[6 December 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The temptation to tamper in God’s domain has long been a dominant theme within the horror genre. From Frankenstein’s manmade modern Prometheus to the nuclear age’s radiation driven mutations, modifying the Maker’s intentions has typically guaranteed a dread-based void of any Heavenly warrants – with the hubris of humanity standing as the significant driving force.
In a turn of events that should make Creationists happy for all the fictional ammunition, science typically gets blamed for most of these misfires – and with good reason. In pushing the fringes of technology, there is always the possibility of perverting nature. It was a theme that British author George Langelaan would explore in his 1957 short story The Fly. Focusing on a researcher whose experiments in teleportation go horribly array, its core concept would form the basis for an entire motion picture franchise. Sadly, it’s a series that should have stopped after the initial outing.
Brought together in a box set bundle by 20th Centry Fox, The Fly Collection offers the first true insect triptych, while avoiding the wonderful 1986 David Cronenberg remake and its lackluster sequel. Beginning with the 1958 film, we get the halfway decent follow-up (Return of the Fly, 1959), and the totally unnecessary 1965 revisit (Curse of the Fly). By looking at all three films, but following the talent trajectory from A-list to also ran, we can see how a great idea is slowly marginalized and modified to fit a shrinking marketplace and an equally disrespected fanbase. Indeed, once the excellent initial film found its niche, the remaining two movies play out like half-baked cash grabs hoping to strike while interest - and potential revenues - were high.
The original Fly stands as a b-movie masterpiece for reasons that remain relevant even today. Unusually faithful to Langelaan’s original tale (all but a couple of minor plot points have been changed), Kurt Neuman’s considered direction lends an aura of dread to what can often be viewed as a drawing room melodrama with hissy fit horror overtones. Clearly one of the highlights of his long career in Hollywood (he came to Tinsel Town from Nuremberg to direct German language versions of popular films) this Technicolor terror fest would mark one of the first roles for newcomer “Al” David Hedison, and a return to form for the new to horror presence of Vincent Price.
The story centers on André Delambre (Hedison), who invents a machine that can disintegrate, then reintegrate matter. When a common housefly gets in the machinery, it merges with Andre, causing him to turn into a hideously deformed monster. It is up to his wife, Hélène (Patricia Owens), and his brother François (Price), to save him from his horrible fate.
It’s rare for such mid-‘50s fare to be as brutal and as grim as the original Fly. Indeed, the film starts out by letting us know that Andre is dead, and that Hélène has played a part in his passing (she pushed the button on the industrial press that smashed her husband’s head and arm like a grape). Driven insane by the act, she recalls a story of late nights in the lab, secret experiments, a missing cat, and a disaster that left her spouse scarred in one of the worst ways possible. The science sequences, loaded with flashing light computer panels, constantly whirring magnetic tape, and surreal sci-fi set-ups, often get misconstrued, adding to a wrongly placed belief that The Fly is standard Ike era schlock. While the tech tends to be a bit backward, the visceral nature of what happens, along with Hedison’s intensely physical performance (a sequence where his fly side ‘battles’ his human side for control is pure pantomime genius) make the movie memorable, indeed.
And then there’s the ending. For anyone who saw it at an impressionable age (as this critic did), few will ever forget that spine-chilling “help me” drone. It comes as a certified shocker, a moment of unexpected awfulness in a film that’s all together draped in a curtain of cruelty. We get human/insect hybrids smashed to bits, cats disintegrated and never brought back, a half man husband out to kill his basically understanding wife, and a brother who stands as expositional eavesdropper over the proceedings. Price is said sibling, and he’s more supporter than star here. His presence really does add some guaranteed gravitas, but it would take a get rich quick sequel to push the newly minted macabre master over into a more legitimate lead.
Unfortunately, Return of the Fly is a made on the cheap crock, an attempt to capitalize on the first film’s fame without utilizing any of its invention or severity. We know we’re in for some knotty narrative trouble when then ersatz beefcake Brett Halsey shows up as our lead. He plays Philippe, the now grown son of André Delambre. Hoping to avenge his father and perfect the teleportation device, he ropes in Uncle François (Price) and trusted associate Alan Hinds (David Frankham) to revive the project. As they manage the kinks and correct the settings, the plot percolates over into industrial espionage (and murder territory). Seems Hinds is actually on-the-lam UK killer Robert Holmes, and he’s looking to sell the machine’s secrets to the highest bidder. When Philippe finds out, he winds up beaten, unconscious, and trapped in the apparatus with the titular pest. Soon, another man/bug beast is roaming the countryside – only this time, he has revenge on his/its mind.
