In Volume 1, Episode 17 of the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast, Dan Persons Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski unravel the mysteries of genetic engineering and bad parenting as they analyze SPLICE, Vincenzo Natali’s thoughtful variation on the old “mad scientists create a monster” scenario. Also this week, the usual round-up of news, home video releases, and upcoming events.
Not since the brilliant French film MARTYRS (2008) has a movie come on the scene, grabbed you by the throat, and essentially dared you to watch it without flinching. This is what was promised with THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE: FIRST SEQUENCE, which is gaining quite the cult following and is now in limited release around the country in midnight shows and can be found on MOD/VOD (check with your local cable company). Does it deliver? In a word, not even close. This film is full of bad acting, pacing problems, and it is a victim of being over-hyped so much that it couldn’t possibly deliver what it promises. But who’s fault is this?
As THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE opens we join Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser, resembling the bastard love-child of Lance Henriksen and Udo Kier) who is sitting in his car in the shoulder of the road. He’s staring fondly at a picture of a canine centipede in which he joined three dogs to make one long creature. The opening ends with the good doc drugging and kidnapping a fat trucker. Flash to our heroines, Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), two American tourists traveling across Germany. They’re getting ready to go to a party that is apparently in the middle of nowhere (judging by the roads they’re traveling on). On the way, their car gets a flat tire on a very remote road and after an encounter with an older, very creepy German guy they decide to walk and find help. Guess which house they end up at?
Is any of this sounding familiar? It should – it’s the set up for about 1,000 flicks. The “strangers lost in a strange land” is nothing new. But those who’ve bought into the hype will remain patient. I did. Unfortunately, this patience will be rewarded far too soon.
In case you haven’t already noticed, it becomes obvious that there’s something very wrong with Heiter. We learn that he’s a world-renowned surgeon who specialized in separating Siamese twins. Now retired, he’s doing “research” in his home lab – that’s never a good sign. He’s obsessed with creating a three-segment human centipede in which three subjects are connected mouth-to-anus, sharing one digestive track. Heiter sees the arrival of Lindsay and Jenny as a windfall opportunity. He already has the fat trucker, so he does what any good host-mad scientist would do: He slips the girls some roofies, chains them up in his basement operating room and preps them for surgery. It turns out the trucker’s tissue samples don’t match the girls, so Heiter kills the trucker and then kidnaps a Japanese tourist. Perfect match.
Now THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE has all his pieces in place, and you can just feel a sick combination of dread and anticipation welling up inside as Heiter explains to his subjects what he’s going to do to them: remove their teeth, remove the ligaments from their knees, and alter their anuses in order to connect them mouth-to-anus. Then just as he starts the procedure the scene fades to black, and bam, the operation is over.
Where’s the horror we were promised – the stuff that was supposed to challenge us to keep our eyes glued on the screen? Presumably, that was left on the cutting room floor in order to rush to reveal the titular abomination about 30-40 minutes into the running time. We see the human centipede, yawn, and then watch as Heiter trains – that’s right, trains – his new pet.
This is a huge problem; after writer-director Tom Six blows his wad in a most anticlimactic way, you quickly find yourself losing interest. There’s just nothing to keep our attention after the human centipede is revealed. The entire film suffers from a very slow and lumbering pace, and let’s be honest here, there’s barely enough material to fill a short film let alone a feature length movie.
And is this material all that original? I seem to recall a novel written by H.G. Wells called THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU – in 1896!! . Yes, there are a lot of differences in the two stories (Dr. Moreau is turning animals into people rather than people into animals), but if Tom Six focused on the story, characters, and social commentary more than trying to make a disturbing and graphic film, he would have had more success.
The only interesting character is Dr. Heiter. There’s no doubt he’s bat-shit crazy, but what makes him so dangerous is that he’s focused, intelligent, and determined. He doesn’t look at his prisoners as people; they’re simply subjects to help him with his research and are no different than a lab mouse. It’s also pretty clear that Heiter doesn’t like people and seems to have grown tired of the human race. People, to him, are subjects to be experimented on.
Laser plays the part beautifully – the one shining performance in this otherwise annoying cast. The girls, at least after being captured, are whiny and annoying. During one of cinema’s most epic-failed escape attempts, Lindsay goes full retard (and everyone knows you don’t go full retard), making so much noise you just root for Heiter to capture her. (At one point she actually tries to hide under water while Heiter stands by the side of the pool.) There’s not one second when you think she’ll succeed – the entire escape feels tagged on in order pad out the running time.
For an allegedly disturbing flick, with a totally twisted premise, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is actually rather blood-less. One tag-line for the film is “100% Medically Accurate,” and that’s the main problem. The approach is so clinical that there’s no over-the-top mayhem that could have catapulted it to cult classic status – or at least made it a midnight movie favourite. In fact, all the the “disturbing” imagery is included in the trailer. So if you saw the trailer you’ve essentially already seen the entire film. Besides Dieter Laser’s performance, there’s nothing here to recommend, and on top of everything else, the sound quality is terrible.
Apparently, there’s already a part two in the works with a 12 segment human centipede. Meh. Skip this one and go watch Martyrs again.
THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE: FIRST SEQUENCE (2009; VOD release on April 28, 2010; USA theatrical distribution starting April 30, 2010). Written and directed by Tom Six. Cast: Dieter Laser, Ashley C. Williams, Ashlyn Yennie, Akihiro Kitamura, Andreas Leupold, Peter Blankenstein.
“The future, Madame, is something we should have started on a long time ago.” – Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) in EYES WITHOUT A FACE.
Imagine a beautiful dream of lyrical black-and-white images, of a lonely young woman, flitting through her home like a silent spectre, calling her fiance on the phone to listen to his voice but not speaking herself – because that would reveal she is still alive, when the world thinks her dead. Her home is also her prison. Her face, hidden behind a mask that makes her resemble a mannequin, is a ruined mess, the result of an automobile accident. Her father is a brilliant surgeon who has faked her death and is trying to restore her beauty – a process that involves kidnapping look-alike victims and transplanting their faces onto hers. When you see the operation in full view of the unblinking camera, you realize that your dream has erupted into a nightmare whose shock derives from the way the graphic imagery violates the poetic beauty of the rest of the film.
This is the brilliant strategy used by director Georges Franju in EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage), a compelling and clinically brilliant combination of French art film and shock horror. The plot reads like little more than conventional B-movie schlock: Doctor Genessier, driven by guilt (for he was driving the car during the accident that disfigured his daughter), is the archetypal mad scientist who will stop at nothing to see his scheme succeed. His is aided and abetted by his faithful servant, in this case a beautiful nurse, Louise (Alida Valli), rather than a deformed hunchback. Beautiful young women are kidnapped to be used as fodder for his experiments, but their faces bring only temporary respite, the transplanted tissue inevitably succumbing to necrosis and dying away on the face of the wounded Christiane Genessier (Edith Scob). Alerted by Christiane’s suspicious fiance Jacques (Francois Guerin), the police hatch a scheme to see what Dr. Genessie is really up to, but their plans go awry, placing another victim in danger and precipitating a final, violent confrontation that brings the horror to a climax.
What raises EYES WITHOUT A FACE to the level of a masterpiece is the thorough conviction with which the story is treated, at all levels: the performances, direction, photography, and art direction – all combine to create a world in which fragile, poetic beauty is periodically shattered by clinical horror. The juxtaposition of the contrasting imagery is, in some miraculous fashion, entirely seamless, all part and parcel of the same picture, never feeling gratuitously grafted on. In effect, it is as if Christiane’s enigmatic, mysterious masks were periodically peeled away to reveal the hidden ugliness beneath the beautiful facade. The result is not merely frightening but also genuinely disturbing – and thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. This is the first “art” horror film, and it’s cross-over appeal between the art house and the grindhouse should not be overestimated.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE was made at a time when recent box office trends had revealed at audience apetite for graphic horror. At the end of the 1950s, after nearly a decade of sci-fi monster movies (usually involving atomic radiation and/or interstellar aliens), Gothic films had made a resurgence, thanks largely to England’s Hammer Productions, which released such titles as Curse of Frankenstein(1957) and Horror of Dracula(1958). Although the choice of subject matter was old-fashioned, the approach was new and bold – and unafraid of the occasional application of blood.
French producer Jules Borkon wanted to ride this new bandwagon to success, and he hired Franju to create the first French horror film. The closest that refined French cinema had come to the genre was Henri-Georges Clouzot’s1955 Diaboliques, which features a horrifying resurrection sequence at the climax; however, the script ultimately explained away the horror as trickery, and the film works mostly as a mystery thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock mold.
