Universal Studios and their Gothic supernatural monsters dominated the horror genre for two decades. Following World War II and the dawn of the atomic age, horror films looked to the skies or science for frights. Science fiction and horror formed a mutually beneficial relationship across drive-in theatres in North America during the 1950’s.
One of the better sci-fi/horror offerings released in the 1950’s was The Fly. Its story of a scientist accidentally fused with a common housefly was a box office hit for 20th Century Fox. The Fly marked another early foray into horror for icon Vincent Price following his successful turn in House of Wax. Nearly 30 years later, David Cronenberg re-imagined The Fly for modern audiences, creating on of the best horror films ever made. In this edition of The Vault I take a look at the original classic on its 60th anniversary.
A Sympathetic Monster
One thing The Fly intuitively understands is the importance of creating a monster with whom the audience can sympathize. Older films are more slowly paced and reliant on dialogue. Fortunately, The Fly’s story benefits from a more methodical pacing. James Clavell’s script carefully develops scientist Andre Delambre as an altruistic and passionate scientist. His weakness isn’t so much hubris as it is his drive and impatience to create something that could benefit humanity.
This emotional core not only serves to distinguish The Fly from other 1950’s B-films, it also adds a necessary gravitas to a concept that could have easily come across as laughable.
Watching Andre slowly lose his humanity coupled with his desire to ensure that no one ever repeats his mistake is a heartbreaking character arc. His final sacrifice, with his wife activating the hydraulic press, is reminiscent of the Monster’s sacrifice in Bride of Frankenstein. This emotional core not only serves to distinguish The Fly from other 1950’s B-films, it also adds a necessary gravitas to a concept that could have easily come across as laughable.
An Iconic Horror Moment
The Fly also sets itself apart from its B-movie cohort by virtue of featuring an iconic horror movie moment. Even The Simpsons paid tribute to the moment in one of their Halloween episodes. If you’ve seen The Fly you know the scene to which I’m referring – the fly in the spiderweb moment.
Like the rest of the film and its concept, it’s a moment that could easily prompt laughter but it’s captured in such a way that it is sad and haunting.
Much of the film involves its characters searching for the fly with a ‘white head’. By the film’s conclusion, young Phillippe brings Vincent Price and the Inspector to a spiderweb where they find the fly with Andre’s head and arm. For a 1958 film, the special effects still hold up fairly well. But what sells the scene is the tiny voice screaming ‘Help me’ as a spider descends on it. Like the rest of the film and its concept, it’s a moment that could easily prompt laughter but it’s captured in such a way that it is sad and haunting.
Simple and Effective Storytelling
The Fly could have turned out to be a ridiculous B-film that was remembered for all the wrong reasons. A movie where it’s monster was man with a fly’s head and ‘claw’ could have prompted more snickers that scares. As discussed above, the emotional character arc helped alleviate some of this problem. But The Fly also executes its premise with a simple yet effective approach to storytelling. The Fly adopts the film noir tradition of starting its story at the end. This adds a sense of fatalism to the proceedings that adds to the sense of tragedy.
The Fly’s story weaves its tragic events with a sense of purpose. Director Kurt Neumann’s decision to hide Andre’s face under a dark cloth with only glimpses of a clawed had adds mystery. The reveal should be a big moment and The Fly delivers. Andre’s unmasking may fall short of the spiderweb scene, but it’s is suitably dramatic and well executed. At this point, Neumann has sucked you into the story enough to not really mind the costume effects.
The Fly is a Classic That Deserves to Be Remembered
Before writing this post, I sat down to re-watch The Fly with my 9-year-old son. He found it a little slow to start but he was quickly hooked and filled with questions. Twice he remarked that it was a ‘ sad’ story. He was also suitably creeped out by the spiderweb scene. It says something about a film’s quality when it can still impact audiences 60 years later. David Cronenberg’s 1980’s remake updated and arguably improved upon the 1958 version. Nevertheless, the original The Fly is a classic that horror fans should re-visit.