Saturday, October 31, 2015

Favorite Films: "The Fly" (1986)

No, director David Cronenberg has said, his disquieting, compulsively watchable remake of The Fly isn't about the AIDS crisis that was at its height in 1986, when he made the film.  It was intended, Cronenberg said, to be about the horrors of disease in general.

Yet nearly 30 years later, it's almost impossible to watch The Fly and not think of how terrified the world was of that particular disease and the way, before science learned how it could be controlled, ravaged both body and mind with staggering swiftness.

With movies like Rabid and Videodrome, Cronenberg had already become well-known for his mastery of the sub-genre of "body horror," movies that showcased the singular fright that comes with recognizing human biology is all too frequently out of our control.

Although The Fly is a movie based on a science-fiction concept, it's not strictly a sci-fi film, and there's something shockingly relatable about what happens both to scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and journalist Veronica "Ronnie" Quaife (Geena Davis).  Brundle has been working in secret on a project to teleport items 15 feet across a room, from one sleekly designed pod to another.  Ronnie is stunned by what she sees, and wants to write a book about Brundle's work.  They fall in love.  When Brundle successfully teleports a baboon, they celebrate.  Then, in the moment that makes The Fly work so well, Ronnie leaves him.

Her old boyfriend is trying to cause trouble.  She wants to make him go away.  Brundle is jealous and worried.  She tells him not to be.  "I do have the residue of a former life, you know," she tells him.

Angry, scared, afraid to be lonely, Brundle gets drunk and impulsively tests the teleportation device on himself.  A fly gets into his pod.  The computer doesn't know what to do with two pieces of material to teleport, so it fuses them together and turns Seth Brundle into Brundlefly.

The change doesn't happen all at once.  It begins with a small mark on Brundle's body, a hair growing out of his back.  Ronnie notices it when she comes back to him -- which is what she promised he would do  But Brundle is just a man like any other.  He doubted her, and in a moment of weakness and fear, he did something he comes to regret -- an indiscretion that comes with a huge price.

In those terms, The Fly does very much feel like a direct commentary on AIDS. Notably, the film doesn't pass judgment on Brundle's transgression; it goes out of its way to use it as a way to humanize this odd, off-putting scientist.

As Brundlefly grows, Ronnie notices, and she wants to help him -- but he pushes her away, he wants to deteriorate in isolation.  And then, as things get worse, he needs her back.  She is the only person who knows what he is going through.

Ronnie returns to Brundle's lab and sees the frightful, horrific monster he has become.  Pieces of his body are falling off.  Tumors grow everywhere on his body.  He can barely walk.  His discolored body is filled with ticks and twitches.  Brundle admits that calling Ronnie was a mistake.  He thinks she should leave.  Instead, she hugs him.

It's a beautiful act of humanity.  Ronnie is not afraid of Brundlefly.  That hug takes The Fly into territory most horror films never attempt: The monster is still human, and is filled all-consuming fear, self-loathing and regret.

The relationship between Brundle(fly) and Ronnie keeps The Fly focused and weirdly believable, and it's impossible not to regard it as a touching commentary on exactly the sort of relationship that people really found themselves in during the 1980s -- one partner dying at an alarming speed, another refusing to walk away, even when the rest of the world refused to even acknowledge (much less sanctify) their relationship.

No matter how well the "body horror" aspects work (and almost all of the scenes with Brundlefly retain an alarming ability to shock, disgust and frighten even today -- The Fly that has lost none of its horror or its entertainment value since it was made), it's the refusal of Ronnie to give up on Brundlefly that sends the film into the stratosphere in its Grand Guignol final act.

Those last 15 minutes or so are masterful.  That The Fly always seems ready to go off the rails is just a trick; Cronenberg is in complete control.  He knows exactly where the film needs to go, which is to its harrowing final scene, which blends human drama, high emotion and just enough gore in ways most films would be afraid to try, particularly a genre-driven horror film.  (It's all backed by a massive, propulsive orchestral score by Howard Shore.)

There never really has been a film quite like The Fly.  Cronenberg's oversized vision is matched to a story so simple that the horror and dread are inherent in every scene, in every frame. It's a classic horror film, one that I think people will be watching and studying in another 30 years.  There can't be many more perfect examples of how to take a man, turn him into a hideous, deformed monster -- and yet retain his humanity, all the way until his final movement.

Brundle the man, somehow, is always in there.  And when you think about that, and the way we see people slip away from us in the throes of grave diseases that kill slowly, and how we tend to think of the illness as defining the person -- when you think about all that, it's all the more impressive that a 95-minute long horror film has so much to say about how we remain loyal to those we love, how we are committed -- even when the unthinkable happens.

Cronenberg may be right, AIDS wasn't on his mind (necessarily) when the movie was first made -- but it was on the minds of those who saw it.  For anyone who first encountered The Fly from ages, say, 15-45, it's a grim and arresting reminder of how far we've come in a short time.  Many of those body-wasting, skin-destroying symptoms have been abated -- but for those who stood by and watched or, even more, those who survived, it's difficult to forget the fear.

Let's be clear: The Fly works best as a pure, straightforward horror movie.  That's how to enjoy it the first time (or maybe even the sixth time) around.  But the more you watch it, the more you realize that between the vomiting Brundlflies, the vomiting on food to eat it, the stomach-churning makeup by Chris Walas -- despite all that, it's a love story.  It's a story of two people who are going to be committed to each other all the way to the end, if that's what it takes.

Somehow, The Fly combines disgust, horror, suspense and the grotesque, but makes it all into a story about the powerful bonds of love and commitment.  It is a shocking film; even now, you may find yourself turning away from the screen at key points.  Yet it defies expectations by generating real sympathy, maybe even a few tears, for the monster ... and for the person who can't help loving him, despite it all.

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