Written by Jonathan Wojcik


Okay, so I'm actually posting this on a Thursday at six in the afternoon, but I don't care. I can't just wait an entire six hours to talk about THE FLY. It's both my favorite animal and my favorite movie monster, but I've never really devoted a whole post to the latter. Having already talked about almost every other 1950's movie monster I care about, I have no excuse left to put this off...so we're going to take a quick look at every "official" iteration of the Mad Flyentist in semi-chronological order, saving the actual, original fly for the end...and I don't mean any movie version.

Even if you've never seen a single Fly film, you likely got the gist of its 1959 adaptation from countless references in other forms of media. The story actually opens with a murder investigation: it seems the wife of one professor Andre Delambre has crushed her husband's head and arm in an enormous apple press. As she tells her story, we learn of her husband's experiments with instantaneous matter teleportation, and the terrible accident that ensues when an ordinary, tiny housefly gets caught in the machine with him. The machine reassembles Andre with the head and arm of an insect, while the now human-headed fly escapes into the yard. Unable to speak and dependent on his wife for assistance, Andre scrambles to figure out a solution to his problem before losing his human mind completely...but can only hope to reverse his transformation if he can recapture the fly with his own missing parts.

It's a truly fascinating concept, now referenced and parodied so many times that we take it almost for granted, and considering this type of "teleportation" is still largely hypothesis, we still can't really say for certain that the horror of The Fly is truly impossible, can we? The machine, in theory, scans a subject's body, disintegrates them down to the molecular level, and does its best to rebuild the same exact shape and same exact matter somewhere else, from whatever particles might be available. Once we're at the point of just "printing" matter from essentially thin air, there's no reason the process couldn't produce highly enlarged insect anatomy.

The only truly absurd part is that the guy was still alive.

Naturally, it's only after Delambre destroys himself that the missing fly is finally found...screaming for help in a spider's web. Just as Andre-fly slowly lost his mental humanity, Fly-Andre seems to have diverged some degree from insect thought, become a haunting caricature of Andre with whatever faint intelligence its tiny brain can handle. It's even become grey-haired and elderly, as the insect ages at a much, much faster rate than the human "donor."

This is one of those climactic scenes so utterly weird and outlandish that viewers are about equally likely to find it nightmarish or laughable...but can't it be both? Even the chipmunk voice (criticized by the performer himself) only lends a more disquieting, dreamlike quality to the sequence, and the sheer helpless, repetitive desperation of those shrill, quaking cries messed me up as a child.

Years later, Vincent Price would co-star in Return of the Fly, a sequel in which Delambre's now grown-up son, Phillipe, attempts to continue his father's work. Unfortunately, his own assistant turns out to be an industrial spy with a cruel sense of irony, deliberately using a fly to sabotage Phillipe's test run. We get a happier ending this time around, for better or for worse, with Phillipe-fly exacting revenge on his enemies and successfully re-integrating himself.

The design of the fly is far more spectacular in this one, and the version more people seem to remember. I do love the sheer size of that bristly head, and the face is incredibly accurate to the actual animal. Yes, it adds a pair of fanciful, tusk-like mandibles, but it still features both the proboscis and the gaping, nose-like hole a real fly can fold its proboscis into. The addition of a villain was, in my opinion, a good choice that gave the fly something more to do than wallow in its own misery, turning the monster into an even more sympathetic antihero.

Another sequel, Curse of the Fly, would forego any giant insects entirely to focus more on the matter transportation aspect, a more character-driven mad science thriller that failed to impress audiences who likely came looking for more bug-eyed monsters.

Decades later, David Cronenberg would direct a bigger budget, now wildly more famous 80's version of The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum as the scientist Seth Brundle. This time, the inventor comes out of his machine seemingly healthier than ever, and assumes the process must have rid his body of flaw...until he starts to grow a few weird, black hairs in unusual new places, his skin starts to feel strange, and various parts of him start to fall off.

It turns out, of course, that the machine integrated Seth with a fly at the genetic level, and the insect has become a sort of cancerous infection, slowly mutating him into something not quite human, but not quite arthropod. "Brundlefly's" final form makes only a brief appearance, but may be one of the most endearing designs of any movie monster I can think of, a decrepit creature truly looking like neither, yet both a human and a housefly. The rest of the film I can honestly take or leave - if you've seen it once, I feel like you've seen it enough - but this sickly-cute, gruesomely pitiful design has been an inspiration to me since childhood. Even its wet, gnarled flesh succeeds in looking like it wants to be human skin and chitinous exoskeleton at the same time.

As disturbing as Brundle's slow, gruesome transformation may be, it pales in comparison to the horror felt by his love interest, Veronica (Geena Davis), when she realizes that she's now carrying a child conceived with Seth after his body was contaminated. Following a nightmare in which she gives birth to a huge maggot, Veronica sensibly seeks an abortion, but we never do find out if it's a success...

The success of Cronenberg's film almost guaranteed a sequel, but "The Fly II" would involve none of the same cast or crew, and holds only a 27% fresh rating over on Rottentomatoes. In my case, I actually find this movie a little more interesting than Cronenberg's, even if the creature design is nowhere near as lovable and the action is more, well..."action" than subtle dread.

This one begins with Veronica unfortunately dying of shock as she gives birth - for real this time - to an unsettling, fetus-shaped chrysalis, but what's inside looks just like any human baby. Growing at an accelerated rate and gifted with an almost superhuman intelligence, "Martin Brundle" is raised as little more than a scientific specimen by the greedy corporation determined to perfect and profit off his father's technology.

The darkest part of this film isn't even flyboy's birth or subsequent mutation, but the saga of the laboratory dog he bonds with as a child...only to watch as it becomes the subject of another botched teleportation. He believes the dog is put down mercifully until a couple of years later, when the now rapidly-grown-up Brundle finds the malformed abomination clinging to life as another research specimen.

As he euthanizes the suffering creature himself, Brundle Junior fully grasps the inhumanity of the people who have kept him locked away his entire short life, realizing that he, too, is little more than a biological sample.

Only when Brundle gets really, truly pissed does his body decide it's time to bug out, and he undergoes pupation into something not at all like a human, a fly, or a human-fly hybrid. This multi-jawed Chupacabra is naturally my least favorite design for any "Fly," but it's not a bad design in itself. It certainly has personality to it, even if it feels more "reptilian dragonfly" than "human housefly," and I can respect the reasoning behind such a drastically divergent form. This is not, after all, a human biologically fused to a fly. This is the offspring of a human biologically fused to a fly. It honestly could have looked like positively anything.

"Martinfly" goes on a murderous rampage through the labs that nobody could honestly blame him for, and finally confronts his "foster father," the man who only saw him with giant dollar signs in his eyes and kept a tortured, mangled dog in a concrete pit.

Fortunately, Martinfly is still smart enough to operate the teleportation pods...and drags "dad" through the machine with him, programming the system to reconfigure his own mutated form with his extra human passenger as a sort of molecular donor-body.

Martin comes out fully human, even presumably aging at a more normal pace...while what's-his-name is reduced to a gurgling, wriggling maggot-man, now kept for observation in a certain concrete pit.

While "The Fly II" has faded somewhat into relative obscurity, Cronenberg's Fly has remained famous enough to continue spawning merchandise and even a more recent stage opera, with its own sublimely ghoulish take on the final transformation. I love how much hairier and more putrid this costume looks, and especially how it attempts to twist vertebrate teeth and jaws into a structure like that of an actual fly's sucking proboscis, dangling from a few decrepit strands of tissue and undoubtedly completely useless. Nice.

The idea of a human accidentally scrambling themselves up with a fly seemed like a sadistically twisted concept to audiences of the 50's, and it's easy to see how it's endured so easily in the public consciousness...but our collective memory of the fly isn't quite complete, because the fly did not, in fact, begin as a film...

Artwork by Tatsuya Morino

Like James Bond, Stephen King's "Carrie" and a surprising number of other famous characters, The Fly made its debut as a short story published in Playboy Magazine, of all things, and while the story is almost perfectly adapted by the original cinematic adaptation, one rather important element was scrapped before it even began filming.

In both the short story and the film, the first living thing our "hero" tests his transporter on is his wife's pet cat, because he is obviously a giant asshole, and the poor feline simply never rematerializes, sent adrift through time and space in some unfathomable, hypothetical quantum state.

We already know how things proceed from there, but text and screen finally diverge when the professor first attempts to pass back through his machine, desperate to get the bug back out of his system. The recalibrated telepods certainly "correct" a "mistake" alright, which is to say, they finally zero in on those pesky, missing cat atoms and attempt to reassemble them.

Yes, Tatsuya Morino's gorgeous illustration is true to the original narrative. Doctor dingus steps back out of his contraption not only with the head of a humongous fly, but fuzzy-wuzzy ears and a delicate, pink nose he regards with disgust and horror.

I realize this was left out of the films because it's almost too adorable and hilarious to be taken seriously by most people, but I, for one, am fully capable of accepting meow-meow-nekofly as a sincere horror icon, and I think it's a travesty that the original catbug has been swept under the rug, however snug it may find itself. It may be adorable and hilarious, but it's also such delicious karmic justice, and even if did send audiences laughing out of the theater...they would still never forget about it, and we probably never would to this very day.

The Fly has gone through a fair number of official iterations and spawned many, many imitators, every last one of which I'm grateful for. Ever since I was a wee little toddler, something about the huge, sorrowful eyes and vacuum-snoots of Diptera have called out to me more than almost any other animal, and I'm so glad that the humble housefly became one of our culture's most famous reoccuring monsters.

But, still...it could have had a kitty nose.