Sunday, March 12, 2006

Cronenbergian Body Horror - The Fly 3/11

This week for the Saturday Night Freak Show we took a look back at David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. I pre-loaded the main feature with some extras off Fox’s recent 2-disc re-release, including the trailer for the original 1958 version of The Fly, starring Vincent Price and David Hedison; a three-minute long condensed version of the original movie; the trailer for The Return of the Fly (in black and white, where the original was color); and the trailer for the dismal 1988 sequel, The Fly II.
The Fly begins at a party thrown by Bartok Industries to parade their scientific wunderkind before the press. It’s here that awkward nebbish Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) meets Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). They flirt and he teases her back to his lab to show her what he’s working on – “something that will change the world as we know it”. That something turns out to be discovery of teleportation. Brundle has crafted two telepods in his loft / laboratory, controlled by a central computer that can deconstruct matter in one pod and transport it 15 feet through space and rebuild it in the other.

After witnessing a demonstration, Veronica is eager to record quotes for her magazine article, but Brundle balks at the idea. Under the impression that this was a personal rendezvous, he demands to take custody of the tape. Veronica returns to her editor and former lover, Stathis Borans (John Getz), who is less than amused by the description of the “magician’s parlor trick”.

Brundle makes Veronica an offer – access to him and his work for a book’s worth of material. He confesses that the telepods are not ready for prime time as they have trouble dealing with living beings, having the unfortunate side effect of turning them inside out.

The two begin a romantic relationship, although Veronica is hounded by Stathis, who is desperate to get her back. He has changed his mind on the Brundle story and begun researching the background of the junior scientist.

Meanwhile, Brundle discovers his design flaw in how the computer deals with live creatures – it has been trying to re-interpret molecules rather than reproducing them directly – and fixes it, successfully transporting a baboon from one telepod to the other.

The celebration is cut short when a mock up of Veronica’s story arrives from Stathis’ Particle Magazine, and she rushes out to confront her editor. Brundle, in a drunken fit of jealousy, decides to test his device on himself. Unfortunately, a housefly gets into the telepod unnoticed…

Veronica returns and finds Brundle a new man, able to perform Olympic-caliber acrobatics on his furniture. Brundle comes to the conclusion that going through the teleporter has purified him somehow, making him a superman. He becomes more energetic, develops a taste for sugar and begins to grow strange, coarse hairs on his back.

He demands that Veronica be transported as well so that they may form a dynamic duo, but she refuses. Brundle explodes in anger and storms out on a stunned Veronica. He goes off into the night in search of another, more willing, playmate. He finds one in a bar in the form of Tawny (Joy Boushel). After demonstrating his prowess by breaking the arm of a competitor in an impromptu arm wrestling match he whisks her back to the loft for some vigorous sex.

Brundle tries to coax the girl into a telepod but is thwarted by the return appearance of Veronica. She has had a sample of Brundle’s strange new hairs analyzed. The test results revealed them to be inhuman, something Brundle dismisses as he throws her out of the loft with orders to not come back. However, examining himself in the bathroom mirror, he discovers blotches on his face and also that his fingernails pull off with little resistance. Frightened, he returns to the computer to see what went wrong during his teleportation and is horrified to find that he has been fused with the housefly.

Four weeks later he contacts Veronica, pleading to see her. His situation has gotten much worse, as he now sports various tumors and parts of his body are falling off. The computer, he explains to her, wasn’t programmed to accept two separate genetic patterns in the telepod and mated him with the fly on the molecular/genetic level. He expects that this damage to his DNA will represent itself as a form of cancer and slowly eat him to death.

However, the next time Veronica visits him, she finds his spirits improved. He has discovered new powers associated with his condition, including the ability to walk on walls. His new hypothesis is that the “disease” isn’t killing him after all but turning him into something else - the offspring of Brundle and fly… Brundlefly. He videotapes himself eating – a method of regurgitating on his food and slurping it back up – for posterity.

