Experimental scientist Andre Delambre (David [Al] Hedison] attempts to transfer matter through a space, using himself as the test subject. But things go horrifically wrong when a housefly buzzes into the machine, resulting in two grotesque man-fly hybrids…one of them being Andre! Now, with the head of a fly and a wing in place of one of his arms, Andre desperately hopes that he, his wife Helene (Patricia Owens) and his brother Francis (Vincent Price) can capture the other mutant – the human-headed, one-armed fly – hopes of reversing the experiment!
The Fly (1958) 6.75
eyelights: its plot. its tension-building. its set design.
eyesores: its contrivances. its campy scares. some of its performances.
“I shall never forget that scream as long as I live…”
The ’50s really were a pretty unsophisticated time in science fiction and horror cinema. When you look back at the era, sci-fi concepts were sketchy at best – spurred on by recent technological advances, which allowed dreamers to imagine all sorts of wacky ideas.
Anything was possible.
But it was also an era of great anxiety, between the atom bomb and the Communist witch hunts, North Americans weren’t very comfortable with the new world order. And it was with some reticence -if not fear- that they accepted science into their lives.
This proved to be a boon to horror cinema, which thrives on fear of the unknown. Though it was frequently focused on the effects of experiments, especially radiation, on our environment (the number of mutant creature films exploded then!), there were others.
Unlike rare standouts like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘, ‘The Fly’ is one such cautionary tale: it finds André Delambre struggling to develop a transporter in his basement laboratory. Though he endures one setback after the next he eventually succeeds.
But he makes one final mistake.
Released in 1958, ‘The Fly’ was a monstrous success, raking in an estimated six times its budget at the box office. It even spawned two sequels and then was rebooted with a 1986 remake by David Cronenberg and its sequel. Not bad for a silly insect movie.
Sixty years later, the picture doesn’t really hold up as well as it could have. Though its core concept is rock solid (it’s been used time and time again and classics like ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ are based on that principle), the fly kills it.
I mean, it makes complete sense that a fly could find itself in the teleportation chamber and screw up the experiment. It’s a legitimate risk. The problem is in the outcome, which find André turning into a man-fly – with a pincer hand and large insect head.
In truth, the scariest thing about ‘The Fly’ is the concept that our scientific advances could undermine us. Again, this returns us to the atom bomb. The man-fly itself is merely a symptom of a larger problem; its campy grotesquery defuses a potent anxiety.
I mean, perhaps some audiences were genuinely horrified by seeing a dude with a large fly head. Perhaps Hélène’s screams of terror at seeing her spouse affected some people. For me, it elicits chuckles more than anything else: Look at the dude with the bug head!
Further to that, the picture is wrapped in an awkward mystery, beginning with André’s death in a large factory press. Hélène is seen running away from the scene only to call André’s brother, François, to confess to having killed André – but refusing tot explain it.
So François (played with some maladroitness by Vincent Price) and Inspector Charass are left to piece the puzzle together, wondering why a white-headed fly seems so important to Hélène and her unusually well-grounded preteen son Philippe. They have no clue.
The whole mystery hinges on Hélène, who refuses to call the killing murder, but won’t explain herself, won’t answer further queries, nor reveal why she won’t. And it all depends on François eventually winning her trust so that she tells him/us what happened.
Oh, pooh… writer’s cop-out.
Having said this, the picture is rife with ethical dilemmas and discussions about the possibilities that science affords us as well as the risks. It’s a much deeper picture than one might expect for a creature feature, and André’s love of science comes through.
‘The Fly’ probably wouldn’t work if not for David Hedison’s performance; he’s entirely convincing as André, providing much-needed gravitas to the picture. His André is passionate, intelligent, and convincing. His decisions always make sense, even in the end.
I also quite like Charles Herbert as Philippe. Though he’s not entirely natural, as one might expect from a child actor in the ’50s, he displays a rare maturity and intelligence; his Philippe is reflective and thoughtful. He’s quite likable, if not endearing.
Vincent Price, however, is disappointing, sleepwalking through it. Still, ‘The Fly’ is one of the pictures that helped to cement his reputation as a horror icon. Though that truly began with ‘House of Wax‘, this led him to William Castle and Roger Corman.
One thing I find very interesting about this picture is that it’s set in Montréal, of all places. Seems so random, welcome though it is. But that ends up being a bit of a joke because many of the actors are speaking with “French” accents, not Québécois ones.
Ha! I can’t help but wonder who made these decisions.
Looking back on ‘The Fly’, it’s hard to imagine that it was as successful as it was. Though it looks good (the lab set is particularly cool – especially during transportation sequences) and was somewhat topical at the time, it’s still a movie about a bug-man.
I honestly don’t know if, before Cronenberg’s remake, which propelled it back into the spotlight, it had the same stature that it does now. Perhaps its association with Vincent Price gave it wings, some longevity, but it’s a little cheesy by today’s standards.
It’s fun, if a bit silly.
Post scriptum: Speaking of silly, there’s a scene in which Hélène reveals André’s ghastly man-fly form to the audience and we see her through his eyes, in Fly-O-Vision! It’s inspired but hilarious stuff!
Date of viewing: July 14, 2017