Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Starman

Starman Poster

(1983) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon; Starring: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel and Robert Phalen; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **** 

“You are a strange species, not like any other, and you would be surprised how many there are. Intelligent but savage. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.” – Starman (Jeff Bridges)

Mother Ship and Alien Craft

Although the name “John Carpenter” has become synonymous with horror, labeling the filmmaker as exclusively a “horror” director would be reductive and inaccurate. Arguably, science fiction has played just as much, if not a greater role in Carpenter’s filmography, starting with his first movie, Dark Star (1974). What few filmgoers and critics are inclined to acknowledge, however, is that Carpenter has a softer, romantic side. His gentler sensibilities are on full display with Starman,* a sci-fi-tinged romantic road movie. In an era known for effects-laden spectaculars, Carpenter purposely went in the opposite direction, commenting, “The effects weren’t going to rule the movie.” There’s spectacle, to be sure (courtesy of the good folks at ILM), but effects are used sparingly, to complement rather than overshadow the story. 

* Fun Fact #1: Although he didn’t receive official screenwriting credit, Dean Riesner was responsible for the rewrite of Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon’s script. As a token of his appreciation, Carpenter mentioned Riesner in the “Thanks” portion of the credits, resulting in a fine from the Writers Guild. 

Starman and Jenny

In the opening scene, we see Voyager II drifting through interplanetary space, accompanied by the strains of “Satisfaction,” from the Rolling Stones. */** Only seven years out from Earth, the probe is detected by an alien intelligence. Cut to an unidentified craft, entering our planet’s atmosphere – an Air Force fighter*** intercepts the UFO, causing it to crash land in a remote, forested area. The spacecraft’s solitary occupant, a being made of energy, wanders into the living room of recent widow, Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). It takes on human form, based on a lock of hair and a picture in a photo album.**** The alien’s choice proves to be a fortuitous one, as he bears an uncanny resemblance to Jenny’s dead husband, Scott. She points a gun at the intruder, but thankfully for the Starman, a moment of indecision stays her hand from blowing him away (which also would have made this a much shorter movie). Instead, she becomes his hostage of sorts, as they hit the road on a quest to reunite the alien visitor with his people. Complications ensue, as they’re relentlessly pursued by the feds, who want to study him. 

* Fun Fact #2: According to the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, at the time of this movie, Voyager I and II were just past the orbit of Saturn. Both spacecraft were equipped with a golden record, which included greetings in multiple languages, and various sounds and images from Earth. 

** Fun Fact #3: While the film would have us believe that “Satisfaction” was included on Voyager’s record, the actual disc features “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. 

*** Fun Fact #4: I’ve always found this part amusing – instead of using generic stock footage of an Air Force jet, the filmmakers employed footage of the prototype F-20 Tigershark. I can only surmise this was a not-so-subtle attempt by Northrop Corporation to pimp its fighter to the U.S. Air Force (and prospective overseas governments). Despite being a reportedly capable aircraft, no one purchased it, and the F-20 was relegated to a footnote in aviation history.

**** Fun Fact #5: Three legendary effects wizards handled Starman’s tricky transformation scene from baby to adult: Rick Baker (baby Starman), Stan Winston (intermediate, stretching form), and Dick Smith (final transformation).

Starman Flips Hunter the Bird

Starman works so well, largely on account of Jeff Bridges’ childlike (but not childish) performance in the title role. As the audience, we watch through his eyes as he experiences everything for the first time. Even something as mundane as dessert takes on wondrous and perplexing properties. Bridges described his character as “…a person impersonating a human being,” which perfectly explains the Starman’s eccentric behavior. He’s the de facto poster child for anyone who considers themselves to be socially awkward or a little outside the norm. His combination of jerky movements and misunderstanding of the cues and complexities of human interactions, lead to some terrific comic moments (as when he learns the difference between gesturing with a thumb, versus a middle finger). During his travails on the road, he also learns about humanity’s propensity for love and violence, in less than equal measures.

Jenny in Restroom

So much has been said about Bridges’ endearingly idiosyncratic (and Oscar-nominated) performance that it’s easy to overlook Karen Allen’s nuanced portrayal of a woman absorbed with grief. While her role isn’t nearly as flashy as Bridges’, she’s much more than a foil for his fish-out-of-water antics. Throughout the film, Jenny undergoes a progression, from fear and surprise, to compassion. When she ultimately allows herself to let go of her husband, she can begin to accept the being that has assumed his appearance. The only false note in her character, as written, is the abrupt shift in their relationship from emotional to physical during the span of a few days. I concede that Jenny’s judgment is likely clouded by unresolved grief for her deceased husband, coupled with a terminal case of Stockholm Syndrome. Nevertheless, I can’t help but imagine how terribly uncomfortable it would be, bumping uglies in a drafty (and probably leaky) boxcar, filled with hay, but who am I to trample on two individuals ensconced in the throes of lust?

Mark Shermin and George Fox

The third major player in this little drama is the film’s moral compass, Mark Shermin, played by Charles Martin Smith with cigar-chomping bravado. Just because he’s hired as consultant by the feds, he’s not about to play by their rules. Unlike many of his cohorts, he seems to be the only one capable of independent thought or compassion. He’s promptly rebuked when he bristles at the plan to capture Starman for experimentation (“We invited him here!”).* In one emasculating act, haughty government official George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) yanks the cigar from his mouth. It only makes Fox’s eventual comeuppance sweeter, in a later scene, when Shermin defiantly blows smoke in his face. 

* Fun Fact #6: Carpenter, who was a pilot in his own right, enjoys a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in the cockpit of one of the helicopters pursuing Jenny and Starman.  

Starman and Jenny Pursued by Feds

Starman reminds us that John Carpenter’s filmography isn’t always gloom and doom. Instead, we’re treated to a refreshingly hopeful story that still manages to carry his signature post-Vietnam cynicism about shadowy government entities and general disdain for authority figures. Change is possible, but it has to come from individuals. Starman also proves his versatility as a filmmaker, who can alternately horrify us and pull at our heartstrings.

 

Sources for this article: Commentary by John Carpenter and Jeff Bridges; “What are the Contents of the Golden Record?” JPL/NASA website 

Saturday, April 30, 2022

April Quick Picks and Pans

The Last Wave Poster

The Last Wave (1977) Peter Weir’s enigmatic follow-up to Picnic at Hanging Rock is almost a spiritual sequel to its cryptic predecessor, raising many questions but providing few answers. David Burton (Richard Chamberlin), a Sydney lawyer, defends a group of aboriginal men accused of murder. While the group’s nominal leader, Chris Lee (David Gulpilil), is Burton’s link to the truth, he only offers answers in riddles that ultimately lead to cataclysmic dream visions. Weir’s deliberately paced film doesn’t spoon-feed explanations. Instead, it requires our patience, as we’re left to make sense of it all. Mesmerizing.    

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

The Juniper Tree Poster

The Juniper Tree (1990) Writer/director Nietzchka Keene’s bleak, lyrical film (based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm), set sometime in Iceland’s early history, exploits the Nordic country’s stark landscape with stunning black and white cinematography. Björk stars as Margit, the younger sister of Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir). Katla marries Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring), a still-grieving widower, much to the indignation of his petulant son, and things only get worse from there. The Juniper Tree entrances and beguiles, depicting a world where witchcraft and nature entwine. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy

Stacy Poster

Stacy (aka: Stacy: Attack of the Schoolgirl Zombies) (2001) A worldwide pandemic affecting 15- to 17-year-old girls transforms them into mindless, flesh-eating zombies (the movie’s title references the slang term for the animated corpses). Director Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s low-budget horror/comedy (based on a novel by Kenji Ôtsuki) is scattershot in its approach, but manages to provide some commentary about isolation and human connection in modern society. Despite the cheap shot-on-video production values, the gory practical effects are surprisingly good. There are also some fun references to other zombie films, notably the paramilitary organization RRK (Romero Repeat Kill) Corps, and designer chainsaws called “Bruce Campbell’s Right Hand.” 

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Winterbeast Poster

Winterbeast (1992) A Massachusetts park ranger (Mike Magri) investigates the disappearance of several people in his jurisdiction. Signs point to a Native American curse and a deranged resort owner. All sorts of demons, who seem to be from a different flick altogether, unleash their vengeance. Writer/director Christopher Thies’ indescribable mess, cobbled together from different footage over a span of several years, features amateurish performances, sub-par stop-motion animation, and bad rubber makeup effects. Yet despite all its deficits, it’s never boring (always a plus in my book), and the rough edges only make it more endearing. If you’re looking for a selection for bad movie night, look no further. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (included in Home Grown Horrors Volume I), DVD (as a double feature with Nudist Colony of the Dead) and Shudder 

 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

A Few Brief Blog Announcements

David Cronenberg - The Dead Zone

Whew! What a year. What? It’s only April? How can that be? It’s been quite an eventful time, so far, and its only bound to get busier as the months progress. Between work, personal obligations, and all the recent blog activity, it’s all been a bit much, and I need to take a breather. To that end, my wife and I are heading to the magical country of Iceland for some much-needed R&R (and my birthday celebration). Before I head off into the wild blue yonder, however, I had a few announcements.

 

Peter Lorre Surprised

Last week, I quietly reached a major blog milestone, with more than 1 million pageviews (I know, I know, that probably includes some spammy websites linking to it, but don’t steal my thunder)! When I started Cinematic Catharsis, I never expected to have 1,000 page views, so to say this ongoing labor of love has exceeded my expectations is a gross understatement. I’ve met some astonishingly talented movie bloggers along the way, and it’s been an honor to call some my friends. Of course, I couldn’t have done it without you, dear reader. Whether you’re a first-timer, or a regular visitor to this site, no words can adequately express my gratitude. Thank you all for visiting, and continuing to read my scribblings.

The Big Sleep

I’m also pleased to announce that I will have another article featured in The DarkPages, for their upcoming Big 100th edition, regarding the lessons I’ve learned from one of my all-time favorite noirs, The Big Sleep. There’s also another blog post coming (Hint: It’s based on a challenge by my blogathon co-host), although it probably won’t surface until sometime in mid-April.

The Corman-verse Blogathon

And speaking of looking ahead, The Corman-verse Blogathon, hosted by Yours Truly and Gill Jacob from Realweegiemidget Reviews is next month (May 26th-28th), but there’s still plenty of time to stake your claim. Here’s a list of participants, so far:

 

Brian Schuck, Films from Beyond the Time Barrier - The Fast and the Furious (1955)

Scampy, The Spirochaete Trail - The Aftermath (1988)

Gabriela, Pale Writer - House of Usher (1960) & Premature Burial (1962) 

Terence Towles Canote, A Shroud of Thoughts - Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

Andrew Wickliffe, The Stop Button - The Intruder (1962)

Booksteve, Booksteve's Library - Ski Troop Attack (1960)

Tristan Lofting - The Trip (1967)

J-Dub, Dubsism - A Bucket of Blood (1959)

Amber, @tangoineden (Instagram) -  Gunslinger (1956)

Steve Q. - The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)

Debbie Vega, Moon in Gemini - Tower of London (1962)

Lê, Critica Retro - TBD

Tom, Motion Picture Gems - Munchies (1987)

Stone Gasman - Targets (1968)

Rebecca Deniston, Taking Up Room - The Wasp Woman (1959)

Lady Eve, Lady Eve's Reel Life - The Gunfighter (1950)

Kayla, Whimsically Classic - The Raven (1963) 

Kerry Fristoe, Brattle Theatre Film Notes - The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967)

