The Advance Word: It was on the DVR and Joan Crawford.
#17. The Unknown (1927)
I’d planned to rewatch Jean Epstein’s La chute de la maison Usher for the “silent movie” requirement of the Hoop-Tober 3.0 Challenge but one night I was in bed, skimming the DVR for a movie to watch and I found that I’d set this to record from TCM. I often watch silent or foreign movies in bed at night because I can keep the volume down so not to disturb Mrs. 30Hz — who actually likes going to sleep at a relatively reasonable hour. The Unknown checked off a couple of CinemaShame/Hoop-Tober challenge boxes so I ran with it. I actually don’t own any unwatched silent horror films. Hurray for small victories.
Oh, hey, by the way… you’ve seen this movie before, knucklehead.
This brand of shame turned out to be something entirely different. I have a weird vault-like memory for recalling exactly when and where and with whom I first saw a movie. I assume this vault is taking up space that could have been helpful during high school trigonometry or that Java class I almost failed in college. The Unknown, true to title, escaped cataloging.
One should remember Lon Chaney throwing knives at 22-year-old gypsy Joan Crawford with his toes. Even once the trace memory kicked in, I kept watching. I couldn’t look away. Lon Chaney’s performance in The Unknown is haunting. ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces” created a pitiable villain of disarming obsession and enviable passion.
Chaney plays Alonzo, a double-thumbed murderer hiding among circus “freaks” by pretending he has no arms. He falls in love with the gypsy girl Estrellita. Estrellita, however, is also coveted by Malabar the Strong Man. She cowers at his musclebound touch and laments the men that always want to touch her. Malabar’s not a bad guy; he’s just a broheim that’s clumsy with affection. Meanwhile, Alonzo waxes Estrellita’s father when he uncovers Alonzo’s true identity. Estrellita turns to Alonzo for comfort, the man without arms and without groping paws. She repeatedly talks about how amazing it would be to love a man without hands.
Alonzo tries to raise his hand. To say “ME!” ME, PLEASE!” but of course his hands are tied… our at least bound in a corset. To get that close to Estrellita, to embrace Estrellita he’d need to do away with those pesky appendages once and for all.
So he does.
Maybe that doesn’t sound especially unnerving. Maybe that sounds like a bunch of silly silent movie hyperbole… but in the hands of Tod Browning, that silly little slice of hyperbole left me unsettled all over again. I’d forgotten about the amputation. Consider the special brand of obsession that must incite someone to remove body parts. Lon Chaney lays bare every ounce of Alonzo’s emotional anguish and moral ambivalence.
The choice to amputate perfectly good arms, as it does, backfires. When Alonzo returns to the circus, he finds that Estrellita has fallen in love with the hamfisted Malabar and he’s arrived just in time to attend their wedding. Alonzo snaps and plots his final revenge.
The Unknown serves as a direct precursor to Browning’s more famous outing: 1932’s Freaks (which also includes the love triangle between a circus freak, a beauty and a strong man). The thematic reliance upon circus and carnival acts was no happenstance. Browning himself ran away to join the circus at 16. During those early years in show business, he worked a carnival “talker,” performed in his own act billed as the “Living Corpse,” and clowned around with Ringling Brothers. Not until he met D.W. Griffith at a variety theater in New York City, did Tod Browning venture into filmmaking. (He’s an extra in Intolerance, by the way.)
While Freaks is perhaps more unsettling in its own visceral way, The Unknown proves to be the more successful film overall due to Lon Chaney’s singular performance. Contemporary reviews likened the film to “a visit to the dissection room at the hospital.” Undoubtedly, Browning’s film ventures into uncomfortable territory but our modern sensibilities should be sturdier than that of a 1927 cinema critic.
While Browning’s story maintains that same disturbing sense of macabre drama, our 2016 sensibilities will be drawn (and quartered — you’ll understand if you watch the film) to the early notions of gender politics and sexual harassment. The love triangle where the “hot” girl chooses the insensitive “jock” over the “weird” guy remains timeless social dynamism.
And with that I’ll move on to some actual Watch Pile shame. Time is running low, and these movies aren’t watching themselves.
Joan Crawford at 22 doesn’t come with the crazy eyes. Who knew? (Well, technically I did… because I’d seen this before, but that’s beside the point.)
The Advance Word: The narrow sub-genre of “conservation horror” offers a narrow bandwidth of thrills. I expect animals to attack people and people to react like idiots.
#16. Day of the Animals (1977)
The challenges for El Cinemonster’s Hoop-Tober 3.0 included watching three “Animals Gone Wild” movies. It’s not my favorite genre, but maybe I just haven’t seen the right flicks. Unlike the laundry list of werewolf movies that disappoint me at every turn, I’ve only seen a couple of films belonging to this sub-genre of horror. The Blu-ray.com forum switchboard lit up when Scorpion announced Day of the Animals on Blu-ray. I get sucked into these vortexes of nostalgic appreciation and therefore ordered my own copy.
What am I missing, folks?
I’m unaware if the vultures are killing this woman or the chroma-key technology.
The basic tenent of the sub-genre — humans are horrible creatures that can’t help but destroy nature and now nature is taking its pound of flesh — makes perfect sense. I see these films as the global warming equivalent of Godzilla (1954). Godzilla came to be in the wake of nuclear fallout. Day of the Animals came to be in the wake of conservation awareness. Who got the short end of the stick here?
City folk go camping, become the prey for mountain lions, bears, vultures, snakes, hawks, etc. Hardly any difference between this and a healthy bit of slashing… except for one main aesthetic issue. Most of Day of the Animals takes place in daylight. And it’s not scary. Okay. It’s not even, like, tense. In fact it’s sooooo not tense that it’s funny, right down to its simple shots of bloodthirsty critters staring off in the distance and absorbing all that excess UV light that’s making them violently aggressive. When Day of the Animals first showcased some vultures staring down with obvious ill intent, I just couldn’t…
Low budget horror films embrace darkness. Darkness provides cheap thrills and masks sparse sets, cheap costumes, crappy gore effects, and so on and so forth. That Day of the Animals takes place predominantly during the day means that these special effects, like matting and forced perspective have nowhere to hide.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m down with crappy movies. So down. Day of the Animals, however, presents itself straight, no chaser. In fact, at one point, it almost convinced me that its aim was higher than that of the B-/C+ student that giggles at penis jokes in math class. I blame Lalo Schifrin. I don’t get to say that very often because Lalo’s a sonic f’ing master of cinematic jams. Sample “Frances’ Theme” from the Day of the Animals:
A solid score legitimizes bad cinema. If you have someone like Lalo Schifrin scoring your film, you have expectations. The $1.2million budget also suggests expectation. And I’m forced to ask: What’s your ambition, Day of the Animals? Your animal attacks offer high comedy, not suspense. All these humans are terrible. Good riddance. We’re rooting for the animals. Is that the thrill? Animalistic role playing? Are we actually embracing our inner Furry?
The inarguable climax of the movie takes place when shirtless Leslie Nielsen wrestles a bear… with fifteen minutes left in the film. This is the reason to watch Day of the Animals. Something less than 30 seconds of cinema. I know what you’re thinking. “Don’t I need the character development? The turn of events that leads to this moment?”
No. You don’t, so don’t clutter the image with backstory.
You just need to know that a shirtless Leslie Nielsen gets charged by a bear… and he charges back… and then the combatants embrace in a battle to the death. I’m forced to consider whether modern audiences have embraced this film more so than contemporary critics due to the incongruous appearance of Leslie Nielsen as an executive/hiker/rapist/bear brawler. Certainly fans weaned on his later-career comic films would find this sort of absurdity anomalous.
Progressive 1977 notions of global warming and conservation aside, Day of the Animals succeeds in offering little more than ironic entertainment (that vulture attack, tho!) and the reinforcement of my own personal belief that camping really sucks.
30Hz Movie Rating:
LESLIE NIELSEN FIGHTING A BEAR! Rating:
Blu-ray Verdict: I might keep it as a curiosity, but I feel bad depriving a Day of the Animals lover of their right to own this excellent Blu-ray release.
The Advance Word: Uh. Dracula sequel. About his daughter maybe? That’s my guess anyway. Though, after She-Wolf of London, I take nothing for granted.
#15. Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Any assessor of Dracula’s Daughter must approach the film from three distinct angles. First, at face value. Dracula’s Daughter is a toothless lark of a “sequel.” The film talks too much and shows too little to engage the viewer at the level of primordial terror. Despite the sluggish pacing of Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi’s Dracula still conveyed a consistent sense of dread.
The second angle of assessment, as with any of these films from the Universal horror cycle, lies in the success of the film’s visuals. These films no longer maintain the power of fright. They’ve long since assumed the role of spectacle. Chiaroscuro and fascinating gothic imagery.
Dracula’s Daughter differs from most of the horror pictures of its day because it places a woman in the central role (we shall not return to the silly She-Wolf of London — that trifle has no bearing on this conversation). As a result, we have the benefit of viewing the film in the context the entire Universal horror cycle. How does foregrounding a woman change the film’s approach to the “monstrous”?
I want to consider Gloria Holden herself. Holden assumes the “Dracula” role in this sequel and reportedly wanted nothing to do with the role. She’d just signed a new contract with Universal and Carl Laemmle immediately thrust the actress into Dracula’s Daughter as Countess Marya Zaleska. It was common to view these horror films as lesser art, but Holden had also seen how playing Dracula had typecast Bela Lugosi. With this in mind, it’s no stretch to view Holden’s performance as the product of an actress seething with distaste.
If Holden’s low opinion of the role had indeed seeped into her performance, this trait only benefitted her character. Countess Marya longs to be free from the curse of Dracula. She presumes that burning the body of Count Dracula will cause her to become human. (Sidenote: the funeral pyre marks the only appearance or Lugosi in the film — he contributed only his visage via a wax cast, despite originally being cast in the film.) When she does not return to the land of the living, she becomes hateful, desperate and disillusioned. An ideal situation for an actress that didn’t want to be there in the first place. Happy accidents.
Director Lambert Hillyer (director of the first Batman serial) cloaked Holden in shadow, embracing the unique contours of her porcelain face. Holden’s Countess Marya Zaleska drips with gothic sexuality. Viewing the film as an exploration of repressed female sexuality or even homosexuality creates layers of intrigue. Even the film’s cornball poster tagline (see above) suggests a kind of taboo sexuality: “She gives you that weird feeling!” (Emphasis on “weird” my own.)
To explore my homosexuality observation, I went to Google and typed in “Dracula’s Daughter homosexuality.” Clearly, I’m not alone with this bit of theorizing. In fact, I’m just plain late to the party. Anne Rice named a bar in he novel Queen of the Damned after the film, as an homage to homoerotic vampirism. Even the typically dense Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration noted the troublesome subtext of a specific scene between the Countess and a woman she coerces into modeling for her. (She’s a painter, you see.) The film’s been featured in books on queer cinema. Even contemporary reviews cited Zaleska’s notable eye for young girls. I’m barely scratching the surface on the published material discussing this matter. I didn’t think I’d had an original thought, but goddamn, Internet, thanks for making me feel remedial.
The Countess hovers over Janet. Her presence isn’t that of a grotesque killer, but of a lover.
During my viewing of Dracula’s Daughter, I couldn’t help but think of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the I Ching of female vampirism, which provided the springboard for films such as Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers andDreyer’s Vampyr (though Dreyer’s film eliminates all sexual connotations). The connection appears purely superficial. Carmilla stands out as the first example of the lesbian vampire trope in literature, Dracula’s Daughter as the first in cinema.
I don’t doubt that Hillyer took advantage of the titillating subtext; however, Dracula’s Daughter resorts to a sort of button-down version of lesbianism in the face of certain Production Code censorship and culturally accepted notions of gender identity.
Dracula’s Daughter never shows the Countess in the act of vampirism. Holden’s vampire never advances upon her prey for a nibble. She merely entraps. Predation, but never the kill. While Lugosi’s Dracula also never drank blood on screen, the actor inhabited a monster that most surely partook off-screen. Holden inhabits a bored noblewoman of leisure. Women weren’t killers. Women were lovers. And sexual women were not to be openly discussed.
Social constraints also dictated that a man couldn’t have been the prey of a female vampire. Women could be in distress. Women could be victims. Dracula’s Daughter, by placing a female as the central vampire, forced itself into the realm of de facto queer cinema. Society dictated that although women could be predators, they could also only prey on other women. The male lead, psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), becomes Countess Zaleska’s commodity, hope for a cure to her vampirism (aka lesbianism), but never the subject of her predation.
Before I start in on that last connection about “curing homosexuality” through psychiatry, I’m going to bring this bit of dialogue to a close.
Dracula’s Daughter offers so much food for thought during it’s meager 72 minute runtime that you’ll refuse the dessert course. Gloria Holden’s timeless beauty and drastic chiaroscuro prove to be a match made in cinematic heaven. Watch Dracula’s Daughter for the stunning visuals, observe the ways that the film toys with the notion of homosexuality and specifically female homosexuality. The uneven and sometimes clunky narrative doesn’t do the film itself any favors.
30Hz Movie Rating:
DVD Verdict: I need to see this on Blu-ray. While the print appears to be great shape on this Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection set, the deep blacks would benefit from greater 1080p detail. It should be a stunner.
The Advance Word: After Suspiria, fans claim Deep Red is the best Argento. Maybe to support my unpopular argument that Opera was the 2nd best Argento, I justified not watching the movie that would prove me wrong. Subconsciously, of course. Because that would be super dumb to not watch a good movie to support a misguided theory.
#14. Deep Red (1975)
I’ve grown weary of the argument that Dario Argento is a lesser director because he emphasizes style over substance. The giallo, by nature, requires an emphasis on the visual and an ability to twist standard genre elements into something striking and unique. The genre relies on such a strict set of identifying characteristics that creativity and excellence within these constraints manifests in the form of camera angles, color, light and shadow, and inventive slasher setpieces. No matter the intelligence of the narrative, story takes a backseat to visual panache. If you’re someone who watches a giallo film and laments a lack of a proper narrative in the face of stylistic artistry, maybe the genre just isn’t for you.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I don’t really care for Werewolf movies other than American Werewolf in London. We’ve all got our quirks.
Deep Red excels precisely because Argento forces his inventive camerawork to the foreground. He lingers on interesting gothic architecture, dark city streets, unsettling imagery. During his scenes of murder, rapid editing, point-of-view and tracking shots, and blazing colors (usually hypercolor red) tell stories within stories.
Argento makes us believe we’ve seen horrors that sometimes haven’t even appeared on camera because we anticipate the impact and the aftermath of the blade. As gory as Argento can be, the trauma generally occurs in the mind. Anticipation, tension, the cinematic language of a slasher, the groundwork of which is laid by the score. Tension in a giallo, or more broadly the slasher genre, does not exist without a great score.
Deep Red benefits greatly from its score — a score that might even sound overly familiar because of the ways that Goblin inspired John Carpenter’s iconic score for Halloween. I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the value of Goblin in the Argento filmography. The band scored three of Argento’s biggest successes in Deep Red, Suspiria and Phenomena. Take a listen below:
In his early masterworks, Argento combines these artificial elements of cinema — the sights and sounds, the cinematic language of the slasher — into a nightmarish synesthesia. In Deep Red (and some of his other films as well), Argento poses questions concerning perception and reality. Within Deep Red the question must be answered by the main character — what has he witnessed? — but Argento has also directed this question at the audience.
Cinema, as an artificial medium, offers us the ability to explore these questions every time we turn on a film. Argento places the perception vs. reality dynamic front and center. He directs dreamlike films, filled with loose logic and visual and aural connectivity. Red herrings, misdirection come part and parcel with a genre-style whose focus and mystery must remain, by nature, on the identity of the killer.
In Deep Red, David Hemming’s orchestra conductor Marcus Daly tells his musicians to be less perfect, to embrace the chaos of music in order to achieve something more beautiful that the notes on the page. Stunted order vs. the beauty of chaos and uncertainty. Argento addresses his audience here; he’s directing our reading of Deep Red, not as realism, but as a fantastical, almost improvisational artistic creation.
In the above scene, Marcus converses with his stumbledown drunk friend Carlo. Marcus has just witnessed the murder of a woman in an apartment window and he’s trying to piece together the events. Nothing makes sense. The ever-wise Carlo suggests Marcus re-assess the difference between his perception and his reality. All the while, Argento’s camera lingers on the statue — the artwork — between them.
(Artwork, reinforcing “the artificial,” acts a recurring motif in Deep Red. Argento evokes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. The morbid paintings in the victim’s apartment also play an important role in discovering the identity of the killer. But this is far beyond the scope of this conversation. I merely wanted to make mention.)
The scene between Marcus and Carlo punctuates everything that happens in Deep Red. Argento uses mirrors, artwork, aural cues to confound Marcus — and thereby the audience. Argento has told us to question what we’ve seen as well. The preceding murder scene and this conversation lean heavily on the themes Hitchcock perfected in Rear Window — a film that serves as a prototype for the giallo genre.
Say what? Did Hitchcock direct the first commercial giallo? If you disassemble Rear Window and consider the elements — perception vs. reality, the search for a killer’s identity, Hitchcock’s film contains many of the same narrative building blocks. Visually and stylistically, Hitchcock’s operating with a different (bloodless, gore-free) palette, but I’m merely offering fodder for pub conversations.
Having finally watched Deep Red, I’m humbled. I’ll have to retire my old “Opera is the second best Argento” unpopular opinion. It’s unpopular because it’s a load of bollocks. While Deep Red could not unseat my obsession with Suspiria, I have to award the film my highest new-watch recommendation. Argento’s 1975 film proves to be a master class is gothic suspense that transcends the giallo genre. There’s so much more going on in Deep Red than just a slight case of murder. Time to grapple with my own misperceived reality.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Blu-ray Verdict: I’m still sifting through the extras on Arrow Films’ now OOP Deep Red 3-disc Limited Edition. I can’t get enough Deep Red. The new 4K restoration looks immaculate, and this set (complete with Goblin soundtrack CD) just became one of the favorites on my shelf.
Nature of Shame: Never seen THE FLY (1986). CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?! Jeff Goldblum. Cronenberg. Oozy goo. THE FLY!
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1980’s
Original and Remake
The Advance Word: OMFG LIKE THE BEST F’ING MOVIE EVER. I’m substituting hyperbole for an honest appraisal of my expectations here. I do so because I scanned the @Letterboxd reviews and that’s pretty much what they said. Allow some wiggle room for paraphrasing.
#13. The Fly (1986)
I feel cheated out of a review because I literally just wrote a review about The Fly. Okay, so that was the 1958 version, but I could copy and paste some of that review into this space and nobody would notice because: #1. You likely didn’t read that review anyway, so it’d be new to you. I’m under no delusions that anyone’s reading all these and #2. Many of the same thoughts apply. Check back in with me when I hit review #20 and I guarantee you’ll just see cribbed bits of all sorts of old thoughts. Maybe just some emoticons and stick figures.
In my writeup for The Fly (1958) I suggested that the film wasn’t so much a horror film as it was a domestic melodrama. A glossy color-saturated Douglas Sirk special, except with a man-fly and a fly-man clouding the homely drama. David Cronenberg, while updating The Fly for 1986 has carried over some melodrama, not so much the DeLuxe Color. He does, however, wrap the melodrama up in a far more unsettling monster movie. Stay tuned for oozy goo, partially-digested bloody stumps, amazing practical creature effects and an even more affecting human narrative.
I don’t mean to suggest that The Fly (1958) lacked a human center. Poor Patricia Owens suffered plenty, but because of the film’s melodramatic artificiality I felt more disconnected from the drama. I observed and studied The Fly (1958) from a greater emotional distance. Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) grabbed me by the shirt collar, shoved my head in the fly excrement and said “sniff it.” It’s gross, but whatever. There’s a ton of gross stuff in The Fly. Super cool, gross stuff…
The core story remains in tact. A scientist with dreams of matter transportation participates in the scientific method and shatters the life of the woman who loves him. The major narrative shift takes place in the nature of the relationship between scientist and woman. In 1958, the couple lived in wedded bliss before the ill-fated experiment. In 1986, David Cronenberg makes his Fly movie about new love. Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle meets Geena Davis’ journalist at an industry party and brings her back to his place to “show off his experiments.” To him, this means sex. To her, this means she’s supposed to write about his experiments. Yadda yadda yadda he turns a baboon inside out and impregnates her with Brundlefly sperm.
But let’s rewind for a minute.
The Fly (1986) changes the nature of the human/fly transformation. Rather than an immediate change into Hedison-Head Fly and Fly-Head Hedison, Seth Brundle gradually turns into one “Brundlefly.” I suggested that the immediate change and desperate search for the Hedison-Head Fly mirrored the diagnosis of a terminal illness and the subsequent struggle for acceptance. Seth’s gradual metamorphosis (the process of metamorphism is also suggested by the cocoon-like pods that Brundle uses for his transference) from confident human, to superfly human to grotesque monster seems more like the emotional rollercoaster of new love. The journey from flirtation to new love to ghastly, horrible fly monster, aka the cessation of love/romance as brought about by the real world drama that tears people apart.
You can lump terminal illness into that morass of metaphor as well, should you so desire. I’m focusing on how/why Cronenberg shifted the dramatic center. Certainly, the 1950’s would have foregrounded the significance of love/marriage versus the casual sex and far more liberal cinematic norms of the 1980’s. But even this isn’t quite enough to write off the subtext Cronenberg aimed to hammer home.
New love comes with certain passions. This allowed the Goldblum/Davis coupling to amplify the heat and all-consuming passions. But what happens when that love goes sour? What happens when the all-consuming passions fade away and you must face the real human? I think Cronenberg created this monster movie as a way to explore obsession. The violent spark of love and sex, and ultimately the monsters beneath.
Like this guy:
The monstrous elements of The Fly (1986) obscure the fact that the film retains the same female-oriented focus. By employing pregnancy and abortion as a dramatic element, Cronenberg also shifts the focus away from the “mad scientist” angle. As Seth becomes consumed by the fly DNA, he remains a tragic figure, just like Hedison in 1958. Hedison, however, retained his humanity despite a fly head an appendage. When Seth gives way to the Brundlefly, there’s very little left of the man or his compassion. The Brundlefly becomes driven by the need to improve his shattered DNA. The horrors become imposed solely on Davis’ journalist. She must fight off his attempts to merge with her DNA. She must come to terms with the unwanted Brundlefly baby inside her. (That maggot birth scene hallucinion!)
That makes Cronenberg’s The Fly… a woman’s film, too? Indeed, sirs and madams. It’s just a woman’s film wrapped inside a killer monster flick. Neumann’s 1958 The Fly snuck a monster film inside overt melodrama. Two sides of the same coin. Both films offer unique cinematic pleasures of discovery and quirks of narrative focus. Unique approaches to the monster movie tropes. Watching the films back to back, revealed many ways in which the films inform interpretations of each other.
Give it a try. Note the specific changes Cronenberg makes. Having The Fly (1986) as a companion piece to The Fly (1958) shifted the way I viewed the original. There’s a thesis to write here. Others have probably done so. I’m not in the thesis writing business; I’m in the 31 Days of Horror writing business. And business is booming.
Even though I have a 5-star graphic (or more accurately a 5-Hz graphic), I don’t give them out. Silly, huh? To me a 5-Hz rating is only earned over time, tested and proven with multiple rewatches. Since this is my first viewing of The Fly (1986) consider this 4 1/2-Hz rating my highest recommendation. The Fly (1986) is Cronenberg’s masterpiece. I agree with all the Internet hyperbole. An accessible monstrosity featuring top-notch creature effects, a perfect amount of oozy-goo and depth of character and real humanity. Also Jeff Goldblum wearing a baboon.
30Hz Movie Rating:
Blu-ray Verdict: I wasn’t overly impressed with the transfer on this Blu-ray, but I watched this immediately after being blown away by the quality of The Fly (1958). The blacks lacked depth in certain scenes. That said, the extras on this Fox release more than make up for an average technical presentation.
Nature of Shame: Long overdue rewatch of The Fly (1958), a film I’ve owned on Blu-ray for a couple years.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1950’s Before 1970 Original and Remake
The Advance Word: Well, I’ve seen The Fly before. That’s the advance word. I remembered the “HELP ME!” finale and nothing more.
#12. The Fly (1958)
Fatigue has set in. I’ve watched 17 horror movies. I’ve written 11 reviews. It’s the 19th of October. I need to become a mindless word factory. I need to stop proof-reading. Prepare for half-assed horror movie bl-gging.
I watched The Fly (1958) at a young age. Deep in the throws of my first Vincent Price binge, I remember being annoyed that he played a totally normal dude. More vividly I remember being unnerved by the finale. I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything here — but when the fly with the David Hedison head is ensnared in a web and about to get eaten by a spider and it screams “Help me!” that’s the kind of thing that’ll mess a kid up for a few weeks.
It’s not because of the iconic high-pitch “Help me!” scream or the fact the insect had the head of Felix Leiter, but because this conclusion ran horrifically contrary to my expectations. This moment requires a last minute twist, a dab of deux ex machina, an 11th-hour salvation for our main character. Or at least salvation for our main character’s head (more on this in a minute). The boy tells Francois (Vincent Price) he’s just seen the fly with the white head in the garden, about to get eaten. Alas! We expect liberation. We expect Francois, the lone voice of reasonable doubt and scientific reason in this film, to save Hedison-Head Fly. Francois brings the investigator (Herbert Marshall) to see Hedison-Head Fly. Hooray!
THEN HERBERT MARSHALL CRUSHES HEDISON-HEAD FLY WITH A F’ING ROCK.
Exactly, Patricia Owens. I can help but get upset when my worldview becomes fractured.
The jarring conclusion to this film shatters worldviews. These old horror films generally conclude abruptly and without much resolution, but they conclude with the vanquish of evil (if only temporary) and the resurrection of hope. (I’m generalizing a great deal — but you get what you pay for.) All we have here is some solace that our heroine will be exonerated for the murder of her husband and not committed to the loony bin. That’s it. A fatherless child and a widow branded as the woman who killed her husband.
That’s the twist — not a narrative twist — but a thematic twist on convention. The focus of The Fly (1958) turns out to be the female lead, not the mad scientist that turns into the titular fly. Which leads me directly to my next point. The Fly isn’t a horror movie at all… you know, beside the whole man turning into a ghastly fly part… it’s a domestic melodrama about unconditional love and terminal illness, a theme that Cronenberg also embraces in the 1986 remake.
Consider the composition and color of the following two images.
Top: As Helen (Patricia Owens) recalls the time she had a 100% human husband, the DeLuxe Color pops (even though I’ve read that this color process doesn’t generally hold up as well over time). Husband and wife engage is idle sentimental chatter about forever love and embrace frequently. Below: When Fly-Head husband reveals himself (and his ersatz terminal illness), Patricia faints from the shock. Her scientist husband Andre (David Hedison) embraces her despite his deformed visage. Patricia repeatedly returns to face the horror of a Fly-Head husband. Love attempting to overcome all obstacles. Director Kurt Neumann mutes the color palette after the mutation.
While I watched The Fly (1958) I couldn’t help but think back to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. Curiously enough — in both form and function. It’s an imperfect comparison but one that lingered throughout my viewing of The Fly. In All That Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman’s character Cary feels forced away from her lover Ron (Rock Hudson) due to societal norms. The older woman and the younger man. After Ron suffers a life-threatening accident, she returns to him, thus accepting their “imperfect” coupling. Granted, Rock Hudson is 100% beefcake and 0% fly… but nonetheless the age difference and the tragic injury remain obstacles that must be overcome.
Absorb Sirk’s use of color and composition below and then compare 1954’s All That Heaven Allows to the above images from The Fly (1958). It’s certainly not out of the question that Kurt Neumann absorbed and regurgitated (flies do that, you know) some of Sirk’s melodramatic mastery into his own film. Just because Neumann directed 68 B-pictures in his 29 year career, doesn’t mean he didn’t appreciate a masterwork of Technicolor cinema when he saw it.
The narrative construct of The Fly (1958) also supports the “woman’s film” thesis. The film opens with Helen (Patricia Owens) already having killed her husband in a mechanical press. She has not been officially accused of the murder, because skeptics believe her incapable of having done the deed. She displays stoic placidity, claiming above all that she’d done the right thing, that her husband had found a better place as a result of her actions. The film then peels back the layers on the murder over the next 80 minutes.
The scientific process tucked into the middle portion of the film, places Andre as a secondary character — yet we adhere to the cinematically-ingrained notion of the mad scientist as primary. Scientific method catalyzes the film and transforms Andre, but the emotional center remains Patricia. She becomes the character unto which the psychological horrors occur. She tears herself apart attempting to catch the Hedison-Head Fly so her husband can attempt to reassemble his DNA, just as Fly-Head Hedison devotes every waking hour working on that cure. Their efforts and their mania represent a futile search for a cure to his terminal disease.
Despite Patricia’s devotion she can’t bare to see what her husband has become. She stares into the face of a fly, ergo her already dead husband. The ultimate loss of her husband already presumed. The film’s narrative and Patricia’s growing desperation rely on a glimmer of hope for propulsion. Patricia’s greatest and final act of love occurs when she grants her husband’s final wish and destroys him in the press. True love, diagnosis, denial, death, and ultimate acceptance.
My final thought is that I’m tired and I want to go to bed, but I’m here finishing this writeup about how I saw more than a dash of Douglas Sirk in The Fly (1958). It’s a fine film. One that’s oddly paced and incongruous with the horror genre with which it is mostly associated.
One final element to ponder. Since Fly-Head Hedison proved functional as a scientist, that means that Fly-Head retained the intelligence of the man. Yet Hedison-Head Fly screamed “Help me!” thereby suggesting an understanding of human language and therefore also human intelligence. If Fly-Head Hedison and Hedison-Head Fly were of rival intelligence, why didn’t Hedison-Head Fly just land of Fly-Head Hedison’s shoulder and say “You complete me”?
30Hz Movie Rating:
DVD Verdict: Filmed in DeLuxe Color and CinemaScope, The Fly (1958) looks nearly pristine. I noticed no film blemishes. The transfer respects both the grays and blacks of the muted color sequences and the bright, vivid colors noted above. Grain has been maintained. 20th Century Fox generally does a solid job with their catalog titles. I wish they’d do more.
I will save this picture on the off chance that one day I can build my DREAM house and find this architect and this decorator and tell them to make me a dining room like this. I think it's one of the first formal dining rooms I've ever really liked.