Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Be afraid. Be very afraid.

For the past few weeks for me and a couple of friends, Thursdays have been movie night. More specifically, horror movie night. We've been watching some really hardcore, gruesome flicks: The Devil's Rejects, The Manson Family, Hostel. Last time, it was my turn to pick the movie, and I went out and bought a DVD just for the occasion, something I really should've bought a long time ago -- the special edition of David Cronenberg's The Fly.

I showed the box to one of my friends. He said, "Good movie -- but I thought you might want to watch something gorier." Later, about the time a horribly mutated Jeff Goldblum was regurgitating acid onto a man's hand, melting it into a liquid red lump of bone and goo, I turned to that friend and said, "Gory enough for you?"

It had been a while since either of us had seen this film. We both remembered there was some bad stuff in it, but we both forgot just how bad it gets. Cronenberg filmed The Fly 20 years ago, and it's still one of the goriest films ever made.

That's only half of what makes this such a brilliant horror film -- a brilliant film, period. What really elevates this film into greatness is a devastating story of a man losing his humanity, anchored by a bravely committed performance from Goldblum. It's Goldblum who really sells the picture, expertly conveying first the manic elation, then the repulsion and fear, of a man becoming something else. What could've been just a guy covered in horror makeup becomes a real, fully-developed character, loathsome and heartbreaking, terrifying but sympathetic.

If you've never seen it, maybe you should stop before I really spoil it for you. No? Okay: The Fly is a remake -- kind of -- of the 1958 Vincent Price film. It's about scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum), who has invented a teleportation machine. It can send inanimate objects with perfect results, but living matter gets horribly destroyed. Journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) chronicles his progress, while also falling in love with him. Seth successfully sends a baboon through the machine, then, before further safety testing, drunk and jealous over Veronica's connection to her ex-boyfriend, he sends himself through while she's gone. Unfortunately, there is a fly inside the machine with him as he teleports. Seth emerges from the machine believing he has been completely successful, and in fact feeling better than he ever has in his life -- stronger, more assertive -- but unbeknownst to him, the machine has fused him with the fly at a genetic level, and this is just the first stage of his transformation.

After reveling in his newfound power -- athletic and sexual -- and alienating Veronica, Seth begins to discover that his transformation has only just begun. He becomes irrational and aggressive, he begins craving outrageous amounts of sugar. His appearance degenerates from severe complexion problems, to truly hideous, and eventually to completely inhuman.

The transformation is gruesome and disturbing. As it progresses, Seth plucks off his fingernails; later, his hair comes out in bloody clumps; still later, as he begins regurgitating on his food to digest it, his useless teeth fall out of his gums. He saves all these pieces of himself in his bathroom cabinet, reminders of his fading humanity. When his ear peels off the side of his head, he grimly jokes to Veronica, who has returned to him in his later stages of decay, "The medicine cabinet has become the Brundle Museum of Natural History."

The grotesque spectacle is enough for a great horror film, but it's Seth's dread and loss that turns the viewer's disgust into pain and heartbreak. He begins calling himself "Brundlefly," acknowledging his mutation, but also trying to distance himself from his own tragedy, inventing a term he can use as though he were referring to a test subject rather than himself. Eventually, as he realizes the insect inside him is taking over, he tries to drive Veronica away. Here he speaks my favorite line in the movie: "I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over... and the insect is awake." Later, he tries to convince Veronica not to abort his unborn child, which he sees as the last evidence of his humanity. He begs, "Please don't kill me," and it's devastating.

Goldblum gives quite likely the best performance of his career in this film, and Cronenberg delivers the best film of his career up to that point --- and I would argue, with the exception of Dead Ringers, his best film ever. (I've mentioned before my disappointment with A History of Violence, which I'm sure many others would name as his best.) It shows what heights a truly great director can achieve working within what some might dismiss as "genre" boundaries. The Fly is superior filmmaking from beginning to end.

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