Be Afraid. Be very afraid of David Cronenberg’s gut-wrenching dissection of physical and emotional meltdown
Those of you whose horror infancy occurred during the 1980s will surely consider the movie trailer voice-over a lost art form. In terms of spectacular editing, the trailer has come a long way since the heady days of home video, but that deep, ominous voice, booming with the sinister foreboding of a devil-made contrabassoon, is sadly absent. The man responsible for a huge chunk of those audio accompaniments was the late voice-over artist and ‘Voice of God’ Don LaFontaine. ‘The King of Trailers’ was responsible for over 5,000 voice-overs during a career that spanned five decades, adding his inimitable touch to iconic movies such as The Terminator, Die Hard, Batman Returns, Ghostbusters and Friday the 13th, but of all those classic trailers, the one that stands tallest — at least for me — is the trailer for David Cronenberg’s visually and thematically audacious body horror The Fly.
That’s not to discredit those other trailers, which are all superb in their own right, but this one got under my skin to the point where I imagined my fingernails peeling off in a putrid landslide of sallow goo (and yes, that moment is in there). After consuming the trailer, one of the most affecting two minutes of my 8-year-old life, I desperately wanted to see the film, but at the same time I was somewhat hesitant. That might not sound unusual for a boy so young, but I’d seen my fair share of horror by that point and was pretty well desensitised. Horror was still a source of fear ― that was the entire point ― but the intrigue generally outweighed the trepidation.
Tawny: [after Seth says it’s Tawny’s turn to teleport] I’m afraid.
Seth Brundle: Don’t be afraid.
Ronnie: No. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
That certainly wasn’t the case with The Fly, an emotional gut-buster that seemed beyond the realms of conventional horror, that is more sadness than fear, killing you as much with its emotional turmoil than it’s grotesque visual fancies. It was all so urgent, so oppressively without hope, a fact that Howard Shore’s heart-pounding score, impregnated with high-pitch key trickles that tap dance along your nervous system, duly hammered home. With only two lines to his name, LaFontaine was the perfect doom-laden accompaniment, but it was two other lines that really stuck with me: Jeff Goldblum’s futile pleas of “help me” as the trailer drew to an agonising close, and of course the line that everyone remembers, one of the most potent and effectual in all of horror cinema: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” It was fair warning.
The Fly was part of a wave of 50s horror remakes buoyed by incredible advancements in practical effects artistry, movies such as John Carpenter’s The Thing and Chuck Russell’s The Blob giving kitsch, Cold War sci-fi the kind of aesthetic upgrade their outmoded antecedents could hardly have dreamed of. Much like the Stranger Things inspired 80s revival of the early 21st century, the 1980s were head over heels for 50s nostalgia, and, much like today, many moviegoers saw the resurgence as sacrilegious, denouncing what were seen as violent upgrades at a time when horror movie censorship and moral outrage were at an intoxicating high.
Today, it’s CGI that gets a bad rap, and in many cases it is more than justified, but I don’t buy into the ‘all reboots are creatively moribund’ mantra, mostly because of films like those which have already been mentioned. But not all modern reboots are horrible. In fact, some of them are rather good. For every lazy CGI cash-in looking to slash marketing expenditure (2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, I’m looking at you), there are worthy remakes that at least attempt something new. Some, like Rob Zombie’s brave but misguided Halloween, land pretty wide of the mark, while others flourish given a 21st century context. Many criticised Child’s Play‘s commentary on corporate oppression, or indeed missed the point entirely, but for me it was the natural way to go, and apart from an admittedly messy final act I thought Lars Klevberg did a bang-up job re-spinning Tom Holland’s late-80s classic. But for every 2004’s Dawn of the Dead there are a dozen Poltergeists, for every 2013’s Evil Dead there are a deluge of lifeless efforts which give audiences very little beyond a familiar title. The main problem is the sheer abundance of trash we’re expected to sift through. In comparative terms, 80s remakes were few and far between.
Movies like The Blob and The Thing were very much practical effects motivated. Other than a riff on post-Watergate anti-authoritarianism, 1988‘s The Blob doesn’t stray too far from the original beyond its aesthetic indulgences. Carpenter, who was a huge fan of Christian Nyby’s alien invasion Cold War vehicle The Thing From Another World, was worried he wouldn’t be able to do the film justice without the aid of high-tech visuals, ditching the original’s bloodsucking parasite for a creature that is able to assimilate other organisms on a cellular level. It was a bold digression that resulted in some of the genre’s most memorable instances of practical effects, thanks in large part to a young Rob Bottin, who had just finished work on Joe Dante’s 1981 cult werewolf movie The Howling, and to a lesser extent comic book artist collaborator Mike Ploog. Carpenter’s lavish, hopeless vision was derided as gross-out horror for the sake of it. Only later would it receive the plaudits it so richly deserved.
The Fly was met with equal revulsion for its horrific extravagances, but the movie has so much more to its arsenal. Cronenberg is fascinated with the subject of identity. In Videodrome he explored the constraints of flesh and matter, questioning the further self with an unholy matrimony of living tissue and mind-altering technology, “Death to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh.” In The Fly, questions of identity are again key, and much like James Woods’ morally corrupt CIVIC-TV partner there is hope for further experience beyond the confines of the human vessel, but unlike Videodrome there is no possibility of a new beginning beyond death. Death signals the absolute, unequivocal end, the destruction of body, mind and soul, and everything good or bad, pointless or purposeful, that comes with it.
The movie opens with a an inspired visual, a strangely-coloured blur of humanity that dissolves into a science convention where hungry journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) is searching for her latest scoop. At first, it’s as if we’re looking at a group of molecules through a microscope. Davis is charmed by Goldblum’s boyish confidence. There is something irresistibly pure about him that leads her to accept his invitation. At first Veronica sees a charlatan who is desperate to get into her pants (by now she is used to that), informing Seth that she has three other interviews to conduct. “They’re not working on something that will change the world as we know it… they’re lying. I’m not.” he replies. On the way to his lab, a journey that will reveal the possibility of human teleportation, he complains of motion sickness, recalling a time when he puked on his tricycle as a kid. When they arrive he goes full-on braggadocios, flaunting his (real-life) piano skills and showing off his selection of scientific toys. Seth is utterly confident in his work, the little prince of a scientific kingdom inhabited by no one but himself. But his arrogance is playful. Sweet. Even quietly seductive.
Seth Brundle : [to Veronica] You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you? I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh. Drink deep, or taste not, the plasma spring! Y’see what I’m saying? And I’m not just talking about sex and penetration. I’m talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!
The other man in Veronica’s life couldn’t be any different. John Getz’s deliciously haughty magazine editor, Stathis Borans, her ex-lover and former professor (which tells you almost everything you need to know about him), has Harvard Yacht Club written all over him. He’s a self-centred jerk motivated entirely by ego and insecurity, and he absolutely oozes sleaze; it’s in his DNA. He has sex on the mind, all of it tied to self-gratification, and it’s all so revolting, a mixture of desperation, faux-obsequiousness and frenetic arrogance. One minute he’s on his knees in a grand if disingenuous plea for Veronica’s love, the next he’s trying to convince her that she wants him back on a subconscious level, and when he finds out about Seth it all becomes rather desperate and underhanded. It is testament to Seth’s catastrophic descent that Stathis is somehow able to become the good guy in the equation. It takes a coldblooded creature of pure instinct to top such a spineless reprobate. Can you think of a more undeserving hero in all of cinema?
Veronica is certainly the victim in all of this, but she is also the catalyst for every last catastrophic development. For both men, she proves the ultimate validation. Her relationship with Seth begins with a self-serving, surreptitious undercurrent, but grows into something purer, which is why Seth’s physical and emotional decay is so difficult to swallow. Of all the remakes ever produced, The Fly is arguably the greatest and most worthwhile achievement. The attention to detail paid to Seth’s stomach-churning capitulation is utterly compelling, like a car wreck you can’t help but consume, right down to the last mangled detail. Watching it is like an act of self-harm. It’s worth noting that The Fly was released in the midst of an AIDS epidemic, and though Seth compares his condition to a form of cancer, the timing couldn’t have been more appropriate.
On the 2005 DVD commentary, Cronenberg would give his own view on the subject: “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. This is not to say that AIDS didn’t have an incredible impact on everyone and, of course, after a certain point, people were seeing AIDS stories everywhere, so I don’t take any offence that people see that in my movie. For me though, there was something about The Fly story that was much more universal: ageing and death—something all of us have to deal with.”
It’s no wonder audiences and critics were horrified by the film’s practical effects, an astonishing, ageless achievement by Chris Walas and his team. The initial stages of Seth’s decay are still excruciating to behold: the hairs that trigger his heightened sensitivity, the squirting fingernails and decaying teeth. These are the things that occur in nightmares, Seth’s subconscious insecurities becoming a reality, and this isn’t the kind of dream you suddenly awake from. The fallout is real. The latter stages of his decay, a ceaseless biological freak show encompassing all of our castrative fears, are almost indescribable. Cronenberg goes all out to disgust his audience. It can be a difficult watch indeed.
In-line with his developing insect nature, Seth becomes everything Veronica is trying to escape: possessive, controlling, abusive. He begins as a passionate science devotee, a man of divine logic who watches his life’s work slip hopelessly away, and in one of the film’s saddest developments remains a pragmatist until the grisly end, analysing his condition every step of the way. When he first exits the pod having taken the plunge, his confidence becomes arrogance, his will to succeed utterly self-serving. Everyone else, Veronica included, becomes an obstacle. Stathis may be an unquenchable shit driven by self-gratification, but Seth begins to see himself as a God among men, a superman who transcends the laws of humanity.
The abrupt nature of Seth’s rise and fall is human tragedy at its cruellest and most intense. Every time Veronica visits him yet another grotesque transformation has occurred. There are so many wretched and regrettable moments, many of them underpinned by cringeworthy gallows humour as Seth attempts to cling to a human sense of irony and self-deprecation. The moment when his computer can no longer recognise his verbal commands is the beginning of the end, a relinquishing of his sovereign state. The moment when he first vomits on a doughnut, an act that lacks any kind of immediate self-awareness, is telling, the first clear instance that instinct is overcoming his sense of decency. After that he comes to accept the disease. By the time he begins crawling around the ceiling of his lab, an incredible effect achieved using a revolving set, he no longer sees his affliction as a disease, more a transformation, a fusion of insect and man at a molecular-genetic level. Brundlefly is no longer a monster emerging from the darkness, he’s almost second nature.
The aesthetic process of decay was something Cronenberg was very much involved with. Initially, Walas suggested the idea of an actor in a suit, but this didn’t satisfy the director, who was intent on a creation that was unrecognizable as a human in any form. “He’s very intelligent, observant, and understanding,” Walas, who would bag an Oscar for Best Makeup for his work on The Fly, would say of his time spent with Cronenberg. “He’s also challenging and supportive. He has a very clear idea of what he wants and how he sees things, so the design phase tends to go quickly. His design directions also tend to be more emotional and psychological than most directors. Most directors will describe what they want physically. They’ll say, ‘It needs to be bigger; make the eyes red; add more horns.’ David’s descriptions were more like, ‘It needs to be in more pain, and I want to see confusion in its eyes.”
Incredibly, the film was set to be even more gruesome, most notably through the long-fabled ‘monkey cat’ scene, which saw Seth turn Dr. Moreau by fusing a cat with a baboon and beating it to death with a lead pipe. The scene was actually screened in Toronto but immediately cut after the audience lost all sympathy for the character. The second scene, which was scripted but never filmed, is arguably even more disturbing. An extension of the horrific, yet semi-satisfying moment when Stathis has his foot and hand melted to the bone by Seth’s newly-developed stomach acid, one of the most difficult feats of SFX artistry in the entire film, involved the melting of a bag lady’s face. One can only imagine how that would have looked with Walas and Cronenberg in creative cahoots, though it likely would have inspired a similarly counterproductive reaction in audiences. Only Stathis is repugnant enough to be subjected to that level of cruelty without impacting the poignancy of Seth’s ignominious plight.
Another famous practical effects scene, included in the final cut, is the infamous maggot birth nightmare, which absolutely horrified me as a kid. As an adult, I detect more than a hint of humour in the scene, a fact punctuated by Cronenberg’s cameo as the film’s bait-handling surgeon, which was actually inspired by a comment made by Martin Scorsese, who upon meeting the filmmaker compared him to a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. I can certainly see that. The maggot scene is surely a visual nod to Kurt Neumann’s campy 1958 original starring Vincent Price. It’s a creepy phallic concept that’s still more than a little icky, but the humour outweighs any notion of disgust, though I’m sure those of the female persuasion may have a different opinion entirely. It is Veronica’s unexpected pregnancy that pushes Seth beyond the limits of humanity, his descent into self-preservation, something he describes as “insect politics”, setting the cataclysmic finale in motion. The moment when Seth recites a famous nursery rhyme is Cronenberg at his finest. Like many inspired ideas, it seems so obvious, but it is so comically and tragically fitting, crushing any semblance of the childlike spirit that Veronica initially falls for. “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die.”
Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician. You see, I’d like to, but, I’m afraid, uh… I’m saying… 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.
As spellbinding as Walis’ SFX are, Goldblum has to take much of the credit for the creation of the infamous Brundlefly. His performance, emboldened by Cronenberg’s attention to detail, is nothing short of incredible: the disturbing bouts of twitching, the darting eyes, the single-mindedness and fits of rage. Walis’ creation resembles a fly to an extent, but it’s Goldblum who lays eggs under our skin. This would become the standard Goldblum performance for years to come ― talkative, energetic, effervescent in the borderline-neurotic, Woody Allen mode ― but never has it been more fitting. From the moment he catches a fly in the midst of a tenuous sleep, his transformation is absolutely spellbinding. The growing dependence on sugar, the unrelenting energy and incredible feats of athleticism (including the ungodly moment when an utterly remorseless Seth snaps a poor fellow’s arm in two), it hits you like a drug that you instantly regret taking. Seth goes from tender lover to weaponiser of sex, from charmingly confident to unconscionable megalomaniac. The fact that he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his performance is a crime, and indicative of the industry’s snobbery and general disdain for horror.
Remarkably, The Fly was a then-veteran Cronenberg’s first major hit, raking in a cool $60,600,000 on a budget of approximately $15,000,000. Produced by Mel Brooks’ Brookfilms and distributed by 20th Century Fox, it is still the director’s most accessible film, a blockbuster that stayed true to his inimitable brand of psychological body horror while appealing to the more passive moviegoer. This was Cronenberg’s tenth feature. For years he had stuck to his Canuxploitation roots, ruffling all kinds of executive feathers. Not even the hugely popular Stephen King could propel him to a truly mainstream platform, 1983‘s The Dead Zone doing acceptable, if not spectacular numbers. His unwillingness to bend to Hollywood’s commercial whims was best typified during his time working on Total Recall, a movie that would eventually go to Dutch box office revelation Paul Verhoeven, whose distinctly Hollywood vision managed a staggering $261,300,000 worldwide.
“I worked on [Total Recall] for a year and did about 12 drafts,” Cronenberg would explain. “Eventually we got to a point where [writer] Ron Shusett said, ‘You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?’ He said, ‘No, no, we want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.'” Cronenberg would ultimately rise to mainstream prominence, but he would do so on his own terms. He is now regarded as one of the most unique and influential filmmakers of any era, and even under the guise of the almost universally derided ‘remake’, The Fly is a testament to that.