The Fly (1986)

The terrifying enormity of the original The Fly starring Vincent Price was due to its oppression. The film seemed large and possessing because it was so persistent in its suspense: looking for the white-headed fly was more fragmenting than seeing a man in a fly costume. Mundane, calculating visuals and bristling sound design covered for campy effects (though as a young child, the “Help me!” scene scared me more than any horror film has since). David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake does not adapt this aspect of the story. By making the fly and man one creature, he extracts the noir and injects the remainder with druggy transformation comedy. The addition of Jeff Goldblum not only energizes the fly with his witty entropy, but it gives a story about a monster the pangs of tragic love. The Fly (1986) is as much like Beauty and the Beast as it is like the original film. Dr. Seth Brundle (Goldblum) asks at one point, “Is this a romance we’re having?” and it’s like he’s mulling over the script. The movie has every intention of having one, but intentions aren’t everything with Cronenberg, as they aren’t for a child convinced he can eat a whole pizza without throwing up.

A third thing Goldblum brings to the lab party is a demeanor that is so, so 80s. He could be an exhibit for computer geeks at Disney’s Spaceship Earth, a ride that trivializes every period in history by reducing it to its most recognizable form. He dresses in one of many of the same elbow-patched sportscoats every day, ruffled hair down to his shoulders, Adams apple warbling obtusely. When he was this young he looked too old for his own body – the Goldblum of today is a much better investment.

He adds to The Fly –  as its most compelling exhibit – a sense of bemused confidence in the craft of transformation. He is not unlike the calculating college Frankenstein Herbert West in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Re-Animator, particularly when West was remade by the Stuart Gordon film into the straight man of a body horror comedy flick. Dr. Brundle is never more compelling than when he is least appealing, such as when showing “kids” on a recording how “Brundle-fly” eats his food, which involves regurgitating dissolving acid onto an unfortunate Twinkie. The most memorable chunks of The Fly are scenes that could be deleted from the film without changing it. And by the same but reverse logic, I can see no reason why the actual deleted scenes were removed. Some of them seem like essential puzzle pieces, particularly one in which Brundle-fly attempts to combine and un-combine a baboon and cat, so unsuccessfully that he loses all hope of ever becoming Jeff Goldblum again. With a little prescience, Cronenberg might have agreed to like Goldblum as much as we do, and included only scenes made from that human puzzle.

This adaptation cannot help but also be an update: the original existed in a time when these supercomputers were as unthinkable as peace with Russia. When the fabled fly drops in on the teleportation experiment (here H.R. Giger-esque skeletal pods replace the sterile glass boxes of the original) the computer scans the contents of the pod as it’s supposed to and moves them to the other pod. The fact that it combined the genetic signatures is a result of its inability to reason beyond the information it’s given: all life is ones and zeroes. Seth Brundle is not a victim of malfunction but just of his own genius when his computer could feel no more humanely than he, when it treated him as no more significant than a fly. He remarks earlier in the film that the computer would recognize a baby but wouldn’t know why you’d slap its bottom. Seth and Veronica (Gina Davis) share a transported steak together, have sex, mull over Nobel Prizes. It’s awfully collected for a horror film, where The Exorcist aims for dread from the first frame.

But this is when The Fly is at its best and, in every sense, at its most human. The body horror seems like an unnecessary intruder, turning a likable wit into a technocrat: man becomes victim to his machines when on his own he might have been perfectly romantic. This was true of the original too. But to help us transition to this remake, Brundle remarks that he had no life to begin with – becoming a monster showed him how much he was missing.

Recasting the ambitious scientist as a victim is a song Goldblum was born to sing. His looming sadness sets in, not when his body decays in a grotesque inventory of failing appendages and pus (they should have prohibited popcorn from this movie), but when he no longer recognizes his mind. Despite Veronica’s nervous support, Brundle can feel his animal hindbrain taking control: the worst fate possible for a man of intellect. “I’m an insect,” he bereaves, “who dreamt he was a man and loved it.”

Perhaps The Fly dreamt it was a romance and a horror film and a science fiction film and before it was made, loved living this triple life. Watching them collide with each other is entertaining: this is a really squirmy movie, as difficult to convince yourself to watch as to put down. Knowing you will see a woman birth a bologna-sized maggot and a man peel his teeth from his rotting gums should put you off meals for some interval before and after The Fly, like it’s a drug that can’t be taken with life. What mood could breed an interest in watching it?

The only one I can think of is ugly and depressing since its material has no antagonist. The film wallows: the very things we revere in it are what make it so inevitably fatal. The mood for watching The Fly is the mood to see horrible things happen to good people and to take pleasure from it. Brundle is not a gross person (when he was young he “puked on his tricycle” because it was too intense). But gross things happen to him. His dreams fail so hard that he becomes an object of horror, a fate his mind had in store for him for making him so smart. The Fly is a transformation film without values on either side of the equation. If it was a painting it would be a Goya: horrific in intensity without any way out for its subjects. The giants of the universe consume the lovers in The Fly, condemning them to misery, not because of that tired horror trope that promiscuity kills you, but because of a new one that our automated universe crunches good people in its gears just by working the way it’s supposed to. The Fly is uncannily effective even just for deserving such criticism, but name the best films you’ve ever seen. Which of the ones that feature misery make light of it?

Cast & Crew

David Cronenberg

Charles Edward Pogue (screenplay)

David Cronenberg (screenplay)

George Langelaan (book)


Seth Brundle Jeff Goldblum
Veronica Quaife Gina Davis
Stathis Borans John Getz
Tawny Joy Boushel
Dr. Brent Cheevers Leslie Carlson
Marky George Chuvalo
Gynecologist David Cronenberg

Official Trailer


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