Franju eschewed any attempt to hide behind the “mystery-thriller” label. Working with the Diaboliqueswriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (whose other credits include the novel on which Hitchcock based his film Vertigo), Franju crafted a film that was not afraid to shock. Curiously, EYES WITHOUT A FACE was designed specifically to avoid censorship expected problems, yet Franju never seems to be suffering from undue restraint or directing with one arm tied behind his back.
The director’s most famous previous work had been The Blood of Beasts, a documentary that intercut pleasant scenes of everyday in France with the carnage of a slaughterhouse – presumably to make some kind of statement about the bloody horrors that are a secret, hidden part of civilized society – usually kept out of sight and out of mind.
“I’m led to give documentary realism the appearance of fiction,” he once explained of his work, and one could say that he employed a similar to great effect – lending fiction the appearance of a documentary – in EYES WITHOUT A FACE. For despite the artistic trappings that surround Christiane and her plight, the majority of the film is actually devoted to her father’s quest to cure her – which is presented with the clinical detachment of a documentary, emotionless medical jargon and antiseptic surgical procedure underlining the appalling horror of Dr. Gessenier’s actions.
The result led to quite a few shocked reactions when the film was originally released. EYES WITHOUT A FACE was the first full-blown French horror film, and French critics did not know what to make of it. Some were outraged and dismissive; those who liked it had to rationalize it, pretending it was not a horror film but something else, such as a film noir masquerading the genre label.
And it was not only the French who were caught by surprise; in fact, initial reactions to the film seem to have predated The Exorcist(1973) by over a decade: At the Edinburgh Film Festival, seven viewers reportedly fainted during the infamous surgery scene. Apparently pleased with the reaction, Franju remarked, “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. distributor did not quite know what to do with the film, which was retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and dubbed into English for stateside distribution in 1960, when it was. released on double bill with the rather more conventional monster flick, The Manster. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine what teen-aged drive-in audiences made of this unusual French film, but it’s safe to say that, in its English form, it never earned a reputation as a beloved horror classic.
Fortunately, the reputation of EYES WITHOUT A FACE has only grown with the passing of years, especially with art house screenings in its original un-dubbed form, under its original title, followed by a Criterion Collection DVD release, loaded with bonus features. The film is now often regarded as a unique masterpiece, so much so that including it in a list of the Top 100 Horror Films of all time is hardly controversial, despite the film’s art house approach to what is, basically, a grizzly mad scientist’s tale.
THE HORROR! THE HORROR!
As in Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein, much of the horror in EYES WITHOUT A FACE is moral and/or psychological. Both films deal with a brilliant surgeon who is figuratively blind to the horror he leaves in his wake while pursuing his goals.(Ironically, Peter Cushing, who played the Baron in Curse, would go on to star in Corruption, which is more or less a remake of EYES WITHOUT A FACE). Dr. Genessier has a streak of kindness in him, but he is also the ultimate authoritarian, who is seeking to repair his daughter less because he loves her than because he needs to undo his own mistake. This clinical detachment is underlined in his nurse, Louise, who (like the enablers of the holocaust) obediently follows orders, never doubting the superior wisdom of the Doctor. The psychological impact of this on Christiane is never explored in depth; we merely project it onto that frozen rubber face she wears, and her actions at the end eventually spell it out for us.
So much for the intangible horror. What does EYES WITHOUT A FACE actually show?
We never really see Christiane’s ruined face, except in a series of still photographs that chart the decay of her latest transplant. However, the film is far from reticent when it comes to graphic horror.
The most famous sequence is the skin graft operation, which is handled in a single, uninterrupted shot. The imagery – a face literally being dissected from a head – is guaranteed to send even modern audiences into paroxysms of loathing and disgust, squirming and averting their eyes from the screen. (To be completetly honest, if you overcome your fear long enough to watch closely, you can more or less see through the effect, yet the overall seriousness of the approach manages to sell the scene, regardless.)
At the climax, when Christiane decides enough is enough, she takes a scalpel and cuts her father’s latest intended victim loose. Louise appears and demands that Christiane give her the scalpel. Christiane gives it to her all right – burying it deep in her neck! The shock of the scene derives from its matter-of-fact presentation, which is utterly convincing. The real kicker, however, is Louise’s reaction. Instead of the expected scream of pain, she offers up only a tear of sadness and the plaintive question “Why?” Ever the loyal servant, she cannot understand Christiane’s homicidal rebellion against her father’s plans.
Somewhat less graphic, but equally cathartic, Christiane then lets loose the dogs that her father keeps around as guinea pigs (apparently, he performs vivesection experiments on the side) and sets them upon her father.
As the vengeful dogs tear their breathren’s tormentor to pieces (rather like the human animal hybrids do to Dr. Moreau in 1932’s Island of Lost Souls), Christiane wanders from her house out into the nearby woods, a lost soul still, but at least now free, accompanied by doves that flit like the Holy Spirit above her, making us see her as some kind of strange angel. Where will she go? What kind of future, realistically, is there for her? Will she reunite with her fiance? It doesn’t matter. The poetry of the image is ending enough to satisfy the eye and the mind. Anything that might or might not happen afterwards is irrelevant.
In the J-horror film Ring 0: Birthday (a prequel to Ring), troubled psychic girl Sadako works as part of a theatre group in Tokyo that is presenting a stage version of EYES WITHOUT A FACE. Although the title is not mentioned (at least in the English subtitles), the dialogue leaves no doubt about the identity of the play. EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage, 1960). Directed by George Franju. Screenplay by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, and Jean Redon, from the novel by Redon; dialogue by Pierre Gascar. Cast: Pierre Brasseur – Docteur Genessier; Alida Valli – Louise; Juliette Mayniel – Edna; Edith Scob – Christiane Genessier; Francois Guerin – Jacques Vernon; Alexandre Rignault – Inspector Parot; Beatrice Altariba – Paulette.
This article originally identified EYES WITHOUT A FACE as a 1959 film; however, IMDB lists it as 1960.
The very title of the new computer-animated film IGOR represents a sort of final proof – as if any were needed – that the most mysterious example of mistaken identity in the history of horror cinema is firmly embedded in the public consciousness beyond any hope of repair. The mystery: How did the name “Igor” come to be the generic designation for a mad scientist’s hump-backed assistant? In fact, how did mad scientists come to have assistants at all?
The famous scientists and semi-scientists of fiction tended to be loners. Dr. Moreau had Montgomery, but Dr. Jekyll, Frankenstein, and Griffin (the Invisible Man) worked in isolation. It is really the movies that established the concept of the deformed, grave-robbing assistant, thanks to 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. But that character was called Fritz – not Igor. How did he come to be, and how did he his name come to be replaced?
Looking for literary antecedents, one might cite Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (more popularly known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Quasimodo does not serve a scientist, but he is a second banana to a villainous character, Claude Frollo, a religious man corrupted by his lust for the gypsy girl Esmerelda. IN 1925, Universal Pictures, the company that later made FRANKENSTEIN, turned The Hunchback of Notre Dame into a film starring the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney. Although not actually a horror film, the elaborate Gothic sets and the makeup for the misshapen title character served as an influence on Universal’s horror classics of the 1930s, and one cannot help suspecting that a bit of Quasimodo found his way into Fritz.
When Universal made FRANKENSTEIN, little of Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel remained; the film was heavily influenced by intervening stage productions, some of which included an assistant. The dramatic reasons for this were obvious: in the book, Frankenstein could tell us his story directly, revealing what was going on in his mind; on stage and on film, Frankenstein’s character could be better revealed to the audience by giving him another character with whom to interact.
Another influence on Fritz was undoubtedly Renfield, the vampire’s obsessed acolyte in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The film version had been a hit for Universal in 1931, directly leading to the production of FRANKENSTEIN later that year. In the earlier film, Count Dracula is served by a dangerous lunatic, played by Dwight Frye; attempting to recapture DRACULA’s successful formula, Universal cast Frye as Fritz. Frye brought along the nervous qualities of his Renfield performance, playing Fritz, like Renfield, as a character who is subservient in the presence of his master but eager to dominate when on his own. In fact, the sadistic hunchback inadvertently causes his own death, torturing Frankenstein’s creation until the artificially created man lashes out in self-defense.
It is safe to say that the popular image of the mad scientist’s assistant derives almost entirely from Fritz: unpleasant, uncouth, ugly, possibly dangerous but for the most part loyal to his master. Frye played a slightly cleaner variation on the character in the 1935 sequel BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but the next big step in the evolution from Fritz to Igor was 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. In that film, Bela Lugosi co-starred as a broken-necked shepherd who used to steal bodies for Frankenstein.
