David Cronenberg's 1986 remake of The Fly has undoubtedly seated itself firmly amongst the classic horror films of the 80’s. Among contemporaries like, The Thing, Reanimator, and Evil Dead, The Fly, used practical effects to shock its viewers with gruesome visuals. The Fly sets itself apart, however; underneath Cronenberg’s horrific portrayal of a man slowly and horrifically transforming into a monstrous man-fly, lays a genuinely touching love story. The tragic tale is old as time: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, and girl watches boy’s fingernails and ears fall off as he mutates into an unsightly abomination. Erm...let me explain.
From the film’s very first scene, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis’s characters are on screen together. For the entirety of its runtime, the two are rarely apart. Davis plays Veronica Quaife, a reporter for a scientific journal that has attended a conference in search of a new story. In the opening moments of the film, she’s found chatting with Goldblum’s Seth Brundle, a somewhat quirky physicist that breathlessly explains how he believes he is on the edge of a discovery that will change the world, as they know it. Brundle is clearly flirting here, attempting to use his scientific prowess as a way to earn Veronica’s attention. While she seems initially tentative about Brundle’s somewhat awkward advances, she eventually agrees to see what he’s got to show.
The pair’s relationship begins to bud from the moment they set off from the conference together. Brundle clearly inhabits the role of the socially scientist, with every word uttered in Veronica’s presence filled with a nervous energy. His idea of flirting ranges from regaling Veronica with tales of how he becomes motion sick at even the slightest of speeds, to wordlessly serenading her via piano as soon as they arrive at the apartment. Veronica seems initially cautious, clearly unable to take Brundle’s goofball persona seriously, but still holds out hope that she can find a story. Cronenberg builds the tension of an uneasy pair divided in their intentions, with Brundle hoping to impress, and Veronica just attempting to do her job.
The two eventually agree to work together, as Veronica is amazed that Brundle’s teleporter actually works and she immediately hopes to publish a story on the discovery. Brundle, however, pleads with Veronica to hold off until he can perfect the machine and successfully teleport living subjects. The two agree to an exclusive book deal on their second awkward date (over burgers at a diner).
The first act of the film works quickly to establish a connection between the two, with the breezy pacing typical to 80’s horror, swiftly moving through the initial phases of courtship. As they work together, we see that Brundle fills the caricature of the unsocialized physicist, with only the company of his two baboons and a closet full of identical outfits. After a failed attempt to teleport to one of the baboons, Brundle himself admits that his invention cannot move living specimens because it lacks a fundamental understanding of the flesh. He too, admits that he similarly lacks this understanding, and proposes that he must learn himself in order to complete his machine. It’s a somewhat corny yet endearing metaphor to signify how Brundle is able to achieve his eureka moment by building a relationship with Veronica.
Seth and Veronica share a simultaneous scientific and emotional breakthrough, as Brundle is successful in his next attempt at teleporting a living specimen. As the two celebrate this miraculous discovery, Veronica suggests that they take off on a vacation together. Brundle meets this reaction with surprise, as the once professional relationship has now fully transformed into a romantic affair. He is elated at this realization, at once filled with energy and excitement for both the success of his life’s work and his newfound love.
The film’s rapid pacing does not allow the romance to persist for long, however; just as the two begin to celebrate, the story begins to veer towards tragedy. Veronica has been harassed by a creepy former lover, (and current editor), who threatens to publish Brundle’s story against her will. In an effort to stop him, she hastily leaves Seth’s apartment just as the champagne is uncorked. Seth, now alone with a bottle and Chinese food for two, is distraught that his newfound lover has run off to see another man. It is his drunken paranoia that leads him to brazenly test his teleporter on himself. He does so without truly understanding if his invention is safe, and is too blinded by jealousy to stop himself.
This, of course, is when the transformation begins, after Brundle’s DNA is merged with that of a fly. The transformation changes Brundle both physically and mentally, as the awkward, mild mannered Brundle that Veronica originally fell for gives way to a manic, arrogant Brundlefly. From the first kiss they share post-teleportation, Veronica seems hesitant, as if she can tell that something has changed. The changes come swiftly as Brundle’s mutations manifest, as he finds himself with seemingly unlimited strength and stamina. But the same mutations that allow him to perform an Olympic gymnastics display also cause him to speak like a coke-addled maniac as he downs sugar at an alarming rate. Even before his physical mutations manifest, Seth pushes Veronica away with his deranged ramblings. He believes that teleporting himself has unlocked his true potential, but in reality it has changed everything that brought he and Veronica together.
Despite his changes, Veronica refuses to abandon Seth. Even as he tries to force her to teleport against her will, she cannot help but worry for her lover. Surging with lust and power, Seth quickly turns from Veronica to find someone who WILL teleport. He picks up a floozy from a local bar that he then attempts to convince to teleport after a night of sex. Even after this betrayal, Veronica shows only concern that Seth is sick and desperately needs help.
It’s here that Cronenberg’s use of gore, (now commonly referred to as body horror), is so effective. Seth’s change is gradual at first, with tiny insect like hairs sprouting from his back and pockmarks appearing on his face. As his skin starts to ooze secretions and his fingernails begin to shed, Brundle realizes that something has gone wrong and reaches out to Veronica for help. She returns to a trashed apartment inhabited by a severely mutated Brundle. His skin now oozes with broken pustules, his hair is falling out, and he can only walk with the support of canes. At this point, Brundle is becoming a monster. Despite his ghastly appearance, Veronica stays by his side. She does not respond to his mutated appearance with fear or resentment, instead embracing him in sympathy as he begs for help. She is tearful and terrified for her lover’s safety.
Such a tragedy is a tale that can mirror real life romance. Awkward courtship, a deeply romantic honeymoon phase, and a tragic turn, marred both by Brundle’s unflinching commitment to his work that is fueled by hubris. His reason for pushing on to test the machine on himself stemmed from the jealousy he felt, his vulnerable state leading him to make a rash decision. Then, as his work consumed him and his genetic affliction took over, he only pushed his love away, becoming blind to the passion they once had. Veronica, simultaneously, is the scorned lover that cares too deeply to turn away. She is too committed to Seth to abandon him even when he threatens and betrays her. Even as his physical form mutates and decays, she wants only to help him, rather than turning her back on him out of fear or anger. She sees a flawed, scared, desperate man that she loved. Much like the tragedy of Frankenstein or Swamp Thing, Cronenberg has created a monster movie that evokes pathos for its unfortunate characters. He breaks the mold of monster cinema by creating a relationship that is sweet and pure, before quickly destroying it with unfortunate circumstance.
Though Seth’s human-fly hybrid monster is grotesque and unsightly, he demonstrates care for Veronica until the bitter end. He is desperate and afraid, yet realizes that he will eventually lose control and cannot bare the thought of hurting his lover. He struggles against the fly portion of his DNA, the part that schemes to use the teleporter to fuse with Veronica and become more human. As his mutations rapidly progress, he becomes unrecognizable from his human self, yet moments of humanity continue to shine through. This is never more apparent than in the final moments of the film, where after a confrontation with the fully mutated Brundlefly, Veronica stands over what once was her lover with a shotgun. She is emotionally devastated; even as she looks down at the horrific monster crawling to her feet, she cannot bring herself to pull the trigger. She still holds a semblance of love for Brundle, and is too distraught to finish him off. In his final show of humanity, it’s Brundle that helps Veronica raise the gun to his head and end his misery.
The effectiveness of Seth and Veronica’s love story is what makes these final moments so resonant, as the film’s finale allows the viewer to become fully empathetic to the lovers’ tragedy. Their fleeting but sweet romance is destroyed almost as soon as it began; yet the pair never gives up on each other. Cronenberg has created a pitiful monster with the Brundlefly, one that despite becoming completely grotesque still evokes some amount of sympathy rather than fear or disgust.
Jack makes drugs for a living, but not necessarily the fun kind. He enjoys international travel and discussing music, movies, and games in excruciating detail.