The human body is a wonderful thing but every single one of has a deep rooted fear of anything going wrong with our own bodies. I think that is what makes “body horror” so unnerving. The definition of body horror is “horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body” with regular themes including disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation or mutation.
Some examples are Tetsuo: The Iron Man, The Incredible Melting Man and Possession, and even my own short film, Dysmorphia and my upcoming series of horror shorts, all of which revolve around similar themes.
However, the undisputed master of “body horror” is without a shadow of a doubt, David Cronenberg. Cronenberg has been making our skin crawl for almost four decades and has brought us some pretty unsettling stuff in Shivers, Rabid and Videodrome. Alongside the tremendous The Dead Zone, I consider the 1986 remake of The Fly to be his best work.
Cronenberg’s The Fly, though technically a remake, could not be more different from the 1958 film of the same name, starring Vincent Price. Cronenberg’s is a dark, sticky, rotting and at times, disconcerting, love story.
The Fly is the story of brilliant but eccentric scientist Seth Brundle, who has invented a teleportation device that will change the world and render all other forms of transport obsolete, only problem is he can only teleport inanimate objects. Brundle enlists the help of science journalist Veronica Quaife to document his research as he attempts to unlock the ability to successfully transfer a human from one telepod to the other. One night, Brundle decides to send himself through but he is not alone in the pod. A small housefly has buzzed inside with him and as the two are teleported, they are spliced together at a genetic level.
What follows is gross-out horror at it’s finest as Brundle slowly turns into part-man, part-fly, while trying to salvage his humanity.
Part of what makes The Fly so enjoyable is in the casting of Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. At the time, the pair were a real couple and this shines through in their performances. Goldblum is magnificent throughout. He was an odd, insectoid looking guy in his younger days, particularly here where he is perfectly cast with his darting, bug-eyes. Davis copes admirably with her boyfriend’s gruesome transformation and does seem genuinely distressed at times. Goldblum ramps up on all of his weirdness as his body slowly falls apart and he becomes more insect than man.
As is true of any great body horror flick, this film is grisly. It’s all done very well too. The man behind the effects is Gremlins designer Chris Walas. We watch Brundle’s human body crumble as his fingernails peel away effortlessly, his ears drop off and his teeth fall out (ARRRGH… teeth and nails!!!). There are plenty of other nasty things too. A baboon is turned inside out. Brundle graphically snaps a man’s arm during an arm wrestling contest and later, Brundle-fly excretes a corrosive vomit onto the hand and leg of John Getz’s villainous magazine baron causing them to dissolve away.
The Fly is superb and actually manages to hit you in the gut. Seth Brundle never asked for or deserved any of this. He had noble intentions and had just managed to find romance when his fate befalls him. It’s brilliantly realised and brutally illustrated. As Brundle’s mind and body crumble, he gives way to his baser instincts but we, as viewers, are always on his side.
Chris Walas directed the 1989 sequel which starred Eric Stoltz but it failed to set the world alight. It’s Cronenberg’s film that delivers as he shows us all exactly why he is the king of body horror without sacrificing plot or emotional content in favour of SFX shots. Go see The Fly now. Be afraid. Be very afraid.