he's not sick, by punching a support beam to splinters, and throws her out, telling her not to come back.
When she leaves, Seth looks in the bathroom mirror and sees his face and the terrible hairs that Veronica had analyzed. He tries to cut them, but his electric razor won't budge. He then notices that he is losing a tooth and in a squirm-inducing moment, he finds his fingernails are coming off, spitting pus. Horrified, he sits down and wonders aloud, if he is dying. This moment always struck me as particularly powerful, for how many of us have made(or are destined to make) such horrible painful discoveries. Few scenes in film history have touched on the horror of disease better than this one, as Goldblum's character shows genuine fear and confusion, wondering what comes next. Seth will have a line later about looking in the mirror and seeing something more horrible each time, and not recognizing the face. This sounds like a subtle, yet cynical look at aging, and the psychological effect it has on the individual, when they feel no longer like they are the same person, which certainly is the core of this story.
Seth checks his computer and the first teleportation and discovers that a fly had gotten into the pod with him that first time. Brundle assumes that he absorbed the fly, but instead discovers that the fly and him have merged on a molecular genetic level. Brundle's eyes widen in terror.

Weeks later, Veronica receives a call from Seth, telling her to come see him, as he has gotten much worse. She goes to the apartment and finds Seth a frail and distorted version of himself. He has started losing hair, he is using canes to walk and his face is bloated and barely recognizable. He explains his situation and does not want to be subjected to any study. He then proceeds to gross out Veronica(and the audience) by vomiting on a doughnut, since he can not eat normally, his teeth rendered useless. And as if the audience wasn't grossed out enough, Seth's ear falls off into his hand and Veronica hugs him on the side it fell off to mixed reactions, though I was too caught up in the scene to notice initially. 
Veronica is distraught and pleads to Stathis to see him and try to help, so he suggests that she make a video of him. She goes back and Seth is now even worse, and has now gotten the ability to climb walls. Seth enjoys the idea of a video and even suggests that maybe they can make a book for children, called "The Life and Times of Brundlefly.", which is what he has thus dubbed himself. 
Veronica makes the video and gives it to Stathis, who is disgusted. He also learns that Veronica is pregnant with Seth's baby, and the terror sets in. Veronica has an especially memorable nightmare that evening where she has her child, but it turns out to be a monstrous maggot. Director David Cronenberg plays the gynecologist in this scene. 
Back at Seth's place, we find him at the computer working on a new project, his computer no longer recognizing his voice. By now, he is barely human and has lost a finger on one hand and his teeth. He takes the teeth to a medicine cabinet that he dubs, "The Brundle Museum of Natural History" and we can see assorted members lying in there, including what is clearly supposed to be a penis and scrotum. 
Veronica arrives to see him and to deliver the news about the pregnancy, but can't find the words. This is when Goldblum delivers one of the best speeches ever uttered in a horror/science fiction film. In trying to explain his situation, he asks that she leave and never come back. Brundle attempts a stab at humor, asking if Veronica has ever heard of insect politics. Veronica, of course, has not, and neither has Seth. The insect, he reasons, is too brutal, has no compassion. He suggests that he be the first insect politician. Veronica does not understand his meaning, and Seth begins to recall Kafka's Metamorphosis, with a beautifully written line: "I'm saying i'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over...and the insect is awake. I'm saying...i'll hurt you if you stay."
Veronica leaves, heartbroken, and Seth sobs to himself, caught in a nightmare of which there is no exit.
Outside, Veronica has made her decision and tells Stathis(who drove her there) that she wants an abortion that night. Seth has been spying on the roof and follows them to the hospital. Before the procedure can take place, Seth jumps through a window and steals Veronica away and pleads with her to keep the baby. There's a sinister look in his eyes, a sign of madness.
Stathis arrives at Seth's apartment and brings a shotgun with him. While checking the computer for what he has been up to, Seth attacks from above and proceeds to dissolve his hand and foot, with his digestive puke. Veronica pleads with him to stop from killing him and Brundlefly explains his plan of merging himself with Veronica and the baby. Horrified, Veronica grapples with Seth as he drags her to the telepod and midway, yanks Seth's jaw off, which prompts the final transformation. In the most spectacular transformation caught on film, Seth changes into the fly, his legs cracking and falling away, revealing fly legs, his one hand becoming an insect and finally his face splitting and falling, showing the horrible insect head beneath. Seth throws her into the telepod and it's a minute til the experiment starts. Stathis is able to gather his senses and with one hand shoots the wire connecting the two telepods. Seth tries to escape his, but is teleported(along with part of the telepod) before he can get away. Arriving at the third, Seth is now part fly and machine, a crawling, organic mess that is pitiful to behold. Veronica arms herself with the shotgun, but can't bring herself to shoot Seth, but the insect hand places the muzzle of the gun to his own head and pleads with his eyes for her to end it. She does in one blast, ending the strange, tragic saga of a scientist and his journey into the unknown.

The Fly is the most clever and moving metaphor for aging and death that has been seen in the horror film. Despite, the truly awesome visual effects and makeup, that rightfully, earned Chris Walas an Oscar, The Fly is a very sensitive and ultimately dark picture about existence and the fragile order of humanity. Cronenberg's view is that however horrible the experience, it is better to have experienced and say that you have lived, than to never have done anything. Seth Brundle, acting as a modern day Frankenstein, becomes a victim of his own creation, and ultimately his own monster. While, it is tragic that he died young and his dreams were quashed in the process, there is something extraordinary in how he lived. What sets his scientist apart from so many in this genre is that he really is a noble and decent man and that his invention really does work. His mistake is human, one made when he was intoxicated and emotional. It's this edge that gives The Fly a connective link for the audience, for the error of Seth Brundle, may very well be our own.
Many interpret his dilemma as having something to say about the concurrent AIDs epidemic, but in actuality, it's less specialized and more of a reaction to one suffering from a long illness that ultimately ages and kills them, or in this sad case, results in the partner euthanizing the other. It's this common thread that makes this film so uncomfortable for viewers and it found Cronenberg his largest audience, while at the same time, showing the zenith of his sci-fi/horror creations, which had begun a decade before with Shivers(1975).
The director has made many brilliant films, but it's doubtful that any could hope to reach the levels of what he accomplished with his work on The Fly, one of the rare remakes that actually improves on an already good original.
I'm not usually the one to say that, either. I don't think that John Carpenter beat the Howard Hawks version of The Thing, for example, though I think his vision was entirely unique and certainly creepy and effective. That remake lacked an emotional center and serves as the film's chief weakness, though in all fairness, that aura of cold and desolation that hangs over the film, was probably the intention. The struggle depicted in the original was more engaging and ages the best, even if some audiences find the dialogue corny. (I think such types are full of wild blueberry muffins, myself.)
This remake actually improves on several elements from the original, notably in the transformation. It was wise to keep the monster talking for the majority, because it makes him more human and sympathetic, which is sort of lost in the original. The protagonist in Cronenberg's film discusses and interprets the disease as it runs it's course, as opposed to the sudden head switch of the original.
It's also a significantly darker film with fewer characters and no happy ending. The antiseptic 50s tone is replaced with a grimier and grittier feel that echoes modern life better than what was originally depicted. Coupled with the more personal script and this one succeeded admirably in ways that were scarcely dreamed of.

Jeff Goldblum brings together a performance that has not been seen since the days of Chaney Sr. and Karloff, for here is a role that could fit comfortably aside the greatest horror performances. Like Chaney's Phantom and Karloff's Frankenstein Monster, Goldblum's Brundlefly is a character of pity, always making us consider his plight and seeing his inner humanity, even as the insect half gradually takes over. His slow transformation, which really goes through the course of the film, beginning as nerdy and awkward and going to confident and zealous, to decrepit and mad and finally, barely human, is deftly handled. Even through the heavy makeup later on, Goldblum is highly effective and he comes through, even if he is unrecognizable. A testament to his performance is that we the audience, believe that he is still Brundle, even after he has clearly been replaced with a puppet. That's true movie magic and admirable on his part. 
Many film critics and fans believe that he should have been nominated for an Oscar, and I concur, as what he delivers is a unique and moving performance and one that rarely arrives in this genre. The "insect politics" speech is a work of genius and one of the most oft-quoted in the horror film.
Geena Davis, who was Goldblum's then-girlfriend, compliments him beautifully, remaining believable throughout and taking the role of the audience, as she witnesses all these horrible things and is unable to help or stop them. She's heartbreaking in many scenes and very real throughout, as she tries to remain sane, despite what obvious horror is in front of her. It helped considerably that they were an item before shooting, because it makes the romance that much more believable and the subsequent horror is intensified, because of the connection that we have seen them have. In fact, for most of the film's running time, this is really a soft romance, a brilliantly deceptive move on the part of Cronenberg.
While, a relatively smaller part, John Getz is great as Stathis Borans, a very difficult part for sure. He begins as an arrogant, chauvinist creep and is the proposed villain of the film. However, as the film progresses, we can see that he really does care for Veronica and is a lonely man just reaching out to someone he cares deeply for. He pays for any past wrongs he made, greatly, by film's end as he is victimized by Brundle in one of the film's most infamous and gruesome moments. He later turned up in a cameo in the 1989 sequel, The Fly 2, and is probably about one of the only reasons to see that film. The less said about that, the better.

