Two scenes are indelibly impressed on the memory, thanks to late night television, home video, and horror movie anthologies: in the first, a woman removes a cloth from her husband’s head to reveal not a human face but the head of a fly; in the second, a tiny fly trapped in a spider’s web screams in a human voice, “Help me! Help me!” as the spider moves in for the kill. The film is, of course, THE FLY, released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. The two scenes are so indelibly impressed on the public imagination that few people remember the rest of the film: for instance, there is a common misconception, shared by whoever wrote the notes for the old VHS videocassette release, that Vincent Price played the role of the unfortunate scientist. This neglect is rather undeserved because the film, though hardly a masterpiece, stands in many ways above the level of B-movie science fiction common in the 1950s.
The saga of THE FLY began with the publication of George Langelaan’s novella in the June 1957 issue of Playboy magazine. Langelaan, an Englishman reared in France, was a British Intelligence agent in World War II. In his autobiographical account The Faces of War, he described his adventures, which included parachuting into occupied France, being captured and condemned to death by the Nazis, and escaping and returning to England to participate in the Normandy landings. The title of the book refers to the fact that he underwent plastic surgery more than once to disguise himself from the enemy — an experience that perhaps provided the inspiration for the somewhat more radical change of appearance that the scientist undergoes in THE FLY.
Langelaan’s story begins with Henri Delambre receiving a phone call from his brother’s wife informing him that she has just murdered her husband, Andre. The calm way in which she insists upon her guilt while refusing to explain her motive results in her incarceration in an asylum for the criminally insane. After much prodding from the police inspector assigned to the case, who suspects her of feigning insanity, she writes a confession, which forms the bulk of the narrative.
Andre, she explains, was performing experiments in which he would disintegrate solid objects, project them through space, and reintegrate them. After an initial failure with his pet cat Dandelo (the feline disintegrates but never reappears), he perfects the process to the point where he experiments on himself; unfortunately, he emerges with the head and claw of a fly that was in the matter transmitter with him.
When a search for the fly with his head and arm proves futile, his wife convinces him to go through the transmitter again without the fly, hoping that will be enough to restore him. The attempt proves a disaster: Andre emerges mixed not only with the atoms of the stray fly but also with those of the lost cat. With no hope now of restoring himself, Andre destroys his matter transmitter and instructs his wife to kill him by crushing his head under a steam hammer so as to leave no trace of what happened.
Helene Delambre commits suicide after writing her confession, which Inspector Charas interprets as proof that she was indeed insane. Henri, however, informs him that he visited the cemetery with a matchbox, which he buried near his brother’s grave:
“Do you know what was in it?”
“A fly, I suppose.”
“Yes, I had found it early this morning, caught in a spider’s web in the garden.”
“Was it dead?”
“No, not quite. I…crushed it…between two stones. Its head was…white…all white.”
The story won the Playboy Best Fiction Award and was selected for the “Annual of the Year’s Best Science Fiction.” Also, it was read by Kurt Neumann, a director and sometimes producer of low- to medium-budget films such as Secret of the Blue Room, Return of the Vampire (1943, co-directed with Lew Landers), several Tarzan films, and The She Devil (1956). Neumann had been born in Germany in 1906 and worked there as a director of comedy shorts and foreign versions of Hollywood films before moving to America in the 1930s and becoming a feature director.
Realizing the cinematic potential of the story, Neumann brought the property to Robert Lippert, for whom he had produced and directed Rocketship-XM (1950). Lippert had been an independent producer and distributor, but at this time he had a contract with 20th Century Fox, which allowed his production company, Associated Producers, Inc. to act as a sort of B movie unit. Fox would provide finances and distribution but had nothing to do with the films until Lippert handed over a finished product. According to an interview in Fantastic Films magazine with Edward Bernds, who wrote and directed the sequel, RETURN OF THE FLY, for Lippert, “Fox didn’t even have veto power over the cast, and I don’t think they even looked at the finished pictures!”
One control that Fox did maintain was the right of approval over any project Lippert wanted to do. According to Harry Spalding, a story editor and screenwriter who worked with Lippert at the time and for many years thereafter, “Lippert put up an option on the property and brought it to Fox. Fox liked THE FLY so much it went out as a Fox picture. Lippert put the picture together and got a financial benefit, but it had the Fox label.”
The decision to handle the film as a full fledged 20th Century Fox production was unusual, in that Fox had produced nothing resembling a science fiction film up to that time; most probably, Fox production chief Buddy Adler sensed the commercial potential in the story that would capitalize on the currently popular sci-fi genre, and his company was in need of a box office hit. Whatever the reason, the decision insured that the film would be shot in color and Cinemascope on a budget of $400,000 – relatively small by Fox standards but much larger than the $90,000 allotted to Lippert’s independent productions. Lippert had no further involvement with the film, but Kurt Neumann remained as producer and director.
To write the screenplay, producer-director Kurt Neumann obtained the services of James Clavell, an Australian who had been educated at Birmingham University in England and served as Captain of the British Royal Artillery in World War II. Clavell had come to the United States in 1953 to start a career as a writer. THE FLY was his first feature screenplay; later credits include The Great Escape and The Satan Bug.
As Harry Spalding described it, “Clavell gave it that serious touch the British give to the unserious.” Clavell’s adaptation stuck closely to the Langelaan story, with a few exceptions. The setting is changed from France to Montreal, Canada. The flashback structure is retained, but the film begins with Helene Delambre discovered next to the huge press in which she has just crushed her husband; Clavell then uses her confession to segue back in time, revealing the events that led up to Andre’s death.
Several character development scenes are added to humanize Andre (who barely speaks in the novella – except for his typewritten remarks to his wife after his mishap with the fly renders him speechless). Dandelo the cat never becomes mixed up with the fly head — he merely disappears into a “stream of cat atoms,” accompanied by an illogical but nonetheless effectively ghostly wail on the soundtrack. Consequently, Andre’s decision to destroy himself is based on the fact that finding the fly no longer provides the chance of restoring himself; instead, he is driven by the fact that his human intelligence is gradually being overwhelmed by the animal – and possibly murderous – instincts of the fly.
Clavell’s script manages to provide a Hollywood happy ending: Helene is never confined to an asylum; she is merely kept under observation by Inspector Charas until he can decide whether or not she is insane. Besides being gruesomely horrific, the famous “Help me! Help me!” scene, in which Andre’s son draws his uncle’s attention to the human-headed fly trapped in the spiderweb, also serves a dramatic purpose, convincing Charas that Helen’s story is true and thus saving her from incarceration and suicide, as in the novella.
One of the most interesting aspects of Clavell’s approach, an element that helps to set the film apart from many of its contemporaries, is the avoidance (except for a few awkward concessions) of the standard “I meddled in things man must leave alone” mentality. Andre’s transformation is not a moral retribution but a tragic accident (the story could almost have been titled “The Bug in the System”). Helen does express fear about technology’s overwhelmingly rapid advances, and Andre finally concludes, “There are some things man was not meant to experiment with,” but at the conclusion Francois describes his brother as an explorer like Columbus, who sacrificed himself for the sake of discovering something that would benefit future generations.
THE FLY was shot in eighteen days on a noticeably limited number of sets: most of the film takes place in the Delambre’s house, with only a few studio exteriors and no location es¬tablishing shots (the Montreal location is apparent only through a few dialogue refer¬ences). Nevertheless, cinematography by the late Karl Struss gives the film a glossy studio look: Struss, along with Charles Rosher, had won the first Academy Award for photographing Sunrise in 1927; his other credits include Rocketship-XM, Limelight, The Great Dictator, Island of Lost Souls, and the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Neumann’s direction is very straightforward, mostly avoiding B movie melodrama and thus giving an understated tone that lends a decent sense of credibility to the incredible proceedings.
The cast is small but strong. For Vincent Price, this film would help cement his association in the public mind with horror. In the 1940s, he had been a contract actor at Fox, where he played many supporting roles in classics like Laura and Leave Her to Heaven (both with Gene Tierney). He had played a couple of sinister leads in films like Shock and Dragonwyck (again with Tierney), but his previous appearances in horror films were limited to the 1939 version of Tower of London (a sort of historical horror film); The Invisible Man Returns and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (he played the Invisible Man in both); and House of Wax and The Mad Magician during the early fifties 3-D craze.
Producer-director Kurt Neumann cast Price as the sympathetic brother-in-law of Andre Delambra. Fox studio chief Buddy Adler reportedly had doubts about the actor’s marquee value, but Neumann insisted that he could help draw a horror audience to the picture. (A television appearance on The $64,000 Challenge had earned Price a new degree of popularity with young viewers unfamiliar with his older films.)
Decades later, Price looked back on THE FLY with a certain fondness. “I thought THE FLY was a wonderful film – entertaining and great fun,” he said. “It had a sense of suspense,” he said. “You didn’t know what was going to happen. When you saw the Fly, you only saw him for a short while. Jeff Goldblum wrote me a letter when his version came out and said, ‘I hope you like it as much as I like yours’ – which I thought was terribly sweet. I’d never met him, and I wrote him back. I kind of like the new version. It was wonderful right up to a certain point. It just goes too far. I didn’t believe the end of it – it became laughable because too much happened. There is such a thing as suggesting something. It’s like nude women: very few women should be caught nude.”
Patricia Owens, who retired in 1967 after The Destructors to raise her family, is properly convincing as Andre’s wife — actually the film’s largest role in terms of screen time and dialogue; she once claimed the film had helped her overcome an insect phobia: “Now when I see a beetle or something crawling, I just tell myself, ‘Why, that’s only that nice Al Hedison playing a new role.’ Then all fear leaves me.”
Herbert Marshall, a British actor who had been on stage in England and America before appearing in such films as Foreign Correspondent, Razor’s Edge, and Duel in the Sun, does a marvelous job of elevating Charas from a mouthpiece asking questions into a human being; his horrified reaction shot, after crushing the human headed fly in the spider’s web, gives no indication that he and Price were laughing themselves sick during that day’s filming.
“We never could get it all out,” said Vincent Price of the scene’s filming. “We were playing this kind of philosophical scene, and every time that little voice [of the fly] would say ‘Help me! Help me!’ we would just scream with laughter. It was terrible. It took us about 20 takes to finally get it.”
Cast in the role of Andre Delambre was Al Hedison, a young New York stage actor who had appeared in only one previous film, The Enemy Below. “I had first read the story in Playboy, and I thought it was thrilling. Shortly after that, Fox got the rights, and several actors who were under contract turned it down; when they asked me if I wanted to do it, I was thrilled — I thought it could be a terrific picture. Of course I was a little younger then and they tried to make me look older — put gray in my hair.”
Taking his cue from Clavell’s script (which he calls “a very sympathetic story of two people very much in love”), Hedison plays Andre as a conscientious scientist, not an obsessed fanatic:
“He’s really discovered something pretty marvelous, because he was talking about being able to do wonderful things for humanity: being able to transport food to another place — he had all these wonderful ideas. I thought that was a very important point that James Clavell had made.”
Unfortunately, the finished film doesn’t live up to Hedison’s ideal of what it could have been: “I was a little disappointed in it. When I read the story, I was really thrilled because I’d always loved that story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and this had something of that in it. I ran to [Fox chief] Buddy Adler and said, ‘I think you’re gonna have a terrific picture here, but it must be done with progressive makeup.’ When she first pulls the cloth off, there’s got to be enough to frighten anyone — you know, like half his face. But instead they used this mask, which I fought and didn’t like at all. Unfortunately they wanted to use it and thought it was fast. I thought if they had used progressive makeup and spent a little more time on it, it could have been an even better picture. They could have done more with it in that way and strengthened the human relationship, which would have been terrific. Then it would have been really horrifying.”
Unlike what often happens in scenes involving masks, Hedison played all his own scenes, even though his face was completely obscured and a double could easily have been substituted. At the time, Hedison said that acting through the mask was like “trying to play piano with boxing gloves,” but years later he had softened his opinion.
“I think I did my best work under the mask,” he joked. “I went into makeup several times before the film started, and they got a plaster cast of my head — I went through that for hours; then the finally got the mask to fit my face. I thought, for all that time they could have done it the other way — my way. So then I would go in, in the morning, and they would put it on — it would take about a half hour. They would put these little things in my mouth that would move [the mask’s proboscis]. As masks go, it wasn’t bad, but it didn’t scare me much. I think the mask could have been the final stage, but at the beginning it could have been wonderful if they’d come up with something really frightening.”
Another disappointment involved post-dubbing dialogue, a practice with which Hedison was unfamiliar since this was only his second film:
“They bring you into a dubbing room, and you try to recapture the moment,” he explains. “Well, I was a total failure. I had a plane leaving that afternoon to go to England to shoot a film, a piece of drek called Son of Robin Hood. They just had me for a couple of hours, and I had to do that scene — it was a love scene in the garden with Patricia Owens, which I had filmed, and it was terrific, I thought — a very moving scene. Then I went in to dub it, and I saw the cut version, and I was so unhappy because it was gone; it was totally gone. I mean, it was there — the words were there — but it was a fake and it was cold and didn’t work. That to me was very upsetting.
“And while we’re at it,” he continues, “the other thing that was upsetting was — well, people do an imitation of it all the time: ‘’Help me!’ They had me in the net, and they pasted me white. In the dailies, when I saw that scene it was horrific — the sound of a man who’s gonna be eaten by a spider — I mean, it’s terrible! But they chose to go with that effect — heighten my voice to make it sound like a chipmunk or something — which to me made no sense at all. What they should have done was move the camera in closer and had my own voice screaming, ‘Help me!’”
Hedison smiled. “It’s good to get these things off my chest — thirty years too late!”
The pale, gaunt makeup that Hedison wore in that famous scene was the work of Ben Nye, Sr., who made simple but effective use of highlight and shadow to achieve the death — like appearance. Nye, regrettably, passed away this February 1986. His career spanned five decades, from Gone with the Wind to Planet of the Apes (1969), and included such films as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Dr. Doolittle. At the time of THE FLY, Nye was the makeup director at 20th Cen¬tury Fox, a position that he held for twenty three years before retiring from the screen to produce his own line of theatrical makeup — a business continued by his sons Ben, Jr. and Dana.
For the effect of a spider web, Nye took two pieces of a 2×4 wood, each about eight inches long, and put white glue between them; then, by rubbing them together and pulling them apart, he could create long thin fibers, which he would lay over Hedison’s head.
“I was concerned that the actor would suffer some in the removal stage,” Nye recalled in an unpublished autobiographical account of his years at Fox. “However, at the end of the day’s shooting, it slipped off of his head completely. Luckily, I only had to do this makeup once. The effect was super.”
For the spider that menaces Hedison, Nye asked the prop department to supply him with a hollow facsimile that could be operated like a hand-puppet. “They got in over their head though, when they tried to put hair on it. We took it over, and my apprentice Dick Blair layered crepe wool evenly with light- to dark-brown hair. We also glued the eyes into place.”
Combining the miniature spider with Hedison, as well as providing the bright blue light seen when the matter transmitter is at work, was the job of L.B. Abbott, who later went on to work on several Irwin Allen disaster films (The Towering Inferno) before his death in 1985.
Nye’s greatest challenge on the film, of course, was creating the fly mask. When first given the script, he was told to read it in a hurry, because the film was scheduled to begin production within two months, and producer-director Kurt Neumann was anxious to know how much time and money it would take to complete the mask.
“Unfortunately, that was never covered in my apprenticeship, and so I told him I didn’t have the foggiest,” Nye recounted. “However, they thought I could do it and they gave what could be called an unlimited budget. Before long, I was meeting with the art director, who was showing me his ideas. They didn’t conform to what I had in mind, but they were good for a start.”
Although Dana Nye recollects that the research department at Fox came up with a color transparency of a fly to aid his father, Ben Nye’s own account indicates that he relied mostly on his imagination. He and his able assistant Dick Smith (not the famed makeup artist of The Exorcist) agreed to create a tightly fitting skin on which would be glued the various components of the insect’s face. After settling on the design and sculpting the fly head, they produced latex sponge pieces and secured them on the mask, which then had a zipper sewn in the back by the wardrobe department.
“When we began to decide what the eyes would be like, I could only imagine,” Nye wrote. Knowing there were multiple cells in the eye of a fly led Nye to a beaded look, so he had the prop department constructed metal frames covered with a fine wire mesh in a convex curve. Then Nye, Blair, and assistant Richard Hamilton applied 14mm pearl-type beads to the mesh.
“We were a little like Laurel and Hardy to begin with. After completing several pairs individually, we discovered, to our chagrin, the beads had been layered in conflicting patterns.”
Once that problem was sorted out, Nye painted the eyes with an airbrush, using iridescent colors: beige, yellow, and green. “This was all done in two very crazy weeks. I was even coming in during the weekend. Meanwhile, I still had all the other responsibilities of running the department. We had three or four features being made on the lot at the time.”
Next a proboscis was sculpted in clay. Its sponge rubber exterior, with a sucker tip on the end, was supported internally by a wooden core. Held in Hedison’s mouth, it provided the mask’s only animation. On each side of the piece were feelers cut from turkey feathers to give an airy look
“This was again what I thought a fly would look like. I painted the feathers a metallic green, blue, and black to get a variegated coloring effect. Finally, at the top of the proboscis, I added little hairs which were constructed out of tiny plastic rods. We learned that by holding them over a flame for an instant, the rod could be pulled apart, and the plastic looked like little hairs.”
A week before the camera test, Nye painted the entire head with metallic green, blue, and black, using more black under the “jaw line” to give the mask better definition. Over this were added coarse whiskers made from the plastic rods held over flame. With the eyes in place, the proboscis ready, and the mask colored, Nye ordered a special wig from Max Factor.
“It was probably the strangest order they had ever received,” he wrote. “We had to send them a plaster head of Hedison so that it would fit him perfectly. What was actually different was the pattern into which the hair was layered. I wanted a sparse effect, and I ordered the individual hairs knotted in the netting about three-eights to one-half inches apart. We could see through it when it arrived, and this gave it a surreal look.”
Since the wig arrived uncut, Nye gave it a haircut while Hedison was wearing it. The wig was then glued to the mask and cut up the back along the path of the zipper.
After all this preparation, there was only one day for a camera test to check for lighting and angles. Unfortunately, although the mask looked great in rushes, close-ups revealed that the eyes looked exactly like what they were: beads. Nye had to come up with a new concept very quickly.
After several days’ experimentation, he decided to create convex eyes out of plastic shells. He discovered that, if he used two thin shells, one could be set within the other and painted to look semi-lucid. After getting the final version made by the prop department (they had to conform to the eye spaces left in the mask for the wire mesh frames), he began using luminous paint: light orchid on the inner shell, light gray on the outer, and yellow and green around the edges to give “an even more mystical effect. ”
The second camera test pleased everyone except for Hedison. The wire mesh eyes had allowed enough air and light to enter so that it was easy for him to breathe and see; the plastic eyes, however, were semi-opaque, and Nye couldn’t lighten the coloring without revealing Hedison’s eyes to the camera. During the test, Nye slightly opened the lower part of the shells to give a bit of ventilation; Hedison asked if they could be left open — this provided him just enough space to look down and walk without falling.
The claw on Hedison’s right hand was supplied by the special effects department. Nye made a rubber sleeve to fit over the rear of the claw and painted it to match with iridescent black, blue, and green, after which Dick Blair applied the hair. The claw plays a part in some action that may actually seem more memorable in retrospect: the warring nature of Andre Delamabre’s fading human personality and growing insect instincts are visualized in scenes of the character fighting with his clawed hand, which almost seems to take on a life of its own – a bit of business that foreshadows a similar predicament suffered by the title character (played by Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Summing up the experience, Nye had this to say: “This was a most difficult assignment since had nothing to start with. However, after I got onto what my imagination told me to do, the concepts unfolded one by one, and the mask and its components were most gratifying. My only disappointment was that the producer thought the mask was too scary for the average child or perhaps adult. Therefore, he ordered that the scenes in the lab be lit very dimly. This was supposed to make sure the audience was not ‘too scared.’ I was mad because much of the detail could never be seen. In the sixties, Irwin Allen moved onto the lot and produced a number of sci-fi stories; we had many special type makeups, but I never did anything as sophisticated or original as THE FLY.”
CRITICAL REACTION AND AUDIENCE RESPONSE
Upon its initial release, THE FLY became an immediate success, grossing nearly $34,000 on its opening day in Los Angeles. According to Lippert’s story editor Harry Spalding, 20th Century-Fox executives were so impressed that they took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety, which stated, “THE FLY opens to astounding results.” However, the ad was immediately pulled because the rather obvious pun was considered in poor taste. The gross increased to a million dollars in the first week and eventually ended up somewhere over the three million dollar mark — making it, after Peyton Place, Fox’s only other box office hit of the year.
Critical reaction to the film was somewhat mixed. Carlos Clarens (An Illustrated History of the Horror Film) stated, “It stands out from ordinary movies in nearly creating an authentic science fiction monster,” but then goes on to accuse the film of botching its own potential. Ivan Butler (Horror in the Cinema) calls THE FLY “the most ludicrous, and certainly one of the most revolting science-horror films ever perpetrated. […] Nothing, anyway, could excuse the head-crushing business.” (Butler tends to be rather squeamish.) Many detractors, including filmmaker David Cronenberg, who directed the 1986 remake, question why the fly’s head and claw appear suitably enlarged on Andre Delambre instead of their normal size — a point neither the story nor the film addresses. Somewhat unfairly, many also question why Andre retains his own personality after losing his head — even though this point is addressed, since Andre’s human personality is gradually being eclipsed.
Of course, the film has earned some praise as well, and not just from sci-fi fans who discovered it on television as kids. In his book of capsule reviews, Movies on TV, Steven H. Scheuer (who was hardly a fan of the genre) praised THE FLY as a “superior science-fiction thriller with a literate script for a change, plus good production effects and capable performances.” Frank McConnell (“Rough Beasts Slouching: A Note on the Horror Film”) wrote: “It manages a profound kind of shock: exactly because the flat, third-person camera angle imposes a tacit equivalence of human and inhuman which is the obverse of Kafka’s vision” (in his famous short story “Metamorphosis”). And John Brosnan (The Horror People) calls THE FLY “a totally ludicrous film but a very enjoyable one, especially since the cast manages to appear to take it all so seriously.”
SPAWN OF THE FLY: Quick-Buck Sequels
Whatever the critical reaction, the box office success ensured a sequel. “I think Fox was very surprised when it made the money it did,” Hedison recalled. “Anyway, it made a lot of money, and I’m sure Fox were very happy. Of course, they made another film called RETURN OF THE FLY to capitalize on the first one – and they went even further into the ridiculous: they had a mask that was six times the six of the first one. I don’t know what they had in mind.”
For the follow-up, Fox chief Buddy Adler turned to the man who had brought the property to him in the first place: Robert Lippert. Lippert’s associate Harry Spalding recalled the reason: “Fox was not interested in a sequel, and Lippert had paid additional money for sequel rights from the author.” If Lippert did in fact own sequel rights, those rights apparently reverted on his death to 20th Century Fox, who claimed to own all rights to the franchise when they produced the remake in the 1980s.A more likely explanation came from writer-director Edward Bernds, who believed that the decision to entrust the sequel to Lippert was an economic one: “Fox was short of money, struggling financially, and they wanted a quick profit with as little financial risk as possible.”
1959’s RETURN OF THE FLY, produced by Lippert’s Associated Producers and distributed by Fox, was almost entirely divorced from its predecessor in terms of cast and crew. THE FLY’s producer-director Kurt Neumann died after completing Watusi (also scripted by Clavell) in 1958. Bernds thinks that James Clavell was unhappy because he wanted to make his directorial debut on the sequel. “He never said that, but I got that impression whenever I came across him — an unfriendly aura. But perhaps that was just his way.” Clavell later got chance to direct (as well as produce and write) several films, notably To Sir, With Love (1967) before becoming a best-selling novelist with Shogun.
Vincent Price reprised his role as Francois Delambre, earning top billing as the only returning cast member from the original. Bernds wanted Herbert Marshall, too, but was told he was too ill; however, since Marshall made several other films before his death in 1966 (including The List of Adrian Messenger), Bernds thinks cost may have been the real factor.
As with other Lippert productions, Fox gave no interference after handing over the money. Atypically, the film was shot on the deluxe Fox Westwood lot, entirely with Fox personnel, so that the production would absorb some of the Fox overhead; consequently, the low-budget black-and-white B-picture had sets and production value on a par with the original.
Brett Halsey stars as Philip Delambre, now an adult with a fear of flies, who resumes his father’s experiments, with predictably dire results. The story suffers from a sense of fait acompli: the raison d’etre is obviously to reprise the fly transformation from the original – although in this case, not through accident but espionage: a murderous thief (David Frankham), seeking to steal the secrets of the matter transmitter, intentionally sends Philip through with a fly. The last act turns into a typical monster movie: the mutated Philip (with a fly head several times larger than his father’s) goes on a killing rampage, before being restored to his original form for a happy ending.
As Henry Spaulding explained of the contrived plotline, “This was a slightly different job as story editor; Bernds and I worked a lot more closely because we were fabricating a story. It was up to us to find some means of getting it to work. It wasn’t that easy — there was no reason to have a sequel. It was a one-idea story — how to get an excuse to make the mistake again. By the time of the third film it was pretty damn hard!”
The result is a melodramatic rehash that lacks whatever credibility the earlier film had. Price adopts the furrowed-brow expression that would become a trademark, indicating that he was not taking the film seriously – and inviting the audience to do likewise. The new inspector is a weak replacement for Marshall’s Charas, and the attempt to portray a fly with a human head, by superimposing Halsey’s face onto an actual fly, yields ridiculous results. Yet, despite the limitations of the story, Bernds managed to deliver a serviceable B-movie with enough thrills to earn a profit for the ailing Fox, helping to establish Price as a star of genre films. RETURN OF THE FLY is not genuinely frightening, but the monster scenes are nicely staged, and there is a certain satisfaction in seeing Philip kill off the bad guys.
“It wasn’t a bad film, but it was ridiculous to shoot it in black-and-white,” Price lamented years later of the low-budget follow-up. “I love black-and-white, but you do two pictures in color – not one in color and one in black-and-white.”
CURSE OF THE FLY, the final sequel in the original trilogy, was not made until 1965. After his deal with Fox ended, Lippert grew disenchanted with the cost of making films in America and moved to England, where he produced a series of modest pictures. Spalding said that CURSE OF THE FLY was made simply to cash in on the title: “Lippert had a deal to make pictures for $90,000, so he thought ‘Why not a third FLY picture? With that budget, anything that had any kind of value that you could tag on would be a help.”
The film was written by Spalding (“Every so often I’d talk out a script with Lippert — he gave me things anybody else wouldn’t do”) and directed by Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire). Brian Donlevy starred as Henri Delambre, a role written with Claude Rains in mind. The film is seldom screened, and in the 1980s (when the FLY remake was in the works) Spalding himself claimed, “I haven’t seen it since the screening when it first came out twenty years ago.”
Despite an extremely negative critical consensus, the film has at least two defenders: Phillip Strick (Science Fiction Movies) and David Pirie (A Heritage of Horror), both of whom acknowledge the plot weaknesses but praise Don Sharp’s handling of the point-of-view of the unstable heroine (Carol Gray), who escapes from a mental asylum, marries Henri’s son, and gradually discovers that her husband and father-in-law are continuing Andre Delambre’s experiments.
REBIRTH OF THE FLY: Three Decades Later, A Sophisticated Remake
CURSE OF THE FLY brought the original FLY saga to a close; the idea really wasn’t sufficient to support an extended series. However, it was good enough to inspire a new film nearly thirty years later – one of those rare remakes that actually exceeds the original. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, who had released the original, the remake was actually produced more or less as a modestly budgeted independent production by comedian Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilm company – recreating the facts behind the making of the original.
Curiously, 20tb Century Fox made no attempt to contact anyone involved with the 1958 version of THE FLY. Hedison himself found out only by running into the remake’s producer: “I was sitting in the commissary at 20th Century Fox, where I was doing a television show at the time – just guesting – and Mel Brooks came up to me and said, ‘We’re doing THE FLY,’ and I said, ‘No kidding!’”
Writer-director David Cronenberg, who had earned the sobriquet “King of Veneral Horror” for such effective low-budget thoughtful shockers as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood before moving on to high-profile projects like Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, reimagined the concept with some help from screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue. In the new version of THE FLY, scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) does not emerge from his matter transmitter with the head of a fly; instead, his genetic structure has been merged with the insect, so that he begins a gradual but inevitable transformation into a human-fly hybrid. With no real hope of a cure, Seth’s story is a depressing tragedy, as sad as it is horrific, and Cronenberg makes it work by staying true to the drama even while supplying the shocks.
The result is a thoroughly engrossing film that works as a f metaphor for untimely death, whether from a disease like cancer or from or from some self-destructive character trait like addiction. Through the eyes of the Geena Davis character, a reporter named Veronica Quaife, who becomes Seth’s lover, we watch like a helpless friend or family member as Seth declines, losing not only his human appearance but also his personality, until he is little more than a ghastly mockery of his former self. Cronenberg’s penchant for gross-out horror (Seth vomits acidic digestive juices on the hand and foot of one opponent) occasionally comes close to pushing the film into excessive, almost campy territory, but the performances by Golblum, Davis, and John Gertz (as the unfortunate recipient of said juices) help keep the story anchored in some sense of believability to the bitter end.
The success of THE FLY led to an inevitable sequel three years later. Unfortunately, Cronenberg had no involvment, much to the film’s detriment. But then, even he might have found the challenge an impossible one: as with 1959’s RETURN OF THE FLY, 1989’s THE FLY II proves that the concept is just too limited to support a sequel, which inevitably is forced to re-run what happened the first time around. As if that were not bad enough, the sequel jettisons the serious storytelling of the original in favor of making an all-out special effects extravaganza that has no integrity.
As in RETURN OF THE FLY, THE FLY II focuses on the son of the unfortune scientist from the previous film, this time played by Eric Stoltz (one wishes the produces had simply used the title SON OF THE FLY). This time, Martin Brundle does not recreate his father’s mistake; he simply inherits the curse genetically. The obvious problem with the story is that Veronica Quaife was clearly planning to get an abortion in THE FLY, so young Martin should not even exist if the writing were to stay true to the characters. Even worse, Veronica dies in childbirth before the opening titles – an example of lazy Hollywood screenwriting, in which audience identification with important characters is sacrificed on the alter of soulless franchise filmmaking. With this callous disregard for what made the first film work, THE FLY II emerges as a mindless piece of by-the-numbers genre filmmaking, whose only achievement is to recreate the human-to-fly mutation of THE FLY with equally extensive makeup effects – but without any of the credibility that made the previous film heart-wrenching as well as gut-wrenching.
Thankfully, THE FLY II fared poorly enough to prevent the embarassment of futher sequels. Unfortunately, the passage of time seems to be leading to yet another attempt at jump-starting the franchise, with a remake of THE FLY scheduled for 2006. With Veronica Quaife listed as one of the characters, the film seems to be a remake of Cronenberg’s version, not the original. But there is no legitimate reason to remake Cronenberg’s film, which is almost entirely successful on its own terms. The 1958 version of THE FLY may have left room for improvement, so that Cronenberg was able to deliver a remake that stood on its own, as something more than just a rehash. It’s hard to imagine what a new version could accomplish, except recasting the roles for younger viewers with no memories of the unbeatable Cronenberg film.
Seen today, the 1958 version of THE FLY is a bit of a quaint artifact from an earlier era. It’s a sincere attempt to tell a frightening science-fiction story with tragic consequences, but the scare scenes work most effectively on young children. Structuring the story like a murder-mystery helps hold interest on first viewing, but once you know why Helene Delambra killed her husband, subsequent viewings reveal a lack of suspense in the early scenes (although there are some remarkable scenes, such as the almost surreal sight of Helene, a beautiful woman in a lovely dress, standing in a darkened factory at night, poised in front of the press that has just crushed her husband to death – an image that would have made Luis Bunuel proud). At times the script seems almost prescient (early on, Francois wonders if his brother Andre is working on “flat screen” television), but much of the science raises unanswered questions (like how the fly’s head got suitably enlarged when it ended up on Andre). Especially in light of David Cronenberg’s sophisticated remake, the original comes across as a bit mild and even a touch naïve. It’s a sort of archetypal ‘50s science-fiction movie, with a scientist who pays dearly for his experiments. But the production values hold up, and the cast helps sell the story, making it worthwhile entertainment for sci-fi and cult fans.
Thanks to the remake, home video, and occasional revival screenings, THE FLY remains a memorable icon in the history of screen monster movies. The original film has maintained its cult popularity among enthusiasts, and its first sequel rides on the coattails of that success (the two films are packaged together on a nice double-bill DVD that includes trailers – but not CURSE OF THE FLY). The Cronenberg remake has entered the pantheon of truly great horror films – one of the best ever made by one of the genre’s most distinctive auteurs. It is available as a two-disc collector’ DVD that includes an audio commentary by the director, George Langellan’s story, Charles Edward Pogue’s original screenplay, Cronenberg’s rewrite, photo galleries, featurettes, trailers, teasers, and other bonuses. And the newly proposed remake of the Cronenberg version seems to lend confirmation, if any were needed, of the enduring popularity of the concept.
That the relatively modest 1958 film would have such a long-lasting impact was beyond the wildest dreams of David Hedison, who changed his name shortly after THE FLY came out in 1958 (“I was under contract to Fox at the time, and they didn’t like the name Al, so I said, ‘Lets just use my middle name…’”) and later went on to star as the captain of the submarine Seaview in the Irwin Allen TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
“I just thought it would be wonderfully amusing and entertaining — and maybe make some money — but I certainly didn’t think it was going to become a cult science fiction film,” Hedison admitted in 1986. “What I should have done actually, is maybe five years ago try to remake it myself … It’s amazing – I’ve gotten more calls, from New York and even Europe, because people had gotten wind that THE FLY is being remade.”
Regarding the original, Hedison maintained his sense of disappointment decades after the fact: “I saw it about five years ago, on Channel 5,” he recalled, “and all the things I felt at the time stood out even more.”
To what, then, did he attribute the film’s reputation as a science-fiction cult classic? “The story,” he stated. “The basic story is wonderful, and that worked. It goes to show, the story’s the thing. Get a good story going, and sometimes even if it’s only in competent hands it’ll be very successful.”
THE FLY (1958). Produced and directed by Kurt Neumann. Screenplay by James Clavell, based on the short story by George Langelaan. Cast: Al (David) Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall, Kathleen Freeman, Betty Lou Gerson, Charles Herbert.
This article is based on material that originally appeared in Cinefantastique magazine in 1986. This version copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski