15th August 1986…
It’s a 31-degree Celsius day in Los Angeles, and David Cronenberg’s ‘reimagining’ of the 1958 post-nuclear horror classic The Fly makes its world premiere.1
At this point in time, six feature films under his belt, Cronenberg was the hottest horror director in Hollywood (by way of Toronto). His calling card was ‘body horror’, a term not designed for him but one he owned. A cool operator known for running a tight ship while maintaining a sense of humour, producer Stuart Cornfeld would say that liquid nitrogen must run through David Cronenberg’s veins, as he is so unflappable when under pressure.
Selling the remake of The Fly was difficult; it was hampered by the B-status of its source material, despite the fact that the 1958 film was a hit for 20th Century Fox, filmed at considerable expense in Cinemascope and spawning two sequels. When it came down to it, no one in Hollywood – from actors to executives – took The Fly that seriously. It wasn’t seen as Oscar-worthy material (though that would be disproved when Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis went on to win a 1987 statuette for their makeup in Cronenberg’s remake).
The 1958 original film – directed by Kurt Neumann who sadly passed away before the release of this, his most successful film – was still forefront in the Hollywood consciousness when production began on the remake. It was the film that launched Vincent Price’s career as a horror icon and its climactic ‘Help me! Help me!’ scene is one of the most quoted in cinema history. Interestingly, both ‘Flies’ straddled the extremes of the Cold War divide in terms of their release dates, both reflecting the nuclear paranoia of a decades-long era, a time when distrust in science and of man’s god-complex ran rife. Ongoing ethical debate around IVF, genetic modification, cloning and the like that continues to this day might help explain some of The Fly’s enduring appeal. Some of it.
Screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue (writer of Dragonheart and Psycho III but relatively unknown at this stage) came up with a script. He took it to a young producer at 20th Century Fox, Stuart Cornfeld, who particularly liked Pogue’s emphasis on the mutation of the scientist into a fly – not just a man with a fly-head and fly-hand, as is the case in the original film. Cornfeld then went to his mentor, Mel Brooks, who put up $1 million, a hefty fee for the early 1980s but Cornfeld was in a position of trust with Brooks having worked with him successfully on David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.
While David Cronenberg was Cornfeld’s first choice as director, he was already committed to another genre film, a little Philip K. Dick adaptation called Total Recall. That project eventually fell through, however it was brought to the silver screen in 1990 with Paul Verhoeven taking up the reins. For a while there, The Fly laboured in film production purgatory without a director, cast, crew or even a functional script (by then, Pogue’s had undergone an inferior rewrite).
Robert Bierman (Vampire Killers, 1988) was the next choice for The Fly, slated to make his feature film directing debut but, unfortunately, pulled out from the project when his young daughter died in a farming accident. Stuart Cornfeld, in a chance conversation with fellow producer Scott Rudin in the hallways of 20th Century Fox, learned that Cronenberg’s Total Recall had stalled – and, with that, The Fly was back on again.
Part of David Cronenberg’s directing deal for The Fly was that he got to rewrite the script, carte blanche. He did and produced what actor John Getz (‘Stathis Borans’, the third character in the film’s love triangle) called “perfect”.2 Considering Cronenberg had pretty much thrown everything out and started again, Stuart Cornfeld needed to get some perspective. He admits showing Cronenberg’s handiwork to his good friend, Tim Hunter (director, River’s Edge, 1986), and received his reassurances that it was, indeed, a work of brilliance.
Yet, no matter how brilliant the script, The Fly was still a remake, and a remake of a B-movie. It failed to attract actors largely because of its arduous makeup requirements. The first choice for lead, John Malkovich, did not see it as a viable project for him at that time. Cronenberg and Cornfeld would then fight to cast Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, against the wishes of the president of 20th Century Fox, Larry Gordon, who eventually conceded and told them it was “their mistake to make” (something you’re unlikely to hear from a studio head today). With Goldblum came Geena Davis, his girlfriend at the time, to play Veronica Quaife. They brought with them a chemistry that would live for all posterity in their performances in The Fly.