Lugosi’s character is named Ygor (with a “Y”), but he is not quite the assistant as we commonly know him. For one thing, he has his own agenda: using the monster to kill off the people who sentenced him to be hanged. He works with Frankenstein’s son, not out of loyalty but only out of a desire to restore the monster to full power. Nevertheless, in other regards, he fits the mold: he’s a lower-class peasant whose shaggy appearance and unkempt clothing visually distinguish him from the upper-class scientist he serves.
How the name “Ygor” (respelled “Igor”) came to replace “Fritz” in the public consciousness is a bit of a puzzle. Subsequent Universal FRANKENSTEIN film featured assistants and/or hunchbacks, but none of them were named either “Ygor” or “Igor.” Over a decade latter, when England’s Hammer Films made THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) – and, later, its sequels – they avoided the cliche of the deformed assistant. The Italian horror film BLACK SUNDAY (1960, originally La Maschera Del Demonia [“The Mask of the Demon”]) featured a character named Igor Yavutich, but he served at the leisure of a vampire-witch, not a mad doctor; in any case, his name was shorted to simply Yavuto in the Americanized release prints, omiting his first name, so he had little influence on American perception that “Igor” equates with sinister servant. Eventually, the stop-motion kid-flick MAD MONSTER PARTY (1969) featured a creepy assistant named “Yetch,” which seems to be almost a conflation of “Ygor” and “Fritz.” (This film also popularized the notion of the assistant speaking in a nasal voice reminiscent of actor Peter Lorre.)
However it happened, the name Igor (if not the precise identity) seems to have been embedded in the public consciousness by the late 1950s, by which time it was appearing in pop culture spin-offs. The 1958 novelty record “Dinner with Drac” – by the “Cool Ghoul,” John Zacherle – has the narrator admonishing a waiter, “Igor, the scalpels go on the left, with the pitchforks!” The line suggests a bumbling assistant but not a mad scientist’s assistant, since Frankenstein is never mentioned.
Four years later, Bobby “Boris” Picket vamped a line or two during the fade-out of his hit single “The Monster Mash,” using the name “Igor” to refer not to a hunch-backed helper but to Frankenstein’s Monster. However, the follow-up album, The Original Monster Mash, contains several tracks identifying Igor as a lowly assistant, including “Irresistible Igor,” which specifically mentions the grave-robbing activities associated with the character in the old Universal Frankenstein films. Igor himself is even heard grunting, “Master!” once or twice – a line borrowed from Dwight Frye’s Renfield, but which has since become thoroughly associated with Igor and his ilk.
Perhaps what really sealed the deal was the kids’ lunchbox that Universal Studios licensed in the 1960s, featuring images of their classic movie monsters. Beside Frankenstein’s creation stood a very Fritz-like hunchback – identified as Igor! Presumably, Universal had decided that “Fritz” was too prosaic; let’s face it, “Igor” is a better name for a sinister servant. Or perhaps the then-current Universal brass simply did not recall that the character had originally been called “Fitz.”
Whatever the reason, the name was so firmly established that, by the time Mel Brooks got around to spoofing the genre with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), Mary Feldman’s character (clearly modeled on Frye’s Fritz, not Lugosi’s Ygor) is named “Igor,” and the name itself becomes the subject of a joke, when the character insists on pronouncing it “Eye-gore.”
Since then, the humpbacked assistant has been a bit of a joke; his very familiarity evokes laughter rather than fear, as when one wanders briefly into TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, huffing (in a Peter Lorre voice), “Master! The plans, the plans!” By the time Hollywood got around to making a film specifically about the mad doctor’s servant, it was inevitable that the title would be IGOR; nobody would know what the film was about if it were named “Fritz.” While IGOR turns the concept of the loyal assistant on its head (the title character wants to be an inventor, nore a mere helper), it is interesting to note that the film’s very title represents the culminating step in a similar inversion, the rechristening of a classic horror movie character with a name not originally his own.
This article was updated on May 6, 2014, to include mention of “Dinner with Drac” and “The Monster Mash.”
This is the mad scientist’s experiment that resurrected the Gothic tradition in cinema and created the second great wave of monsters movies. (In the 1930s and ’40s, Universal had given us black-and-white horrors like DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.) The first of many reinventions of classic movie monsters by Britain`s Hammer Films, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN established new style for horror – bold, bloody, beautiful – that completely broke tradition with the cobwebby classics of the 1930s and 1940s. The film also gave us two new horror stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who – along with director Terence Fisher – would go on to redefine the genre for the next decade and a half. Some of their subsequent collaborations (notably 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA) equaled or surpassed their achievement here, but this remains their original classic, the grimoire establishing the magic formula they would use again and again.
In the mid-1950s, aspiring producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg approached one of Hammer’s executives with a script Subotsky had adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the archetypal tale of a man-made monster. Hammer purchased the script (which, according to Subotsky, remained faithful to the source material), discarded it, and had Jimmy Sangster write something totally new.
Apparently, the original idea had been to create a fairly traditional horror film, possibly casting the aging Boris Karloff as Baron Frankenstein. Fortunately, Hammer realized that, although Shelley’s novel was in public domain, the 1931 film version of FRANEKNSTEIN, starring Karloff as the monster, was still under copyright to Universal Studios; therefore, any similarity to that horror classic, particularly the famous flat-head makeup devised by Jack Pierce, could result in a lawsuit.
Consequently, Sangster’s screenplay discarded most of the familiar elements. About all the remained from the novel was the concept of creation, some character names, and a few bits and pieces, stitched together into something almost entirely new. Only two points were carried over from the Universal films: Frankenstein is still a Baron (he had no title in the novel), and his creation is mute (unlike Shelly’s articulate creature).
Frankenstein (embodied perfectly by Peter Cushing) is no longer the nervous inventor who creates a man in a fit of enthusiasm and immediately regrets his rash action. Cushing’s Baron is precise and cold as a scalpel, a handsome blue-eyed dandy who has a way with women (at least with the maid) and never blinks or hesitates in pursuit of his goal. In truth, he is the real source of the horror in the story; his completely amoral detachment from the consequences of his work is more disturbing than the actual gore (which, though shocking for its time, is actually mild). And this moral horror is accentuated by the fact that Cushing’s performance (his dapper air and smiling confidence) actively invites the audience to identify with him even as the film tells in no uncertain terms that what he is doing is evil.
In this context, Christopher Lee’s creature has no chance of attaining Karloff’s stature. He’s a bit more of a simple monster, with less emphasis on his suffering and misunderstanding. His real function is as a sort of silent rebuke to his creator: all of Frankenstein’s grand dreams of perfection have resulted in a pathetic patchwork that barely seems stitched together. As in most Frankenstein stories and films, the creation is, ultimately, a kind of dark doppelganger to his creator, even acting out Frankenstein’s murderous intentions. (The Baron locks the maid in a cell with the creature when she gets to nosey. The scene is all the more effective for its suggestiveness, dissolving away as the woman screams when the creature reaches out for her, leaving it unclear whether his intention is murder or rape. The juxtaposition with subsequent scene, with the Baron enjoy a convivial breakfast, is so incongruous that the result is an excellent piece of black humor: when the Baron asks his fiancé to “pass the marmalade,” as if nothing untoward had recently happened, the viewer is forced to laugh in wicked admiration of Frankenstein’s cheek.)
The film is also notable for the way it re-imagines one of the genre’s most overused clichés: the mad scientist’s assistant. In the 1930s films, such characters were named Fritz or Igor; they usually had hunched back, and their purpose was usually to wander around looking creepy—an added bit of visual unpleasantness during an era when physical deformity was much on the public mind (thanks to soldiers returning home after being maimed on the battlefields of World War One). In CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the “assistant” is actually Frankenstein’s former teacher (the pupil becomes the master). Played by Robert Urquhart, Paul Krempe is the voice of decency, moderation, and restraint—the conscience that Frankenstein refuses to heed. He is also a sort of emotional barometer for the audience, his reactions to Frankenstein’s work expressing the moral outrage we are meant to feel.
If the film has any weaknesses, they lay in the somewhat slow pacing of the early scenes, which also feature a less than assured performance by Melvyn Hayes as the young Victor Frankenstein. Perhaps his fresh-faced innocence is supposed to supply a contrast with the steely-eyed determination of his adult self, but the effect backfires, providing too little foreshadowing of what is too come and leaving the early scenes feeling empty, without the galvanizing impact of Cushing’s presence. Fortunately, once Cushing arrives on screen, the film sparks with energy, and you have to watch in awe as he ruthlessly establishes a new standard for mad science on screen, one that is all the more horrible for looking so attractive, so assured, and so unperturbably cool.
The film was shot in Technicolor by Jack Asher, under the direction of Terence Fisher, working on a budget of 65,000 pounds (approximately $150,000). The script eliminated all of the novel’s globe-trotting, so Bernard Robinson’s production design could concentrate—quite brilliantly—on the Baron’s luxurious castle, creating an almost decadent sense of a polite aristocratic facade presiding over the “workshop of filthy creation” in the basement. James Bernard supplied the first of many effective musical accompaniments.
The result is a timeless classic that stands up as well as the best of Universal’s 1930s horror films. The film’s novel approach changed the face of horror, replacing black-and-white shadows with colorful grue. The huge (and unexpected) success launched Hammer into the horror genre for most of the next two decades, creating numerous new versions of classic movies monsters (THE MUMMY, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, etc), not to mention numerous Frankenstein sequels (REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, etc), some of which were as good as (and possibly even better than) the original.
If anything, time has been kind to CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which was chastised in its time for being tastelessly explicit and for failing to establish an effective atmosphere. (Critic R. D. Smith proclaimed, “For all lovers of the cinema, only two words describe this film – Depressing, Degrading!”) Decades later, the shock of Technicolor gore has long worn off – which is ultimately a good thing, because it proves that Smith and other contemporary critics, who derided the film for its graphic violence, were completely wrong. The true horror of in Sangster’s screenplay is moral in nature, and it continues to make the skin crawl today, thanks to the incisive performance of Cushing as the Baron – never flinching from his purpose, despite the accumulating atrocities he must commit. The appalling lack of conscience is underlined director Fisher’s careful use of reaction shots emphasizing the disgusted reactions of the mad scientist’s former mentor. Subsequent viewings also benefit Lee’s performance as the creature. Often viewed as little more than a killing machine, lacking the soul of Karloff’s monster, Lee’s interpretation reveals a surprising sense of sympathy for the shambling being. And the color makeup by Phil Leaky may not match the iconic stature of Pierce’s work on Karloff, but it does suggest a more believable result of surgery—a creature that really does seem to have been stitched together piecemeal by Frankenstein.
Ultimately, the enduring appeal of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN rests in Cushing interpretation of the Baron. The late actor, who professed to having “a tremendous amount of affection for Baron Frankenstein,” said that, besides Mary Shelley’s novel, he based his interpretation of Frankenstein upon Dr. Robert Knox, the anatomy teacher who suffered a scandal when it was learned that the cadavers he used to teach his students had been illegally obtained –and in some cases murdered – by Burke and Hare. Many believed that Knox must have known what was happening, and simply turned a blind eye in the name of science. “I try to base Frankenstein on a man who is, fundamentally, trying to do something for the good of mankind, as indeed Knox was, but against all odds….”
Indeed, the odds always thwart Frankenstein, not only in this film but also in the sequels, eternally depriving him of the success he so ardently desires. There is some dark fascination in this eternally fruitless quest, enough to keep the Frankenstein franchise fresh until its conclusion in 1972’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL. But CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN remains the classic film that started it all, like a burst of electricity that still gleams to this day, forever illuminating the mad scientist’s lab equipment—and the awful results—in our minds.
Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, the duo who had sold their unfilmed Frankenstein script to Hammer, later formed Amicus Films. The company became Hammer’s chief English competitor in the horror genre during the 1960s. Subotsky and Rosenberg produced numerous terror titles like HORROR HOTEL, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, and TORTURE GARDEN, usually starring Christopher Lee and/or Peter Cushing. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Robert Uquhart, Hazel Court, Valerie Gaunt. RELATED ARTICLES:
This is a splatter-filled tale that feels like a throwback to ‘80s direct-to-video horror, when a bunch of prosthetic makeup covered in blood was all you needed to make a low-budget movie. The minimal story is about a mad scientist (WISHMASTER’s Andrew Divoff) who creates a plague that unleashes an unstoppable rage in its victims. After an accident at the lab, the disease infects some vultures, which pursue a band of teenagers coming home from an outdoor music fest. The geysers of blood that follow are so over-the-top that they are perhaps meant to be funny; instead, they are simply monotonous. The film is too obviously a showcase for the carnage, which lacks intensity or humor. At least the prosthetics are technically competent: the vultures that bedevil our heroes are rendered with unconvincing computer-generated effects that suggest old-fashioned stop-motion (complete with squawking sound effects that seem lifted from a Ray Harryhausen movie). Read More
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
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