Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My Favorite David Cronenberg Film

It's October, so I figured that this month's director ought to be someone with a few scares on their resume. And so we come to David Cronenberg, who makes scary movies like no one else. I don't pretend to understand what is going on in his headier films half the time, but no one can summon up the disturbing and the horrific quite like he does. After weighing the merits of his more ambitious titles, like "Naked Lunch" and "Videodrome," I have to go with my gut and pick the film that made me a Cronenberg fan in the first place. Remakes are sustaining some heavy bashing at the theaters this week, but once in a while you'll get one that knocks it out of the park, like Cronenberg's 1986 horror masterpiece, "The Fly."

And what would be more appropriate for Halloween? "The Fly" is a classic monster film, complete with its own mad scientist. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) invents a teleportation device, which can send objects from one specially designed pod to another. However, he's having trouble with living organisms, as the computer program running the pods can take them apart at one end, but isn't so good at putting them back together on the other. After Brundle reaches a breakthrough that seems to fix the problem, a minor spat with girlfriend Veronica (Geena Davis) leads to him get drunk and send himself through the pods as a test subject. At first, the experiment appears to be a success. Then, he experiences unexpected benefits like increased strength and energy. Then other changes, more physical, more severe. After his fingernails start coming off, Brundle realizes something went wrong with the teleportation. Further investigation reveals the horrible truth: a housefly, unnoticed, was in the pod with Brundle, and has now been fused with him at a genetic level. Brundle is now slowly, but surely becoming Brundlefly.

"The Fly" is based on a very enjoyable 1958 creature feature of the same name, much beloved for its nightmare visions of a man and fly with swapped heads, but it doesn't hold a candle to the acheivements of the remake. The 1980s were the true glory days of practical special effects, and the gradual, gruesome transformation of Jeff Goldblum into a man-insect hybrid is one of the highlights of the era. In every shot he looks more and more awful, until the viewer starts wondering how it could possibly get any worse than what's already on the screen. And then it does. And then it does again. The camera rarely cuts away, showing us everything. But more than the special effects work, it's the performance of Jeff Goldblum that sells the movie. Seth Brundle deteriorates mentally as well as physically, going from a nerdy, Jeff Goldblum-y nice-guy to an insane, murderous fiend. The slow, progressive nature of the transformation is portrayed like an advancing disease, and Brundle's major struggle becomes a doomed search for a a cure. As Brundle becomes more desperate and commits worse atrocities, the character manages to evoke both great revulsion and sympathy.

"The Fly" is about the most conventional horror picture than David Cronenberg has ever done, with a simple linear narrative that stays in a single, unambiguous reality throughout, except for one quick dream sequence. There is also a fairly sweet love story between Goldblum and Davis's characters that has nothing to do with sexual fetishes or obsessions. However, many of Cronenberg's usual hallmarks appear. There's the human body as the source of ultimate terror, the creeping, persistent discomfort of encroaching madness, and those wonderfully organic, physical manifestations of psychological fears. These are themes come up again and again in his work, but never with such dramatic heft or clarity of vision as in "The Fly." I often find that the most commercial work of noted auteurs is often the most revealing, since it forces them to simplify and distill their ideas into their purest forms. Or in this case, into a big, acid-spewing man-bug.

It's easy to dig deeper into the film if you like. Some have identified it as an AIDS allegory. Some have noted the many influences of Kafka's "Metamorphosis." For me, it is one of the most effective modern monster movies, wherein Frankenstein and Frankenstein's creature are truly one and the same at last. Cronenberg seems to have moved on to smaller crime thrillers and dramas, like the upcoming "A Dangerous Method," but I hope it's not for good. Horror is such a rich, strange genre, and too few filmmakers seem comfortable exploring its depths. Cronenberg is among the few who seemed to truly thrive there, and made movies like "The Fly" that made you pause and remember what a really great horror film could do. And we could stand to be reminded of that more often.

What I've Seen - Cronenberg

Shivers (1975)
Rabid (1977)
The Brood (1979)
Scanners (1981)
The Dead Zone (1983)
Videodrome (1983)
The Fly (1986)
Dead Ringers (1988)
Naked Lunch (1991)
Crash (1996)
eXistenZ (1999)
Spider (2002)
A History of Violence (2005)
Eastern Promises (2007)
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Cosmopolis (2012)
Maps to the Stars (2014)

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