Movie Comparison: Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958)/David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986)

  • Monthly Theme: Genre ClassicsThe_Fly_Poster_Wallpaper_JxHy
  • The Film: The Fly
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: August 29, 1958
  • Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
  • Distributer: Twentieth Century Fox
  • Domestic Gross: $3 million
  • Budget: $700,000 (estimated)
  • Director: Kurt Neumann
  • Producers: Kurt Neumann & Robert L. Lippert
  • Screenwriter: James Clavell
  • Adaptation? Yes, of the 1957 short story “The Fly” by George Langelaan.
  • Cinematography: Karl Strauss
  • Make-Up/FX: James B. Gordon, et al.
  • Music: Paul Sawtell
  • Part of a series? Yes, this is the first film in the original Fly trilogy, followed by 1959’s Return of the Fly and 1965’s Curse of the Fly.
  • Remakes? Yes, by David Cronenberg in 1986, also under the title The Fly.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Horror legend Vincent Price (Witchfinder General, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, etc.).
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: “The first time atomic mutation on humans has been shown on the screen!”

 

  • Monthly Theme: Genre Classicsfly
  • The Film: The Fly
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: August 15, 1986
  • Studio: SLM Productions Group & Brookfilms
  • Distributer: Twentieth Century Fox
  • Domestic Gross: $40.4 million
  • Budget: $15 million (estimated)
  • Director: David Cronenberg
  • Producers: Marc Boyman, et al.
  • Screenwriter: David Cronenberg & Charles Edward Pogue
  • Adaptation? Yes, of the 1958 classic The Fly, which was based on the 1957 short story “The Fly” by George Langelaan.
  • Cinematography: Mark Irwin
  • Make-Up/FX: Chris Walas, etc.
  • Music: Howard Shore
  • Part of a series? Yes, the film was followed by 1989’s The Fly II.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. Hollywood stars Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum.
  • Awards?: Oscar forBest Makeup at the 1987 Academy Awards. 3 awards at the 1987 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Special Jury Award at the 1987 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival. Best Cinematography at the 1987 Canadian Society of Cinematographers.
  • Tagline: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
  • The Lowdown: In the original version, The Fly is about an upper-class Montreal family that is torn apart when the wife, Helene, is implicated in the bizarre murder of her scientist husband Andre. Andre’s brother Francois (played by horror movie legend Vincent Prince, in a rare “good-guy” role) tries to piece together the events that led up to the murder and clear Helene’s name by getting her to tell her story. Then, in flashback, we learn that Andre invented a teleportation machine that turned him into a fly-headed monster after he accidentally used the device while a housefly was in the teleportation chamber with him. Andre tells Helene what happened (but hides his hideous appearance from her) and sets her on the mission of finding the fly he’s traded atoms with in order to try and reverse the process. Cronenberg’s take on the story casts Jeff Goldblum as a nerdy bachelor-scientist who tries to romance a tech journalist played by Geena Davis by showing off the teleportation technology he’s working on. They begin an affair that is interrupted when Goldblum – just as in the original – accidentally teleports while a fly is in the machine with him. However, in Cronenberg’s version the affects of the atomic transference are gradual and degenerative, as Goldblum slowly transforms into a fly-man hybrid over the course of the movie.

If you haven’t seen both versions of The Fly our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: So, now that you’ve had time to digest the movie (pun intended), what do you think? I had  claimed it was very different from the Cronenberg remake, but you seemed to disagree? But maybe just to start us off, what did you think of the original?

Kristine: I really liked it. More than I thought I would. I agree that it is different than the remake in some important ways, but I didn’t think it was SO different. I mean, I was surprised that most of the core themes were the same and held up equally well in both versions, despite them being 30 years apart. Do you realize the difference between the 1958 version of The Fly and the remake is almost the same as the difference between the remake and today? (28 years and 26 years).

Sean: I guess what I meant about the two versions being very different is that I think the 1958 version is very much a hybrid of sci-fi/horror and women’s melodrama, whereas the 1986 version is more straight sci-fi/horror.

The Fly’s feminine mode: hysteria mixed with baroque warlock-collared Louis XIV housecoats

Kristine: Oh I disagree. I think the remake also has a lot of melodrama.

Sean: It does. But it’s different. I think the milieu is just so different. The ’58 version is about domesticity and family life, and is all about domestic spaces vs. outdoor spaces. But the ’86 version is more about corporate/tech culture and takes place all in cold, sterile spaces.

Kristine: Well, I also was struck by how the real protagonist in both films is the female lead, especially in the original.

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: And the couples in both versions are in real love, and there is real anguish at what the transformation is doing to the relationship. Even though the male leads in both are “obsessed with their work…”

Sean: They’re definitely both movies about a woman watching “her man” disintegrate and about the toll male dysfunction takes on these women… The movies ask us to share the woman’s subjectivity, and she’s the audience surrogate in both cases (though the ’58 version gets more complicated because of the policeman and Vincent Price’s roles).

The 1958 version: Husband/scientist lectures wifey on the ins-and-outs of teleportation science; Her attitude: “Men and their machines – they scare me!”

Kristine: Yes, though one cool thing about the 1958 version is that more camera time is spent observing her disintegration into madness. Right?

Sean: Well, yes. It’s more complicated psychologically, because she does seem a bit undone, but her story is “true.” Yet even though the story is “true” she is still kind of damaged.

Kristine: The ‘80s version is all about his transformation, which 1958 doesn’t show at all. 1958 is all about the toll on her. Which I think is great.

Sean: Yes. The ’86 version is more focused on the “body horror” I think.

Kristine: Definitely.

The 1986 version: Geena Davis actively documents and interrogates Jeff Goldblum’s work, gazing at him through the lens of the camcorder; Her attitude: “I’m gonna make a lot of money off this story!”

Sean: I just really love the storytelling in the ‘58 version. The way they set up the frame story and how we go back in time to see what happened. How it starts out as a murder mystery and then gets weirder and weirder…

Kristine: I think the story in the 1958 version is better, too, but the “character” of Brundlefly is better in 1986 due to letting us see every gory detail of the transformation. And on that note, 1986 is more effective and terrifying. I wish 1958 had shown us more of the transformation, but maybe the technology wasn’t there. I mean, it hurts to watch Jeff Goldblum rip his fingernails out, etc.

Sean: Yes, 1986 is more terrifying and visceral, but the 1958 version is unsettling in a very different way – Andre’s cloaked head, the silence, the notes, the rapping on tables.

Kristine: His rapping on the tables with his head under the cloak was so menacing, and all of his pointing at her, directing her what to do. I found that very, very scary. And I thought the reveal of his fly arm was scary. But his fly head was not scary.

The husband-as-monster: hooded silent mutant genderfuck (What has he GOT under there?)

Sean: I love the fly head. I thought it was great makeup. It’s beautiful lurid B-movie gorgeousness. Also, the 1958 movie is really about patriarchal control, isn’t it? All these men – Vincent Price, the detective, Andre – vying for control over her story and her body. At the end the fly may be caught in the web, but it’s Helene whose position in the world the fly is mirroring. All these patriarchal forces are a literal spiderweb around her, ensnaring her, threatening her freedom. But 1958 really infantilizes Helene and depicts her as very happy in her role of subservience. She’s all “Oh Andre and his silly sciencey stuff.”

Kristine: I agree with all that, especially because she plays a “Cassandra” role in the movie. She tells Andre not to use live animals in the Disintegrator Integrator. And she is the one who has the (totally right on) fears about technology. But Andre is all… society must march forward.

The monster unveiled (1958): hairy blue genitalia-mouthed freak

Sean: Yeah but here’s where the conservative, Luddite perspective is embodied in the woman and the progressive, forward-thinking perspective is male and active and alive.

Kristine: Total male versus female, progress versus earthiness, science vesus art (remember in the theatre box seats when she is enraptured watching the ballet whilst he is scratching out formulas on the program)… But she is proved right at the end when the detective realizes she wasn’t hysterical or crazy and “Nature” wins with the whole “spider eats the fly” scenario.

Sean: Yes. But I do think the movie has a very nuanced attitude towards scientific progress. I don’t think the message is “And science is scary.” I think it’s very wistful and poetic about science and the possibility of technological innovation.

Kristine: I agree, it’s not that science is bad…but that shit happens.

The monster unveiled (1986): jizz-puking leper

Sean: Yeah. Vincent Price’s speech in the last scene about how Andre was “an explorer” but that “all it takes is one little moment of carelessness.”

Kristine: Right, exactly.

Sean: I do love the idea that Nature is the spider eating the fly. It’s more like Nature is cleaning up Andre’s mess and restoring order.

Kristine: Who is the more sympathetic victim of scientific experimentation – Dandelo the cat in 1958 or the baboon from 1986?

Sean: Oh they’re both bad. But Dandelo really upset me as a kid… That spacey meowing and that he’s just lost, adrift. There’s an existential terror to it that freaks me out, whereas the baboon is just gory and horrible.

Kristine: The baboon was deeply upsetting, but Dandelo reduced to “a stream of cat atoms” is terrible. I also think that was why the detective smashed both the fly and the spider with the rock – because he couldn’t bear the spider killing the Andre/fly hybrid, but he also couldn’t allow the monstrosity of Andre/fly to live.

1958’s existential Schrödinger shout-out: Dandelo the cat becomes atomic debris

Sean: Yeah, it’s weird. That policeman character annoys me. He’s so the 1950s archetypal “rational mind” and I hate him (just like Dr. Richmond explaining Norman’s psychosis at the end of Psycho). In fact, the whole movie is about competing worldviews, competing narratives, and I love that the movie undermines the detective’s perspective in the end.

Kristine: Do you think the 1958 movie benefits from having a bigger cast? Because I kind of think the Cronenberg version is good in how isolated the two leads are.

Cronenberg’s less subtle baboon-chili sequence

Sean: I really think they both work beautifully in different ways. In the 1958 version, I love Helene’s hysterical tense pursuit of the fly buzzing around, all yelling at everyone and paranoid. It’s super primal to me.

Kristine: I think the Vincent Price character is weird and unnecessary to the plot. What’s the point of him?

Sean: Well, he’s the most sexist invention. He’s just there to be the man in the family after Andre is dead. Like, he “inherits” the wife and it is gross.

Kristine: He is her protector and becomes her de facto husband and father of her child.

Sean: Yeah I don’t like that at all.

Kristine: It is gross, and why does the pseudo-nuclear family exist in so many horror movies?

Sean: The ending is super weird, like the movie itself is smiling too hard… so hard that the smile just looks crazy.

Kristine: I think the 1958 movie would have been better if Helene was fighting the system on her own, no Vincent Price daddy. That’s part of what makes us love Geena Davis’ character so much in 1986, you really feel for her. Though I guess that weirdo Stathis Borans is there to be the Vinny P.

If you pay close attention, you realize Vincent Price’s character spends the entire movie swilling wine, lying to people and inventing reasons to “be alone” with Phillipe

Sean: Agreed. But I do love how Vincent Price lies to her straight up to coerce her into telling the story and her sense of betrayal is really tragic.

Kristine: Oh, about catching the fly?

Sean: Yes. The whole movie is predicated on that lie. And he really is just like, “Um so I lied? Sorry ‘bout that” and her whole world is torn apart and he just shrugs and goes off to ply Phillippe with wine.

Kristine: Which makes it weirder that she allows him to be husband/daddy at the end. The ending is so twisted.

Sean: I both hate the ending for it’s glassily smiling misogyny but kind of love it for its batshit insanity.

Kristine: So, which movie is better? Says you?

Sean: I truly love them equally for different reasons. This is the one instance where the remake and the original are equal to me.

Kristine: I agree with that 100%. Okay, so this might get me in trouble… I did feel the pathos during the spider is going to eat the Andre/fly scene… But that “help me help me” fly face on fly body was ridiculous and made me laugh and laugh and point at the screen in a mocking way.

Sean:I know you thought that scene was over the top. See, I love the camp and I love the lurid b-movie absurdity. It is just so fucking crazy and weird and like, ‘Really? That is happening?’ I would end the movie there, with the inspector crushing the spiderweb with the rock: THE END.

1958’s most batshit over-the-top moment: The uncanny spider eats the uncannier mutant.

Kristine: I read that when they were filming that scene the actors were also laughing uncontrollably and they had to shoot a lot of takes, which is a cute story.

Sean: Oh I like that story too. I like to imagine Vincent Price as charming and smart and in on the joke at all times.

Kristine: I agree that should have been the end. And leave Helene’s fate uncertain – at the discretion of menfolk, like it was during the rest of the film. Then Helene’s fate would have been the real horror story.

Sean: Okay I hate to do this, but we have to discuss… Helene’s outfits.

Kristine: You are such a gay.

Sean: Come on. The high-collared housedresses? The quilt dress? The pink bows in her hair?

Kristine: Can we discuss…the Modigliani hanging in Francois’ study?

Sean: Maybe.

Kristine: Well, fine. I actually do think the outfits are important because they really cement her character as an impractical, kept woman.

Sean: Yes. And the class issues in the movie are just… off the chain. The outfits make her into such a little girl. A soft, pink, frilly little dolly…

Kristine: An “interior” woman, right? Because you can’t leave the house in those get-ups. I mean, a housecoat with a fucking frilly train that spills over the stairs as you bring your husband his tea service?

Sean: That’s why I love when, after the ballet, she basically says, “I’m gonna ride you so hard” and Andre is like “How unscientific.”

Kristine: That scene was cute in its sexist dumbness. Her sexuality was all awakened by… The ballet.

Sean: She probably pronounces the “t” at the end. Yes, she is such a woman of interior spaces.

Um… Andre? Remember that quilt we kept on the divan in the foyer? I’m wearing it.

Kristine: Yep.

Sean: In fact, her in the garden is always off-putting because I’m like, “Shouldn’t you be in your dollhouse?”

Kristine: Whereas Geena’s outfits…

Sean: Shoulderpads.

Kristine: Remember her ‘80s career woman steedz?

Sean: Loved it.

Kristine: She was great.

Just to confirm that what we’re looking at here is real, let me summarize: black beret worn insouciantly askew, oversized fuchsia trenchcoat made of parachute fabric with “flying squirrel”-style underarm webbing…


Sean: Yeah the ‘86 version really does extend the ‘58’s idea of putting the viewer in the mind of the woman character and making her dilemma, our dilemma and her pregnancy anxiety, our anxiety. That maggot birth scene?

Kristine: One thing I thought was interesting was how Andre was really fighting the transformation, trying to stay civilized and human… whereas Goldblum is kind of into it.

Sean: Yeah, Goldblum acts like a tweaker and gets off on it. Andre is like, a silly bughead and so he is more Quasimodo.

Kristine: Well, I liked how gonzo the 1986 version gets… but then it really does come around to the original storyline by having Geena kill him, at his request, much as Helene kills Andre.

Sean: But Geena is remarkably limp and weepy and sort of useless in that final sequence, whereas Helene is kind of steely and numb and only momentarily panicked. I love the sequence where he directs her on how to crush him in the machine and she does it all quietly and then as the press starts to descend screams and freaks out, but then goes numb again.

Kristine: I think both movies are very perfectly “of their time.” You know how the 1986 version has a very comic book, superhero feel to it? Well, I think the ‘58 is very comic book-like too, but ‘50s comic books – tortured hero who sacrifices himself.

Sean: I actually… am not sure I see that in Cronenberg… Comic book?

Kristine: Remember when Jeff G flies down and like swoops Geena up? It is so comic book.

Sean: Ok, sure… But I actually think they’re referencing old ‘30s and ‘40s horror movies when the monster carries off the damsel. I don’t think it has a “comic book” tone so much as an old-school monster movie tone.

Nothing says I love you like locking someone in a telepod so you can fuse their atoms with their Filene’s Basement outfit

Kristine: Right…like the Swamp Thing or whatever, right?

Sean: Quasimodo, the Phantom of the Opera, the Creature from the Black Lagoon…

Kristine: So, would you go through The Disintegrator Integrator?

Sean: Never.

Kristine: You are so funny. You would solve the Hellraiser puzzle box no probs but not ride the Disintegrator Integrator?

Sean: Yes. Exploring a dark fantasy world is not the same as being machine-raped.

Kristine: Actually, I think the Cenobites do exactly that. Rape you with their whirling chains and hooks. And you won’t go to a doctor, but you want to have a séance to conjure up a spirit????

Sean: I said, doctors are last resorts. If only more Americans felt the same way.

Kristine: Oh god here we go. If your boyfriend turned into a flyman, what would you do?

Sean: I would have caught the fly and not knocked over lamps and run about willy-nilly, shrieking at the help.

Kristine: Oh, you know one thing I like in both films? How the fly/men are portrayed as being aggressive, Mucho Macho™ That is not how we think of flies, but probably true to their real characters within the animal kingdom, right? I think its cool the fly is the component, not like…A big scary lion.

Fly to police: I just went in there to get my coat and there she was, passed out on the bed…

Sean: I know fuckall about the real science of flys but I do agree. I love how they’re monsters.

Kristine: Yeah, but super strong monsters. It’s like ants… you know, there is some factoid about how ants are comparatively way stronger than people because they can lift like, 100x their body weight.

Sean: What could be more alien and gross than getting your atoms mixed with a fly? A cockroach?

Kristine: No, a fly is better than a cockroach – because flies are seen as inconsequential whereas cockroaches are reviled. Cockroaches are already scary as they are – they don’t need to be giant and half-human to be terrifying.

Sean: Point taken, re: cockroach. Andre’s flyhead just seems so claustrophobic and horrible. Bugs are freaks. You know there was a whole wave of “giant bug” movies right? In the ‘50s and ‘60s? Most all of them are terrible.

Kristine: I didn’t know that.

Sean: It was a whole thing. Giant ants, giant crabs, giant grasshoppers, giant spiders, giant bees.

Kristine: This one time in high school all these kids dropped acid and I kept telling this one girl that she looked like an ant (because she had a large round head and tiny body) and she was pissed. But at first Jeff’s fly transformation was basically just Jeffie on coke, right? Horny, aggressive, super confident.

Sean: It was the ‘80s.

Kristine: I totally think it is a cocaine parable. He is going to take over the world… then ends up hiding out alone in his apartment, paranoid? Losing everything while his body deteriorates?

Sean: So is the 1958 version really an acid parable?

Kristine: Maybe it is. Helene going crazy chasing the unseen buzzing fly around her house was so acid trip.

Sean: It all makes sense now.

Kristine: We figured it out. We opened the puzzle box of… The Fly.

Ratings Round-Up

Kurt Neumann’s 1958 original

The Girl’s rating: Masterpiece!

The Freak’s rating: Masterpiece!

David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake

The Girl’s rating: Masterpiece!

The Freak’s rating: Masterpiece!

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21 thoughts on “Movie Comparison: Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958)/David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986)

  1. OK, this comment is on the fly. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either movie, but the original made a much bigger impression on me, maybe because I was a pre-adolescent at the time. IMO, the re-make relied too much on gross out stuff to make points. Anyway, I love Vincent Price movies. He played the “good but tragic guy” in several 1950s/60s horror movies. My favorite is “The Tingler.” Re Vin Diesel, I agree with Kris his recent movies suck, but “Pitch Black” and also the sequel “Chronicles of Riddick” rock, especially if you like Sci-Fi.

    1. It is absolutely true that Cronenberg does more gross-out stuff, but my inner gorehound adores him for it. But I also saw the original Fly as a little kid and, thus, have a super special place in my heart for it. Poor Dandelo! Vincent Price is wonderful, especially the weird deranged killer movies he did in the ’70s – Dr. Phibes, Theater of Blood, etc. Though his Corman/Poe stuff is also very fun and very, very Freudian and flamboyant in a way that I love. I really dug Pitch Black, and I have a sense that Kristine will like it more than she expects to when we get around to watching it….

  2. I think the original version of “The Fly” has greater emotional impact, too. Maybe because Helen, the female lead in 1958, is in more peril than Geena Davis’ Veronica? Veronica is an independent woman who has the choice to just walk away and not help Brundle. Whereas Helen is dependent on Andre in many more ways, including that she might get hauled to the looney bin unless she can find the fly-version and prove her story. Also, Brundle is less honorable then Andre – Brundle is stoked to be a mucho macho flyman at first, and his attempts to stop Veronica from aborting their baby are self-serving and creepy.