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The Fly: Collector's Edition

The most paralyzing horror story to come out of the movie industry in the last few decades might be Hollywood's fear of new ideas. With multiplexes already sagging from sequelibrium, recent years have seen a non-stop influx of TV spinoffs and movie remakes angling for the jaded moviegoing dollar, usually offering little more than name-recognition doused in the damp humor of smug pop-culture deconstruction. One of the least ambitious strains of this recent remakery has been the recycling of classic horror movies, duly stripped and sterilized of genuine thrills and atmosphere, and fed into the meatyocrity grinder. In this current atmosphere of prefab gore it's easy to forget, then, just how good an uncynical horror remake can be. While the 1980s horror genre was overrun with franchises built around unstoppable killers Jason and Freddy, two of the movies of the decade were dynamic remakes of talky 1950s sci-fi and horror classics: John Carpenter's 1982 chilling monster yarn The Thing and David Cronenberg's astounding 1986 updating of the 1958 Vincent Price creature feature The Fly. Where Kurt Neumann's 1958 version of George Langelaan's short story "The Fly" featured a few memorable scenes and lines, its drive-in, B-movie aspirations translated into a triumph of camp over creeps, and its titular fly-headed ghoul (and the corresponding human-headed fly) is more likely to elicit titters than shivers. Director Cronenberg and co-writer Charles Edward Pogue, however, instead of simply regurgitating the same content into a slicker but soulless package, dig deep into the source material to mine an emotionally powerful story that, appropriately, melds contemporary special effects with profoundly disturbing psychological human drama and technological terror.

Jeff Goldblum gives the performance of his career as brilliant but socially awkward and isolated physicist Seth Brundle, who can't help but reveal to a pretty science journalist (Geena Davis) that he's close to completing a project that will revolutionize life as we know it: a teleportation pod that can deconstruct an object down to its molecular level and reassemble it in another pod. When Veronica threatens to turn his flaccid attempt at seduction into a career-making scoop, he persuades her to wait until he has perfected the pioneering process, after which he promises her exclusive book rights to his discovery. While the teleportation system works well with inanimate objects, it doesn't do so well with living creatures (as evidenced by a baboon that comes out of the destination pod turned gooily inside out). It takes Seth and Veronica's burgeoning love affair to inspire the epiphanous breakthrough, but when Veronica opts to visit an ex-boyfriend (Jon Getz) rather than celebrate a successful baboon teleportation, Seth decides in a drunken fit of jealousy to teleport himself before further testing, and neglects to notice when a common housefly enters the teleportation chamber with him. Not programmed to handle the teleportation of two separate subjects, the computer combines in-transit Seth's and the fly's DNA structures into one hybrid organism. Initially visibly unaltered, Seth feels revitalized by the process, stronger and more agile, energetic and powerful. But his physical appearance begins to deteriorate as he begins to shed his human features and the insect within him takes control.

*          *          *

The Fly's most remarkable qualities are inextricably tied to its three key players — David Cronenberg, Jeff Goldblum, and makeup effects master Chris Walas. Since his crude-but-effective 1975 low-budget feature Shivers, Cronenberg has been the undisputed master of biological sci-fi horror, racking up a series of fascinating, unsettling, and thoroughly original explorations of humans consumed by science, technology, and machinery (best amongst them 1976's gritty Rabid and 1979's unforgettably eerie The Brood). In many ways, The Fly is the perfect culmination of Cronenberg's key obsessions, as Brundle's conflicting human needs and emotions corrupt his hunger for discovery, and the final, unforgettably heartbreaking scene is Cronenberg at his purest, mixing horrific content with a deep sense of empathy. As always, Cronenberg's approach is patient, never in a rush to deliver cheap shocks, but letting them evolve naturally from his keenly designed character's obsession. Goldblum has always been the best in his class at delivering quirky pseudo-scientific chatter as if he were accessing organic thoughts, and the first half of The Fly plays to his most obvious strengths. But it is during the second half of the film — as he slowly transforms from a monstrously paranoid and self-obsessed man-fly into monstrous fly-like creature bitterly aching to reclaim his humanity — that he delivers one of the all-time great film performances, effortlessly exuding empathy, pathos, self-loathing, and fascinated anguish from underneath several pounds of decaying latex goo. Goldblum is so powerful as "Brundlefly" that he disarms resistance to what was a dramatic step-up in the level of gore considered stomachable in most big Hollywood pictures. And what exquisite (but never gratuitous) gore it is, with Walas creating a disturbingly authentic transformation that even in its most extreme moments never loses the echoes of humanity that make the movie so effectively potent and unprecedentedly poignant. Walas won an Oscar for Best Makeup Effects (and went on to direct a 1989 sequel, The Fly II), but neither Goldblum or Cronenberg were nominated.

Fox's two-disc Collector's Edition of The Fly is an excellent tribute to an underrated movie, presenting the feature in a great anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio options, as well as an interesting commentary by Cronenberg. Disc Two features a wealth of extras, including the three-part documentary "Fear of the Flesh," which covers the film more extensively than one would reasonably expect (running 2 hrs. 30 min.) and features an enhanced branching option for even more depth of coverage on selected subjects. Also included are a few deleted and extended scenes, including a shocking (and sometimes silly) sequence, understandably cut following a test screening, during which a deteriorating Brundle creates and then kills a deformed baboon-cat hybrid creature before chewing off a newly grown insect appendage. (Ick.) A thankfully unused alternate ending is also included. In the "The Brundle Museum of Natural History," Walas looks at the a collection of concepts, models, and artifacts from the movie (12 min.). Film tests show evolving ideas for the title sequence and some special effects, including "Cronenfly" (8 min.) Textual supplements include Langelaan's original short story, Pogue's original screenplay, Cronenberg's screenplay rewrite, and articles from Cinefex and American Cinematographer magazines. Also on board are promotional featurettes, still galleries, original teasers, trailers, and TV spots. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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