Do you remember The Fly (1958)?
Vincent Price starred in The Fly (1958), and one scene will be stuck in our cultural lexicon forever, right alongside Darth Vader, Humphrey Bogart’s quotes in Casablanca, and Homer saying “Doh!”. The most-memorable scene I’m talking about is when Helene whips a cloth off the head of her husband, and she screams, seeing a fly’s head where a human head and features should be. It is very memorable and the clip has been shown many times on television. The clip illustrates the tone of this movie. The movie has shocking horror quite different from other Vincent Price specials, like House on Haunted Hill (1959). In both films I had great fun, but the suspense and the drama in The Fly is really effective, as murder, horror, and drawn-out suspense replace a full-out camp romp.
Most people I know feel the David Cronenberg remake is a way better film than the Vincent Price original, but I think the 50s version still holds something unique and original. This film also spawned two sequels, Return of the Fly (1959) and Curse of The Fly (1965). The latter didn’t star Vincent Price, as he had moved on to other things.
This movie was shot in color and was directed by Kurt Neumann with some great style. He died before the premiere of the movie hit theatres, though saw an advance screening with his pals. His overall work is not famous or renown, and his claim to fame was his work on film shorts, which were small little films to fill in the gaps between double-features. As such, he’s used to having tight control over the pace and runtime, which is a good skill to have for a director. In fact, Neumann had tight control over The Fly, as he bought the rights to the story himself. Since he had a contract with Fox, the director showed the film to the studio and they immediately claimed it as a 20th Century Fox picture. Audiences were also amazed and impressed by The Fly. It made over three-million dollars at the box office.
The movie begins with a caretaker discovering the gruesome fate of a man crushed in a parts press. A woman runs off, but the caretaker is caught in shock, unable to move. There is bright-red blood like in every other old horror movie, like you might expect. But they don’t linger on that for very long, because Helene calls up her pal Vincent Price. She apparently smushed her husband’s head in the press for some reason. She asks for help, obviously.
Vincent Price plays Francois, brother of Andre, the man who was killed. He promises to help Helene and calls his buddy on the police force. It is any wonder why he didn’t call the psyche ward at the same time. Francois and the detective head over to the parts factory and discover the body. Anyway, the police investigate and unravel the mystery of The Fly. That’s the movie right there; a slow, drawn out, horror mystery done right. This tone draws out the suspense too.
Helene grows more hysterical by the minute. Helene was played by Patrician Owens. She was a veteran actress, and appeared on television many times. Carrying on the rest of the story, she relates what really happened to her husband in flashback. Andre was played by David Hedison, who starred as the Captain on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for four years on television. He also played Felix Leiter in two James Bond movies, which is where everyone on Earth knows him from.
Andre’s experiment with transporting matter uses experimental science as in Frankenstein, except done with a more modern style. His machines are littered with wires and switches. He has many, many notes and he relies on scientific concepts not foreign to the audience, like atoms and matter. A flashback tells his story and that takes most of the running time, which works well, and the reveal of Andre’s appearance is the best part.
Like Frankenstein, the movie delays the horror and this is the perfect way of shocking the audience. It is not as effective today, considering more modern effects, but it must have been something back in the day.
The core themes of this movie are obviously the misuse of science, loss, and the search for truth. Vincent Price gives an admirable speech at the end of the movie in this regard, saying that the search for truth is probably the most honorable quest, though it is the most dangerous too. Whether the search or experiment should have been done in the first place is not addressed, but its effects indirectly caution us that humanity may not be ready for some things. Cronenberg’s remake focuses more on the loss of personal identity, which may be a better way of addressing the transformation into a fly. The original hints at this, as Andre struggles with his mind slipping away, but the remake fleshes this concept out.
All in all, this is a great film and very well put together. Vincent Price doesn’t ham it up, as in House on Haunted Hill, but there’s some overacting, just not from him. In the end, the police detective believes Helene’s story and the movie wraps up in a more upbeat manner than Cronenberg’s remake. The Fly remake is more bizarre, gross, and horrific, but the original still contains some effective themes, making it just as memorable.