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More Than Gore: The Triumph of Cronenberg’s The Fly

By  · Published on August 24th, 2016

Be aware, be very aware.

I refuse to begrudge horror fans harboring an artificial blood lust; that is, a lust to behold the spilling of gallons of artificial blood. Karo lust? Living for the deaths in this genre is a highly cathartic, paradoxically harmless indulgence of spectacle with shared psychological roots in the Parisian Grand Guignol theater.

But even the most massive of splatterhounds would agree, there is so much more to David Cronenberg’s The Fly than the gore.

The 1986 remake of The Fly is not only Cronenberg’s masterpiece, but a classic piece of science-fiction that accomplishes precisely what that genre is, at its best, intended to do. Seth Brundle is a character whose greatest flaw at the onset of the film is a relentless desire to advance the boundaries of knowledge. He proceeds with his teleportation experiment with the express intention of bettering humankind. In the process however, he is graphically robbed of every aspect of his own humanity.

The easy comparison here would be to Dr. Frankenstein who truly believed his attempts to reanimate dead tissue would result in monumental advancements and improvements to the human condition. However, the tragedy of Seth Brundle’s downfall is that he became his own monster as the result of an experiment intended to create nothing at all. The hubris comes as punishment for the very notion that he could break the laws of physics.

Brundle is a modern Icarus, a man punished for his curiosity. At first the experience of going through the pod maximizes his physical form and imbues him with a state of manic euphoria, but soon he realizes the darker consequences of his actions (or rather the consequences of the accident). He teleports too close to the sun and is consequently sent hurtling into an abyss of visceral decay that will make any queasy audience members regurgitate their own lunches.

The dusty maxim that if God had wanted man to fly, he would have given him wings seems almost custom-crafted for Seth Brundle’s exact fate. That chestnut serves as cautionary warning to accept the inherent limitations of mankind in a given place and time and is fundamentally antagonistic to science. Apparently if God had wanted man to be a fly, he would’ve waited for that man to transgress and challenge his domain.

And still, we are captivated by the gore. We recoil, we scream, we are thoroughly entertained by our repulsion. All the while, Cronenberg is using Chris Walas’(by the way, Oscar-winning) special effects to peel away the superfluous flesh and get at the collective innards of humanity. The best science-fiction has a habit of using new, sleek, often space-age technology to shine a plasma ray on the things that connect us as people, and The Fly is a stellar example.

In his genetic decay, Brundle becomes a philosophical mouthpiece for issues like AIDS, disease in general and how we treat those afflicted, drug addiction, and even abortion. These issues aren’t merely matters of science, but Cronenberg allows for the sterile coldness of science to break these issues down to see how they affect us on a molecular, human level. When Brundle begs Veronica not to end her pregnancy, he is not defending more from the high ground, but instead striving to keep the last essence of himself in existence. That choice, that position, is so heartbreaking as to transform this otherwise gruesome spectacle of a movie into a deeply moving tragedy.

Cronenberg knew he himself would be flying close to the sun to make The Fly. He walked away from the bigger-budgeted Total Recall to work with relatively unknown actors in a horror remake produced by Mel Brooks. However, unlike Brundle-Icarus, Cronenberg was rewarded for his advancement.

Want to hear more waxing (both poetic and visceral) on The Fly? Step into the pod with us as we continue Junkfood Cinema’s One Junky Summer series.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episode covering an additional movie from the summer of 1986, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.