All this week, we’re celebrating the great movies that hit screens 30 years ago in 1986. Go here to read more.
By the dog days of the summer of 1986, inveterate horror junkies (including yours truly) were in a funk. Not even James Cameron’s white-knuckle Aliens could wipe out the stench of Critters, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, and Psycho III. All that changed, however, in mid-August, when a freaky film announced itself with five immortal words:
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
David Cronenberg’s The Fly arrived in theaters Aug. 15 of that year, an instant classic that seared itself into the pop consciousness thanks to star Jeff Goldblum’s mesmerizing, metastasizing “Brundlefly,” a twitchy, oozy monstrosity made of bug parts and slime.
Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly (20th Century Fox)
Hyped as a grosser, gorier remake of the eponymous 1958 Vincent Price fright film, The Fly transcended genre. Yes, the Frankenstein-riffing tropes are there: A brilliant, yet egotistical scientist (Goldblum’s Seth Brundle) develops teleportation tech that makes Elon Musk’s Hyperloop look like amateur hour; said scientist performs a test run himself, not realizing a housefly has entered the transportation chamber; with the fly’s DNA fused to his own, the scientist grows increasingly unhinged as he morphs into an insectoid monster jeopardizing his girlfriend (Geena Davis). But the film is elevated by Goldblum’s tour-de-force performance and by Cronenberg’s reimagining of the source material (The Fly was hatched as a short story by George Langelaan) as a potent metaphor for love and loss. While some ’80s audiences saw Brundle’s deterioration as an AIDS parable, Cronenberg later said he had a less specific story in mind. “For me, though, there was something about The Fly story that was much more universal to me: aging and death — something all of us have to deal with,“ he told Film Freak Central in 2012.
The original 1958 ‘The Fly’ (20th Century Fox)
The remake was the brainchild of screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, who pitched the idea to producer Stuart Cornfeld. Cornfeld convinced his boss, Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks) to take a flier on The Fly. (Brooks, who had a soft spot for horror flicks, had been a big fan of The Dead Zone, Cronenberg’s stellar 1983 Stephen King adaptation.) Brooks and Cornfeld courted Cronenberg to helm The Fly, but he was under contract to direct Total Recall. Eventually, that deal fell apart and Brooks had his man. Cronenberg retooled Pogue’s script and, as Brooks told Moviefone in 2011, the team wanted to “make sure that it made sense, and it was eerie and fascinating, but possible. David’s a little like Hitchcock. He knew what he wanted to shoot. … He had a very good beginning, middle, and end in his head of how to shoot it.” And while Cronenberg retooled the script, the director credits Brooks with coining the film’s legendary — and much-lampooned — tagline.
The Fly struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. Made on a budget of $9 million, the film wound up tallying more than $40 million, ranking just behind Pretty in Pink and Short Circuit on the year-end box-office chart. It’s still the most profitable film ever by Cronenberg (who, it happened, fancied himself an amateur entomologist). Time’s Richard Corliss put The Fly on his Top 10 list, calling it a “a gross-your-eyes-out horror movie that is also the year’s most poignant romance.” Gene Siskel raved that The Fly was superior to Aliens “because its creature is part human… we can empathize with the ‘monster’ rather than merely fear it.” The review-aggregating RottenTomatoes certifies The Fly as 91 percent fresh.
To realize his vision, Cronenberg recruited effects whiz Chris Walas, fresh off his ground-breaking creature work on Gremlins. Walas and his team spent three months fabricating various stages of Goldblum’s transformation from man to monstrosity. The initial phases were accomplished with makeup and prosthetics, while the final iterations, dubbed the “Space Bug” by the crew, were intricate puppets. Each of these was engineered to maximize the fear factor — to make, as the tagline boasted, us all very afraid. If the effects hadn’t succeed as well as they did, the whole movie would have collapsed into a Troma-esque schlockfest.
The ‘Spacebug’ puppet in ‘The Fly’ (20th Century Fox)
While Walas would go on to win an Oscar for his Brundlefly, the two weirdest concoctions from his workshop wound up on the cutting-room floor. Those of us who saw the film in the 1980s heard whispers of these scenes — one of them supposedly so disgusting it caused a test-screening viewer to vomit — but they remained hidden away in the 20th Century Fox vaults for nearly 20 years, until surfacing in the bonus features of the 2005 DVD release. As we celebrate the best horror film of the summer of ’86, let’s look at the imagery that might have made The Fly even more horrifying.
Watch deleted scenes from ‘The Fly’:
The first, christened the Monkey-Cat, (which you view at the 2-minute mark above), came late in the film. Goldblum’s deformed Brundle is in his lab, placing a baboon and an alley cat in separate pods and then teleporting them into a third chamber. What emerges is a hellish, two-headed hybrid of the animals. As Cornfeld describes it on the DVD, the Monkey-Cat is in agony and lashes out at Brundle as he opens the door. Brundle, in turn, beats the creature to death with a metal bar. The scene continues with Brundle discovering an insect appendage jutting from his body. He bites it off and leaves the bloody stump in an alley.
“When we screened it, besides being a little too intense — this one woman had thrown up — it taught us a very valuable lesson,” Cornfeld says in his commentary. “We had to keep the audience locked into the tragedy that this guy was going through. If you beat an animal, even a cat-monkey, to death with a lead pipe, your audience is no longer interested in your problems.”
The infamous Monkey-Cat (20th Century Fox)
Perhaps if the scene was not excised from the film, Los Angeles Times critic Patrick Goldstein wouldn’t have written, “What makes The Fly such a stunning piece of obsessive filmmaking is the way Cronenberg deftly allows us to identify with his monstrous creation.”
Aside from Monkey-Cat, the other oddity that didn’t make the final cut was Butterfly Baby. Viewers of the film recall that Geena Davis’s character, magazine journalist Veronica Quaife, is pregnant with Brundle’s child. Concerned that the baby will have his father’s fly genes, she opts for an abortion, but is captured by Brundlefly before she can have the procedure. He seeks to merge himself, Quaife, and their unborn child together into a singular entity using his telepods. Instead, she manages to escape and Brundle ends up melded with the telepod itself; at his urging, she shoots him to end his suffering as the credits roll.
Watch the ending of ‘The Fly’:
The film initially wasn’t supposed to stop there. Cronenberg filmed four different epilogues all featuring Quaife having a dream in which she gives birth to a Butterfly Baby. The imagery was supposed to contrast with her earlier nightmare (that remains in the film) in which she delivers a giant maggot; the Butterfly Baby offered her a vision of a hopeful future.
The Butterfly Baby puppet (20th Century Fox)
However, the filmmakers decided to mercy-kill the scene, close with Brundle’s death, and leave Quaife’s fate ambiguous. Their instincts were right-on. While the effects team did amazing work with the film’s other creatures, the Butterfly Baby is jarring and not a convincing effect. Looking at it now, the Butterfly Baby might have been the scariest creation of them all, for all the wrong reasons.
Even without Monkey-Cat and Butterfly Baby, The Fly is one wild, weird, wonderful, only-in-the-’80s film whose success defied logic: A remake of a classic that far exceeded the original… produced by one of Hollywood’s preeminent funnymen… directed by a decidedly non-mainstream filmmaker… and starring an unconventional leading man who spends most of the movie obscured in makeup and slime. The Fly made us afraid, very afraid — and, three decades later, still gives us horror fans one hell of a buzz.
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