Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween Week 2008: The Fly

Be Afraid.
Be Very Afraid.

This famous tag line for David Cronenberg's remake of the 1950 horror camp classic The Fly is one of the all time great tag lines. What's so great about it is that it leads the viewer to believe that something horrifying and quite scary is waiting for them when they sit down to watch the film; there is horror in this film, just not in the conventional sense. This is not your typical horror or sci-fi scare fest, in fact there are not even that many scary moments in the film. Here is a sophisticated allegory for what is truly horrifying: having to watch the person you love die. Whether it's a physical death or a metaphorical one, Cronenberg takes the basic plot of the original film, and tweaks it into a romantic tragedy that just happens to exist in the genre of horror.

The story is simple enough: Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a genius physicist who has created a way to transport matter. Geena Davis plays Veronica, a reporter who is looking for an exclusive on Brundle's invention. Fearful that his secret will leak to the scientific community (which will cost him thousands) Brundle pursues Veronica at her office and pleads with her to not write the story until he has everything working for certain. Thus begins their relationship which soon blossoms into a romance. Veronica is just getting out of a relationship with her pretentious, yet caring, editor Stathis (played by the always smarmy John Getz) who is immediately jealous of the Veronica hangs on every word Brundle says. This was probably his affect on her sometime in the past. One night Veronica leaves Brudle's place to finalize some things with Stathis, however, Brundle too is weary of why she must leave and gets drunk, which leads to "something going wrong in the lab. Very wrong." You know the rest of the story from there.

The story may be simple enough, but the emotions within are poignant and true, and What follows is a story of true horror; not in the traditional sense, but in the always unique and unconventional Cronenberg sense. Cronenberg has always been a director who directs his films with objectivity and coldness of scientist or doctor. His films never go beyond what is on the screen, in terms of damning or praising characters and their actions, and he has always been a director that keeps the audience at arms length. Oddly though, I find myself drawn to his icy embrace. I find Cronenberg to be one of the most watchable of directors working in film today. Sure his style doesn't reach the masses, but he always gets great performances out of wonderful, but almost always misused, actors like Christopher Walken, James Spader, Peter Weller, James Woods, and in The Fly he provides Jeff Goldblum with material to deliver his best, and as of yet unsurpassed, performance.

It's true that Cronenberg almost always keeps his characters intentions at arms length from the audience (one of the major criticisms of his recent foray into the crime genre), but I appreciate that about the director, because unless I'm in the minority, I like a director who doesn't hit me over the head with the themes of his films. Case in point: The Fly. At the time of its release a lot of people praised the film for being an astute allegory for the AIDS epidemic. However, the always elusive Cronenberg debunked those critiques and said that he never had intentions of making The Fly a message picture. He appreciated the correlation, but really he saw the film more as an allegory for watching someone you love metamorphosize into someone completely different, right before your eyes. This allegory works well within the horror genre, and especially with the story of Brundle and his fly.

The Fly contains oodles of Cronenberg's favorite themes: the degradation of the human body, passionate love and romances that are derailed by freak accidents, and "special powers" (a vague label no doubt, but I am thinking of Brundle morphing from loner nerd to sexy athletic fly, and also Christopher Walken's burden in The Dead Zone) acting as the onus for his films protagonists. There are many memorable moments in The Fly, one of my favorites being the scene where a pissed off Brundle (because Veronica has left and challenged his new powers as something awful) goes to a bar and challenges someone to an arm wrestling match. The moment that follows never gets old. Also Cronenberg's intense focus on Brundle's body and the way certain parts of his body morph, change, and fall apart or fall off altogether (I'm thinking of the really gross fingernail scene).

Yet, through all of the grotesqueness, Veronica still loves Brundle. And for all of the grotesqueness, the audience is still emotionally invested in the story; that is the triumph of The Fly and what Cronenberg is able to accomplish. Also, Cronenberg is able to conjure up suspense by element of surprise; we are never quite sure, once Brundle's metamorphosis takes place, what he is going to look like, or bad it's going to be. By keeping the audience guessing, the film does have a true horror genre feel to it, but it transcends the genre and cuts through the grotesque appearance of Brundle by maintaining the human element; the love Veronica has for Brundle, and him wanting her to remember him as he was, not what he is becoming.

One of the reasons why The Fly is one of my favorite films is because of that transcendent nature of the script and the all out performances from Goldblum and Davis. True, the film has icky and gross visuals to constitute a good Halloween viewing, but it is also a film that will make you want to wrap up the one you love. When Brundle is mid-stage of his metamorphosis he tells Veronica to leave, and that he doesn't want to hurt her because he is changing and wants her to remember him as he was, not how he is. The moment is poignant and powerful; not just because of the performances by both Goldblum and Davis, but because the scene can be an allegory for what it must feel like to communicate with someone you love while they submit to cancer or Alzheimer's or any other disease where you watch a loved one slowly change from the person you knew. What's truly transcendent about the film is that after the credits role and all is said and done, it's not the state of the art makeup or effects of the Brundle Fly, or the blood and gore that have you remembering the film, it's the poignant relationship between Veronica and Brundle. Love trumps all.

I wrote all of this with a bias as the driving force. There is something deep and profound and moving about this film that affects me so much. I haven't even mentioned that when we get to see the Brundle Fly at the end of the film, it is truly one of the scariest moments in horror. The final moments of the film are scary, no doubt, and if you haven't seen the film, and are not a fan of the usual stab and slash type of horror film, then rent The Fly. It's a brilliantly crafted, sophisticated horror film.


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