Be Very Afraid: David Cronenberg’s The Fly

In 1986 something happened in cinema that would affect the way we think before squishing insects with a rolled up newspaper. It featured Jeff Goldblum in his underwear, Geena Davis giving birth to a giant maggot, and some of my favorite physical effects in film history. The film was, of course, David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. Released at a time when Sci-Fi was already huge at the box office, with films such as The Terminator, Aliens and Blade Runner proving that the public was thirsty for robots, science and most of all gory creature features. I watched The Fly again recently in preparation for this article, and I was genuinely blown away by the quality of the story and the effects. I remembered it being a good film, but not THIS good. Goldblum and Davis have great chemistry, the story is dark and disturbing, and some of the physical effects are genuinely stomach turning. So join me as I look back at this 80’s classic and talk about why we should still be talking about it so many years after its initial release.

1986 really was a great year for film. Within just 12 months we were given Aliens, Blue Velvet, Labyrinth, Stand By Me, Little Shop of Horrors, Police Academy 3: Back in Training… Ok, that last one may not have been so good, but my point is, some great films were released that year. And in the August of 86, amidst all of these classics, The Fly was released on an unsuspecting public. It took the box office by storm, and sci-fi fans across the globe were flocking to their local cinemas to see it for themselves. The film was praised by critics, especially Goldblum’s performance, and it was the top-grossing film in America for two weeks. Goldblum was even nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, paving the way for his rise as a Hollywood great. Fans of the film were both shocked and engrossed by the gory physical effects, and the tragic love story between Goldblum and Davis captured the hearts of audiences too. The film had something to offer for more than one type of viewer; it had the gore for the horror fan, the science for the sci-fi fan, the love story for the romantic, and plenty of scantily clad Goldblum for the Jeff-a-holic.

David Cronenberg's The Fly starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis

So before I dissect why this Cronenberg masterpiece is so great, a brief rundown of what happens in the film. The plot follows Goldblum’s character, Seth Brundle, a brilliant scientist who is typically shy and awkward around the ladies. He meets Veronica Quaife, played by Davis, at a science press event, and invites her back to his lab (to see what’s on the slab?!) not realizing that she is a reporter. She is instantly intrigued by his invention; teleportation pods that, once refined, will make all forms of transport obsolete. He shows off his invention by transporting one of her still warm stockings across the lab from one pod to another. You can almost see the dollar signs lighting up her eyes as she switches on her Dictaphone and conceals it in her pocket. She ends up working alongside Seth as he tries to solve the issues with his invention, which can only transport inanimate objects so far.

One of the first things I love about this film is seeing the failed experiments. A baboon is turned inside out while being transported, as the machine doesn’t understand flesh. A steak tastes synthetic, as though the machine has interpreted it instead of actually transporting it. And finally, THE failed experiment to end them all—when Seth tries the pods out for himself.

After figuring out the issues with the machine, post-coitus—Seth irons out the teething problems and manages to successfully transport a second baboon from one pod to the other. He’s done it! He’s invented the machine that can transport living matter from one pod to another. But when Seth decides to try out the pod for himself, there’s a hitch. He’s not alone in the pod as the initiation process starts up. He is accompanied by a fly. There is quite literally a fly in the ointment.

The teleportation is a success, and at first, Seth feels like a new man. He’s much, much stronger, he can do things only a skilled acrobat could understand. As well as this, he is also strangely craving sweet treats, in one scene adding more sugar to his coffee than actual coffee. Veronica becomes more and more wary of this new Seth, but he feels like he’s on top of the world. He believes his machine not only transports you from one pod to another, but it has also somehow opened up parts of his brain previously inaccessible. This is how he explains his new strengths and hyperactivity.

But as we know, this is a Cronenberg film, so Seth probably isn’t going to get his happy ending. His skin starts to look bad, his eyes are dark and sunken, and he is hornier and angrier than ever. Not a good combo. When he tries to force Veronica into the machine in order to prove his theory that it makes you feel great, she refuses, pushing his anger to the limits. He kicks her out, telling her he’ll find another woman who isn’t afraid. He finds this woman by breaking the arm of a stereotypical meathead in a sleazy bar. This scene, in particular, is revoltingly gory, we see the bones protruding from his wrist. I feel ill just remembering it. So, this act of uber-violence wins him the girl, who eventually makes it to his lab after some more drinks. When he then tries to force her into the machine herself, telling her not to be afraid, Veronica appears and delivers a now classic horror line. ‘Be afraid. Be VERY afraid’. The rest of the film sees Seth slowly becoming less human and more fly. The effects really are stomach turning in parts.

The Man Fly regurgitates vomit into his hand

In one scene, we watch Seth as he pulls off his fingernails in front of the bathroom mirror. In another, we see him demonstrating how he eats now as Veronica films him. Much like a fly, he now has to vomit on his food then suck it all back up again. It’s disgusting. And then there’s the scene where his ear just falls off. Just like that, ear off. He is literally falling apart. While this is happening, Veronica discovers that she is pregnant, and Seth is the father. After a grim nightmare of her giving birth to a maggot the size of a human toddler, she decides an abortion is the only way forward. But Seth overhears her crying to her ex about it, and bursts through the window of her private hospital room to take her away. Back at his lab, her ex is sneaking around looking for Veronica, shotgun in hand, when Seth returns, dropping from the ceiling and vomiting all over his arm. We see his skin start to melt away as the acid in his vomit works its magic — another stomach-churning bout of excellent physical effects. Seth begins to repeat the process on the poor guy’s leg when Veronica appears and begs him to stop.

The finale of the film is spectacular. Seth now believes he has invented a splicing machine, and the only way to save his own life is to splice himself with another human being. And who better to do it with than Veronica, pregnant with his child. The three of them will become one, he explains, as he drags her to the pods. She fights back, crying and screaming, she hits him in the face, making the bottom half of his jaw come away in her hand. She screams, as the rest of his human body falls apart like wet paper and his true form is revealed, Brundle Fly. He is now more fly than human, his hideous insect face staring at her as it drags her to the pods. She is thrown in pod A, as Brundle Fly makes its way to pod B. It climbs inside and the transportation process counts down. As she screams and shouts from inside the pod, her ex is slowly making his way toward her, shotgun at the ready. He shoots the cables attached to her pod, shutting down the power on her side at least. As the countdown gets closer to zero, Brundle Fly opens his own pod and starts to make his way out. But as he is halfway out, the process begins, and he is transported along with a fair chunk of his pod, to previously unused pod C.

David Cronenberg's The Fly starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis

As the door slowly slides open, and the smoke disappears, Brundle Fly bursts forth, now severely mutated and spliced with parts of the pod, which now protrude from its back. The creature whines like a hurt animal and inches its way toward a sobbing Veronica. As it crawls to her feet, it holds the barrel of the shotgun to its own head, and whines softly in pain. Now, as a man who cried at the end of Terminator 2, this scene was hard to watch. Not because of the gore, or the horror, but because it’s heartbreaking. This pathetic creature is asking Veronica to end its misery and blow its brains out.

This poor woman has to kill the thing that the man she loved has become. And it’s heartbreaking. To me anyway, not sure everyone views it that way. But she respects his last wish and fires the gun. The creatures head explodes, and Veronica bursts into more heart-wrenching sobs as the film ends. What a rollercoaster that final scene is. And that’s The Fly in a nutshell. A masterpiece in horror, and a true showcase of physical effects that sadly don’t appear so much in Hollywood today.

So now to the good stuff, exactly why this film has stood against the test of time and is still a classic to this day.

First of all, I need to go into more detail about the effects. I’m a sucker for old Hollywood horror particularly because of the physical effects, and The Fly uses them in such a way that even though you know it’s not real, certain scenes gross you out so bad you actually believe it. I always remember the stories surrounding Cannibal Holocaust, and how people were vomiting in the cinema’s believing that this was a no holds barred documentary. It always seemed ridiculous to me that people would think that way. Now while The Fly may not be as convincing as that movie, the scene where Seth breaks the guy’s arm at the bar certainly made me feel like it was real the first time I saw it. And re-watching it recently, I still had to look away. It affected me so badly as a child that I now cannot watch videos of arm wrestling—just in case. One of my favorite things to do is watching funny compilation videos on YouTube. A granny falling down some steps, a dog on a skateboard, the legendary ‘Yeet’ video. But as soon as anything that looks like arm wrestling comes on, I bork and look away. Thanks Cronenberg! And I’ve certainly never arm wrestled anyone myself. No thank you.

The next scene that stands out for me in terms of effects is the bathroom mirror scene. The tension is already high in this scene after Seth notices he has the strange, brittle hairs on his face now as well as on his back. He tries to shave them off with an electric razor, and when he flinches in pain as the blade hits the hair, the audience winces with him. But then it gets worse, as he slowly bites off a whole fingernail. It’s stomach-churningly graphic, and when he goes on to squeeze thick yellow puss out of the wound, your stomach flips once more. He then pulls off another fingernail as it dawns on him that he may not be so healthy after all. ‘Am I dying?’ he asks his reflection, as his fingers weep in front of him. The ’80s taught us through horror films that the bathroom mirror is something to be afraid of. It reminds me of the equally gross scene in The Terminator, were we see T800-Arnie manipulate the robotic strands in his forearm to make his fingers move. And who can forget those haunted braces in Poltergeist 2: The Other Side. Or indeed the ‘How’s Annie’ scene at the end of Twin Peaks? Bathroom mirrors are not a cool place to hang out in a horror scenario, and Seth’s bathroom experience is one of the sickest out there.

