For David Cronenberg, man is a forlorn hero always too eager to improve himself. That’s what makes Cronenberg such a poet of horror--whenever he’s behind the camera, this crazed quest for perfection usually ends in catastrophe.
In “Crimes of the Future,” the gifted Canadian director showed us a victim of a bizarre malady who tries to gain immunity by merging with a woman into a third sex. In “Scanners,” rival mental giants develop a powerful form of ESP, lethal enough to blow each other’s heads off. And in “Videodrome,” we saw a soft-porn video entrepreneur writhing under the hallucinogenic spell of TV mind control.
Cronenberg’s new film, “The Fly” (citywide Friday), plunges deeper into the forbidding realm of genetic dysfunction with genuinely unsettling results. Artfully constructed by Cronenberg and co-screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, “The Fly” is as much a romantic tragedy as a black-humored horror film, but it unfolds with such eerie grandeur that it will leave you stoked with a creepy high for hours after you’ve left the theater.
The film is a remake of the tacky 1958 horror classic, and its basic story follows the outline of the original, which featured David Hedison as a scientist who switches heads with a housefly in a botched teleportation experiment. In this new version, the young scientist, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), is an eccentric, almost childlike recluse who brings a science reporter, Veronica (Geena Davis), back to his lab for a look at his invention.
In Cronenberg films, eroticism and horror are kissing cousins, so it comes as no surprise that Brundle’s motives are twofold. The solitary explorer is eager to show off his teleportation breakthrough to an appreciative outsider, but he’s also clearly enchanted by his inquisitive visitor. The feeling is mutual--Veronica has recently ditched her wealthy, obnoxious editor/boyfriend (John Getz)--and she quickly sets about documenting Brundle’s experiments (using a favorite Cronenberg prop, the video camera).
Brundle, of course, ends up testing his invention himself, but from there on it’s clear that Cronenberg and Pogue have left the original movie far behind. We won’t give away any of the gruesome details (except to advise that you put some distance between your dinner schedule and the end of the film). However, it’s how Cronenberg handles the unexpected results of Brundle’s experiment that gives “The Fly” its horrific new spin.
Cronenberg creates a monster from within, using sly hints of visual detail to stimulate our own imaginations. Let’s just say Brundle becomes a scientist with an awesome sweet tooth--he even follows a shot of Scotch with a candy-bar chaser.
What makes “The Fly” such a stunning piece of obsessive film making is the way Cronenberg deftly allows us to identify with his monstrous creation. Unlike so many modern horror film creations, Brundle is neither a brutal demon nor a hideous apparition from another sphere. He’s more reminiscent of the hulking marvels of our movie childhood--he has the dreamy, transfixing innocence of a King Kong or a Frankenstein’s monster. In fact, the more striking his physical metamorphosis, the more touchingly human he seems in spirit. It’s hard not to hear the echo of Kafka in Brundle’s most sorrowful lament: “I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man, and the dream is over.”
One reason the film exercises such a potent grip on our emotions is that it’s as much a tragic love story as a chilling spectacle. While much of the credit should go to the sensitive script, the film is graced with a pair of wonderful performances by Goldblum and Davis that bring out the film’s underlying compassion and its edgy, ironic spirit.
Long-limbed Davis, best known as a TV comedienne, neatly captures the heroine’s fierce loyalty and devotion. And Goldblum is a master of transformation, displaying first a boyish sense of wonder at his scientific triumphs, then the frantic curiosity of a wizard betrayed by his own ingenuity. He never loses touch with the dark, comic side of this adventure, either; his character becomes not so much a monster as Groucho Marx with antennae instead of a cigar.
The film’s production team is also operating full throttle. Special kudos go to composer Howard Shore for his moody score, Fly designer Chris Walas and production designer Carol Spier, whose telepod looks like a cross between a 21st-Century phone booth and a vaporous womb. In the past, Cronenberg’s fevered, wickedly comic imagination has sometimes teetered over the brink into pure savagery and incoherence. But with “The Fly” (MPAA-rated R for its extremely graphic horror), he’s created more than a nightmare. He’s spun a tale that peeks into the darkest corners of our wildest dreams.
A Brooksfilms presentation of a 20th Century Fox release. Producer Stuart Cornfeld. Director David Cronenberg. Writers Charles Edward Pogue, Cronenberg. Camera Mark Irwin. Editor Ronald Sanders. Music Howard Shore. Production design Carol Spier. Creation and design of the Fly by Chris Walas Inc. With Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, Joy Boushel, Les Carlson, George Chuvalo, Michael Copeman.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).