August 15th, 1986 – Summer is almost coming to an end. With the humid air, the hottest season also brings about the buzz of insects. Released on that very day, David Cronenberg’s stomach-churning science-fiction masterpiece would make one of these seemingly inconsequential lifeforms the basis for horror cinema’s greatest tragedy: The Fly.
Jeff Goldblum is Seth Brundle, a small-time scientist who meets Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (Geena Davis), a journalist working for Particle Magazine. “I’m working on something that’ll change the world and human life as we know it,” he tells her. The intensity of his claim draws Ronnie back to Brundle’s warehouse loft apartment/laboratory where he unveils his grand creation: a set of pods capable of teleporting matter from one to the other. In exchange for her silence and discretion, Brundle gives her the eventual exclusive book rights, and as she begins to chronicle his work, the two begin a romance. When Brundle impulsively decides to test his invention on himself, however, he fails to notice that a housefly has also entered the telepod. The experiment succeeds and Brundle is teleported, but during the process also has his DNA genetically spliced with that of the insect. At first, Brundle feels like a new man, but as horrific symptoms start to appear, it becomes clear that he has become much more than just that.
From the foreboding first notes of Howard Shore’s grandiose, operatic score (set to a kaleidoscopic fly’s-eye opening credit sequence) the audience knows they are in for something bold and dangerous. With films like Videodrome, Shivers and Scanners in his repertoire, Cronenberg’s unique sensibilities and exploration of body horror became a perfect fit for a reimagining of Kurt Neumann’s original 1958 B-movie classic. In that film, the scientist emerges from the telepod with a fully formed fly-head and arm, whereas screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue felt that a gradual mutation would serve the story better. Therein, the film finds not just its scares, but its sadness, too. While many drew comparisons from Brundle’s physical and mental degradation to that of the AIDS epidemic which had ravaged so many lives in the 1980s, Cronenberg had personally intended Brundle’s transformation to symbolise the toll cancer takes on both the victim and their loved ones. Indeed, thanks to the sympathetic performances of Goldblum and Davis (who play their roles with a realism found in any “real life” Oscar drama), The Fly is, at times, a hard film to watch.
In the case of Goldblum, this is the actor’s finest onscreen performance. When we first meet Seth Brundle, he is imbued with all the likably nerdy energy we’ve come to expect from the eccentric actor – the gleeful excitement on his face when he finally unveils his work to Ronnie brings to mind that of a child showing you their new toy on Christmas Day. As his physical condition worsens, Goldblum’s eyes shine through fleshy prosthetics to heartbreaking effect as he regretfully explains to Ronnie what is happening to him and why, and when his gentle nature eventually begins to give way to the erratic, animalistic impulses wrestling within him, he twitchily delivers the film’s most wounding line. “I’m saying…I’ll hurt you if you stay.” This is not a threat, but the words of a man refusing the support and tenderness of the woman he loves to keep her safe from a mind and body he can no longer trust.
This core love story is the very element that sets The Fly apart from other horror films. Across the scarier side of cinema, there has never been a romantic relationship as effective as the one between these two characters. Through each other, Seth and Ronnie begin to find betterment – he, gaining a relationship outside of the confines of scientific research; she, being able to break away from the slimy grip of her ex-partner and editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz). It’s unsurprising to note that Goldblum and Davis were once romantically involved when viewing their chemistry on screen, and it is fair to say their uniquely attractive qualities make them a perfectly suited match in front of the camera. Cronenberg’s recurrent themes of sexuality may appear, but there is a tenderness shared between both actors that strengthens their spiritual connection as well as their physical one.
But while we root for this young couple, the sad fact of which they are unaware is that they are in a horror film, and so things cannot end well. With the genuinely disgusting practical effects and Oscar-winning makeup of Chris Walas, things do go horrendously wrong for Seth and Ronnie. Coarse hairs start to sprout on his body. Fingernails, teeth and hair fall away. His skin becomes pocked and his frame contorts into a pitiful shape. As each day passes, Seth becomes less of himself and more of something frightening and unknown while Ronnie can but watch in horror as it happens. The final transformation sequence alone puts The Fly among the ranks of other 80s body-horror behemoths such as The Thing and An American Werewolf in London.
Thanks to both adaptations of George Langelaan’s original short story, The Fly has become something of a minor pop-culture staple, but while the 1958 film may carry the most recognisable iconography, Cronenberg’s film is the undoubtedly superior version. By making us care so deeply about our central couple, the cult Canadian filmmaker understood that making us feel more than just fear would make that primal emotion all the greater. In its perfectly paced 96-minute runtime, Cronenberg considers the tragedy of disease, the threat of domestic abuse, and the fear of childbirth and the uncertainties it brings. Modern horror such as Midsommar or A Quiet Place would go on to connect with the audience on an emotional level like this, but the most daring and affecting example in the genre will always be The Fly. So, on its 35th anniversary year, settle in, dim the lights, and be afraid. Be very afraid.