David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) starring Jeff Goldblum! (The Test of Time)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must-see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Be afraid, be very afraid!

Believe it or not, David Cronenberg’s classic Kafkaesque sci-fi/horror remake of THE FLY (WATCH IT HERE / OWN IT HERE) celebrated its 24th birthday this past August, and as always, we want to know how well it’s aged over the past quarter-century. The FX-driven gross-out body-horror blitzkrieg earned title creature-designer Chris Walas an Oscar for Best Makeup, which often took five hours a day to apply on star Jeff Goldblum. Clandestinely produced by Mel Brooks (who came up with the tagline above), who deliberately kept his name shrouded so not to think the film was a farcical send-up, THE FLY is probably Cronenberg’s most famous movie to date. The film cost $15 million to make and quadrupled its investment by grossing more than $60 million worldwide.

The success not only led to more opportunities for Cronenberg, but it also spawned an oft-panned sequel, THE FLY 2, which Walas directed himself from a script by Mick Garris. Critically speaking, THE FLY is also one of Cronenberg’s most revered movies of all, currently holding a 92% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 79/100 Metascore, and 7.6/10 IMDB-rating. Although flies don’t typically have a long lifespan, we have an inkling that Cronenberg might defy the odds when we find out how THE FLY fares against the Test of Time below!

THE STORY: Inspired by the 1956 Vincent Price B-movie of the same name, as well as the surreally macabre works of the aforementioned Franz Kafka, THE FLY follows a quirky and ambitious scientist named Seth Brundle (Goldblum), who is intent on changing the world by inventing the world’s first successful teleportation device. The film opens at a science convention where Seth immediately hits on a young woman named Ronnie Quaife (Geena Davis), who, unbeknownst to him, is a journalist for Particle Magazine, a scientific publication owned by Monolith Publications. Seth brings Ronnie home and seduces her with his invention, a transmitter pod that can disintegrate inanimate matter and reintegrates it 15 feet away in a second pod. When Seth discovers that Ronnie is a newswoman, he begs her to keep his experiments quiet despite her eagerness to break the story and win points with her boss and former boyfriend, the creepily oleaginous Stathis Borans (John Getz).

Borans dismisses the story as rank bullshit at first but then allows Ronnie to pursue the lead as a means of winning her back. Alas, Ronnie has fallen for Seth, who continues to work out the kinks of his teleportation device. After planning to send his pet baboon through the device to prove it can transmit fleshy matter, Seth gets drunk and sends himself instead. A common housefly gets accidentally trapped in the pod as the process begins, inadvertently fusing Seth’s human DNA with that of the housefly. Unaware at first, Seth begins developing superhuman senses, newfound energy, undying libido, and an alarming diabetic-level of sugar dependency. But after a while, Seth learns he accidentally spliced his genes with the fly before slowly but surely meta-morphing into a hideously revolting, fiendish flesh-peeling, pus-ridden, bilious-vomit-drooling monster with one goal in mind: to reproduce!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: THE FLY holds-up incredibly well in a number of areas, particularly the way it wastes zero time launching into the story. Cronenberg sets up the film so effortlessly, introducing the teleportation pod in the first three minutes of the film. There is no fat to trim in terms of setup, we meet the two leads instantly and know exactly who they are and what they want from the jump. What also holds up is the set-decoration of Brundle’s cavernous lab, resembling the kind of dark, dank, dingy habitats flies can be found in. Cronenberg must have felt the same because he continued to hire set-decorator Elinor Rose Galbraith on several subsequent films including DEAD RINGERS, NAKED LUNCH, CRASH, EXITENZ, etc. Without knowing it, we’re lured into Seth’s fly-like lair just as Ronnie is to begin the film, the subtle psychology of which hits hard by the hyper-violent and unexpectedly emotional finale set in the same spot. While nobody is killed by Seth in the film, THE FLY holds up because it’s a story of self-inflicted harm and the grotesque bodily degradation resulting from such. The villain is the protagonist, and the evil is within, making the story timelessly universal.

Before we get into the real star of the show – the mortifying makeup and brilliant practical FX work – mention need be made of the teleportation pod design, which also convinces to this day. Cronenberg patterned the visual aesthetic of the pods after the engine of his Ducati motorcycle, although it also resembles a darkly shaded beehive, a subliminal insectile kinship with the fly. The ambient smoke and blinding white light inside the pods balance well against the stygian gloom of Brundle’s surrounding lab environment. Cronenberg’s longtime DP Mark Irwin (VIDEODROME, THE DEAD ZONE) imbues the film with a rich textural patina that balances light and shadow, giving the movie a nuevo-classic quality that does not wear with age.

But the aspect of THE FLY that holds up best when seen in 2020 is the unassailable makeup and FX work that resulted in culling an Academy Award. Straight up, this shit is not for the squeamish or constitutionally challenged. While most exemplary in Seth’s slow transformation from healthy human to inimical insectoid, the visual marvels occur long before. The scene when Seth rips the bar patron’s bone through his forearm while arm wrestling sets the tone for the body horror to come. The next nauseating salvo comes when Seth reveals his deformities to Ronnie, vomiting goopy pale bile (made from eggs, milk, and honey) while his decaying ear falls off his head, eliciting a genuine reaction from Geena Davis as the scene was 100% real and achieved without a shred of digital augmentation. Another stint that still stands out in this regard is Seth’s attack of Stathis at the end when he spits acidic vomit on Borans’ leg before feasting on his smoldering severed foot (extended in deleted footage).

Aside from the final Fly transformation, the sheer scariest scene for me is the dream-sequence in which Ronnie has a nightmare of delivering a giant maggot upon being impregnated by Seth. This scene is the stuff of actual nightmares and was so disturbing even in the script that Cronenberg’s first choice for the role, Linda Hamilton, turned the movie down because of it. Even Cronenberg knew it was so upsetting that he scripted and shot a much happier ending to atone, in which Ronnie dreams of delivering a healthy human baby with beautiful butterfly wings. While ultimately nixed, the image lies in stark opposition to what is still the best part of the movie – the final Fly formation.

Seriously, the final FLY reveal is still an A+, ten out of ten, stand on your feet in rousing ovation Bravo moment in the history of horror cinema. It’s no doubt the reason why the film earned an Oscar for Best Makeup, as it’s so disturbingly detailed, so viscerally vexing, so practical and physical without a shred of artifice that it still feels 100% authentic nearly three-decades later. The viscid mutations of fleshy pulp matter, the gross slimy vestigial appendages, those giant black bug-eyes, all of it amount to one giant Holy-F*ck moment that time may never endanger much less extinguish. Shite’s epic as ever!

WHAT BLOW NOW: While the set-decorations hold up well, some of the props and production designs tend to show their age in THE FLY. First, the computer screen readouts appear quite old and outdated as they crawl across the screen like every other movie made in the 1980s. Likewise, Seth’s mainframe computer terminal is way too large and clunky to pass muster today, especially the large protruding computer keys that died back in like 1998.

While these aspects betray the film's senescence, there’s one scene so misogynistic it could never be made today. The scene in which Seth cruise a bar and bets $100 that he can win a wrestling match and win the woman to take home as a prize, without her interest or consent, is insulting beyond belief. It must have been then and certainly is by 2020’s societal standards.

Also, it would have been cool if THE FLY included the two infamous deleted scenes Cronenberg shot. One included Seth creating a monkey-cat hybrid in the pod and beating to death with a pipe when it became too aggressive. The other scene included Seth feeding in an alley-dumpster before being spotted by a gag-lady. Seth would have then disintegrated the woman’s body with his acidic vomit before eating her body.

THE VERDICT: Although there a few very minor aspects that blow these days, by and large, THE FLY still packs a repulsive gut-churning wallop. The film wastes no time delving into its story, is bolstered by excellent cinematography and set decorations, and is made transcendent through its practical special FX and Academy Award-winning makeup. The universal tragedy of self-destruction brought on by the grand ambition of the lead character preserves the film in a kind of timeless cryogenic freeze unlikely to thaw anytime soon. No question, Cronenberg’s FLY has more longevity than any other Diptera on Earth.

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