Seth looks in the mirror at his changing appearance from man to fly

One more element I need to discuss regarding the special effects in this movie is Brundle Fly himself. As Seth becomes progressively less human, and more Brundle Fly, the effects just keep getting better and better. From the sickly looking Seth who loses his ear right in front of Veronica, mutated Seth losing his teeth over his keyboard, all the way to the final form of Brundle Fly spliced with the transportation pod, these effects are fantastic. Fantastic and disgusting. You genuinely believe his body is falling apart, literally sliding away from his insect skeleton. Even during my recent re-watch of the Blu-Ray, I was still open-mouthed at the effects.

That final, insect face staring up at Veronica from the ground is fascinating to look at. It’s revolting and should make you look away, but when it is combined with the sound of soft animal whining the disgust turns to pity. And that is an achievement for the effects department in itself. We pity this horrific, disgusting creature, as though it was a cute little dog, whimpering to be petted. Brundle Fly is an amazing achievement in physical effects that leaves the viewer yearning for this classic style of horror as opposed to the slick green screen magic we are given today. I love modern horror, of course, there’s just something about knowing that physical effects were used that makes me feel all warm and cozy inside, which is ironic, as the actual effects make me feel quite the opposite.

The next reason for this film deserving more credit than it has is the overall story. Sci-Fi was rife in the ’80s, as I’ve already mentioned. Robots, aliens, giant monsters, you name it, the ’80s had it. A lot of these films were imitations of bigger titles, hoping to score the same kind of numbers at the box office that sadly went under the radar due to lower budgets and weaker stories. The Fly, however, has a new approach to Sci-Fi horror. It has the monster element for sure, but it also has a vision of future technology that is both believable and terrifying. The idea of transportation pods is fantastic; travelling the world without the need for aeroplanes or ships. But what if? What if something was in that pod with you? What if something went wrong and you were spliced into something not human? What if the technology was used by terrorists to invade countries? What if using the pods was having unnoticed side effects? It opens up a can of worms full of what if’s, and paints a picture of a scary future, much like The Terminator does. I still hear the word ‘Skynet’ ringing in my ears every time something strange happens with technology.

Geena Davis as Veronica holding a gun towards The Fly

As well as the grim vision of the future, this movie also gives us a tragic love story between Seth and Veronica. The chemistry between Goldblum and Davis is instantly recognizable, and as the relationship starts to break down, you feel genuine emotion for the ill-fated couple. But things take a turn for the worst when we find that Veronica is pregnant. Her fears of her unborn child being somehow deformed due to Seth’s illness are palpable, and Davis makes us feel those fears right alongside her. If that damned fly hadn’t been in the pod with Seth, they could have taken their relationship so much further. A baby, a new scientific discovery, fame, and riches beyond their wildest dreams. But they got all of this taken away from them by that bloody fly. It’s heartbreaking. Veronica’s maggot baby dream, Seth asking her not to kill his unborn child, and finally Veronica ending his life. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, which feel elevated to darker heights by the impending doom and graphic horror of Seth’s slow transformation into Brundle Fly.

So these are the reasons I will continue to talk about this film so many years after its initial release. It really does have something for everyone. And for me, a lover of horror and the odd romance, it’s the perfect blend. Graphic, physical horror, and heartbreaking tragedy all wrapped up in one disgusting, tear-jerking package. Goldblum delivers a fantastic performance as Seth Brundle, and this is matched perfectly by Davis’ portrayal of Veronica. The effects are incredible; the score works perfectly as the tension of the film builds, and the final scene is just fantastic. If you haven’t watched this movie in a while, treat yourself and watch it again. If Goldblum in his pants doesn’t do it for you, the physical effects certainly will. Seth Brundle may be ‘An insect who dreamt he was a man’, but he’s one of the best insects in Sci-Fi horror history.

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Written by Anthony Divers

Anthony Divers is a writer and social media manager for 25YL, and works as a team leader for a group of staff in a service centre. He loves gaming, horror movies and music. Living in the North East of England, he is surrounded by family, cats and his partner, who also works for 25YL. He believes he is the funniest man in England, and collects the souls of his defeated enemies in cute little jars. He has won first prize for the annual Valentine's poetry competition at his work place 3 years in a row, and also took the trophy for Best Wig in 2014* *no one else was judged, or indeed asked to wear a wig, but a trophy's a trophy.

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