Gill Jacob, Realweegiemidget Reviews - Alligator (1980)

Barry P., Cinematic Catharsis - Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

One small request: Since I might inadvertently miss your request in the coming week, please be sure to copy my excellent co-host, Gill, by commenting on her post, or through her blog’s Contact Me page (Be sure to include your preferred name, along with your blog’s title)

 

As always, stay tuned…


Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Body Horror Month Quick Picks and Pans

Taxidermia Poster

Taxidermia (2006) Director/co-writer György Pálfi’s fascinatingly grotesque film consists of a trio of interwoven stories (based on short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy), covering three generations (1942, 1960s, and presumably the 1980s) of a Hungarian family. In the first segment, a sexually frustrated soldier indulges in his perverse fantasies. The second concerns a fictional Eastern Bloc eating contest, while the third involves a skinny taxidermist (Marc Bischoff) and his beyond-morbidly obese father (Gábor Máté). Pálfi juxtaposes some truly stomach-turning imagery with visual poetry, adding up to an unforgettable viewing experience. It’s a mixture decidedly not for everyone, but if you’re that certain someone who appreciates the repugnant with the sublime, this might just be precisely what you’re looking for. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Titane Poster 

Titane (2021) This audacious, unsettling movie by filmmaker Julia Ducournau makes her one to watch. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), an exotic dancer with a titanium plate in her skull, has intercourse with a car (No, really!). She subsequently becomes pregnant, but there’s much, much more to the story, full of twists and turns that I wouldn’t dare spoil here. I’m not going to venture an explanation about what it all means, and I can’t exactly say I enjoyed it, but I can’t help but admire Titane’s unflinching commitment to its absurd premise, melding flesh and metal.   

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu

Sssssss Poster

Sssssss (1973) Strother Martin plays, Carl Stoner a herpetologist shunned by the scientific community because of his unorthodox theories. He hires David Blake (Dirk Benedict, of Battlestar Galactica and A Team fame), a naïve young college student as his assistant. Soon, he becomes Stoner’s unwitting pawn in an experiment to transform man into a king cobra. Complications ensue when the mad doctor’s comely daughter Kristina (Heather Menzies-Urich) falls for David. None of the proceedings in this batty flick make a lick of sense (It’s never explained why Stoner keeps the cobra’s mortal enemy, a mongoose, on the premises, except perhaps to justify the climactic battle), but it’s strangely entertaining, thanks to a committed cast and some cool makeup effects. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Manster Poster

The Manster (aka: The Split) (1959) Some men could be accused of being led around by their “other” head (amiright?), but I’d wager no one’s expecting to take that literally. Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley), an American journalist working in Japan, meets mad scientist Dr. Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura), and soon becomes a test subject. After the doctor injects him with an experimental serum, Larry suddenly sprouts another noggin, and his baser instincts take hold. He forgets his wife Linda (Jane Hylton), starting an affair with the scientist’s lascivious assistant, Tara (Terri Zimmern). By the end of The Manster, the only thing that Dr. Suzuki’s experiment proves is that two heads are certainly not better than one. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself scratching your own coconut over the dubious science and the wacky climax. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Antiviral Poster

Antiviral (2012) Filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg’s commentary on the cannibalistic nature of celebrity worship brings up some intriguing concepts, and the labyrinthine plot wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir. It’s too bad that it suffers from a wooden lead (Caleb Landry Jones) who mumbles most of his lines and a cast of unrelatable characters. I suppose the art design (where white walls predominate) was intended to convey an austere, clinical look, but without the benefit of contrasts from set to set, the overall impact is numbing. The net effect is an intellectually stimulating, yet emotionally uninvolving experience. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Exte - Hair Extensions Poster

Exte: Hair Extensions (2007) Director/co-writer Sion Sono dips his foot in the body horror sub-genre, with this fractured fable about human foibles and stolen follicles. A mysterious shipping container yields a bizarre and gruesome discovery when officials find it filled with hair and bodies. A lonely dock guard with a hair fetish (Ren Osugi) takes one of the corpses (which might or might not be alive) home, to harvest its continually sprouting locks. Meanwhile, Yuki (Megumi Satô), a young hair stylist, contends with her irresponsible older sister while she balances her job responsibilities. There are some nice moments, featuring creepy imagery, but Sono’s film is all over the board, tonally (from wacky comedy to a drama about child abuse). I wish Sono had picked a lane and stuck with it, but Exte might be worth a look, for curiosity’s sake. 

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Tusk Poster

 Tusk (2014) An obnoxious podcaster (Justin Long) travels to Canada to cover an internet meme celebrity, only to find a much bigger story, involving an eccentric retired sea captain (Michael Parks) who’s obsessed with walruses. Little does he suspect (Isn’t that always the case) that he’ll soon become a victim of the warped millionaire’s latest experiment. The story at the movie’s core would make a nice half-hour segment in a horror anthology. Unfortunately, Writer/director Kevin Smith fills the other two thirds of the movie with mostly unfunny gags (imagine every Canadian stereotype thrown into the mix) and scenes that go nowhere (mostly involving an uncredited Johnny Depp as a French-Canadian detective). While I can’t recommend this movie in good conscience, it might be worth checking out, if only for the absurdly horrifying scenes of the walrus-human creation (featuring some excellent makeup effects supervised by Robert Kurtzman of KNB Effects). 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy

Contracted Poster

Contracted (2013) Writer/director Eric England’s cautionary tale starts with an intriguing premise, but falters after it leaves the starting gate. After being manipulated into an ill-advised one-night stand, a young woman discovers a strange disease spreading rapidly throughout her body. She soon finds herself falling apart, while she gradually alienates herself from everyone. Unfortunately, Contracted is hampered by unconvincing performances and situations. Even when she undergoes some very conspicuous (and icky) changes, no one seems overly concerned. Even her doctor, completely at a loss about her illness, doesn’t seem particularly alarmed (I’m not an MD, but I’d probably contact the CDC or refer her to a hospital). Instead, everyone thinks she’s being annoying, hooked on drugs, or making things up. There was a great opportunity for social commentary, but it’s a hard pill to swallow when it’s so clumsily executed. 

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

 

Friday, March 25, 2022

Announcing the Corman-verse Blogathon

The Corman-verse Blogathon

When you think of the term “living legend,” Roger Corman should be on everyone’s short list. Hollywood outsider, who re-shaped Hollywood into his image, famous for making movies fast and cheap, creating significant work and schlock in equal portions (But we’re not judging. Someone else’s trash could be your treasure). He’s mentored and influenced some of the biggest names in the business, including James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Gale Anne Hurd, Joe Dante, Jack Nicholson, Beverly Garland, and many, many more… Gill Jacob, my superb blogathon co-host from Realweegiemidget Reviews, is joining me to celebrate the man, his movies, and his countless mentees. Now, we’re inviting you to join us.

Bucket of Blood

What’s the Corman-verse? IMDB lists more than 500 producing credits (and counting) alone!  Not one to simply rest on his laurels, he’s still going strong at the age of 95 (96 on April 5th!). Chances are, whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen something that involved Mr. Corman. Don’t know where to start? Check out his IMDB and Wikipedia pages.

The Raven

What does that mean for you, dear blogger (or podcaster)? Thanks to Mr. Corman’s numerous credits, you have virtually endless possibilities (Surprise us!). Anything he’s produced, directed, written are good candidates for the blogathon, but we’re also opening this up to include any actors or filmmakers who have been strongly influenced by Corman – if you can link them to Corman, it’s fair game!

Rock 'n Roll High School

Here are just a few topic suggestions: 

·       Corman’s “Poe Cycle” of movies (The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, etc…)

·       Social consciousness in Corman movies

·       Dick Miller’s many appearances in Corman films

·       Joe Dante’s early work

·       Corman’s numerous disciples

·       The ill-fated, unreleased movie, The Fantastic Four (1994)

And just because it’s called a “blogathon,” don’t let that deter you. We will cheerfully accept submissions from your podcast, YouTube channel, Facebook/Instagram post, sea shanties, beat poetry, whatever. Still puzzled about a topic? Feel free to reach out and bounce your idea off us. No reasonable offer will be refused.

The Fantastic Four

What: The Corman-verse Blogathon

Who: Hosted by Yours Truly (Barry P.) and Gill Jacob

Where: Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews

When: May 26-28, 2022

How: Please read the rules below, and send me your post request(s) (reviews, podcasts, etc…) via email (barry_cinematic@yahoo.com), Twitter (@barry_cinematic), or by commenting below. You may also contact Gill by commenting on her post, or through her blog’s Contact Me page (Be sure to include your preferred name, along with your blog’s title).

The Intruder
And now, the rules…

 

  1. If Roger Corman produced, directed, wrote, or appeared the film, you’re welcome to review it. Book reviews are also acceptable. You may also submit reviews of movies from filmmakers that were mentored by Corman.
  2. Due to the vast number of potential subjects for this blogathon, ABSOLUTELY NO DUPLICATE TITLES WILL BE ACCEPTED (unless it’s part of a career profile or series of films).
  3. We won’t accept posts that are uncomplimentary or disrespectful to him.
  4. Review/post choices may be requested as a comment on this page or you may contact me through the methods listed above.
  5. Add your Twitter username so we can promote your post.
  6. A full list of blogs and review choices will be posted on a separate page and updated regularly.
  7. Only original, never-before-published posts will be accepted.
  8. Limit TWO blog posts per participant, please.
  9. Send a link of your post(s) to me or Gill on one of the days of the blogathon. Note: We will be publishing all links on both blogs. 
  10. Please also note: Gill and I have already claimed the following titles below:

Barry at Cinematic Catharsis – Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

 

Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews – Alligator (1980)

One more thing...

If you plan to participate, or just want to show your support, please grab one of the following banners to display on your blog:





                                                                    

We can’t wait to see your submissions. Put on your thinking caps, be creative, and above all, have fun! 

 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Double Take: The Fly

 

The Fly 1958 Poster

The Fly (1958) Directed by Kurt Neumann; Written by James Clavell; Based on the short story by George Langelaan; Starring: Al “David” Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall, Kathleen Freeman and Charles Herbert; Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Rating: ****

The Fly 1986 Poster 

The Fly (1986) Directed by David Cronenberg; Written by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg; Based on the short story by George Langelaan; Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis and John Getz; Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Rating: ****

“He was like an explorer in a wild country that no one had ever been before. He was searching for the truth. He almost found a great truth, but for one instant, he was careless.” – François Delambre (Vincent Price)

“I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over... and the insect is awake.” – Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum)

The Fly 1958 Helene Delambre

The Fly (1958/1986) is part of a long tradition of the venerable science fiction cautionary tales, depicting an intrepid researcher delving into mysteries we were not meant to know. Essentially, it’s a contemporary re-telling of the myth about Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, and paid the consequences for his hubris. Distilled to their central theme, both films are about a brilliant scientist who developed a revolutionary invention that will transport matter from one place to another, rendering most other forms of transportation obsolete. There’s just one catch, however.  In their zeal to forge ahead with their discovery, they neglect to notice a fly in the ointment, or in this case, a fly in the teleportation device. Man and fly are combined, with the scientist progressively losing his humanity in the process. Oddly enough, both films are set in Canada, with the 1958 version, directed by Kurt Neumann,* set in Montréal, and the 1986 remake, directed by David Cronenberg,** in Toronto (Cronenberg’s preferred city for movie-making). While the 1958 film was considered a low budget production,*** filmed in only 18 days, The 1986 version**** was more moderately budgeted.

* Not-So-Fun Fact: Neumann passed away, just prior to the 1958 film’s release.

** Fun Fact #1: Robert Bierman was originally set to direct the remake because the producers’ original choice, David Cronenberg, was attached to Total Recall for Dino De Laurentiis. Due to a family tragedy, Bierman bowed out of the project, while Cronenberg left Total Recall because of creative differences with De Laurentis, and the rest is cinematic history.

*** Fun Fact #2: The original film’s budget of roughly $400,000 was less than half the cost of Cronenberg’s salary for the remake.

**** Fun Fact #3: The iconic quote and tagline, “Be afraid. Be very afraid” was based on producer Mel Brooks’ (Yes, that Mel Brooks) comments, after viewing the dailies from a scene, which Cronenberg subsequently incorporated into the script.

Dr. Seth Brundle

Aside from transplanting the proceedings from France to Canada, Neumann’s version is the most faithful to Langelaan’s 1957 short story (which originally appeared in Playboy magazine). The 1958 movie plays like a mystery, utilizing a flashback approach to gradually uncover why Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens) killed her husband, Andre (Al “David” Hedison).* Cronenberg’s film uses the source material as a departure point, rather than a template, letting the events unfold in chronological succession. Outside of the science-gone-wrong story, it depicts a love triangle between Dr. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum),** Veronica (Geena Davis), and her ex-boyfriend Stathis (John Getz). Both films share a common thread, underscoring the complicated dynamics of love and loss. The tragic elements work so well in the 1958 and 1986 versions, because we’re invested in the likeable protagonists. Andre is an absent-minded genius, who’s also a loving father and husband, while Seth Brundle is a brilliant, socially awkward goofball who somehow makes the word “cheeseburger” sound inviting. Sadly, the outcome for both is the same, although no matter how many times we may have seen these movies, we always wish for a different outcome.

* Fun Fact #4: Before relative newcomer Hedison accepted the role, it was offered to Rick Jason and Michael Rennie, who both turned it down.

** Fun Fact #5: The character’s last name comes from Formula 1 driver Martin Brundle. As a racing enthusiast, Cronenberg commented that he often based character names after personalities in the sport.

The Fly 1958 Helene & Andre

As in the original story, Andre’s post-accident body now features a fly’s head and front limb, while somewhere, buzzing about the Delambre family estate, is a fly with a human head and forearm. Although the prospect of switching heads with a common housefly is certainly unsettling, it’s not too difficult to imagine why the same approach would be considered too unsophisticated for ‘80s audiences, weaned on the realism of gritty ‘70s flicks. If you also factor in the numerous technological advances and leaps in genetic research, it becomes clear that the same story wouldn’t exactly fly (pardon the terrible pun). Instead, Cronenberg envisioned a fusion of man and insect: not two separate creatures but one being, which is the sum of its parts. Cronenberg also introduced a modicum of ambiguity to Brundle’s transformation, suggesting that not everything is necessarily bad. Initially, Brundle emerges from the transport pod seemingly unscathed. Teleporting himself could be equated to a drug, which increases his strength, agility and virility. It’s only later, as his body undergoes a metamorphosis, that the downside becomes apparent. On the other hand, the 1958 version leaves no wiggle room for debate – there’s no question that mixing a man and a fly is a terrible thing. As both movies also prove, the quest for knowledge is fraught with peril for animals as well. When Andre attempts to transport the family cat Dandelo,* it fails to reintegrate, instead becoming a string of atoms floating in space. Brundle’s poor baboon** test subject fares even worse, when he reintegrates, albeit with messy results. 

* Fun Fact #6: In the original story, the unfortunate scientist not only takes on the aspects of a fly’s anatomy, but sports some feline facial features, due to a previous failed experiment with his family cat, Dandelo.

** Fun Fact #7: Typhoon, the baboon took a liking to script supervisor Gillian Richardson, becoming visibly (ahem) aroused whenever she walked on the set.

The Fly 1986 Brundlefly

It’s unfair to compare one visual approach versus the other, since they’re the product of different eras and aesthetics. Andre’s basement lab is a mass of flickering lights, neon tubes, and big dials, surrounding two teleportation chambers* that resemble phone booths. Cronenberg’s version features a much more industrial look, typified by the teleport pods.** Instead of a house with a lab, Brundle lives in a warehouse fashioned into a laboratory, with living space an incidental necessity. Likewise, the makeup effects reflect two different decades. The idea of a man walking around with an enormous fly head undoubtedly would have seemed more than a bit silly to today’s jaded audiences, and would be more likely to elicit laughter rather than chills. Ben Nye’s makeup is quite respectable for the time, and at the very least, loads of fun to watch today. The opening scene remains quite effective, with the shot of Andre’s body slumped over a hydraulic press, with a profuse amount of blood running down the sides of the device – pretty strong stuff by 1958 standards. Cronenberg interprets the source material in a completely different way. After the fly is incorporated into Seth Brundle’s body, he undergoes a gruesome (realized in appropriately icky detail by Chris Walas and his team), often-painful transformation that appears to be a disease at first. His body becomes something else, neither fly nor human, but Brundlefly, a grotesque hybrid. His condition works as a metaphor for a terminal degenerative illness*** – he’s powerless to stop the process, once the DNA from both organisms has fused. His medicine cabinet becomes a collection of discarded body parts, which he glibly refers to as the “Brundle Museum of Natural History.”

* Some have likened the graphic progression of Brundle’s condition to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. While this is certainly a valid observation, Cronenberg’s intent, in his words, was to depict, “…the inevitability of deterioration and death.”

** Fun Fact #8: Perhaps fortunately, the computing power required for teleportation is far beyond the capacity for current technology. According to a study by the University of Leicester, transferring a human would need 2.6 x 1042 bits of information (I’m not a math wiz, but that’s an enormous number). And that’s not counting the monumental amount of energy required to teleport a human. In short, it’s not very likely we’ll see such a device in our lifetime.  

*** Fun Fact #9: The unique look of the teleportation pods was inspired by an unusual source, the cylinder head of Cronenberg’s Ducati motorcycle. 

The Fly 1958 Andre Communicates via Typewriter

Another profound difference between the two films is how the protagonists convey information to the other characters. After the accident occurs, Andre loses the ability to speak, requiring Hedison as Andre, to pantomime throughout the remainder of the film. It’s a credit to Hedison that he’s able to convey so much emotion with movement. Cronenberg, however, didn’t want his main character rendered mute so early in the story, thus limiting Brundle’s ability to communicate with the other characters, and by extension the audience. For Cronenberg, it was crucial that Brundle was able to articulate the changes he was enduring. 

How Brundlefly Eats

The 1958 version of The Fly has a naïve, retro charm, requiring a healthy suspension of disbelief for maximum enjoyment. The image of a man with a fly head and leg remains one of the most memorable images from 1950s science fiction cinema, entrenched firmly in our pop culture consciousness. The 1986 version belongs to its own sub-genre best described simply as “Cronenberg,” reflecting his medical background, and fascination with “the flesh.” Brundle’s changes occur on a microcellular level, changing his genetic code, not simply grafting parts of a fly onto a human body (and vice-versa). The ’58 and ’86 films are so wildly divergent, there’s room for both. Each scratches a certain itch. The original is, at heart, an old-fashioned Saturday matinee monster movie for the kid in all of us, and what it does, it does very well. Cronenberg takes a more mature approach to the material for his version, exploring the deleterious effects of disease and toxic relationships. Which one is best depends on the eye of the beholder.

 

Sources for this article: Blu-ray commentary by David Hedison and David Del Valle; “Teleportation: Will It Ever Be a Possibility?” by Dave Hall, The Guardian (June 2018); Blu-ray commentary by David Cronenberg; Documentary, Fear of the Flesh: The Making of the Fly