Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The three films in Fox's The Fly Collection originate with the 1957 short story by George Langelaan, first published in Playboy. The idea of matter teleportation probably occurred to the writer the moment he heard an explanation of the workings of television. If images can be broadcast from one location to another, why not objects? Langelaan's brief exercise in horror was an obvious choice for a film version at a time when cheap, independent productions about mutated bugs were packing the drive-ins. The major studios stepped in looking for easy pickings. Paramount hired William Alland away from Universal for The Space Children and Colossus of New York, and made a killing with a tiny independent acquisition, The Blob. Independent producer Robert L. Lippert couldn't sign his name to The Fly but apparently produced that film and several other Fox releases, like She Devil, under the "Regalscope" banner. Presented in color and stereophonic sound, The Fly became one of Fox's biggest hits of 1958. The genuinely icky concept definitely had legs: Fox followed it up with two cheap sequels. David Cronenberg's remake 28 years later is a minor masterpiece that in many ways improves on the original.
1958/ Color / 94 min.
Cinematography Karl Struss. Music Paul Sawtell. Written by James Clavell, from a story by George Langelaan.
Produced and Directed by Kurt Neumann
The Fly is a clever crossover concoction that plays a disturbing science fiction concept within a romantic 'woman's picture' format. The film plays out in a fashionable home in Montreal, structured as a flashback confession for a murder. Audiences were surprised and shocked by the film's horror aspects. Like a technological cousin of Kafka's cockroach freak in Metamorphosis, the lady of the house must deal with a husband with the head of a giant insect.
Brilliant researcher Andre Delambre (Al "David" Hedison) is found with his head crushed in a machine press, and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) discovers his widow Helene (Patricia Owens) in a state of confused denial. Andre's businessman brother François (Vincent Price) knows that Helene is lying about what really happened, and tricks her into a full explanation. Andre had invented an amazing matter transmitter and was teleporting objects from one booth to another in his basement lab. He foolishly tried to teleport himself, unaware that a fly was in the booth with him ...
Robert L. Lippert may have been drawn to the project because of similarities to the English The Quatermass Xperiment, on which he had also served as an uncredited producer. Both films are about sympathetic men transformed against their will into horrible monsters. Andre Delambre emerges from the teleporter booth with the head and claw of a fly, while somewhere in the house buzzes a confused fly with Andre's head and hand. Sympathy for the understandably distraught Helene creates interest for a concept that by all rights should be plain silly, especially when the tiny fly, caught in a spider's web, squeals "Help me!" The moment may be funny, but it can't be forgotten. The nightmarish, agonized face in the web never goes away.
Director Kurt Neumann's straightforward storytelling disguises some of The Fly's non-existent logic. The malfunctioning matter transmitter makes radically inconsistent errors with each use. After the dematerialized cat has become lost en route to the second booth, Andre hears it meeyowing, like a ghost. 1 We also wonder how the fly head got bigger and Andre's head was made smaller. It still appears to be Andre's brain in there, at least until he tells Helene that he's losing his will to that of the fly. Andre one point confesses that he's not sure how parts of his own machine work, and hasn't a clue why some teleportations are successful and others are not. That doesn't sound very scientific.
Instead of sending Andre back to engineering school, the script opts for the easy out of proclaiming that the researcher meddled with things Man was not meant to know. François Delambre tells little Phillipe that his father was a lot like Columbus, an explorer in the unknown. Writer Richard Hodgens points out that, "what will be remembered is that Father was like a fly." 2
The picture has several unforgettable images. The teleportations are orchestrated with a buildup of flashing lights and audio while the witnesses wear dark goggles, as if watching a nuclear blast. The reveal of Andre's frightening fly's head is quite a shock, as is his compound eye POV of her reaction, a pattern of dozens of screaming Helenes. The head-crushing business with the machine press accounts for more horror trauma and final scene at the spider's web is justly famous. Vincent Price, Patricia Owens and Herbert Marshall manage to pull off their unlikely scenes by taking everything seriously.
The Fly survived with its original stereo soundtrack intact. Fox played up the classy CinemaScope and Color by Deluxe by having Helene and Andre visit the ballet. But the show also includes a color, 'Scope close-up of a dirty trash can complete with buzzing flies, in stereophonic sound.
The Fly is a good enhanced transfer with accurate color. The film carries a commentary with actor David Hedison and collector and fan David Del Valle. Hedison's memories are quite good and Del Valle adds his personal recollections of Vincent Price, attempting an imitation of the actor's voice. Hedison wishes that he could have become the fly-monster more slowly, which would have enabled him to do more of a Jeckyll-Hyde transformation. Del Valle remarks that François' love for Helene makes a dandy motive for Andre's murder. 4
Return of the Fly
1959/ B&W / 80 min.
Cinematography Brydon Baker. Music Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter. Written by Edward L. Bernds. Producer Bernard Glasser.
Directed by Edward L. Bernds
Instead of taking a novel direction or adding anything to the concept, Return of the Fly rushes to deliver the-same-but-different monster thrills. This time the matter transmitter has a problem with gigantism, resulting in a fly's head as big as an insectoid beach ball. The film is an official sequel with Vincent Price returning in the same role, but the continuity is very strange. Fifteen years have passed and little Phillipe Delambre (Charles Herbert in the first film) is now grown up. Price's François' hair is grayer but the rest of the world hasn't aged. Director Ed Bernds' rushed script takes a page from a Universal Frankenstein sequel -- a son returns to repeat the original doctor's same tragic experiment.
Determined to vindicate his father, young Phillipe Delambre (Brett Halsey) attends his mother's funeral and reopens his father's matter transmitter lab. Phillipe corrects his father's engineering mistakes, but when the teleportation is successful his unscrupulous business partners make their move to steal the invention and dispose of Phillipe by tossing him into the teleporter with a fly. Realizing that the monster wandering the countryside is his nephew, François thinks he can save him -- but he has some fly-catching to do first.
The relatively cheap Return of the Fly was a moderate success despite its formulaic script. Bernds' direction is lively and Vincent Price has some good moments as the concerned Uncle. In addition to poor Phillipe, another victim goes through the machine and emerges with the paws of a rat. Audiences laughed when the tiny fly squeals "Help, Cecile!" but I remember them applauding when Phillipe is restored intact for the conclusion. The amazing teleporter is again merely a place where monsters come from. The first movie's ideas stimulated the imagination, while Return of the Fly just reruns the same horror concept. Phillipe commits a couple of vengeance murders when trapped in the monster fly's head. Since he has an ironclad "it was the fly" defense, nobody mentions trouble with the law.
After this film and its double bill co-feature The Alligator People, Fox released fewer small-scale B&W creature features. Only a handful would come out in the next five years or so, including weak efforts like The Hand of Death, The Day Mars Invaded Earth and the dreary Spaceflight 1C-1.
Return of the Fly is a good enhanced transfer of a cheaply-made picture with variable original photography. On some scenes the 'Scope lenses look a bit out of adjustment, and a few inserts are on the fuzzy side.
The Curse of the Fly
1965/ B&W / 80 min.
Cinematography Basil Emmott. Music Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter. Written by Harry Spalding. Producers Robert L. Lippert, Jack Parsons.
Directed by Don Sharp
Six years later Robert Lippert was finally able to take a screen credit on The Curse of the Fly, probably because he had relocated to England. Even cheaper than the first sequel, Curse suffers from a rushed production and a script that throws in far too many poorly developed ideas. Director Don Sharp adds some effective stylistic touches and some of the acting is quite good; for fans of teleportation looking for something completely different, Curse certainly tries. For starters, no fly appears in the film.
Henri Delambre (Brian Donlevy) and his sons have continued the researches of Andre and Phillipe. Their matter transmitter can send people between teleportation chambers located in Montreal and London. But the work is fraught with scientific and legal problems. Henri is wanted for the disappearances of various test subjects that have become horrible mutations and are kept in cells on the Delambre property. Some of the successful teleportees end up aging rapidly, or are left with radiation burns. The household attracts the interest of the law when Martin Delambre (George Baker of On Her Majesty's Secret Service) brings home a new wife, the unstable Patricia (Carole Gray). Henri's objection to the marriage seems reasonable when we find out that Martin periodically suffers from horrible skin lesions. Neither father nor son can prevent Patricia from discovering the teleportation equipment, or finding the zombie-like mutations locked in the stables.
Science is far more trouble in Science Fiction films than it is in real life. The Delambre family develops a wonderful invention but becomes mired in lawbreaking, madness and murders. Although we welcome a sequel where Andre's machine finally gets to teleport people across the globe, that aspect of The Curse of the Fly is still left undeveloped. The bulk of the film repeats the structure of The Alligator People, following the beautiful Carole Gray as she finds out what's really going on in the spooky Delambre mansion. A cop trying to solve the disappearances makes a research visit to the infirm, blind Inspector Charas, this time played by Charles Carson. Sinister housekeeper Yvette Rees feeds scraps to the mindless mutants, while playing "Mrs. Danvers" to a deranged monster that was once Martin Delambre's wife! Henri Delambre doesn't seem to have the right attitude: "We're scientists. We have to do things we hate!"
Like many of Lippert's productions, the film is just too cheap. Although director Don Sharp begins with an intriguing slow motion title sequence of Patricia fleeing an asylum in her underwear, much of the film is flat-lit and unattractive. The mutant make-ups aren't very convincing and even the teleportation booths are unimpressive. The process soon becomes a routine. The police are made suspicious when Henri bounces between Montreal and London without using his passport.
The conclusion is unnecessarily chaotic. As the cops close in, Brian Donlevy's Henri unwisely decides to teleport his 'mistakes' to London over the objections of Albert, the son manning the London receiver. One would think that disposing of them would be much more difficult there than on the secluded Montreal estate.
With Don Sharp's direction adding a slightly Gothic flavor to the proceedings, The Curse of the Fly resembles Lovecraft's The Color Out of Space with its various deformed monstrosities locked in their separate rooms. In the rush to wrap things up, the cheap production can't quite make it all come together. 3
The rushed-looking The Curse of the Fly has more than a few unimpressive settings; the Delambre living area looks like a receiving room in a funeral home. A bit of audio is missing at the beginning of one of the reels, and the opening CinemasScope fanfare is distorted. Finally available in a widescreen copy, some scenes are compositionally improved; we finally can see both ends of the coffin-like teleporter chambers at the same time.
The Fly Collection is attractively appointed with colorful packaging and an insert booklet with plenty of original ad art. A fourth The Fly Collection Disc of Horrors contains most of the extras. A 1997 Biography show on the life of Vincent Price offers clips from a lot of the actor's work, not just Fox films. Fly Trap: Catching a Classic is an okay featurette that recapswhat we learn by watching the films, adding uncritical comments by David Del Valle, Steve Haberman and Don Glut. Each film also has a trailer (Return has a combo TV spot including a blurb for The Alligator People), many interesting posters including Mexican lobby cards ("El regreso del la mosca"), pressbooks and many stills. Rare behind-the-scenes stills from the original The Fly show Al Hedison sitting patiently with his fly head on. When he chats amiably with Patricia Owens, Al reminds us of "Mant" in the affectionate ode to monster matinees, 1993's Matinee.
Thirty years later David Cronenberg found the concept of matter transmission a perfect vessel to express his personal themes of biological dysfunction and alienation from the human flesh. Cronenberg's disgusting biological takeover spins off into horrid revelations about gene splicing. But the show that best taps into the moral and philosophical basis of a Delambre-style matter transmitter is 1990's ten-minute Film Board of Canada short subject To Be. Does the machine really send matter through the air like a radio signal, or is it merely transmitting a coded blueprint analysis of the subject, to be reinterpreted and synthesized anew? Is the original simply destroyed, and the 'teleported' object a new duplicate?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The FLY Collection rates:
Movie: Fly Excellent, Return Good, Curse Good
Video: Fly Excellent, Return Excellent, Curse Good
Sound: Fly Excellent, Return Excellent, Curse Good -
Supplements: BIOGRAPHY bio on Vincent Price; new featurette Fly Trap: Catching a Classic, trailers, tv spot, posters, stills, pressbooks
Packaging: Four slim cases in card box
Reviewed: September 6, 2007
1. The original short story also has Dandelo the cat get lost in limbo, but he makes an unwelcome return. The desperate Andre goes through the transmitter in hopes of un-grafting himself from the fly and comes out a real mess, with cat features mixed in with the fly characteristics. And the transmitter isn't even on warranty. In the film, Dandelo's atoms might appear at any time. When Andre and Helene teleport a magnum of champagne, one half expects Dandelo to show up crammed into the bottle, like a cat in Warner Bros. cartoon.
2. Hodgens, Richard Film Quarterly 13, no.2 1959.
3. (spoiler) Henri Delambre disappears into the ether, never to be recombobulated again. I've always wanted him to pop up unexpectedly in a transporter tube on the Starship Enterprise, preferably in B&W: "Pardon me ... my stream of atoms must have wandered your way."
4. I originally 'corrected' David Del Valle here for suggesting that François may have had a relationship with Helene, stating that no such idea is in the film. I was wrong! Tim Lucas took the time to point out that François tells Inspector Charas point blank that he loves Helene, but that nothing ever came of it because she loved Andre. My apologies to Mr. Del Valle for my mistake. Nothing has been cut from this version of The Fly.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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