“THE FLY” (1958) (Blu-ray Review)
It’s almost impossible to believe if you’re a younger horror fan, but Vincent Price was not yet a horror icon when he appeared in a supporting role in 1958’s THE FLY. His only big horror role prior to this was in HOUSE OF WAX. But if you’re unaware of its placement in his filmography, and someone tells you that Price was in THE FLY, you’d probably assume he’s the unfortunate sod that has to walk around with a fly head for the second half of the movie, only to be disappointed that he’s the brother that sits all of the monster action out. It wasn’t until a bit later, when he did a couple pictures for William Castle and then began his long association with AIP, that he became one of our most iconic genre stars, the likes of which we may sadly never have again.
The other thing about THE FLY that might surprise viewers is how it’s structured. The first 25 minutes or so are a flashforward, and a somewhat confusing one if you don’t already know a bit about the story, as it’s remarkably low on exposition. A man is dead—having been crushed in his own machine press—and his wife is accused of the crime, though the man’s brother (Price) doesn’t quite believe she would do such a thing. It almost feels more film noir than typical monster movie, at least until she starts to tell her story (after freaking out on someone who killed a housefly) and something more traditional begins to take shape. We have our driven scientist, the caring wife, the goofy lab filled with a bunch of “SCIENCE!” objects that don’t seem to have any bearing on the experiment at hand, etc… all that good stuff.
Even still, like the opening, it’s all impressively lacking in hand-holding, keeping the audience a step behind the characters more often than not, rather than over-explaining what is usually a pretty simple plot like many of its fellow 50s monster movies.
This leads to one misstep of sorts. We don’t actually get to see the experiment that causes our hero to turn into a fly. We see him teleport a plate, and a hamster (and attempt to teleport a cat, which goes awry but not in a way you might expect), but there’s an odd jump in the movie. Price comes over and hero Andre (Al Hedison) wants to show him his invention, and then suddenly it’s hours later, Price has seemingly gone home and Andre won’t open the door to the lab for his wife. Sure, we get the gist eventually, but it’s odd to completely skip over the main event without even a buildup; we never even see Price actually go into the lab, or Andre turning on the device, or anything like that. So it feels like a chunk is just missing.
The other issue is that the science is pretty flimsy. Of course it’s an old monster movie so I’m not expecting the most impressive FX in the world, and I can’t deny that a guy with a fly head (and arm) makes for a pretty great monster (I’d love a model kit, actually), but why can Andre, with his fly head, still think with a human brain? Especially when the fly with his head has the vocal chords? And if the whole problem is the machine mixing up the atoms of two different objects, why does he go through not once but twice fully clothed? It’s only because the remake corrected these issues that I’m more or less OK with it here, but it would have been nice if they thought it out a bit more when it’s actually being played for scares and drama, as opposed to comedy.
Otherwise it’s a great monster movie, which to date has spawned two sequels and a remake (which itself had a sequel), all of which are worth your time to watch—surprising, considering the plot of most (CURSE OF THE FLY has no fly). You’d think that there’d be a lot of déjà vu with five movies more or less centered around “Guy tries to teleport and turns into a monster” plots, but they all put their own stamp on the proceedings; even the actual remake could be watched directly after this one without causing viewer fatigue. This is the only one to work sort of as a mystery. Of course we know what has happened to Andre after his experiment (where he puts a towel over his head and his hand in his pocket to hide it from his wife), but the movie saves telling us for a great reveal (and that fly head is an impressive piece of work; love the twitching mandible). Even with the slightly corny trappings of the era it still manages to invoke a lot of sympathy for the doomed scientist; the scene where he scribbles a final message to his wife as his fly-side begins taking control is incredibly touching. And even though the “Help meeeeee” scene has been parodied to death over the years, it doesn’t make it any less horrifying in context.
It’s also a great looking film, and I’m happy to report that the lush color and Cinemascope image are preserved wonderfully on this new Blu-ray, the film’s debut on the format (how about a boxed set of all five movies, FOX?). There are a few extras as well, though all of them are ported over from the DVD boxed set (featuring the film’s two sequels, RETURN OF THE FLY and CURSE). Besides the enjoyable, anecdote-rich commentary with Hedison and film historian David Del Valle (who fills in background info on the other players), the most extensive is an episode of television’s BIOGRAPHY that focuses on Price, a must watch for his fans as it covers a ton of his history in its 45 minutes and features interviews with his daughter, best friend and a few co-stars (plus, when it gets to THE FLY, you can see how great the transfer on the movie itself is in comparison). There’s also a 12-minute retrospective about the entire series in which the participants (rightfully) point out that CURSE is the superior sequel, despite lacking Price (who only returned for, er, RETURN) and an actual fly. A goofy little newsreel about the film’s premiere (attended by other monsters like Dracula and the Mummy) and the hokey trailer are also included.
A lot of old monster movies fail to hold up due to template-style plotting and a lack of personality to their villains, but THE FLY bucks that trend thanks to its clever structure and tragic protagonist at its core. Add in Price’s usual terrific performance and the striking imagery (a shame FOX was too cheap to let the sequels film in color, but it just makes this one stick out all the more) and you have an ideal example of that era, one that’s easy to recommend adding to your collection if you don’t already own the previous release.