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David Cronenberg‘s The Fly (1986) upholds a storied tradition of 80s remakes reinventing classic horrors through emblematic practical effects. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988) both embrace the spectacle of SFX advancement to build a better goopy mass or parasitic entity. Kurt Neumann‘s 1958 iteration of The Fly, co-starring Vincent Price, attempted an insectoid transformation before any of the tricks and practices that’d win Chris Walas an Academy Award for his “Brundlefly” monstrosity. There’s an old-school Hollywood allure to Ben Nye‘s 20-pound fly head in Keumann’s science-fiction mystery. Still, everyone involved with the remake saw an opportunity to pay homage and evolve The Fly into something eternally horrific. The ultimate reasoning for remake motivations: new technology after decades pass.
Any aughts-era bias against horror remakes is peculiar when you consider how the 80s were just as predominantly centered on remakes, albeit pulling from earlier source generations. There’s no difference between Platinum Dunes plucking Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees into the next millennium when studios in the 80s set their sights on retelling 50s and 60s black-and-white terrors. Where does a person with their Brundlefly tattoo get off outcrying about 2000s teens supporting their update of Friday the 13th? Remake gatekeepers are the silliest complainers, made evident by Cronenberg’s buzzworthy all-timer that broke the Oscar’s anti-horror “bias.” Walas’ reinvention of Nye’s creature is one of the genre’s glistening pro-remake arguments, not to mention the entire production’s vastly altered narrative.
Comparisons between Kurt Neumann’s and David Cronenberg’s The Fly are nonexistent. George Langelaan‘s short literature serves as the starting point for both — executions range from original writer James Clavell‘s research journal detective debacle to Cronenberg’s shared screenplay credit churning out a Kafkaesque metamorphosis with creature-feature structures. André Delambre (David Hedison) is a family man reminiscent of 50s Pleasantville stereotypes who protects those around him from his instant swapping of fly head and hand — most of the bygone film revolves around his wife Hélène (Patricia Owens) trying to locate a white-headed fly as evidence. There’s little horror outside the now-infamous “Help me!” squeals from a human-headed fly (achieved through photographic projection) before a spider (puppet) feasts on its insides.
Cronenberg’s reinvention — starting with the pages of Charles Edward Pogue‘s first draft that Cronenberg himself demanded be honored through Pogue’s co-writer credit — is vastly more beastly. Jeff Goldblum plays the brilliant Seth Brundle, working out of a converted Toronto warehouse apartment as a freelance inventor. He persuades journalist Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (Geena Davis) with the promise of a revolutionary device to vanquish his motion sickness. Brundle reveals what he dubs “Telepods,” two teleportation chambers (modeled after Ducati cylinders and cylinder-heads). Veronica flirtatiously removes one of her knee-high stockings so Brundle can demonstrate — it later works on a baboon. With trials moving swiftly forward, as rapidly as his relationship with Veronica, Brundle indulges an impulse decision fueled by jealousy and champagne to accelerate human tests by unknowingly hopping inside with a common house pest.
The Fly remake rebirths with all of Cronenberg’s goopy-sexual, body-horror signatures that couldn’t be any further from the sitcom wholesomeness of Neumann’s curiosity. André protects Hélène from his deformation except for one tussle under the hydraulic press to show the fly’s psychological takeover — Seth becomes a fornication machine energized by sugary snacks who allows his spliced genetics to define his personality. Physical variations are noticeable given how André emerges from his “Disintegrator Integrator” device looking like Baxter Stockman from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (evident reverse influence) while Seth indulges Cronenberg’s pustulating, finger-nail pulling, flesh-shedding transformation over time. The mental aspects unlock Jeff Goldblum’s distancing from David Hedison’s valiant patriarch — Seth is unstable, feral, and sees his new DNA as transcendence. There are no parallels to draw.
Does It Work?
I hope you’ll allow a brief repetition of my justifications throughout this column’s previous analysis of The Blob — developments in the profession of special effects necessitate remakes. Perhaps even tied to budget allowances. The Fly is a remarkable milestone for 50s cinematic achievements between André’s weighty prosthetics and Whitehead’s demise. However, Chris Walas’ progression of sticky suits, wriggly animatronics, and makeup oversight are still heralded by even today’s SFX standards. The multiple stages of Jeff Goldblum’s “Brundlefly” are complete with decomposition, peel-off appendages, and an acidic vomit that melts victim’s… anything. Walas’ accomplishments aren’t a slight against Ben Nye’s wizardry at the time, merely another film with the same ambitions of pushing practical effects boundaries as far as inhumanly possible. “Brundlefly” should be the only retort to questions about why remakes are a continued tradition.
From a visionary perspective, David Cronenberg proves another stellar remake point — filmmakers with distinct styles help individualize remakes. Cronenberg’s secretion-slimy, disgustingly decadent portrayal of mad scientist madness is almost like Frankenstein where Goldblum plays both doctor and monster. It’s as Cronenberg as Cronenberg World from Rick And Morty, down to multiple sex breaks that feature Goldbum’s gyrating rump or breathing perversions of imagination that slither from plasma pools. It’s a remake that distances itself like Robert Muldoon driving away from the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. Even if you’ve seen 1958’s The Fly, there’s no predictability beyond introducing a fly-man hybrid at some benchmark. Geena Davis is the anti-Hélène as her romance morphs into something dangerously ugly, saddled with a pregnancy she demands to terminate, as she aims a shotgun at the heartbreaking abomination that once brought so much love and joy knowing what must be done.
The one questionable diversion in Cronenberg’s The Fly remake is Stathis Borans, played by John Getz. He’s Veronica’s confidant — and stalker ex-boyfriend who refuses to return her extra key? Stathis is an A+ creeper who also worries about Veronica, whether that’s him already being in her apartment when she returns from Seth’s or at work, where he’s her publication boss. Cronenberg reportedly fused two characters from Charles Edward Pogue’s draft — a best friend character Harry Chandler, and greedy corporate villain type Phillip DeWitt — into this union of friend and foe who has his moments but also unpleasant encounters. The ex who never leaves; the acquaintance who genuinely fears for your life. In the context of a practical effects showcase? Some might glance over Stathis’ odd traits. Others won’t.
I’ll let Chris Walas’ golden statue lead my argument — The Fly remake belongs up there with The Blob, The Thing, and many other 80s displays of championship practical effects. Brundlefly’s many iterations all execute their desired reactions from cringes when Veronica attempts to “shave” thick fly hairs betwixt split wounds to the final abhorrent fusion of insect-man and machine. David Cronenberg’s taste for alluring visual provocation has taken many forms, few as iconic as Brundlefly. What do you want me to say that hasn’t already been described in precise detail by horror scholars for decades? The result of Brundlefly is everything from astounding to ghoulish to vital among seventy-thousand other descriptors.
Jeff Goldblum’s performance embraces the Goldblum we know — you don’t hire Goldblum to play your character; said character becomes Jeff Goldblum. In the case of Seth Brundle, the impish mannerisms of a thinker who traded social skills for further braininess become eccentric comforts. Goldblum’s extreme gesticulation from his dart-all-day eyes to the outreach and grasp-at-air of a hand all delight, but his ability to monologue about complex science fiction terminology without blinking sells Seth Brundle. There’s a precise moment where Goldblum goes out-of-body as Seth preaches his teleportation aura as this new religion, something about the pierce past “new flesh” and baptism of plasmatic ponds, representing divine Goldblum theatrics. I can only imagine producer Mel Brooks chuckling to himself after watching the take, knowing the madness capable between Cronenberg and Goldblum. Look no further than Seth’s tipsy confession to his baboon assistant — complete with an apology for inside-outing his brother.
Cronenberg never besmirches Kurt Neumann nor his original film — there are loving odes littered throughout bugification. Veronica asks Seth earlier into their relationship why he’s always wearing the same suit-jacket outfit, a possible poke at André since Neumann’s protagonist always dons the same dapper scientist getup day after day in flashbacks (explained away by Seth as Einstein’s theory of expending energy elsewhere). There isn’t a battle for supremacy between films. They exist as footnotes in horror history that encapsulate the creativity of their times, both experimental in theme and nature. The ’50s get their abstract whodunit with an added Vincent Price bonus — gotta love “fly vision” and the over-dramatization that is André confronting his molecular fate — while the ’80s produce another testament to the longevity of practical models and molds filled with grotesque nightmare figments.
Check to make sure your favorite nostalgia title isn’t a remake before you start criticizing teenagers for Friday the 13th (2009) being their entry to a staple horror franchise. Opposing remake arguments often whine about how remakes are devoid of originality, yet David Cronenberg splices together one of the most noticeably unique 80s horror standouts with The Fly. There’s no copycat desire or recycled highlights. Not even when it comes to Kurt Neumann’s finale, arguably the shockwave moment that fans would lose their proverbial shit over when spider devours man before a moral-justice discussion about killing out of mercy. Cronenberg doesn’t glide behind Neumann’s jetstream for a single second, adaptation or not. The Fly is anything but artistically bankrupt, and I sure as hell don’t remember any larva abortion sequence in black-and-white.
So what did we learn?
- Don’t watch The Fly during a meal unless it’s the 1958 version.
- 1980s practical effects are a gift that forever gives — Brundlefly is no exception.
- Jeff Goldblum and David Cronenberg are the epitome of singular talents and showcase how irreplicable personalities can drive remakes down their own paths.
- I have another new favorite 80s horror film to add to the list.
Cronenberg and Kurt Neumann elope as one of the oddest couples in original/remake canon. The 1958 version loses me in parts as tension and thrills revolve around a remarkably unfazed boy somehow cucumber-cool about his family’s disintegration, just skipping around with a bug net. There are some hilarious lines delivered by child actor Charles Herbert when the tiny rascal drops “women, right?” jokes like he’s a 90s stand-up comic, but it’s a largely unbalanced fly hunt otherwise. Cronenberg’s 80s respawn has its share of questionable plot tactics — again, Stathis’ hero moment is an interesting choice for a possessive ex — but those pustulating, yucky-terrific effects are the antidote that cures all conceptual iffiness. I’m not sure how either exists, yet horror cinema is a better place with both species.
In Revenge of the Remakes, columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.