Halloween comes early courtesy of 20th Century Fox! I reported on their Blu-ray release of The Fly a few months back and I’m happy to have a review ready for you today! The 1958 version of The Fly is considered to be the inferior take, and that’s a disservice to this Vincent Price gem. Sure, it lacks the gore and sexuality of the David Cronenberg remake (yes, I consider the remake a classic of a different color), but what are you expecting from 1958? This original take on The Fly is a campy bit of sci-fi/horror hokum that delights because it treats the material as seriously as it can. Fox’s Blu-ray transfer is beautiful (continuing their streak of presenting gorgeous films on Blu), and despite the bonus content being small, it packs a wallop worthy of purchase.
Francois Delambre (Price) is called to the home of sister-in-law upon hearing that she’s murdered her husband/his brother. Confused as to why a seemingly happy woman would murder her husband so gruesomely, he attempts to suss the truth out of her. Desperate, Helene (Patricia Owens) tells the story of her husband, Andre’s (David Hedison) new invention and his horrifying body-swap with a housefly.
The Fly isn’t as laugh-inducing as something like The Blob, even though the two share ridiculous stories worthy of riffing. Where The Fly differs is by approaching the material through drama. The revelation of the big fly head, or the ending have you laughing, but you never see the characters wink at the camera or acknowledge how ridiculous the whole thing is. It helps that actor Vincent Price is leading the charge, even if he’s only in the film for about 40 minutes in its entirety. He’s billed third on the cast list, below Hedison and Owens, which might surprise viewers who believe he is the titled “Fly.” Instead, Price plays the concerned brother, desperate to understand why his brother had to die. Sorry folks, he isn’t the cackling villain of Masque of the Red Death; he isn’t even the loveable cad from Laura! His character is a taste bland, but Price is an actor who can illuminate the most staid character and he’s a good moral center for the audience to latch on to.
The plot keeps audiences guessing by never establishing its true intentions until an hour in. The beginning starts off as a murder mystery, with Francois discovering his brother’s death and going to the aid of Helene. From there the killer is already known (Helene), but the audience needs to understand why she felt she had to kill him; and why chasing flies is important to her. After that the movie flashes back to the events leading up to André’s murder. Right before the flashbacks take over there’s a bit of wry humor as Francois declares, “They wouldn’t harm anything. Not even a fly.” The flashback is standard, introducing André and Helene as a happy couple with no overt problems. It isn’t until over thirty minutes in that we meet our “star,” David Hedison. Hedison looks the part of the scientist which makes up for the general lack of charisma or personality the character exudes. Part of this is the work of the script, which doesn’t give Andre a defined personality. He comes to playing around with animals and his machine on a whim, and we never truly feel how he’s affected by the nonsense that happens (partly due to that giant fly head he’s rocking). The script jumps arbitrarily from him being happy to him disappearing, which is odd since the plot slows down significantly after his arrival to tinker with his experiments and spend time with his family. I hate to say it, but Price could have livened up the role and it’s a sad “what could have been” to see him as Francois. Hedison is never terrible or difficult to watch, just monotonous.
The actual fly issue springs up over an hour into the movie, and it’s a ninety-minute film. This is done, in part, because of the limitations of the effects. The audience is reminded of the pesky annoyance that Helene will have to violently “swat” away by the end through the continual buzzing that plays on the soundtrack. André’s revelation as the fly is the movie’s highlight, and I’m sure audiences in 1958 were shocked at the mix of camera trickery, animatronics and masks employed, but everything is hilarious campy today; it’s enjoyable now because of how cheesy it is. By this point, it’s a sad descent into death which is a long way from André’s original intent for the machine: to help humanity. The movie’s moral exemplifies the adage that the “road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” The final minutes inject an air of suspense as Helene and André are both about to be unjustly condemned; Helen is about to be sent to a mental hospital for Andre’s murder, while Andre is going to be eaten by a spider after he’s become part fly (the infamous “Help me. Help me!” scene). All’s well that ends well – at least for Helene – and the movie’s ending earns its memorable quality, again for its cheese factor.
The Blu-ray release is exquisite and 20th Century Fox continues to surprise me. I watched this on TCM a few years back and didn’t believe there was anything that would be enhanced by Blu. As with Blood and Sand, the colors and clarity jump off the screen. The colors are lush, employing the whole color palette for you to feast your eyes on. As with the story, there are a few garish choices with the enhanced color; particularly the horrendously orange lipstick Patricia Owens is wearing, but that just adds to the overall hokey quality of the movie. As for bonus content there is a fun audio commentary with star David Hedison and film historian David Del Valle. Hedison and Del Valle are affable and banter nicely with each other. Commentaries are enjoyable for me when they focus on the filming and less on the technical, and this one succeeds. Del Valle provides historical context, whereas Hedison was on the set so he talks about the actors, and the day-to-day. There’s also an episode of Biography about Vincent Price that’s interesting if you need a crash course in the actor’s life and career. Fly Trap: Catching a Classic and Fox Movietone News are brief pieces filmed at the time of release that are always great to analyze film advertising at the time of release. You also have the movie’s theatrical trailer.
The Fly is a dated representative of sci-fi and horror. The transformation into the fly rushes by the the end, but it’s made up for by the excellent acting of Vincent Price, Patricia Owens, and David Hedison. The actors present events with dignity, even while modern audiences are howling at the effects, and it makes for a pleasant experience. I recommend watching this and the 1980s remake back-to-back!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.