The Fly (1958)
Directed by Kurt Neuman
Starring Al Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall, Charles Herbert
In the world of fantastic cinema, the mad scientist theme is one of the oldest sub-genres. Right from the beginning, storytellers have been weaving cautionary tales of men meddling with things best left alone. For those who try to push or break through those boundaries, there is usually a hefty price to pay: their life, or at the very least, their sanity. Most of these stories present a man trying to take over the world through some devious plan or device that he has created, corrupted either by visions of power or the invention in question having scrambled his brain to where he is no longer thinking rationally. Within these films, the dramatic action revolves around stopping this demented genius before it is too late; the end-credits lesson for the audience being that man is better off leaving things as they are, lest this fate befall them as well.
But with Kurt Neumann’s THE FLY, which is quite different than most science fiction or mad scientist films of the era, our hero is not a crazed megalomaniac with a god complex. Within the head of the fly, Andre Delambre still has a human brain, one that is slowly degenerating, his human thoughts and traits inexorably giving way to that of the insect. With only a short time to fix this grave error before it is too late, these tragic elements are emphasized even more as his wife Helene helplessly watches the man she loves slowly slipping away. Until the last, Andre desperately clings to his humanity, knowing that nobody must follow in his footsteps…and what must to be done to ensure that never happens. When he meets his grisly end, Helene’s sadness, pain, and anguish is shared by us, the viewer.
Getting a trained stage actor for this role turned out to be a terrific stroke of luck – since a good chunk of his screen time was in costume and/or under a black cloth, Al Hedison (later changed to “David” by the studios the following year) had to create much of his character through body movements. Where a less physically capable actor would not have been able to convey what this mangled mess of human was going through, Hedison brings off brilliantly with jerky moves of the head or fly arm. He brings to life a creature that is no longer completely human, fighting a losing battle to stay in control. Near the end, as he tries to scrawl his last thoughts to his wife on the blackboard, the almost undecipherable “I love you” rings about as tragic as you can get.
The challenge of creating something that audiences had never seen before was given to Ben Nye, head of the makeup department at Fox. Though The Fly was Nye’s first “monster movie,” during his career he worked on literally hundreds of movies and TV shows, even starting his own line of makeup (which is still used today). Every time you see the fly creature on screen, it is Hedison under the mask (i.e. no stand-in or stunt man), for which we give him a lot of credit. All the more impressive considering he couldn’t really see that well – during the sequence where he destroys the lab, Hedison almost hit himself with the axe he was using. Such was the dedication exhibited while performing this role.
Vincent Price’s name on the marquee could only have helped matters, even though his is just a supporting part and his heyday as the “Crown Prince of Horror” still lay ahead. Price, along with actor Herbert Marshall, who plays the inspector, managed to keep straight faces during the film, though according to many reports they were often convulsed in fits of laughter, especially during the ending with the fly caught in the web (more on that in a moment). Patricia Owens is excellent as Hedison’s edge-of-sanity wife Helene, trying to protect her son and keep the world from discovering what has really happened to her husband, even at the risk of prison and/or execution. Young Charles Herbert, who plays their son Philippe, appeared in quite a few movies as a child, including genre pictures like The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) and William Castle’s 13 Ghosts (1960).
All the actors play their roles completely straight throughout the entire film, and Neumann’s direction keeps the onscreen situations well-grounded. With no tongue-in-cheek campiness or winking at the audience, these characters are presented as real human beings trying to deal with a terrible mishap. This serious, adult approach is probably one of the film’s most valuable assets, keeping it effective and entertaining all these years later.
Of course, if there is one sequence that everyone seems to remember, it is the high-pitched screaming from the “fly with the white head” caught in the spider’s web, about to become dinner. The “HELP ME! PLEASE HELP ME!” refrain has been parodied, copied, referenced, and ripped off in so many movies over the years that some might believe it has become campy and lost its ability to chill. Personally, I find the sequence as powerful today as it must have been in 1958. As the spider slowly makes its way across the web, the trapped man/fly creature – with its terror-stricken face and shrill shrieking voice – generates an incredible amount of empathy. We feel the terror it does. After reading so many reports of how Price and Marshall were barely able to film this part without laughing, I was waiting for the cheesiness to show itself during my most recent viewing. But instead, what showed up were the goosebumps on my arm. This tragic character is dying for the second time, before our very eyes, and his fate in this case feels much more terrifying (not that death by machine press is any walk in the park).
Usually I am not one to wave the ‘blu-ray’ flag when it comes to older films making their way to this new format. But I have to say watching THE FLY on blu-ray was a real delight. The colors are very bright and really pop, as well as showing more detail to the film. The film does have its share of grain, which honestly I don’t have a problem with. Films this old shouldn’t look crisp and clean. But it is the best this film has looked, at least to this reviewer. Since 20th Century Fox put in that extra money in the budget that turned what would have been a black and white B-picture into a glorious color horror film, it is great to see the colors shine this much and that this movie can still pack a punch 55 years later.
The disc also comes with audio commentary with star Hedison and film historian David Del Valle, along with a short featurette on the making of the film, called Fly Trap: Catching a Classic, as well as a Vincent Price biography and the Fox Movietone News from when the film first opened.