David Cronenberg Wasn’t The Only One To Make A Good FLY Movie

The five-film series gets the Scream Factory treatment, and BC finds them worthy of the honor.

Because I am a collector, and a lover of almost all movie genres, I am frequently running out of room to house my Blu-rays and DVDs, and it seems every 3-4 years I have to buy (and assemble, sigh) a new rack to join the others - I am now up to five. And one thing I am an easy mark for are boxed sets of franchises; in fact I grabbed the Mission: Impossible series on a Black Friday deal partially because I didn't have Fallout yet and the price was barely above the cost of the one film, but mainly because its slim design meant that the six films now take up less shelf space than five mixed DVDs and Blu-rays (actually, M:I3 was an HD-DVD, bless its soul). And now there's room for the seventh film without having to reorganize!

But the downside to boxed sets is that you end up owning movies you don't like or plan to watch again; obviously I own the Halloween collection, but it means owning a wholly unnecessary disc of Resurrection forever (same sentiment applies for New Blood and Freddy's Dead for their respective franchises), and because the only Amityville I like is the second film (aka The Possession), I have to own the first one (which is fine) and Amityville 3D (which... isn't) since the boxed set of those three films is the only region A Blu-ray that I know about. In that case, I might actually just get rid of the set the next time I need to pare down a bit, because as I continually have less time to revisit things, it's strong odds I won't even get around to rewatching the one I like again, let alone the two I don't. 

That said, I'm happy to report that every film in the five-strong Fly franchise is worthy of a look, making the boxed set from Scream Factory worthy of one of those increasingly valuable spots on my shelf. Each film has new bonus features to entice fans who might already own this or that entry* thanks to previous releases (Curse of the Fly is making its Blu-ray debut in the US, I should note), but what makes it a truly appealing collection is that each one is different enough that you can watch them all in a brief period - as I did over the past week or so - without getting sick of the concept or characters. Some entries are better than others, of course, but there isn't a single film on there I can't imagine never wanting to revisit if time allows.

The most interesting takeaway from revisiting them all in short order is that the most commercial and mainstream entry of the five is the one directed by David Cronenberg. I'm sure anyone reading this column has seen it already, so there's no need to summarize what it's about or who's in it, but when you put it next to the others it's easy to see that it's faster paced, more suspenseful, and even more fun ("Cheeseburger.") than its fellow entries. Not that he dipped his toes into any other franchises as a director, but if he did you would probably assume his would be the weirdest installment, one that was perhaps even impenetrable, but that is far from the case here - if there's one Fly movie that I could easily recommend to a non-horror fan, it'd be that one.

And that's amusing, because 1989's The Fly II was apparently an unpleasant experience for a number of its creative team (including Chris Walas, who won an Oscar for his makeup work on the first film and made his directorial debut here), thanks to the Fox executive making demands to turn the film into something more commercial and appealing. And indeed, the third act, where Seth Brundle's son Martin (Eric Stoltz) becomes a full on monster and wipes out a few guards and assorted assholes at the lab, is certainly a B-movie excursion that more closely resembles a Friday the 13th sequel than anything in the previous Fly movies. But that's the last 30 minutes of what is the longest entry in the series - it's otherwise more of a slow-burn kind of film, with lots of time spent on Martin's development as both a human being and a son that is trying to finish his father's experiment. Since Seth was already turning into Brundlefly when he impregnated Ronnie, they don't need to stoop to any contrivances to get Martin crossed with another fly in the telepods - he's already mutated. 

However it's not a bad mutation, as such things go - he's just incredibly smart and ages at an accelerated rate, so that when he celebrates his fifth birthday he is already able to be played by a then 27-year-old Stoltz. Some serum keeps him from "Fly-ing out", and the movie seems like it's in no rush to get to the inevitable point where he escapes from the lab, loses access to the serum, and starts turning into a traditional monster. In fact it doesn't really have any scares at all until then; after the opening scene showcasing his birth (which kills Ronnie - played by a new actress - in the process, as she essentially expels a slimy cocoon that houses the normal looking baby), the only other horror element for the first hour or so is the dog. If you've seen the movie, you know what I refer to. If you haven't... well, I'm not going to tell you, because why should you be warned when none of us were? 

Of course, Cronenberg's film wasn't exactly Michael Bay-paced either, but it was also the "original" - a sequel like this (especially one reportedly overshadowed by nervous producers who were hoping to keep the installments coming) would traditionally get to the action much faster. But that's sort of a Fly tradition, going all the way back to the 1958 film, which starts off with a guy being crushed in an industrial machine and his wife Helene confessing to his murder but refusing to say why. After some time is spent in that present, writer James Clavell (working from George Langelaan's short story, which had a similar structure) flashes back and reveals who the man was and why she eventually killed him, so the audience is just as much in the dark as everyone but Helene for quite a while. Eventually the story you probably know through cultural osmosis emerges: a scientist named Delambre working on teleportation accidentally got himself combined with a fly during his experiments, and is now racing to find a way to reverse it before he dies.

Unlike Cronenberg's film, the telepod doesn't spit out a meshing of the two into one - he is instead sort of rearranged with the fly, so he has a fly head (and arm) on his otherwise human body, while the fly keeps buzzing around with a tiny human head and hand. Yes, this means it's a bit goofy, but the concept is still disturbing enough to make up for it, and it still manages to come across just as tragic as Brundle's tale in the 1986 film. And that's where Return of the Fly dropped the bomb a bit; few would argue that it's the weakest entry of the series, due to less satisfying makeup (the fly head is way too big, for starters) and sidelining of Vincent Price, whose reign as horror king was really cemented by his performance in the first film (playing the scientist's brother). You'd think they'd capitalize on his growing fame and make him the lead, but instead Delambre's son Philippe takes center stage, trying to finish his father's experiment despite objections from Price, who worries he'll suffer the same fate.

And yet, despite its shortcomings, it has a sort of Universal Monster quality to it that I find enjoyable, thanks in part to its black & white photography (a budgetary downgrade from the original's color). Plus it's pretty short (80 minutes) and has some decent enough monster action in the third act, not to mention a fairly disturbing guinea pig/human hybrid, where the little rodent has human hands (and is then crushed by the human villain). By expanding beyond a mere housefly, the series is opened up to more possibilities, and in fact the next film. Curse of the Fly, doesn't bother with any flies at all. It takes place several years later and retcons the Delambre family tree to focus on Henri and Martin, said to be the son and grandson of the original's Andre. The two of them have more or less gotten the teleportation technology to work (finally!) albeit with some side effects, and it's those - not a Fly-man - that drive the narrative toward its inevitable tragedies. 

What works about this one is that it's almost like a Dr. Moreau kind of movie, as Henri (Brian Donlevy) has a few botched experiments locked up nearby, and they are discovered by Martin's new wife Patricia in order to provide some scare scenes (most of which are fairly effective!). I also enjoy the idea of teleportation actually kind of working, giving the filmmakers new areas to explore as well as offer up what may be the grimmest death in the entire series, as someone makes an attempt to teleport - as he has already done a few times - but failed to get the message that the telepod on the other end had been destroyed, so he disintegrates into the ether and will presumably be stuck there forever. You can also see how it influenced both of the '80s films, as there's a grotesque body meld (two humans transported together) that would look right at home in Cronenberg or Walas' film (not to mention the name Martin being revived, albeit as a very different character).

In a way, the series as a whole feels like the outcome of botched experiments, as each subsequent entry mixed and matched elements from the prior ones to come up with its own take on the material, so that even repeated scenarios never feel like carbon copies. They all admirably kept focus on the sci-fi part of the sci-fi/horror blend, spent time on character development, and went back and forth between tragic and happy endings, so you never can be too sure how things will end up for the characters. The appeal of teleportation makes it easy to see why these folks keep trying to pull it off, and in retrospect it restarted at the perfect point - each of the first three films got its protagonists closer to perfecting the experiment, so a sequel to Curse would likely have it finally working correctly and they'd have to rely on human error to bring the monster action into play. It's a shame we never got a followup to Fly II in the same vein, but I'm sure someone's trying to revive the series again, and it might be fun to see what a 2020s Fly would be like. Until then, these five films hold up better than others from their respective eras, and never once fully betray the general idea that it's best not to play God. 

*Even Return of the Fly, technically already released by Scream Factory thanks to one of their Vincent Price collections, has two new commentaries. And yes, this means I own the weakest one twice, which I find amusing.