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Director: Kurt Neumann
Starring: Al Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall
Science was going wrong all through the 1950s, but there’s few with as grotesque and bizarre consequences as The Fly.
Based on the short story by George Langelaan, Kurt Neumann’s film is a minimal affair, slowly drawing out its exceptionally tense story in flashback as it all leads back to its nasty opening scene.
Almost entirely set in what seems to be an idyllic, if unremarkable, suburban house, The Fly brings mad science into the family home. On the surface, everything looks normal. Perfect even. But down in the basement, a little knowledge proves to be a dangerous thing…
François Delambre (Price) is called to the home of his scientist brother André (Hedison) to find his sibling dead and his wife Hélène taking the blame. His head and arm have been crushed in a giant hydraulic press, but the woman can give no motive for murdering the man she loved.
Obsessing over a white-headed fly, Hélène finally confesses to François the truth when he lies to her that he has caught the insect.
It transpires that her husband had been working on a matter-transport device that he called the disintegrator-integrator. After some successful experiments though, a freak accident would have horrific consequences. Concerned for his welfare after him not coming up from his lab for several days, Hélène ventures down to find him alive, but with his head and arm covered up and only able to communicate with notes.
François urges Hélène to locate and capture a white-headed housefly as a freak accident has fused their atoms together. Though he has retained his mind, he now has the head and arm of a fly!
Now, the clock is ticking to find the fly and reverse the process as with every day François loses a little bit more of his mind and ultimately, his humanity itself…
Part mad science gone wrong, part body horror and part love triangle melodrama, The Fly is appropriately enough, a strange hybrid of a film.
After the opening murder scene is unveiled, we’re a good third into the film before the horror really kicks in. Up until then it’s all about François and his unrequited love for his brother’s wife. It’s him that she confides in to tell the whole, tragic story of why she’s affecting madness and copping for her husband’s murder, while it’s also him who acts as a middle-man between her and the police.
Naturally Price is wonderful here, playing up his natural charm to portray a real gentleman who clearly adores Hélène, but has never been bitter over her choosing his brother over him. He’s by her side for the noblest of reasons, there’s no creepy White Knighting going on here and as a result their relationship and Price’s character in particular is hugely sympathetic.
Of course, the whole thing takes a seismic shift in atmosphere once we venture back in time and into the basement. André’s transformation is a slow burn, even after all the preamble. With his head covered by a black sheet and arm hidden away, we’re left wondering just how bad it can be, but Hedison is brutally effective in hinting at the new, animalistic nature that is slowly taking over him.
His movements gradually become jerkier and more tense, telegraphing his gradual loss of control long before we get that infamous reveal. We get a glimpse of his hand first and it’s horrific. Much worse than we or Hélène can have imagined, it’s the moment we when we first realise that he’s becoming a monster, but brilliantly, Neumann repeatedly reminds us after it that André still deeply loved her.
At its heart, The Fly is a tragedy and little touches like this just reinforce it, while adding immeasurably to the horror of the situation this idyllic family find themselves in.
That reveal though. The tension has been built up to breaking point, we’re as heartbroken for the couple as we are dreading what he has become and just when we think we can’t take any more…we see The Fly.
Brilliantly, Neumann first shows us Hélène’s reaction through André’s eyes, her terrified face repeated countless times through the compound lenses of his new, hideous biology. When we finally get to see him after nearly an entire film of dread and build-up, it’s brutally effective and easily one of the most iconic reveals in horror cinema history.
There’s also that final, gut-wrenching sucker punch, where we see the just what that white-headed fly really is and how, as bad as André’s fate is, truly horrendous the consequences have been to his ill-fated experiment.
Like a lot of science-gone-wrong stories, there’s no villain here, no monster or evil-doer to want to see dispatched, just a loving husband who’s final actions are to try and spare his wife and child the nightmare his life has become. It’s powerful and hits hard, making the weirdly happy ending feel all the more incongruous.
Don’t get me wrong, you’re glad to see François and Hélène safe and well and nobody would grudge them getting together, but it’s pitched so lightly it jars somewhat, as if we’ve just watched a light comedy and not a horrific tale of mad science and the death that comes in its wake.
That’s a very, very small criticism though. The Fly is a timeless classic, and one of the finest sci-fi horrors in a decade that was overflowing with them.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy