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The Fly

The Fly(1958)

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Fans of director Kurt Neumann's original 1958 The Fly have turned it into a slightly campy cult item. Yet several of the film's more extreme moments have achieved iconic status, and it still retains the power to frighten first-time viewers. Star Vincent Price has indicated that none of the actors thought they were making anything of import, yet The Fly has come to represent one of the high points of '50s monster movies. It is a prime illustration of filmed science fiction's thematic Fear of The Future: science's brave new technologies are changing us in more ways than we know.

George Langelaan's original short story published in Playboy introduced the idea of a matter transmitter, a machine that teleports physical objects and people in the same way that Television transmits images. In 1957 independent producer Robert L. Lippert was making inexpensive genre films for 20th-Fox under the Regal Films banner, including the science fiction pictures Kronos and She-Devil. When Fox decided that Lippert's latest production had the makings of a much bigger hit, The Fly was boosted to mainstream status, with CinemaScope, color by Deluxe and Stereophonic sound. A mysterious ad campaign promised the ultimate in queasy insect horrors, helping to make The Fly into a major success story.

The screenplay by James Clavell is a nervous blend of soap opera and gruesome horror. Helen Delambre (Patricia Owens) has apparently crushed the head of her inventor husband Andre (Al "David" Hedison) in a machine press, but refuses to explain why to Andre's businessman brother François (Vincent Price) or to police inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall). François must trick Helene into telling the whole horrible story: Andre successfully built and operated a matter transmitter, only to suffer a terrible accident when he tried to transmit himself. His head and one hand were exchanged with that of a fly that slipped into the teleportation booth. Unable to talk or eat normally, Andre first begs Helene to find the missing fly so he can reverse the process. When that seems impossible, Andre begs her to help him destroy himself.

Going a step or two beyond 1958 standards, The Fly is packed with horrific moments, starting with the grotesque spectacle of a man with the head of an insect. The film's most famous image depicts Andre's insect-vision as Helene sees his new face for the first time: as if in a fragmented kaleidoscope, forty Helenes scream at us in horror. And few viewers forget the sight of a tiny, anguished human-faced fly caught in a cobweb, calling "Help Me!" as a spider bears down upon it.

An exception to the many low-budget B&W monster movies of the time, The Fly was filmed on relatively lavish sets. Helene Delambre lives in a pastel-colored Montreal mansion and drinks champagne after a night at the ballet. The cozy normalcy makes the intrusion of techno-disaster seem all the more upsetting. After the catastrophic accident Helene must summon all her courage to aid Andre -- even as he rejects her help. Andre allows her to enter his lab only when he covers himself with a black cloth. The movie takes domestic alienation to an absurd extreme: "My husband has become a thing in the basement." All Helene can do is issue instructions for the confused maid (Kathleen Freeman) and her earnest son Philippe Delambre (Charles Herbert) to put out sugar in hopes of catching "the fly with a white head".

The actors play their parts seriously at a time when appearing in a 'monster' movie was not considered a smart career move. Patricia Owens had recently starred opposite Marlon Brando, and Vincent Price was just establishing his ascendancy to the title of America's #1 horror icon. Although Price and Herbert Marshall may have joked about some of their scenes, nothing is played for laughs. When seen from Helene's point of view, The Fly resembles an atomic-age update of Kafka's Metamorphosis. We feel sorry for the man transformed into a cockroach, but what can his poor wife be thinking?

The narrative is sufficiently strong to overcome a number of inconsistencies in the details. Andre's matter transmitter malfunctions differently every time he uses it, and at one point he claims that he's not certain how all of it works. Why the machine mixes Andre with the hitchhiking fly is a mystery, when it doesn't confuse Andre with his own clothing, etc.. When the housecat Dandelo is disintegrated but fails to reappear in the receiving booth, Andre guesses that its "stream of atoms" is still "out there" somewhere. That doesn't explain why we hear ghostly kitty-cat meowing after Dandelo is gone.

Andre's own brain apparently still there inside the giant fly's head, at least until he reports that he's beginning to lose control of his mind. When Andre scribbles "I love you" on his blackboard, his own fly-claw tries to stop him, a bizarre sight that prefigures Doctor Strangelove's behavior in Stanley Kubrick's black comedy. Yet The Fly has some genuinely nervous moments. Andre wears dark goggles to watch the teleportation process, as if observing an atomic bomb blast. We become doubly anxious when Helene throws herself under the descending machine press to rescue Andre, because the press looks like a real functioning machine, and not a prop.

The Fly did so well in release that Robert L. Lippert immediately made a quick B&W sequel, The Return of the Fly. A returning Vincent Price is present when Andre's grown son Philippe (now Brett Halsey) follows in his father's footsteps. Six years later Lippert had relocated to England, where made The Curse of the Fly, an even less expensive second sequel with Brian Donlevy. Andre's invention is finally put to practical use, shuttling people between Montreal and London. As might be expected, everything again goes gruesomely wrong. It only remained for the maestro of "body horror" David Cronenberg to reinvent The Fly thirty years later, with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. The new story departs from the original by having the matter transmitter join Goldblum's Seth Brundle with a fly at "the genetic-molecular level". Brundle emerges from the machine looking normal, but his body soon undergoes a horrid metamorphosis, forming a new creature altogether. The two versions of The Fly are each creations of their respective eras. Although they function like horror pictures, both films are prime examples of progressive science fiction.

20th Century Fox Studio Classics' Blu-ray of The Fly is a brightly hued transfer from a new film restoration. Colors are richer and the contrast more dynamic than on earlier DVD releases. The chroma is almost too much for Patricia Owens' bright lipstick. The original 4-track stereo mix has been adapted for this release, with the added audio fidelity allowing us to hear the tiny Andre-Fly voice through the ringing of church bells. Paul Sawtell's soundtrack makes good use of the multi-channel sound, as does the occasional buzzing of flies.

The extras have all been seen before on a 2007 DVD release. Collector and stills archivist David Del Valle hosts a commentary with David Hedison. Hedison wishes that his transformation from man to fly-monster had been more gradual, which would have given his role more variety. Together they remember the late Vincent Price with respect and fondness. Price is the subject of an informative episode of Biography, which shows many good film clips from the actor's career. The featurette Fly Trap: Catching a Classic is a quick overview of the Lippert-Fox Fly trilogy. A news film premiere clip and an original trailer are also present. Fox Studio Classics' arresting package design shows respect for audiences unfamiliar with the movie by hiding its only 'spoiler' image as a tiny reflection in a frightened woman's eye.

By Glenn Erickson