I’m glad I re-watched David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly on Blu-ray. I haven't watched it in decent resolution since I saw it in a theater on first release. It's still brilliant and perfect, and profoundly moving—maybe Cronenberg's greatest and most perfect film; a horror tragedy that doesn't cop out, ever. Deftly combining aspects of romantic comedy, science fiction, gross-out midnight movie, and parable of the consequences of hubris, The Fly also works as a metaphor for what happens to couples and individuals when the body breaks down, decays, or merely ages. (When the hero’s “disease” starts to snowball, he totters into the lab on two canes like an old man; something about the makeup reminded me of the “old” Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane.)
Charles Edward Pogue's original script was heavily rewritten by Cronenberg, who fleshed out the main characters and the central love triangle and infused the whole story with his distinctive brand of pulp poetry, which is fundamentally rational yet prone to flights of romantic obsession and grandiose theatrical monologues. Since the film's original release, Pogue has been very open about Cronenberg’s contributions, and why wouldn't he be? They give the film much of its flavor. The Fly is filled with quotable lines and phrases, including "the poetry of steak" and "insect politics" and "Not to wax, uh, messianic" and "Drink deep, or taste not, the plasma spring! Y'see what I'm saying? And I'm not just talking about sex and penetration. I'm talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!"
When Goldblum sheds his geeky facade and embraces what he thinks is his Super Fly destiny, he becomes even more attractive because he's so dangerously confident; he walks with a swagger, tossing his long hair like a Persian prince in a fairy tale. (This film is my favorite take on Frankenstein ever, because the hero is both Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature—it's one-stop shopping!) Seth and Ronnie seem perfect for each other, which of course makes the ensuing tragedy so much harder to take. The third point in the triangle – Ronnie’s ex-lover and boss, John Getz's Stathis Borin, at first seems a caricature of an 80s Yuppie swine, but he deepens as the film goes along; we see that he's still hopelessly in love with his ex-girlfriend and wants to protect her, and we get that his more asshole-ish remarks are the product of self-loathing, a way of trying to distance her from him, perhaps for what he believes is her own good. (Weird that the character's name has the same first letters as the hero's. Surely it was intentional, but it’s one of the few touches Cronenberg doesn’t elaborate on.)
Cronenberg is one of the most sophisticated chroniclers of romance in modern cinema, and I’m surprised critics haven’t made more of this over the decades. Why? Perhaps it’s because Cronenberg deals in symbols and metaphors as well as witty dialogue and plausible behavior. It can be hard to sense the human heart beating beneath the blood and goo that engulf some of his finest adult dramas. The Fly is a rare horror film—and a rare big-budget Hollywood movie, period—that is adult in all the ways that count. I would never show it to a child, or even a young adult, not because of the sex and gore, but because they would have no way of processing the feelings it evokes. You have to have lived a bit to truly appreciate this movie, and it only becomes more powerful as you grow older.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.
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