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The Fly (1958) - Movie Review

The Fly 1958

I’ve been watching a few old horror movies lately, and by “old” I don’t mean 80s and 90s old, I mean old old.

It started around Halloween when I watched Psycho (1960), but I’ve since watched a few more like Night of the Demon (1957), The Birds (1963), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), The Last Man on Earth (1964) and, just a few nights ago, the original of one of my favourite remakes.

The Fly (1958)

Much like The Thing (1982) I don’t feel it’s entirely accurate (or fair) to call the 1986 version of The Fly a remake since it’s really just another film that’s based on the short story. Both films get called remakes but neither actually are.

If you’ve never seen this film, it’s a classic sci-fi/horror starring Vincent Price (Edward Scissorhands), Patricia Owens (Sayonara) and David Hedison (Live and Let Die) among others.

It’s based on the 1957 short story of the same name by George Langelaan.

This is what it’s about according to the internet:

“When scientist Andre Delambre (Hedison) tests his matter transporter on himself, an errant housefly makes its way into the transportation chamber, and things go horribly wrong. As a result, Delambre's head and arm are now that of the insect. Slowly losing himself to the fly, Delambre turns to his wife, Helene (Owens) for help. But when tragedy strikes, Delambre's brother (Price) and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) are forced to pick up the investigation.”

I love these old movies. There’s something so inoffensive about them. Horror films back then were so tame compared to the ones we get now, but that’s part of what makes them so endearing. It was a much simpler time, and I’m sure the stars and makers of these old classic movies would be disturbed, if not disgusted at how graphic and violent the genre has become.

In fact, when the 1986 version of The Fly was release, Jeff Goldblum who plays the lead character, Seth Brundle, and who is a fan of the original, wrote a letter to Vincent Price saying “I hope you like [our film] as much as I liked yours!” Price wrote back saying that as touched as he was to receive the letter, he thought the remake was “wonderful right up to a certain point…”, but that “it went a little too far.”

A similar thing happened with John Carpenter’s The Thing when the lead actor (Kenneth Tobey), and the director (Christian Nyby) of 1951s The Thing From Another World (the first film adaptation of the book both films are based on) were critical of the film, saying things like, “If you want blood, go to the slaughterhouse ... All in all, it's a terrific commercial for J&B scotch.” And that the visual effects, were “so explicit that they actually destroyed how you were supposed to feel about the characters ... They became almost a movie in themselves, and were a little too horrifying.”

In one respect you could say that a negative reaction is better than no reaction at all. Still, if someone you look up to within the same industry disses something you’ve done, it must feel like a punch in the guts. Regardless of hurt feelings though, these reactions highlight just how much the horror landscape changed between the two eras.

But I digress…

I always remember my dad telling me about this movie when I was a kid. I specifically remember him telling me about the scene where the fly is stuck in the web and the spider is closing in on him as he cries “Help me! Help me!”

Having only ever seen the 1986 version till now I’ve often wondered about the context of that scene since there’s nothing like it in the “remake”. And now I know…

I haven’t read the original short story, but having read up on it since watching this film it seems that the movie follows it quite closely until the end (much like The Last Man on Earth does with Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend). It’s interesting how older films seemed to stick much closer to the source material than films made much later, and even now do.

The story of The Fly is actually a really tragic one, and as different as the two versions are they both share that same tragic narrative; A scientist with the best intentions falls victim to his own curiosity and desperately tries to undo his mistake, only to fail, but not before transforming into a hideous creature.

As much as I enjoyed this film I do have one pretty big issue with it. Unlike the 1986 version where the scientist slowly mutates into a fly-like creature after his and the fly’s atoms are merged, in this movie the scientist emerges from his teleportation pod with a fly’s head and arm. Meanwhile the fly that was in the pod with him escapes and goes about his business sporting the scientist’s head and arm.

Now, I’m no expert, but if both the fly and the scientist somehow swapped heads, wouldn’t the fly be the more intelligent one of the two? In the film the scientist (now with a fly’s head instead of his own) somehow manages to retain his own mind and intelligence, while the fly (now with the scientist’s head) buzzes about just like a fly would do. Wouldn’t the “fly-headed scientist” be behaving like a fly, while the “scientist-headed fly” would be acting like a human and desperately trying to get help? Would it even be able to fly? It doesn’t make any sense that both parties would act the same as they would normally, despite swapping heads…

Of course, I’m splitting hairs. It’s just a movie at the end of the day, and as with a lot of these old classic movies there’s a wonderful charm to them that makes it easy to turn a blind eye to even the biggest plot holes .

Interestingly, Vincent Price doesn't play the main character in this film. That role goes to Patricia Owens who plays the ill-fated scientist’s wife, Helene. Price plays her brother-in-law and co-investigator in the mysterious case of his brother’s death. A large portion of the film is told via a flashback to the events that occurred prior to those we see at the start of the movie. This seemed to be a popular way of filling in the blanks in old movies (it also happens in The Last Man on Earth) and personally I think it works well.

I was actually surprised to see that this film was in colour. For some reason (probably because of the era) I mistakenly expected it to be in black and white. It was a pleasant surprise but it got me wondering why Psycho, which came out two years later, was filmed in black and white. Of course I had to look it up, and I found that Psycho was filmed in black and white to keep costs down, as well as to prevent the shower scene from being too gory. Clever…

Unsurprisingly this movie spawned two sequels, Return of the Fly (1959) and Curse of the Fly (1965). Both were filmed in black and white with Vincent Price only returning for the first sequel.

With a compelling story, surprisingly good (and bad) visual effects, a great score and classic performances by the entire cast (look out for a young Kathleen Freeman (Emma, the maid) who you might recognise as the angry supermarket customer with the pistol lighter in Innerspace), this film was a real joy to finally watch after so many years.

At some point I’ll be bringing my Original vs Remake posts back and I fully intend on featuring this and the 1986 version even though, “technically” it’s not a remake.

I think my next classic movie is going to be another film that got the remake treatment in the 80s, and that’s The Blob (1958). I’ve only ever seen the 1988 remake so I think a watch of the original is long overdue. Watch this space…

Have you seen this 50s classic? Let me know in the comments.

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