|Fly, The (1958) / Return of the Fly (1959)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 05 September 2000|
David Cronenberg's remake -- or rather, new version -- of "The Fly" is one of the best science fiction/horror movies ever made, so it has tended to eclipse the original version. But despite some flaws, it's a good, committed movie, definitely worth watching; it's not quite the classic its defenders claim, but is far from the comic disaster that others want it to be.
Fox has packaged "The Fly" with its first sequel, "Return of the Fly," and the several trailers on the disc (the same ones on both sides) include not only those for the original two movies, but for Cronenberg's version and its sequel. However, the third in the original series, "Curse of the Fly" (1965), is completely overlooked. And there are no notes at all, not on the rather ugly box, nor on either side of the disc.
So there's no one to tell you that "The Fly" was based on a novella by George Langelaan that was first published in the U.S. in Playboy, or that James Clavell wrote the screenplay. Clavell worked for a while as a screenwriter on interesting, if low-budget movies ("Walk Like a Dragon," for example), then quickly ascended the ladder of success both as a screenwriter and novelist. His movies include "The Great Escape," "To Sir With Love" and "The Last Valley," while his novels include King Rat, Shogun and Tai-Pan.
This helps to explain why the script for "The Fly" is not only literate, but concentrates on the relationship between André Delambre (Al Hedison) and his wife Hélène (Patricia Owens). Clavell and director Kurt Neumann knew that this was necessary to give the horror of the last couple of reels the powerful kick it had in 1958. It was a major hit, nearly a phenomenon, and a large part of that is due to the fact that the approach was careful, mature and logical.
As the movie begins, a night watchman comes upon a shocking scene: Hélène has just crushed her husband's head and arm in a giant metal press. Francçois (Vincent Price), André's older brother, is understandably horrified, sure she must have gone insane. Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) isn't so sure. The rest of the story is told by Hélène in flashback.
André reveals his new invention to his wife: a machine that can transmit matter from one chamber to another, like TV transmits pictures. The implications of this are staggering, so André works hard at eliminating the problems that keep cropping up. But then one night, Hélène enters the lab to find....
Well, it's part of movie history now, so it's not revealing much to explain that André experimented on himself, unaware a housefly was in the transmission booth with him. He wound up with the fly's head and leg, while his head and arm became part of the fly. Evidently what was really swapped were the atomic patterns, since all legs and heads concerned are in scale to their new bodies.
"The Fly" is very well made, with excellent photography by the inventive Karl Struss. It may seem oddly overlit by today's standards, but in them there ancient times, drive-ins required bright images, and so studios insisted on this style of lighting. Working within it, though, and with CinemaScope, Struss worked wonders. The production design is also excellent, with the laboratory a standout, well-conceived for 'scope. (I think we could have done without the neon tubing, though.)
Al Hedison, soon to change his name to David, is sincere, handsome and attractive; much the same can be said of Patricia Owens. Price doesn't seem to be deeply involved in the story, and actually gives a better performance in the much inferior sequel.
Director Neumann was genuinely fond of science fiction, but he was only an average director. "The Fly" was his biggest hit as well as his best movie. There are a few clunker lines here and there ("...a stream of cat atoms..."), and if you don't connect with the movie the spiderweb climax might leave you laughing as it did Price and Marshall on the set. But if the movie does engage you, it's still one of the most horrifying scenes of the 1950s.
The same cannot be said of "Return of the Fly," on the flip side of the disc. Edward Bernds wrote and directed; his direction is far superior to his plodding, unimaginative script that requires a very complicated set of events to produce the same effect on André's Philippe as it did on his father. Unfortunately, someone thought to improve on the original movie, and Philippe winds up with a fly head that's in the same ratio to his body as it was on the fly: it's about three feet across, and looks like something you'd see in a Mardi Gras parade.
Furthermore, the original film had a clean, tightly focused screenplay: everything relates directly to the matter transmitter and the horrifying consequences of not paying attention. The sequel involves murder, theft, a criminal conspiracy, a fistfight, gunfire ("he disobeyed my order to halt, so I fired"), and other shopworn melodramatic elements.
Brett Halsey, as Philippe, is quite good and very well-cast as Hedison's son; Price is also quite good, but his role is almost entirely reactive. And the photography by Brydon Baker is crisp and clean, occasionally Gothic.
But "Return of the Fly" is just another horror movie, certainly not up to the level of the precedent-setting original; that was for adults, "Return of the Fly" is, and always was, for kids -- and uncritical kids at that. Even the overlooked "Curse of the Fly" is better.
Nonetheless, it's about time that both of these films were available in letterboxed format; they have their place in movie history.
If you liked these movies, you may also enjoy; Curse of the Fly (1965), The Fly (1986), The Fly II (1989)