Tuesday, October 21, 2014

31 Days of Horror: The Fly

Jeff Goldblum is the scientist Seth Brundle, the man who will become The Fly.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 21: The Fly (1986)

With all due respect to Kurt Neumann’s 1958 original, which is an entertaining sci-fi B-movie romp with surprising depth, nothing tops David Cronenberg’s The Fly for sheer grotesquerie, moral uncertainty, and scientific blasphemy. It is on a short list of very dark, very adult films I saw at (probably) too young an age and which left a lasting impact. Its impact, however, was not to terrify me – though this is the stuff of nightmares – but its emotional resonance is such that I find myself thinking about it every so often even now.

There is a very specific subgenre of horror of which Cronenberg is the imperator. It is known as body horror. There are plenty of films in which human bodies are subjected to any number of tortures and torments, but body horror refers to something different. It is the fear of what our bodies are capable of and of how close we all lurk to the edge of losing control over ourselves. This can mean disease or parasitic infection, madness, paralysis, or all of the above.

Since the beginning of his career, Cronenberg has had a preoccupation with human fears of sexuality and decay, often mingling these ideas into singular expressions of manifestly gruesome abominations. His characters are often terrified of the primal urges growing within themselves such as hunger, sex, and violence. The desire to repress these urges usually leads to an explosion of sorts, a rampage of the very behaviors the characters are trying to deny.

“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. Perhaps she’ll die.”

Jeff Goldblum, in arguably his career-best performance, plays scientist Seth Brundle. Brundle is the inventor of a teleportation technology that will revolutionize transportation; however, when an experimental test he performs on himself goes wrong, his DNA is combined with that of a common housefly. From there, Cronenberg shows us every gory detail as Brundle slowly becomes more insect than man. Chris Walas’ makeup effects earned him an Academy Award for transforming Goldblum into the unholy beast he winds up as.

At first, he takes his increased strength, stamina, and virility to be positive signs of the teleportation device. But after he realizes what has happened, he knows these “improvements” are just the base instincts of the insect inside him taking control. In a wonderful monologue delivered to his girlfriend, Veronica Quaife, a journalist played by Geena Davis, Brundle makes his deepest fears known and makes it clear his nightmare has become a reality.

“You have to leave and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal. No compassion. No compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician, but you see, I’m afraid … I’m saying I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake. I’m saying I’ll hurt you if you stay.”

It is a tragic acknowledgement that the scientist he once was may as well have never existed. Taken literally, as in the film, it is a bloody affair comprised of equal parts pain and pathos. But taken as a metaphor, it is the expression of a fear we all have – that our darkest selves will take over and the intoxication of that freeing power will blind us to our better nature. In The Fly, Cronenberg creates a world in which that power can be embraced or fought, but it can never be held back.

Tomorrow, we all cringe together as a modern French masterpiece takes body horror to its logical extreme.

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