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The Fly (1958) October 12th, 2020

As of this blog post I still haven’t seen David Cronenberg’s The Fly remake. Obviously there are a lot of great movies I still haven’t seen. Casablanca, Wild Strawberries, Labyrinth… the emptiness where these cultural touchstones should be are oft met with scoffing disbelief and interrogations about why I haven’t prioritized one cinema classic over another. In this case the problem is the same as the solution… The List. It’s rigid, it’s unforgiving and it’s full of terrible movies but eventually we’ll get to them all. And according to The List we have to watch The Fly before we watch The Fly.

The Fly takes the screenwriting axiom “Good screenplays start with great endings” to heart… more accurately to head and arm. The movie begins as Andre Delambre’s body’s discovered partially crushed in an industrial baler. An inquisition commences with his wife Helene as the main suspect. As Helene recounts the events leading to her arrest The Fly transforms into a flashback movie.

Extremely long story short (you really feel each of the 94 minutes) Andre discovered the secrets to teleportation technology and mercilessly pursues the creation of a teleportation device. Like most ‘mad scientists’ Andre’s ambitious goals encountered demoralizing technical and ethical setbacks. Like the best mad scientists he eventually turned to experimenting on himself. Spoilers ahead. 

The mad scientist trope serves as a cautionary tale of hubris and comeuppance. Frankenstein defies nature and reanimates life from dead flesh only to reject his creation who ultimately hunts him down. John Hammond creates an island of reanimated dinosaurs who overcome his cheap safeguards and kill nearly everyone in Jurassic Park. Miles Dyson’s completely unaware that while he develops the foundational programs for Skynet in Cyberdyne’s labs he’s also building the future where AI killing machines seek out and destroy humanity and carbonize Earth. While their individual levels of madness differ they’re all Icarian in the fall. 

Andre Delambre’s fall comes when he initializes a human teleportation test with himself as the subject without realizing a common house fly is also in the teleportation device. Teleportation technology works by breaking an objects mass down to the subatomic level, transporting the barely physical matter to a teleportation receiver and reassembling them into their preteleported shape. Despite working out the kinks in previous trial runs, Delambre hadn’t accounted for the invertebrate stowaway’s disruptive genetics. When the two reemerge from the teleportation receiver they’ve been combined into some sort of man-fly monstrosity. Think Baxter Stockman.

Andre’s struggles have just begun as his powerful intellect begins to succeed to the bestial nature of his insect half. He enlists his wife’s aide to reverse the transformation and bring him back to normal, but first they need to find the fly. Like John Merrick he covers his head with a cloth to hide his grotesque features from her. David Hedison’s performance as Andre is gut-wrenchingly sad. He flits between rage and sorrow before they determine the search for the fly is fruitless. Andre convinces his wife to crush his body with the baler before the last vestiges of his consciousness succumb to the inhuman rationale of his fly brain. 

Then we’re back in the present where Helene’s finished recounting these events to the police and her brother-in-law Francois (Vincent Price). The officers, now in the possession of a murder confession, begin the formal process of arresting Helene. Francois argues that what she did wasn’t murder but mercy and there’s no reason to arrest her, arguably the thing she killed was human no longer and not subject to our laws. The police disagree, they don’t buy her story at all. Meanwhile her son has been chasing a “white fly” around the house since this mess began and just found it trapped in a spider’s web in the garden. Francois, who’s just begun to believe his sister-in-law’s story, races out to investigate with the officer in charge. They find the white fly in the spider’s web, with Andre’s arm and head in place of a normal fly’s. Horrified, the officer smashes the spider and the Andrefly with a large rock instantly killing them both. Is he guilty of murder too?

The Fly splits it’s moral in two as if it doesn’t have the brainpower to focus on one theme very long. It raises ethical questions about assisted suicide and mercy killings while following the paint-by-numbers cautionary formula of Icarus’ doomed flight. They’re both equally compelling subjects but like Andre and the fly, they work better separate. 

I expected The Fly to be as boring as life must be for a fly. Instead it’s beautiful colors, costume design and campy tone charmed itself right into the number 11 spot in the October 2020 horror movie rankings.

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