Removing much of the pathos and fatalism from the first film, Return frequently feels like a super hero story gone array. Halsey’s Philippe is all lock jawed determination, and with Hinds/Holmes out to undermine the experiment to maximize his own profits, the plot frequently exaggerates the ‘us vs. them’ dynamic. The effects are also quite outlandish, an oversized guinea pig inspiring chuckles vs. screams, while the fly head used in this version is so static and motionless that the man in a mask element overpowers the dread. Still, there are some redeeming elements here. Price performs admirably, using his slightly depressed demeanor to help us recall the original movie’s melancholy. In addition, those who do love their scares on the shabby side will enjoy the hilarious hybrid featured here. Where Hedison was horrifying, Halsey’s pest getup will inspire nothing but titters.
Why it took six years before another Fly film hit the cinema has more to do with changing audience tastes than any attempt at originality or reinvention. The Curse of the Fly does away with the entomology angle, exploits the teleportation machine (and its body mangling methodology), and ends up more of a Gothic horror goof than a valid continuation of the Delambre legacy. We move forward along the family tree timeline once again to meet up with Henri (Brian Donlevy) and his two sons. As the offspring of Philippe, the elder Delambre is once again out to prove his parentage correct. The two boys, on the other hand, are more interested in a normal life than shooting people back and forth across the Atlantic (they have labs in the US and England). When Martin (George Baker) marries a spur of the moment fling named Patricia (Carole Gray), Henri is not happy. Turns out, he’s unaware of her past nervous breakdown and escape from a sanitarium. Seems she’s equally ill informed about his genetic jerryrigging – and the mutants housed in the garage.
The Fly (1958)
It’s hard to reach a critical consensus as to why Curse of the Fly fails. Part of the reason is the dropping of the entire insect angle. After all, what is a continuation of the man into monster storyline without a return visit from the trademarked bug-eyed fiend? Still, director Don Sharp and screenwriter Harry Spalding are clearly going for a House of Freaks feel here. Every member of the Delambre family has post-teleportation issues. Henri has some nasty radiation burns while Baker’s Martin tends to melt every once in a while. He needs injections to keep him biologically sound. As part of the mangled menagerie, there’s a collection of failed projects out back, and when viewed in the right light and accented by standard scary movie underscoring, they provide a minimal amount of terror.
But Curse is so concerned with its multifaceted narrative that it fails to provide sufficient mood or atmosphere. Pat’s post-asylum predicament plays out like a pointless after thought, the existence of first wife Judith nothing more than an excuse for standard supernatural shivers. There is some very non-PC performances, especially by Caucasian actress Yvette Rees. Given a pathetic Pearl S. Buck’s Good Earth makeover, her Asian house servant is a heroic hate crime waiting to happen – and it’s odd, considering that Shanghai raised Burt Kwouk is present to play the other foreign valet. It all underscores how confused Curse of the Fly can be. At any given moment, we are unsure if we are to support the continuing device efforts, the Martin/Pat marriage, the revenge of the deformed individuals in the shed, or a clumsy combination of all three. And there’s still more plot to mull over.
Since the individual DVDs offered in the set are lacking in context to clear up these concerns (only the original Fly features an enlightening full length commentary from star Hedison), it is left up to a fourth disc of added bonus material to place the franchise in perspective. It doesn’t do a very good job. Oh sure, there’s an A&E Biography of Price, and a 10-minute featurette focusing on the three films, but aside from learning of Fox’s reluctance to make a third film (and Lippert Films’, the studios British subsidiary, desire to do otherwise), there is not much of merit offered. It’s great to see Hedison and Halsey looking so spry, but the remaining ‘expert’ talking heads simply chatter on and on. There’s also mention of the dumb decision by the studio to make Return and Curse in black and white. While the box set offers all three films in excellent anamorphic transfers, Price makes a valid point when he says that Return would have played better in color. For some reason, monochrome cheapens everything about the last two Fly films.
It seems silly to play aesthetic compare and contrast with a trio of films so steeped in the A-bomb concept of fright filmmaking. It’s like lamenting the lack of realism in a storyline featuring giant radioactive seafood. No matter how you analyze it, The Fly/Return of the Fly/Curse of the Fly are movies utilizing specious speculative designs to derive ever diminishing terror returns. Clearly, the first film is amazing. It’s a tour de force for both actor Hedison and filmmaker Neuman. But with each succeeding effort, the goofy nature of the premise keeps rearing its ridiculous head.
By the time we get to the final installment, it’s been tossed out all together. The Fly Collection box set therefore becomes a literal mixed bag. The original work and the bonus features are fun. The rest of the series slowly sinks within its own limited levels of creativity. Just like what happens when you mess with the Maker’s models, trying to drag out a one movie concept usually winds up in disaster. That’s definitely the case with these Flies.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-fly-collection/