In his earlier days, Stephen King wrote a series of stories under the name “Richard Bachman.” One of them was called “The Long Walk” and it was about a fascist America where the national obsession was a contest where young people…just walked. When they couldn’t walk any more, they were shot dead and the last one walking would win wealth and fame and one wish of anything they wanted. How that hasn’t been made into a movie in the wake of “The Hunger Games” is beyond me, but there’s a line in the book that relates to this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown.
Two young walkers are talking about how many of them will survive the night. One thinks they’ll drop like flies. The other doubts it. He says it’s like shaking crackers through a sieve. The little pieces fall through quickly. The big pieces that are left, however, will last a lot longer because they’ve got to break apart bit by bit. I read that line as a boy and remember it all these years later because it’s true. Some people crumble right away and some take forever to wear down. And as I get even older, I realize that the same thing is true of our American culture. We started shaking it through a sieve in the middle of the 20th century and some little pieces fell through and changed overnight but other, more enduring elements of society have yielded much more slowly and intermittently.
I thought about that because the two films being compared this time are the best examples I think I’ve ever seen of what America was like before the great cultural upheavals lumped together as “The 60s,” what it was like after and how much we’ve continued to shake that sieve. It’s “The Fly” (1958) vs. “The Fly” (1986) in a battle between what’s been gained and what’s been lost and how the value of either should not be underestimated.
Both motion pictures are based on a story by George Langelaan, with the original being relatively faithful and the remake taking far greater liberties. Both motion pictures are also excellent works of entertainment that prove the best horror movies don’t start out acting like horror movies. Seriously, they’re both about 90 minutes long and each takes almost an hour for the scary stuff to take over the screen.
“The Fly” (1958) begins with death, consists largely of an extended flashback and then concludes with an even more horrible death and the hope for new life. Set in France in the then-modern day 1950s, Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) is seen running away from a large metal press in the electronics factory co-owned by her husband, Andre Delambre (Al Hedison), whose body is found besides the press with his head and left arm crush to a pulp. Andre’s brother and co-owner, Francois (Vincent Price), is notified and he calls the police, who send Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) to investigate.
Before I go on, allow me to digress a bit on Hollywood’s weird attitude toward accents. “The Fly” (1958) is set in France, all the characters are meant to be French and most of the actors in supporting roles speak with clear French accents. But Helene, Andre and Francois are all undeniably American and Charas is British! If the story is happening in France, why not have everyone do the appropriate accent? If you don’t want everyone to have an accent, why not set the story in Baltimore? And if you’re making a movie for American audiences and you want the lead characters to sound like Americans, why is Charas English? Why doesn’t he have an American, or at least a French accent? I’ve never heard or read any explanation for this long standing oddity of Hollywood films, which continues to the present day with movies like “Valkyrie” (2008) which is set in World War II Germany but most of the Germans sound like they are from London, except for Tom Cruise who sounds exactly like Tom Cruise. Could we at least have some consistency?!?
Anyway, Helene is found in a state of shock and ordered to stay in bed by her doctor. Meanwhile, Francois and Charas try to figure out what happened, with Francois incapable of believing that Helene would have killed his brother for any reason. Charas is forced to conclude that Helene is insane and must be committed to a mental institution, which in the 1950s was worse than prison to most people, and Helene doesn’t help matters when he acts like she no longer remembers her young son and goes into hysterics any time a fly buzzes near her.
Francois, who has long been deeply in love with his brother’s wife, refuses to accept that she’s crazy and eventually forces her to tell the truth. That truth turns out to be a flashback far longer than anything a screenwriter could get away with today that spends a huge amount of time on Helene and Andre’s happy home and just a bit of time on his secret experiments with teleportation. Except that didn’t call it that because science fiction concepts like teleportation where not a part of everyday life in 1958, so Andre calls his machine a “disintegrator/reintegrator” that can instantly transport matter across space. After he thinks the process is perfected, he tries it on himself but a fly gets into the disintegration booth with Andre and he comes out the other side horribly mutated. Andre has a giant fly’s head and an insectoid left arm. His only hope to be normal again is to find the fly, which now has a tiny human’s head and a human arm, and go through the process again in hopes of undoing his grotesque transformation. But when Helene fails to find the fly and Andre can feel his abominable form beginning to corrupt his mind, he begs his wife to help him commit suicide.
Back to the present and Charas finds Helene’s story compelling but cannot believe it is true without some kind of proof. Just as she is about to be shipped to the asylum, Francois and Charas see that proof in one of the most famous scenes in cinema and Helene is saved. The movie ends happily with Helene, Francois and her young son clearly starting to form a new, loving family.
“The Fly” (1986) begins essentially in mid-exposition with freelance journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) at a party hosted by a technology company. She’s being hit on by Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a scientist who would have been considered eccentric back in the 80s but would now be placed somewhere on the Autism spectrum. Though she plays a little hard to get, Veronica is intrigued enough by Seth to accept his invitation back to his lab so she can see his big project. There’s a little more flirting and then Seth shows off his own teleportation device. Veronica sees this as the story of her lifetime but Seth insists she not write about it. He can only teleport inanimate objects and convinces her to stay and follow his research for a book that will ultimately end with him zapping himself across the room and changing the world forever.
Veronica agrees and hides Seth’s experiment from her editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz), who also happens to be her jealous, possessive ex-love. And yes, co-writer/director David Cronenberg has made some strange films but naming a supporting character “Stathis” is one of his odder decisions. As Seth continues to work and continues to disgustingly fail whenever he tries to teleport anything that was once alive, he and Veronica fall in love. Or at least they fall into that state where you have sex and tell yourself you’re in love. That sexual relationship inspires Seth to solve the problem of teleporting living things and just as he’s about to test it on himself, Veronica sneaks off to tell Stathis to stay out of her life and to not run a story on Seth’s work. Seth reacts to her absence with insecurity, thinking she’s been lying to him and Stathis is her real boyfriend, and he impulsively decides to test his teleporter alone.
And yes, a fly gets in the chamber with him but Seth seems to emerge not only unharmed but better than before. He’s stronger, more energetic and possessed of voracious appetites for sex and sugar. Seth thinks teleportation has somehow improved him but Veronica sees what he will not, that his manic behavior is growing more extreme and more unstable. Seth angrily rejects her concern and sends her away, only to call her for help several weeks later. His body has begun horribly changing and he has discovered that the teleporter fused him and the fly at a genetic level. Feeling the effect his transformation is having on his mind and emotions, Seth tells Veronica to leave and never come back or else his savage insect nature might harm her.
Veronica, however, discovers she is pregnant and doesn’t know if she conceived before or after Seth’s fusion. Terrified of giving birth to a monster, she turns to Stathis for help and he arranges a late-night abortion. Overhearing the plan, the even more awfully deformed but superhumanly strong Seth kidnaps Veronica and plans to fuse them both together in an attempt to undo his hideous condition. Stathis interferes, at great cost to himself, and saves Veronica but leaves Seth in an even worse state. As Veronica holds a shotgun, the thing that once was Seth Brundle takes the barrel and points it at his own head, his inhuman eyes pleading for her to kill him. She does. The end.
I’ve been doing these Weekend Remake Throwdowns for a while now and every time I start to get a little tired of writing that the original is better than the sucky remake, I fortunately watch a couple of films like these which restore my faith in Hollywood and humanity. Like most horror flicks of its era, “The Fly” (1958) is likely a little sedate and wholesome for modern tastes but it is smartly structured, with a morbidly fascinating beginning, startling ending and the slow reveal of Andre’s suffering is still compelling. The final unveiling of the fly head, while it must have been quite unnerving in its day, is a bit anticlimactic to anyone who grew up with the awesomely higher level of gore that we see in “The Fly” (1986), but all that surrounds it has actually gotten better with age because it’s written and performed with more care and legitimate emotion than you get from most modern horror. The gross out factor of “The Fly” (1986) still holds up well decades later, which is a compliment to its special effects team and to Cronenberg’s unique vision. Seth’s descent into bestiality on both the physical and emotional level is portrayed with great thought and consideration. The remake also benefits from an outstanding musical score by Howard Shore and the original glories in the presence of Vincent Price. These are both remarkable motion pictures.
Even more outstanding, though, is what they reveal about American culture and its evolution and/or devolution over time. These films are operating out of two entirely separate and different mindsets. In “The Fly” (1958), everyone is focused on someone or something else. Andre is devoted to his family and the advancement of science for the betterment of all, not necessarily in that order. Helene’s life revolves around her husband. Francois is concerned only with the welfare of Helene. Even Charas is concentrated on doing his duty as a lawman, other considerations be damned. The narrative itself has a broader view than just its own characters. How the events of this story relate to the larger world is essential to the film. Andre’s experiments with teleportation are obviously a metaphor for the development of atomic power in the real world and when he destroys his research and himself, Andre is acting to protect others rather than seeking release from his own unthinkable misery.
There is no metaphor at work in “The Fly” (1986). There is no greater concern than the three main characters and their largely personal, or selfish, desires. Veronica wants a story, she wants to jump Seth’s bones, she wants an abortion. Stathis wants to possess and protect Veronica. Even Seth’s research in teleportation is presented as something he’s pursuing to resolve a lifetime’s trouble with motion sickness. The benefit to the rest of the world is more of an unavoidable side effect. As Seth transmogrifies into “Brundlefly,” his thoughts are entirely on himself and his feelings. He can barely recognize, let alone care, about how it’s affecting others.
The original film was made in a world where individualism was not highly lauded. People were taught and told to think of and define themselves as part of a larger whole, whether that was a family, a community, a team, a country or a callilng. The remake was made in a different world where the individual was the only thing that mattered. When Veronica first sees Seth’s mutated state, she doesn’t call the police or the health department, despite Seth saying he could be contagious. Why? Not because it’s a plot hole but because this story doesn’t care about anything outside of its three main characters. There is no bigger world. What elevated the stakes in 1958 is the film’s very strong presentation that this technology could have a great impact on the rest of the world. The 1986 movie considers the broader implications of teleportation to be barely an afterthought. It only focuses on what it means to these characters at that moment in that situation.
What that means practically is that the 1986 characters feel more real and alive to viewers than the 1958 counterparts, but “real” does not always mean more enjoyable. Critics mock the relentless happy endings of old movies but those conclusions reflected a communitarian mindset that “life goes on.” Yes, an unspeakable tragedy befell Andre Delambre, but his family survived and would know love and joy and happiness again. The remake is about the physical and spiritual debasement of one man, the maiming of another and woman suffering emotional scars from which she will never recover. Which story would you rather live?
The distinction between the movies is no more stark than in how their doomed scientists behave. Andre goes to his death struggling against his monstrous impulses, thinking only about the safety of his family and society. Seth ultimately becomes a monster morally as well as physically. The remake refers to him feeling changes coming to his personality because of the fly genes but there’s no confusion about what is really motivating him. Seth wants to remain human and doesn’t care who he has to hurt or destroy to do it. That’s not an animal or insect desire. That’s human ego and selfishness. His actions don’t reflect his contaminated body. They are the distilled essence of the individualistic mindset that animates the entire motion picture.
But what’s also striking is the things that haven’t change or changed only a little in the zeitgeist between the two films. Thanks to feminism, Veronica is a much more active and complete person than Helene. She has her own motivations and her own agendas, while Helene is basically an object who orbits around Andre. But Veronica is still reduced to being dependent on/a victim of the men in her life. And if they did another remake today, it would probably suck but the female character in it would likely be even more independent and fully formed than Veronica. And while I’m not positive another remake today would have any minority characters in it, at least someone would notice the Caucasian-only nature of the cast. #flysowhite.
I don’t want to diminish the advances of individualism. It makes the characters in “The Fly” (1986) far more interesting and memorable. But for all that, this Throwdown goes to “The Fly” (1958). Each are masterful films that you absolutely should watch but there’s no denying that within the individualism of the 1986 remake, there exists a strain on nihilism that has become more and more pronounced in our movies and our civilization. I’m not saying I want to go back to 1958. I believe people should be able to use any drinking fountain no matter what color they are. But it took us 28 years to go from a guy in a rubber mask to a guy vomiting acid onto another human being. It then took us another 23 years to get to “The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009). I don’t think I want to know what gross out shocks we’re going to see on screen in another two decades.
The Fly (1958)
Written by James Clavell.
Directed by Kurt Neumann.
Starring Al (David) Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall, Kathleen Freeman, Betty Lou Gerson, Charles Herbert, Eugene Borden and Torben Meyer.
The Fly (1986)
Written by David Cronenberg and Charles Edward Pogue.
Directed by David Cronenberg.
Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, Joy Boushel, Leslie Carlson, George Chuvalo, Michael Copeman and David Cronenberg.