Effectively the grand daddy of what became the 80’s body horror movement, The Fly came about during the movement’s height and, along with the likes of Re-Animator and possibly The Thing (although the latter proved unsuccessful on its initial release), brought body horror to a mass audience. But, unlike Re-Animator, whose purpose was a grotesque shock and awe campaign, at the heart of The Fly was a man ruined by his own creation and we feel every horror that befalls him.
It is said that all horror is born out of society and never was that more true of body horror. The 80’s were all about excess and this was all but apparent in cinema. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone shot anything with a pulse and Paul Verhoven took on-screen violence to new and over-blown levels. But the thing about body horror was its play on the fear of mutation and, with the world in a moral panic due to AIDS, it exploited the audiences’ dread of the unknown, deadly and incurable disease.
Seth Brundle (an excellent Jeff Goldblum)’s transformation from man to fly-hybrid is a perfect use of audience exploitation, yet director David Cronenberg does not patronise the viewer. He teases in the most horrific way possible. We know something’s up with Brundle and not just in his behaviour. Before his own realisation of his plight, his face is pot-marked, the subtle use of make-up leaving a nasty sense on unease. But it’s not just the physical change. Goldblum’s performance utilises subtleties as restrained as his make-up in the beginning and, whilst Seth may appear to be having a breakdown, an extreme behavioural side effect of his teleportation, his nervous ticks insinuate more than just a mental change.
It soon become apparent that Brundle is no longer human (in the film’s most horrid moment, Seth sheds his skin to reveal what has now been dubbed ‘Brundle Fly’) and upon exciting the telepod for the final time having been fused with it, the sheer helplessness of his deformities become apparent. The eager, brilliant scientist is now forever changed, a monster, and nothing can be done to fix it. In one of the bleakest final images in film history, we fade to black on a dead Brundle, and unconscious Stathis Barnes (John Glen) and a weeping Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). Cronenberg has not ended on such a downer since.
The Fly is historic and arguably Cronenberg’s flagship film. Fusing gore with an intimate portrayal of a man doomed by his own work, there is a sentimental, almost touching core that adds extra weight come the climax. Many questions are left unanswered: is Stathis dead? Will Ronnie keep the baby? But, ultimately, answers are not needed.