Veronica shows the tapes to Stathis who reacts in horror. She arrives home in tears with the news that she’s pregnant. She later has a vivid dream in which she gives birth to a giant maggot (director Cronenberg cameos as a gynecologist), and enlists Stathis’ help in getting an abortion.

She visits Brundle one last time to tell him about the pregnancy but finds him so misshapen that she can’t bring herself to do it. Brundle advises her to leave, saying that he “loved her as a man, but now the insect is awake,” and he fears that he’ll hurt her if she remains.

Veronica wants an abortion immediately but Brundle overhears and crashes into the clinic to abducts her. He doesn’t want to lose the last link with humanity that he has. He plots a strategy which will teleport him, Veronica and the baby and fuse them together into one body.

Stathis returns to the lab and is attacked by Brundle, who spits up corrosive goo on his hand and foot, dissolving them into puddles of blood and bone. As Veronica resists being placed in one of the telepods she knocks Brundle’s jaw loose – triggering his final transformation into Brundlefly. The monster shakes off the last of Brundle’s flesh, throws her into the telepod and climbs in another. Borans is still able to use his shotgun to shoot the cables connecting the machines, destroying the link. As Brundlefly emerges, enraged, from his telepod the sequence begins, transporting both him and a portion of the pod itself.

Fused into one body, the Brundlefly-pod spills out of the receiving booth. Sobbing, Veronica tries to shoot him with the shotgun but can’t bring herself to do it. The pitiful creature lifts the barrel to its own head, and Veronica manages to put it out of its misery.

Much like its protagonist, The Fly is a hybrid of intelligent science fiction, sensitive drama and gooey horror. But then, we would expect nothing less from a David Cronenberg film. His films consistently deal with the psychological effects of “body horror”, the mind having little control over the machinations of the rebellious flesh. Brundle’s transformation into the fly can be read as a metaphor for cancer, or a sexually transmitted disease such as AIDS, as the film examines the psychological impact of Goldblum’s deteriorating physical condition on the relationship.

Under Cronenberg’s direction, Goldblum turns in the best performance of his career. His character arc takes Brundle from social misfit to confident physical strongman, and later to both sympathetic and horrifying dimensions despite being beneath layers of prosthetic makeup. It is only due to the Academy Award’s refusal to even look at films within the horror genre that Goldblum wasn’t nominated for an Oscar (update 3/15 - rewatching the DVD of Carrie, I was reminded that both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were nominated for their roles in that film in 1976). The film did win a technical award in the category of Best Makeup, and Chris Walas' puppet and latex work are standouts.

The central relationship plot of the film plays out almost like a theatrical play, taking place virtually on one set. The believable chemistry between Goldblum and Davis was no doubt helped by the fact that they were a real-life couple off-screen at the time.

David Cronenberg has had a varied career, and stands out as perhaps Canada’s most important filmmaker. His career began in the horror genre with films like Shivers (aka They Came from Within), Rabid (starring porn queen Marilyn Chambers), The Brood, and Scanners. In the 1980’s he directed Christopher Walken in one of his finest performances for the adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and James Woods through the paranoid, hallucinogenic Videodrome. After the big budget The Fly (which was part of 20th Century Fox’s summer of “monsters”, released alongside Aliens and Big Trouble in Little China), Cronenberg steered away from the genre and towards no-less disquieting films such as Dead Ringers (featuring two Oscar-snubbed performances by Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists), an adaptation of William S. Burrough’s unfilmable novel Naked Lunch, Crash (about sex and car crashes which caused all sorts of controversy after its Cannes premiere), and the excellent but under-seen Spider.

He returned to science fiction with eXistenZ, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law, in 1999. That film is a reaction to the Islamic fatwa against author Salman Rushdie and the consciousness-altering implications of virtual reality video games. His latest film, A History of Violence, is his most mainstream success since The Fly to date.

Although he has moved his filmmaking pursuits away from straight-ahead horror films, he still manages to orbit the genre, making acting appearances in the Clive Barker directed Nightbreed and the Friday the 13th sequel Jason X.

Cronenberg’s films can be counted on to both disturb and provoke, combining a cool intellect with an unflinching eye towards the grotesque and taboo.

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