Film

Don’t Open That Door! #48: 'The Fly' (1958)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: The pursuit of scientific advancement takes a decidedly unpleasant turn in The Fly


The Fly

Director: Kurt Neumann
Cast: Vincent Price, David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Herbert Marshall
US Release Date: 1958-07-16

Alternative title: My (Liquid) Dinner with Andre

POSITIVES:

* Great moody murky shadows and noir-esque drama.

* You know the story already but it's still unnerving.

* Low body count/mayhem factor is offset by escalating tension and genuine creepiness.

* Almost-the-last minute is the greatest horror-movie scene of all time (and there’s really no room for argument here, sorry).

* It will all probably happen someday.

NEGATIVES:

* A little heavy in the 1950s-ideal-family trope.

* Actual monster screen time is minimal.

SYNOPSIS: A night watchman at a heavy machine shop in Montreal stumbles across an unusual scene: a high-heeled, blonde-coiffed woman who has apparently just finished crushing a man's head in a a heavy press. Moments later, the woman, Helene, is on the phone to the elegant Monsieur Francois, and she confesses: "I've just killed Andre." Frankly, if you're not intrigued by these opening moments of the movie, there's little I or anyone else can do to help you.


Police inspector Charas is called in to investigate as well, but his job's not too tough this time around. Helene is perfectly eager to announce that she killed her husband, though she's a bit reticent about explaining exactly why. Nor is she willing to expound upon her strange obsession with houseflies… Eventually, though, she starts talking, and then the rest of the picture is essentially one long flashback, with Helene recounting the groundbreaking research of her late husband Andre, who also happens to be Francois’s brother. Andre's research was in the field of teleportation, and it had some, ah, unexpected side effects.

Andre, seeking to be the guy who creates the first working matter-transmitting device a la Star Trek, sucessfully reduces the family cat to smithereens before taking a stab at disassembling himself. This he does rather well, but is somewhat less successful in the putting-Humpty-together-again portion of his program. Or maybe he's too successful… Because where he started out with two whole creatures—himself and a fly—he now has two half-critters, a fly-human and a human-fly. Sounds cool? It's actually quite creepy. Knowing, as we do, where all this will lead him—with his head stuck under a hydraulic press—the audience can't help but squirm as the tension escalates. Andrew hides his head under a black towel and orders Helene about, and everybody scrambles to find that darn fly. You know, the one with the white head. Which they do—sort of. But things don't turn out quite as expected.

When Helene finishes her flashback, she seems to expect everyone to believe her, but unfortunately Inspector Charas (his name is French for "hard-butt") remains skeptical. What could possibly change his mind? Well, how abut that final horrifying minute of the movie? Yep, that should do it.

Best line of dialogue: "Help me! Hel-l-l-l-p me-e-e… Help… me-e-e!"

What gets hopelessly compromised: A cat; a scientist; a fly; a spider; a marriage.

Moral of the story: Would it kill you to just walk across the room?

Sounds like good advice to me: The original poster for the movie included the breathless injunction: "For your own good we urge you not to see it alone!"

This reminds me of… Two sequels followed, 1959's Return of the Fly and 1965's tepid Curse of the Fly, which was truly Price-less, in that it lacked Vincent Price. The 1986 remake with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis was pretty good, though it relied for its effectiveness on special effects and gross-out moments (as well as unexpected humor) rather than on deep shadows and atmosphere. Nonetheless, it remains more effective than most other high-profile remakes of 1950s monster movies (The Thing, Body Snatchers, Godzilla, etc), although Alien, Ridley Scott's 1979 remake/reinterpretation of 1958's It! The Terror from Beyond Space, is a considerable improvement over the source material.

Somehow their careers survived: Does Vincent Price (M. Francois) really require an introduction for anyone reading this column? If so—well, he appeared in over 80 movies during a career that spanned more than 50 years. Highlights include House of Wax (1953), The Tingler and The Bat (both 1959), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), among others too numerous to mention. Worth hunting up: 1956 Bible epic The Ten Commandents, starring Charlton Heston as Moses, includes small roles for Price and fellow mad scientist icon John Carradine. Spot 'em if you can! David Hedison (Andre) would show up in James Bond films Live and Let Die (1973) and License to Kill (1989), while Patricia Owens (Helene) followed this effort with 1960 WWII drama Hell to Eternity. The Fly was to be Herbert Marshall (Charas)'s last film, ending a career that began with such highly-regarded efforts as Murder (1930), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1932's Blonde Venus, in which Marshall co-starred with Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant, and The Letter (1940), co-starring Bette Davis and directed by William Wyler.


BOTTOM LINE: Creepy and effective, it's a great movie.

NEXT WEEK: Return of the Fly (1959)

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