So, back to 15th August 1986…
20th Century Fox had been angling for a much-needed blockbuster smash after claiming only eight percent of that year’s box office. They did not foresee The Fly as being that movie. It knocked Fox’s anticipated hit, James Cameron’s Aliens, which had released a month earlier, off the number one position with an opening weekend of over US$7 million while Aliens sat at US$4.3 million. Second in that weekend’s box office race, the John Candy-starring Armed and Dangerous, proved little threat with approximately US$4.5 million across about 350 more screens than the R-rated The Fly.
Dr Dean Brandum, a Melbourne professor of box office evaluation, believes 20th Century Fox cannabilised its own market by scheduling The Fly and Aliens back-to-back:
“For 20th Century Fox, the performance of The Fly was a rare bright spot in a bleak year but it may have been even brighter had it been released with a little more distance from Aliens.”
The initial reactions to Cronenberg’s film were extreme, to say the least, and appeared to fall into two main camps: those completely enamoured with Chris Walas and co’s SFX gore-ganza, and those so taken aback they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
Caryn James, reviewing for The New York Times at the time of the film’s release, commented:
“This all out, flaunted goriness becomes distracting, and it destroys The Fly… The plot diminishes to: How can he possibly look worse? And should I watch? This is intense, all right, but not scary or sad, or even intentionally funny.”
The SFX were – and are – stunning in The Fly. They act as compelling evidence that puppetry and prosthetics are far superior to the more-often-than-not lazily conceived CGI effects we endure today. Maybe The Fly’s effects were a little too good in 1986? Caryn James’ review suggests she could not see beyond the sensory onslaught of the imagery that unfolded before her eyes, which could be argued is a flaw in the storytelling but has definitely not injured the film in terms of its ongoing impact and cinematic relevancy.
The Fly tapped into a cinematic zeitgeist where highly visceral and gruesome SFX were dominating the sci-fi/horror sub-genre. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and even Cronenberg’s own films Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983) are compelling examples from this era. And The Fly in its uncut state could have been even more brutally graphic: Audience test screenings favoured the removal of such scenes as ‘Monkey Cat’ where Brundle ends up bludgeoning a sadly mutated creature to death.
Considering the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, The Fly was read by some as a dramatic comment on the virus, although Cronenberg has widely denied this in interviews and his commentary on The Fly’s DVD release. Film academic Ernest Mathijs even dedicates an essay to ‘AIDS References in the Critical Reception of David Cronenberg’ using the The Fly as his primary example. Why Cronenberg would deny this perspective is anyone’s guess, however, his explanation of the film about aging and basic mortality (further emphasised in an opinion piece he penned for The Paris Review in 2014) is grander in concept.
Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) comes from out of leftfield with a different reading. In a conversation on Twitter, he admitted to seeing The Fly as a parable on cocaine use, which is definitely on-trend with the renowned excesses of life in the ‘80s. He says Brundle crosses all the emotional stages of a cocaine addict – even feeling the need to have others share in his experience – which is explicitly detailed in his sugar consumption in that famous café scene where Goldblum improvises a vast proportion of his ramblings.
The Fly is a horror movie, that’s for sure, but it’s also undeniably a love story. Amid all the goop and gore, the central premise – the primary driver of the film – is love and, quite simply, that is the reason why audiences are still moved by the film, even reduced to tears at an emotional climax centring on a puppet. People may forget about the AIDS epidemic or cocaine or even the gruesomeness of the SFX but love is everlasting, in whatever guise it may appear.
David Cronenberg’s cinematographer of many years, Mark Irwin, explained it so beautifully when he recounted this story:
“I got a call to meet a director about a TV movie. This was just after The Fly came out. His name was Gil [Gilbert] Cates. He wanted me to work on a senior citizens love story starring Bea Arthur and Richard Kiley called My First Love. He said, “I really liked what you did on The Fly” and I was, kind of, “Really?” I finally said, “You know, Gil, I dunno… The Fly is a horror film!” And he looked at me really sternly and said, “No, it’s NOT. It’s a love story. What you shot was a love story…”
And he was right.
Happy 30th Birthday, The Fly!
Images courtesy of Michael Helms, Fatal Visions archives. Video store card image courtesy of John Harrison.
Emma Westwood is currently writing a book on David Cronenberg’s The Fly for Auteur Publishing’s horror series, Devil’s Advocates.