HELP MEEEEE! HELP MEEEEE! I'M STUCK WATCHING STUDIO SCHLOCK!
I kid the Fox sci-fi horror of the 50's! Let's get into some studio filmmaking with some creatures made in a scientist's lab, shall we? The premise of the original version of The Fly (must distinguish it of course from Cronenberg's masterpiece of Goldblum and sinew) is that a scientist is in his lab (in the basement of his home, where has no assistants - it's referred to more than once he is a Genius after all with a capital G) and has developed a new system that can transport matter from one spot to another. How does this work? Well, you know how your TV sends an image from one space to another - it works with actual objects and beings too, it's all about atoms and molecular shit that you don't really care about, but... don't those lights look awesome in his lab?
I mention this part of the story since it may sounds just a little familiar... remember the first part of this Spooktacular Savings series? Did it sound rather familiar to Attack of the Puppet People, per-chance, the story where a scientist decides to use some kind of technology that exists and just flip it around/reverse it in some way that makes Goofy-Movie-Sense and shrinks matter. Here, it's not about shrinking as it is teleportation... until it goes awry. But the difference is, Puppet People was a low-rent Bert I Gordon flick. The Fly was a major studio release from Fox, boasting the name of none other than Horror God Vincent Price. Does it rise above its possible limitations of the genre? Well...
Here's the thing about The Fly: if you aren't expecting the world of it, if you go in with manageable expectations, it'll be fine. If you go in hoping it's some science fiction/horror classic about a guy that turns into a fly and wreaks havoc all over the place... eh, nope. One of the strange things about the movie is that a good 70/75% of the movie is a flashback; the scientist's wife, Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens, who looks like she came out of an oven ready to be a 1950's house-wife/mother, says that she 'killed' her husband in a press-machine, and yet brother-in-law Francois (Price) can't believe it. So she tells him, after much prodding and some rather peculiar behavior around a particular fly, everything that happened. Oh, and by the way, her flashback includes scenes that she was certainly not apart of - like when husband Andre tests his teleportation machine on a cat, and the cat just... disappears into the ether of the, uh, 'atomsphere' or something...
One of the positive things I can say is that Andre's lab is wonderful to look at. Every time he sets up one of his teleports of matter, we see the machine light up and there's cut-aways to the different parts in the room and it's multi-colored and full of blue and green and purple hues, almost like something out of the future (or an ecstasy dream of some sort). And when his 'experiment' goes too far and he gets the, ahem, insect-like appendages, there's a good lot of time to build up the suspense of what the hell he looks like. When it's revealed, it is... not bad. I was expecting worse, again it's a cheesy 50's horror-sci fi flick. Could it have been better? Well, let's just say that Cronenberg's The Fly is the best criticism of this movie, albeit very, very different, aside from the Canadian connection.
(As an aside, why are they Canadian? It seems sort of arbitrary - maybe it's so that the legal system can be a little altered so that Helen isn't taken away in cuffs right away, that she can, uh, stay in bed for most of the movie and have a reaction that just does not make much sense at fucking all, but anyway).
The acting here ranges from being OK (Owens and David Hedison when he's there in the flesh are fine 50's archetypes, no more no less, and Owens is a wonderful screamer when the time comes for the reveals), but the fact that Price leaves the picture for very long stretches is kind of disappointing. Again, one has to readjust expectations soon after the start of the picture; I had the assumption that Price would be the scientist who Takes Things Too Far, and instead he's the sad brother of the scientist who also has a... secret love he's harbored for years for the wife(?) Hmm. Again, it's Price, he could act a McDonald's menu and make it the most captivating Quarter Pounder you ever heard. But it seems rather odd to get him and use him as a straight guy, and in a storyline that is fully dramatic.
Of course, the plus side of it being SO dramatic and never losing its face is that by the time it gets to the climax - the "HELP ME!" little fly-man that has been etched but sometimes forgotten in pop culture lore - it is quite hilarious. And yet the movie, has pacing problems, perhaps due to this flashback structure, which I imagine is there so that Price wouldn't have been just in the second half of the story; there's a ten minute scene (or it feels like it anyway) where the search for the fly "with the white head" goes on via Helene and her son (one of those kid actors by the way who should be tolerable in a milk commercial, and here shows why kid actors are indeed usually better today). When the tension for this Fly-Doctor-Genius is going on, the movie works, up to a point. When it turns more towards the domestic drama and Father Knows Best stuff... I'm not so sure.
But wait, fellow friends of BAXTER STOCKMAN! (Yes, old, Ninja Turtles Cartoon reference) - there was a sequel, and I was psyched to watch this going back years, mostly due to a song recorded by The Misfits (which is at the bottom of this page)....
Strangely, Francois refuses to back Philippe in his venture, but then is still there in the lab at his nephew's house helping out. Why this is is... hey, who cares, it's more Vincent Price dang-nabbit! This time there is a villain, in the diabolical would-be partner-in-sciency-things with Ronald Holmes - I'm sorry, that's ALAN HINDS! (A very good David Frankham fills the role). Why have the double name? Who cares, he has nefarious plans to sell the goods on Philippe's machine - why sell it, after all, when you can just steal it - and has one of those partners-in-crime who when we first see him is eating a big crab meal. Leave it to director Edward Bernds to be a master of subtlety.
All my sarcasm aside, this movie's a lot of fun, shorter than the first movie but more compact (i.e., sure, simpler) in its storytelling. It doesn't bother with a long, elaborate flashback to thins the character would or wouldn't of seen. Here it's all about getting to the point where the fly *returns* of course. And this time there's none of that stuff where the Man-Fly types out things or writes on a chalkboard: here we get to see ACTION, folks!
A good question to ask is if any of this is scary. No, not particularly, but perhaps being excited and engaged is just as well for this; there are even a couple of jump scares - and those sorts of shots that they used to do in 1950's sci-fi/horror movies where a characters hears/sees/thinks something (in this case it's Philippe when he hears/sees a fly in his living room early on) and just freezes up. This is, by the way, before he's told by his uncle the terrible family secret - guess all those years of hunting for flies finally got to him.
In saying that I preferred Return of the Fly to The Fly it's not to say it's some sort of undiscovered/not-revered classic. It's cheesy and stupid and yet I bought into it, down to the Fly-head which, I think, was sort of improved for this version. And black and white cinematography suits this kind of material more than crisp Cinemascope color. The only thing lost really are those fruity-pebble colors of the lab, which here are in the stark black and white. Which, I should note, makes it look like a real old-school laboratory. It's also fun to see at one point a man transported with a guinea pig and for the guinea pig to have a man's hands and for the man to get guinea pig hands (or, I think they're meant to be, they might have been left over from a set with an alligator or some such nonsense).
And, last but certainly not least, more Vincent Price. And sure, he may be shot for part of RotF, but he still can act the shit out of this material.
So.... Take it away, Glenn: