Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Fly (1958, Kurt Neumann)

Consider it the anti-Val Lewton: Kurt Newmann's The Fly is essentially a big-budget, Cinemascope B-picture that works better as a shock piece than a genuine horror flick. Patricia Owens stars as a much too Victorian Helene Delambre, wife of scientist Andre (David Hedison), who takes on the role of Mrs. Samsa in The Metamorphosis.

Both Frankenstein and his monster, Newmann's Fly lacks both the empathy for the creation and the disdain for the creator that typify classic horror. Instead it relies on a (mostly offscreen) romance in which we feel for Owens, only the film opts too often for Pavlovian response.

It's a film who's big talk on the sacredness of life is much like Vincent Price's top billing--underused and disingenuous. Dr. Delambre says all the right things ("God gives us intelligence to uncover the wonders of nature," in response to his wife's lament that he's playing God), he just seems so insincere in saying them. Hedison's performance is often bored and boring. It's not that the monster is too inhuman to evoke sympathy, it's that they don't seem to care all that much when it happens.

And happen, it does, after much too long a wait. The film not only drains any suspense by telling the central dilemma in flashback, the exposition is dry and takes an hour to unfold into the grotesque. Is it unfair and out of time to discredit a film in which we already know the monstrosity the protagonist is covering because David Cronenberg sewed this pulp meaningfully into the cultural fabric? Because Baxter Stockman and Treehouse of Horror were part of my youth's vernacular? Or is it simply unsuspenseful because the movie is called The Fly and shows its cards too late?

The film drunkenly walks the all-important line of the seen and unseen: a line that made Val Lewton a genius and sees The Fly trip over itself. The horrid experiment happens off-screen, the monster lumbers around with a towel over his head, and the climax in a fake-ass spiderweb needed shot multiple times because Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall couldn't keep from cracking up--damning evidence that makes any "scary for its time" argument fall flat.

But hindsight is 20/20, and Cronenberg's take is so superior in every way it does take some wind out of the original's sails (sometimes time does get it right--see also John Carpenter's The Thing). It comes down to, you simply expect more from an A-budget. Imagine what $500,000 in Roger Corman's hands would've gotten you. Probably more than a weaselly "help me, help me." -- **/four stars

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