Though initially hesitant at the thought of directing a remake, David Cronenberg came to realize that reimagining Kurt Neumann’s 1958 classic horror film The Fly was the perfect project for his horror sensibilities. Approached by producers Mark Boyman and Mel Brooks in 1983 to direct a new version, Cronenberg was at that time unable to commit because of his work on Total Recall, a project that ultimately fell through. After a two-year hiatus from filmmaking and a second round of talks in 1985, the director signed on to the Mel Brooks remake. While impressed with the tone of Charles Edward Pogue’s screenplay, Cronenberg requested that major changes be made. Whereas Pogue’s initial script, centering on a married couple and their child, more closely resembled the original domestic horror film, Cronenberg recast the story as a love triangle between a scientist, a reporter and her bitter ex-lover, the outcome of which is more horrific than could possibly have been imagined in 1958.
Like Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), who seeks to abolish borders between spaces, Cronenberg with The Fly begins to erase borders between genres: an obvious horror film, The Fly is equally indebted to science fiction and the Victor Frankenstein mad-scientist figure. Cronenberg’s film tells the tragic story of Seth Brundle, a brilliant young scientist who “doesn’t get out much” yet is still obsessed with “changing the world as we know it.” Having invented, singlehandedly, a system of contraptions that transports matter from one point to another in the blink of an eye, Brundle seeks out the assistance and affections of science reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). As their romance quickly ensues, Brundle becomes agitated by what he sees as his invention’s major fault – its inability to successfully transport organic matter – so he begins to obsessively experiment. With Veronica documenting the trials, Brundle commits a series of heinous failures, culminating in the literal turning inside out of a living baboon.
After a night of heartbreak and subsequent heavy drinking, Brundle subjects his body to his own invention, thinking he has finally perfected the equation. Risking the same fate as the baboon, he teleports himself, unaware that a common housefly has entered the same pod. Initially, the experiment seems to be a complete success, and Brundle and Veronica revel in the scientist’s genius. Soon, however, Brundle begins to exhibit a strange hypermasculine hypermania; never tiring, he has become capable of superhuman strength and agility. A suspicious Veronica warns him of the consequences of his strange behaviour, and the validity of her concern quickly becomes apparent both to the viewer and, eventually, to the scientist himself. Brundle’s physical transformation, which, in its final stages, entailed the application of four hours of special-effects makeup to Goldblum (under the supervision of Chris Walas) is integral to the film’s status as a masterpiece in horror.
Whereas the 1958 original saw the interchange of a fly’s head on a human body and vice versa, Cronenberg sought a total physical and mental metamorphosis for his lead character’s transformation. As Brundle’s body is taken over by what he terms a “bizarre form of cancer” and a “disease with a purpose,” Veronica realizes that she is pregnant with Brundle’s child. Fearing a literal monster within, Veronica, with the aid of her ex-lover (John Getz), seeks an abortion. Desperate to save the last human part of him, the monster that was once Brundle devises a final experiment to fuse itself, Veronica and their offspring into a single being.
Despite its graphic scenes, The Fly has been described as a horror film with integrity. Indeed, Cronenberg takes an intellectual approach to gore; although the film is teeming with gross-out sequences where the viewer is often forced to bite down and perhaps even look away, Cronenberg never disrespects his audience or his characters. Instead, amid all the ripped-off fingernails, oozing pustules and peeled-away exoskeletons, The Fly is more concerned with the love story between Brundle and Veronica. As scary as the special effects are, what delivers the film’s real terror is the fear of something within. Both Brundle and Veronica are exposed to circumstances in which monsters are bred within their own bodies (such as Veronica’s nightmare birth sequence). Through this notion of an internal horror, Cronenberg produces considerable sympathy for each of his characters. The final destruction of the monster is a scene touched with an undeniable pathos. Created using animatronics and puppetry, the Brundlefly in its last stage, while unquestionably grotesque, elicits nothing less than complete sorrow as it begs to be put out of its misery.
As in Videodrome (1983), the special effects delineate a message that supersedes the merely physical. Both films are just as interested in how disease manifests within the mind as how it manifests within the body. Like his own identification with Max Renn (James Wood) in Videodrome, Cronenberg has claimed identification with Brundle, and perhaps with the
Brundlefly. There are numerous parallels between the character of Seth Brundle and the film’s director; perhaps this is why Cronenberg is able to draw out so much sympathy for the monster. Entering the University of Toronto in 1962, Cronenberg aspired to become a research scientist. Although he switched to the English programme after his first year, he has retained his intense interest in science and technology throughout his life.
While his previous film, the meagrely successful The Dead Zone (1983), saw Cronenberg steering a Hollywood project with an all-Hollywood cast, The Fly marks the first time he was given a substantial Hollywood budget. Made for eleven million dollars, The Fly grossed more than all of the director’s previous films combined. In making The Fly, Cronenberg employed a Canadian crew with mostly American actors. Although Toronto locations such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, Kensington Market and a Yonge Street bar feature prominently in the film, The Fly, unlike Videodrome, never explicitly invokes its Toronto location, or any other city for that matter.
The Fly was immensely successful at the box office and with critics, cementing Cronenberg’s status as a master director. The film went on to win the Academy Award® for best makeup in 1987. Over twenty years after its release, The Fly is still considered a classic in the horror and science fiction genres. And in July 2008, The Fly: The Opera premiered in Paris. With its love triangle and symbol-laden metamorphosis, the story of The Fly seems perfectly suited to the opera format. Directed by Cronenberg, the opera features the music of Howard Shore (the film’s original music composer) and is conducted by Placido Domingo. The project is a testament to the film’s lasting impression and a true signifier of Cronenberg’s ability to transcend blood and guts.