The Fly earned an Oscar for makeup, and it's no wonder. Besides, Rob Bottin's work on The Thing and Rick Baker's on An American Werewolf in London(1981), they are absolutely the most impressive seen in a horror film. Never for an instant is the transformation, anything less than believable. The process is slow and methodic, first mirrored in Goldblum's face as a bad rash and acne, and than becoming distorted and lumpy and ultimately, subhuman. The final transformation is the most impressive yet seen and is as repellent as it is fascinating. The filmmakers wanted it to resemble an insect emerging from a pupa and it certainly achieves that grotesque effect, as Goldblum's features split and drop away, revealing the insect beneath. 
As controversial as the film is for it's graphic effects, that was not all that was intended. This film contains perhaps, the most notorious of the deleted 80s horror scenes, involving a monkey-cat and an extra fly leg on Brundle. These were not seen until a few years ago and the release of the special edition on DVD. The deleted, infamous, monkey-cat scene, involved a discarded makeup for Goldblum that achieves a real Jekyll/Hyde quality and a key plot point that led to what we see in the conclusion. Goldblum takes a cat and a baboon and sends them through, creating a fusion in the two, of which he is forced to destroy them with a lead pipe! This is where he got the idea for a "cure" from and this concept was later used in the sequel, as well.
After that scene, Goldblum goes to the roof and screams about his plight, until he feels a pang in his side and discovers an extra fly leg that grows out, which he proceeds to chew off! This was an intense and very disgusting scene and it left audiences cold and it was cut. While, they are fascinating, I can understand why they were deleted. 
An alternate ending was also devised, involving Veronica with Stathis and having a dream about a butterfly baby. It was very sweet and whimsical, but did not fit the tone of the picture, so it was excised, as well.

The film was a smash success and became one of the most popular horror films of the decade. It has since been hailed as one of the greatest remakes of all time and an essential, not only of the genre, but of the cinema. The Fly is a rare remake that manages to distant itself far away enough from an already well known and popular original to become it's own entity. It has been parodied and referenced, almost constantly, since it's release in August, 1986. In many ways, it set the benchmark for the horror remake, and it has yet to be equaled for class and intelligence. I first discovered this film through issues of Cracked Monster Party and Fright Fliks cards, before seeing it late night on Monstervision, surely a life changing experience. I had been scared before, but the plight of Seth Brundle was deeper than that, reminding me of similar monsters that I already knew and loved, while acting as a warning against the overachiever and the fear of the flesh. This is the film that probably made me grow up about horror, for this was more than some Gothic fantasy or gorefest, this was real human drama and that's where it's power lies. The basic premise, of a romantic couple and the eventual slow death of one, and the inevitable end, would be a tough sell even today, but through the guise of the genre, this very touching metaphor for existence was made possible.
The Fly works as a romance, making us sympathize and relate to the protagonists, while wishing fervently that such terrible and awful things did not befall them. It also works as a horror film, it's gooey effects and memorable monster, certainly carving a niche in popular culture. And make no mistake, this is a very scary film. As I contemplate this film, looking back at my own short existence, that creeping fear of death lurks like a specter over my shoulder and films like The Fly remind me of how painful, and yet adventurous and uncertain, that road may be. Perhaps, this is a commentary on all of Cronenberg's work, like other great horror artists like Boris Karloff, perhaps the point was to help us understand death, in the hopes that it will make life easier. The Fly is a film about life and it's many stages and it certainly questions the reasons for why we are here and about how to deal with such harsh inevitability if it comes our way.
 For first time viewers, I apologize for spoiling so much away. I can only hope that you have ran out and picked up, what is undoubtedly the most complex and greatest of the 80s horror films. Enjoy and dissect this most original of horror films, and maybe you may find something of yourself in the sad, pitiful plight of Seth Brundle. Just heed this warning, and do not take it lightly: "Be afraid. Be very afraid."