“It’d be funny if life weren’t so sacred.”
For a long time I labored under a misconception about the 1958 version of The Fly, one only made clear to me upon viewing the film as an adult. For some reason I had always thought that this movie was a sequel to an older film, a black and white movie featuring a creature that has a much larger head. However, when I went looking for the ‘original’ I was astonished to discover that the black and white movie I remember is actually the sequel! Despite the fact that the original was shot in color the sequel – The Return of the Fly – was shot in black and white (though still in Cinemascope, which is a little weird). I’m assuming that was for budgetary reasons. I must have seen the sequel first and simply assumed it was the original film.
I’m sure I saw both of them at my grandmother’s house, probably on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It seems like I saw most of the 1950’s creature features sitting on that couch, a plateful of cookies or (if I was lucky) coffee squares in front of me. I don’t know which channel it was that was constantly running old sci-fi and horror movies, but I’m not sure my childhood would have been the same without it.
It’s actually been a few years since I’ve watched this version of The Fly. The thing that I most clearly remember about this version is the horrific spider web scene, though when I was a kid I actually got the actors mixed up and for years in my memory it was Vincent Price struggling in the web. I was already arachnophobic, so that penultimate scene burned itself on my mind.
I will, occasionally, when I need something, imitate the sound of the struggling ‘white headed’ fly – “help meeeee, help meeeee!” My wife will look at me with a mixture of pity and… well, let’s be fair, it’s mostly pity.
I recently found a used copy of the Scream Factory Blu-ray collection of all five Fly films. I have had a copy of the Fox Studio Classics Blu of the original film, but as this version contains all the same elements as well as a new commentary track I think it’s a worthwhile upgrade – especially as I don’t have any copies of the other films. If you’re just after the film itself the Fox release is more than adequate (and substantially cheaper).
For streaming options, The Fly is available for free on Peacock (with ads) and for subs on the Criterion Channel. It can also be rented or purchased at most of the usual outlets.
The Fly is a bit strange for a horror movie. Its structure is quite different from most monster movies, in that the monster doesn’t even make its first appearance until 2/3 of the way through the film. Rather than give us a shock or two up front to keep our interest the movie unfolds slowly and methodically.
In some ways it’s more a mystery than a horror movie. It starts off with the apparent murder of a scientist, Andre Delambre (David Hedison), by his wife, Helene (Patricia Owens). It’s a horrific death – crushed in an industrial press – but it’s 1958 and the gore is suggested rather than explicit. Much of the first half hour of the film is spent trying to figure out why Helene would have done such a thing. They were a seemingly happy couple in the Ward and June Cleaver mold, but with lots of money. She freely admits to the murder but refuses to say why. In general, she seems very self-possessed and clear-headed – except when it comes to flies. She has an unnatural focus and hysteria around one fly in particular – a fly with a white head.
Her brother-in-law Francois (a restrained Vincent Price) and police Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) attempt to figure things out. Francois lies to Helene and tells her that he as the fly but will let it go unless she tells him the truth. At that point the real story begins to unfold in flashback, as Helene tells the story of what led to that night and the industrial press.
It’s the standard ‘man meddling in things he was never meant to know’ storyline at that point, with Andre discovering teleportation and trying to work out the kinks. Helene even has a monologue about how fast technology is moving and how it’s leaving morality behind. Things start to go wrong when Andre tests the machinery on the family cat and the cat never arrives. There is an eerie, disembodied howl for a few moments afterward, which was a nice – if rare at that point – creepy bit.
Of course things go horribly wrong and when Andre tries to teleport himself a fly ends up in the chamber at the same time. Their genetic material is mixed and Andre ends up with a fly head and arm, while the fly ends up with same parts of Andre. We don’t see this occur – actually, even after we know something has gone wrong we still don’t see the monster for another fifteen or twenty minutes. Andre keeps his head covered and his arm hidden in his jacket. This actually works quite well – as a viewer I was just as horrifically fascinated as Helene.
The effects when Andre’s head and arm are revealed are pretty good, much better than I expected and/or remembered. The fly head is much sleeker and the mouth parts more animated than in the sequel – it looks weirdly believable. The actor – the same who played the normal Andre – does an excellent job while unable to speak or even use facial expressions.
By the time we see the monster the movie is almost over. A hunt for the ‘white headed’ fly in an effort to reverse the process goes awry and it escapes. Faced with a failing intellect and struggle to control his own body, Andre opts for death and enlists Helene to help him – but not before destroying his lab equipment and notes.
The most horrific sequence – the finding of the fly with the head and arm of Andre being consumed by a spider – comes mere minutes from the end. It leaves a lasting impression and is pretty damn awful even now.
The cinematography is excellent, with the wide CinemaScope presentation and lush color giving the whole film a feeling of quality you don’t expect from your average creature feature. The acting is also excellent for the time and Vincent Price is more restrained and thoughtful than in some of his later pictures. Patricia Owens as Helene is the real star, though, doing an excellent job with what is often a thankless role. When she wasn’t forced to be the doting housewife she comes across as very strong and capable – someone willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family. She moves easily between hysteria and steely determination.
I didn’t really notice the music, which is a rarity for 1950’s monster movies – I expect to find the horn section blaring a five note monster theme at every opportunity.
The pacing is, as already mentioned earlier, quite measured. The movie is very much a slow burn and there was a feeling on my part that the filmmakers might have been a little embarrassed to be making a horror movie. The thing is, it really works – you know something horrible has happened. Something awful enough to make a doting wife kill her beloved husband. It’s the reveal that’s the thing – and even knowing what was coming I still bought in.
The Bottom Line
I don’t know why, but I’m always surprised at how good The Fly is. It’s very much a 1950’s horror movie, but the production values and general quality are a level or two above that of most monster pictures of the time. (Hell, they’re a cut above most monster films now.) Yes, it’s a little slow – but both the journey and the payoff are worth it.