31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.
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
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.
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.
Earlier 2016 31 Days of Horror entries: #1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim