Horror fans love to complain about remakes, but there are times when a re-imagining does actually surpass the original. John Carpenter’s The Thing is a good example. So is Chuck Russell’s The Blob. Franck Khalfoun’s brutal interpretation of Maniac comes pretty close. And, of course, David Cronenberg’s The Fly has to be in the conversation. But hold up…because the original 1958 version of The Fly is pretty hard to beat.
The Fly begins at the end, with scientist Andre Delambre (David “Al” Hedison from “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”) dead, his head and left hand crushed by a hydraulic press in his lab. His wife, Helene (X-15’s Patricia Owens), confesses, but won’t give any more details about the crime, instead obsessively talking about finding a fly with a white head. Thinking he can help, the police bring in Andre’s brother, Francois (the legendary Vincent Price from The Tingler and Shock), to pry the truth out of Helene.
Feeling comfortable with her brother-in-law, Helene opens up and tells Francois that Andre had been working on a teleportation device that broke objects down to atomic particles and beamed them from one pod to another. When Andre tested the device on himself, a housefly got into the transporter with him and their atoms got mixed together, resulting in the scientist coming out the other side with the fly’s head and hand. The story is unbelievable, but Francois agrees to help Helene look for her proof – the fly that now has Andre’s head and hand.
The Fly was directed by Kurt Neumann (She Devil, Kronos) and written by James Clavell (To Sir, With Love), based upon a short story by George Langelaan. The narrative structure is interesting in that the audience knows right from the start that the archetypical mad scientist character, Andre, doesn’t survive, the story unfolding in a series of flashbacks and memories. The fate of the protagonist is foretold at the beginning, but that does not mean that The Fly doesn’t have its share of shocks and surprises; the climactic twist conclusion of the film is one of the most memorable endings ever, not just in horror history, but in cinematic history as a whole.
While The Fly is one of Vincent Price’s more notable movies, the character he plays is a unique one for him in that he’s neither a hero (as in Diary of a Madman) nor a villain (as in Witchfinder General), he’s basically a supporting role that enjoys a lot of screen time. Francois acts as a sounding board for Helene, and then, once he’s convinced of her story, a gumshoe who’s helping to prove her innocence. Of course, Vincent Price is Vincent Price, and his presence on screen is never taken for granted, but in The Fly, he’s a sideman, and he seems fine with it, because the movie is stronger that way.
The titular monster in The Fly is only shown onscreen for a startlingly short amount of time, but the creature is a good one. As one might expect, the beast is a human with a fly’s head and claw. As the post-fly Andre, David Hedison spends much of the film under his lab coat with his affected hand in his pocket so as not to panic his wife, but when his insect head is finally uncovered, it’s a great reveal. And it was actually Hedison in the fly head makeup, not a stuntman; it was uncomfortable, but Hedison signed on to play The Fly, and he played The Fly. Aside from King Kong and Godzilla, The Fly is probably the most memorable non-Universal monster of the classic horror and sci-fi era.
Like many of the sci-fi horror movies of the fifties, The Fly tries to stand above the rest by loudly proclaiming to be shot in “CinemaScope and Terror-Color by De Luxe!”, which is a fancy way of saying that the movie uses widescreen technology and color film stock. Much of the action takes place in Andre’s lab, and director of photography Karl Struss (The Island of Lost Souls, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) uses the anamorphic format to make the room appear bigger than it actually is, so that the humans appear almost…fly-like. The Fly also uses a handful of cool photographic tricks to play up the scientific aspect of the movie – a mesmerizing multi-faced fly POV shot of Helene screaming here, some colorful rotoscoping to accentuate the teleporting there. Sure, CinemaScope and Terror-Color sound gimmicky, but there’s no denying that The Fly looks great.
David Cronenberg’s vision of The Fly is brilliant, and anyone who thinks differently is wrong. But the greatness of Cronenberg’s masterpiece should not take away from Kurt Neumann’s original 1958 version. There’s plenty of room for both The Fly movies in the hearts and minds of horror fans.