by Matt Fleming. This is RETROGRADING, where the dream is over and the insect is awake.

THE FILM: The Fly

THE YEAR: 1986. At the tail end of the American horror movie movement of the 1970s and early ‘80s, the genre was dominated by comedic thrill rides like Ghostbusters and Gremlins while franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween were skidding into subpar sequel territory. When the idea to remake the 1958 cult classic The Fly was hatched, it landed a master of body horror at the top of his game. 

THE SPECS: Directed by David Cronenberg; screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue and Cronenberg, based on a short story by George Langelaan; produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Marc-Ami Boyman, Kip Ohman, and Mel Brooks (uncredited); starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, and John Getz; distributed by 20th Century Fox. 

THE MAKE: By the mid-Eighties the popularity of the slasher genre was waning; quantity rose while quality trailed off. Despite the success of various blockbuster franchises such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, horror’s cinematic landscape was experiencing a creative drought. One glance at the box office highlights of 1985 and it’s apparent even today—if studios could siphon a drip from the creative well, they’d leave it bone dry.

But weirdness was in the ether of genre films. Studios were looking to adapt the works of the psychological sci-fi innovator Philip K. Dick, James Cameron was cooking up an ambitious sequel to Alien, and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man proved that mainstream audiences were growing comfortable with uncomfortable cinema. Outside of theaters, horror was abundant on VHS; when low budgets met creative freedom, demented and downright batshit entertainment was allowed to flourish. 

Producer Stuart Cornfeld hit a near-fatal roadblock before The Fly could enter production. When he delivered Charles Edward Pogue’s screenplay to 20th Century Fox, the studio withdrew its support. Cornfeld did, however, wind up striking a deal: if the producer could secure another source of funding, 20th Century Fox would distribute the film.

And so it was that The Fly was rescued by an unlikely patron: Mel Brooks and his production company, Brooksfilms (Cornfeld and Brooks had previously worked together on History of the World: Part I). With production capital acquired, the film was underway—though the comedy icon left his name off The Fly to ensure audiences didn’t mistake it for a Mel Brooks comedy.

The project lost its first director, Robert Bierman, following a tragic family accident, which allowed Cornfeld to hire his original choice: David Cronenberg. The Canadian filmmaker had just backed out of Total Recall (an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale that Paul Verhoeven would later direct in 1990), but with a few minor hits behind him—including the electric adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone—Cronenberg had established himself as a director who could make the most of a modest budget. As a plus, Cronenberg was overqualified; his previous films, including Scanners, The Brood, and Videodrome, had innovated the burgeoning “body horror” subgenre. 

To distinguish this remake from its source material—the 1958 B-movie starring Vincent Price—Cronenberg would rewrite Pogue’s script. Instead of a glutinous monster movie, Cronenberg’s vision of The Fly would become a visceral look at slow death and tragic romance stewed in dysmorphia. With stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis on board, and Gremlins designer Chris Walas behind the special effects, The Fly was off the ground.

THE REVIEW: Almost 40 years on, Cronenberg’s The Fly still elicits a wave of emotions: inspiration, revulsion, hope, terror, heartbreak. From its striking visual effects to its fraught final act, the film is a visceral experience. 

The film begins auspiciously enough: Seth Brundle (Goldblum), is a nerd with the brains and guts to build an experimental teleportation system (a more wholesome scientific ideal compared to the genre’s typical suspicion of pseudo-geniuses). He develops a whirlwind romance with Ronnie (Davis) just as he begins his experimentation, which reveals unexpected depths to the story as Seth begins his horrific physical decline. As fleeting as Seth and Ronnie’s relationship is, the charm and chemistry between the two stars builds an emotional foundation before the film sledgehammers it to rubble. 

With The Fly, Cronenberg took his first deep dive into love and tragedy and fittingly he goes to extremes with a romance that burns bright before combusting completely. Ronnie and Seth’s passion is red hot (fueled by Davis and Goldblum’s real-life relationship) and almost feels designed to reach a zenith of sentimentality before Seth begins his transformation. It works; the further Seth slips into the Brundlefly, the more heart-wrenching it is to watch their love die. 

After experiencing a sexual awakening with Ronnie Seth is triggered into professional fight or flight, daring his drunken self to take a trip through his telepods. It’s only natural that when his first semi-successful teleportation imbues him with enhanced abilities, he is also hit with a dose of ego-adrenaline: as he becomes less human and more fly, the scientist-nerd inside of him expects to fully evolve into a Spider-Man-like figure. So when he begins to physically change, Seth loses his humanity as a result.

The sickness that spreads throughout The Fly is signature Cronenberg in many ways, but the director imbues it with a palpable sense of soul. (He intended the film’s narrative to be evocative of the dying process, and many viewers have associated the film with the 1980s AIDS crisis.) Yet there is an air of revulsion over the third act, punctuated by Ronnie’s desperate need to exterminate any possible trace of the Brundlefly within her. When she finally puts the Brundlefly out of its misery, Ronnie is filled with more than heartbreak or even pity—she is truly sickened, not just by his final form, but the monster he became in the process.

Special effects wizard Chris Walas, whose team justly earned the Academy Award for Best Makeup, assembles the film’s central metamorphosis. Unlike the similarly transformative sequences of Rob Bottin (The Howling) and Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London), Walas’ mutation of the Brundlefly is executed slowly to evoke a grueling queasiness from the viewer. Walas’ ultimate monstrosity is grotesque and devoid of humanity—y’know, the opposite of Jeff Goldblum.

The tragedy of The Fly infects the audience, a disease that tastes like sugar and finishes with corrosive vomit. It shot Davis and Goldblum into stardom (and preceded their brief marriage), and for Cronenberg it marked an apex and an end to the first phase of his career. The Fly proved that even the most grotesque and nauseating vision can be infused with beauty and tragedy. David Cronenberg could no longer be dismissed as a mere shock director.

NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? The Fly was David Cronenberg’s first creative peak and a landmark for the body horror genre, but its love story makes the film an enduring cinematic staple—for those with a strong stomach.

RETROGRADE: A

More RETROGRADING:

Bloodlines, DC’s gnarliest 90s event, kicked things off with Lobo—and Layla

King Hu made poetry out of protest with A Touch of Zen

Superman #82 remains an iconic grudge match for the ages

Follow us: