Examining Hollywood Remakes: The Fly

It’s often the case where the original film is clearly better than the remake, or sometimes vice-versa. In this case, however, it’s actually hard to determine which of them is better because they’re both so well done. Both were financially successful and well-reviewed. Both versions inspired sequels. For horror fans, both versions of this film are worth a viewing. Additionally, they both had great poster catchphrases. The 1958 version had, “He was once human!” and the remake had the even more memorable “Be afraid! Be very afraid!” 

1 the fly 1958

 The original version of The Fly (1958), based on a short story by George Langalaan, was made during the sci-fi boom of the 1950s, when many genre films were warning of the dangers of technology getting out-of-hand. The Fly was made to show what happens if someone tries to take too big a leap forward in technology. In the first Fly film, a scientist tries to make the world a better place by inventing something that will help humanity, but instead it backfires on him and turns him into a monster.

 The remake of The Fly (1986) generally follows the same premise of a scientist who creates a teleportation machine, transports himself prematurely, without realizing that a small house fly has gotten into the transport pod, and finds his genes spliced with the creature, leading to his transformation into a human fly. However, the remakes changes most of the details, as well as updating it to the 1980s and changing the location from Canada to the US.

 In the original version the scientist, named Andre, is played by Al David Hedison, best known for portraying Felix Leiter in a few of the James Bond films and Captain Crane in the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series. The film begins by showing the happy family life of Andre, his lovely wife Helene (Patricia Owens) and their young son. He undergoes the ill-fated experiment early in the film and spends most of the rest of the movie hiding himself in his lab with a hood on, communicating with his wife via notes, since he can no longer speak. (He now has the head of an insect.) He struggles to find a cure for himself, but his insect-half tries to sabotage him. “My brain has strange thoughts” he writes in a note. His left arm–which has become an insect claw–acts on his own and flails aggressively at his human hand.  

 In the newer version, directed by David Cronenberg, the transformation is slower. At first, the scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) feels stronger and improved after his transformation. However, the side-effects become more apparent as time goes on and soon the physical metamorphosis begins. With each scene, Seth becomes more and more physically insect-like, until finally turning into a frightening human fly creature. During the process of his change, he starts to act increasingly bizarre and adopts more Fly-like tendencies (Such as eating food by vomiting on it before it’s consumed) and his sanity starts to slip until he becomes dangerous.

 Which actor does it better? Looking at both performances, the edge has to go to Goldblum. Hedison’s Andre is hidden under his hood for most of the film and so gets little chance to really show any acting chops. Goldblum, on the other hand, gives his best performance here (which won him a Hugo award) as he embodies not only the physical changes of the character but the mental transformation as well. This is an atypical acting performance for Goldblum, who abandons his usually fast-talking cadence and puts more intense passion into this character than we usually see from him. It’s his finest hour.

 Since the fly-man is hidden though most of the 1958 original, the burden of the drama is carried by his wife Helene (Owens) who is horrified by the transformation and does what she can to help her mutated husband but realizes that his humanity is rapidly slipping away. In the 1986 film, the romantic interest is supplied by Geena Davis as Veronica, a writer who meets Seth and falls in love with him. The remake throws in a twist were Veronica is the reason for the transformation. When Veronica cancels a date with him to go see her ex-boyfriend, Seth feels betrayed and gets drunk. Not thinking clearly, he impulsively decides to try out the teleporter on himself. In both versions, it’s the woman who has to perform a mercy killing, destroying her monstrous lover.

 The chemistry is better between Goldblum and Davis (they later got married in real life) than between Hedison and Owens. Davis does well portraying Veronica’s initial concern gradually turning to horror, especially after she learns she is pregnant with a possibly mutated offspring. In the first film, Helene’s character goes through several phases; Going from her happy life, to deep fear as she wonders about the extent of Andre’s mutation hidden under the hood, and finally complete terror when she sees his transformed insect head. Davis’ part is a bit more challenging and she won a Hugo Award for her role here.

 The effects are obviously better in the remake, with some impressive pre-CGI visuals and make-up, although the original made up for it by building up to the appearance of the monster, allowing the suspense to carry the story. The newer one is much gorier, which can be good or bad, depending on how you feel about gore in your films. Another advantage that the remake has is that it adds in some welcome humor to the story.

 However, lest you think that the newer version is clearly the superior one, there are several good points of the original that the remake fails to equal. The most notable thing about the original version is the now-classic ending with the spider. This is one of those iconic film moments that just can’t be duplicated. That chilling, high-pitched “Heeeelp meeee!” scream just sticks with you after the film ends and you can’t get it out of your mind. If you haven’t seen it, no description can do it justice. It’s as good as a horror film ending can get.

 There are some excellent stylistic touches in the 1958 version. One memorable moment is the clever POV shot, when Andre finally takes off his hood to reveal his horrific transformation. We see the terrified Helene through the Fly’s multifaceted eyes, which is accomplished by putting multiple fragmented images on the screen.

 Also, the original had the legendary Vincent Price. It’s a huge plus for any horror film to have Vincent Price in it. He only has a supporting role in this, but his character is interesting because he plays Andre’s brother who is secretly in love with Andre’s wife, which explains why he is so willing to believe her crazy story about her husband turning into a Fly. Only a man in love would buy that story. Also, it makes his eagerness to exonerate her when she is accused of killing his brother more understandable.

 The original was directed by Kurt Neuman, who helmed several Tarzan films, as well as Rocketship XM (1950). This was a big hit for Neuman but he never got to enjoy it because he died just before the film was released. The remake was done by cult-film icon David Cronenberg, who is known for doing odd movies, such as Scanners, Naked Lunch and Videodrome. This was more mainstream than his usual fare and it was also the biggest commercial hit of his career.

 It’s hard to say which of these is better. They’re very different but each is excellent in its own way. The original is a classic, mostly due to the unforgettable ending. The newer film does the original justice and was named by the late Gene Siskle as “the Best Film of 1986” and won a Hugo award for Best Film of the Year. The remake did a great job recreating the plot and making it just as interesting and entertaining as its predecessor. So which is better? We’ll have to call it a draw.

 So that’s all for this week’s look at Hollywood remakes. We’ll be back next week with a film that does not equal the earlier version.