On its 35th anniversary, a look back at both the gold standard in body horror, & an affecting love story
One of the best pieces of recent film writing (other than what can be found at The Spool, of course) is R.S. Benedict’s “Everybody is Beautiful and No One is Horny,” about how superhero movies feature actors ripped and sculpted to within an inch of their lives, and never doing anything else with those amazing bodies except punching villains. There’s been a curious desexualizing of film in general over the past few years, with most of the graphic stuff reserved for whatever sad white people miniseries HBO Max happens to be playing at the moment. Even the chemistry between actors is muted, platonic, as if filmmakers are going out of their way not to offend anyone.
80s movies have their own reckoning with racism and casual homophobia, but on the upside it did allow actors to act like they were really into each other. It even occasionally made its way into horror, as illustrated in the remake of The Fly, released 35 years ago today. David Cronenberg, whose movies, while brilliant, tended to be a bit cold and clinical, scored a brilliant casting decision in Jeff Goldblum and the still relatively unknown Geena Davis as his lead actors. Even if you didn’t know they married a year after the film was released, Goldblum and Davis’s chemistry here is scorching, raw and believable. You find yourself far more deeply invested in what happens to them as a result, something that was not often afforded to horror movie characters.
Seth Brundle is a brilliant scientist, and a bit of a madman, in a way that both attracts and frightens journalist Veronica Quaife. He offers her an exclusive scoop on his teleportation experiments as an excuse to hit on her, then realizes she’s a bright and trustworthy confidante. Ronnie, for her part, is flattered that the elusive Seth trusts her, and respects that confidence, much to the chagrin of her officious boss/ex-lover Stathis Borans (John Getz). Most of all, they like each other, in a way that feels real and palpable. When things start going to a gruesome, gooey hell after an accident with Seth’s telepods, we’re not just witness to the horror of what Seth becomes, but the tragedy of the life he could have had with Ronnie, lost in a terrible instant.
But, let’s take a moment to focus on that body horror. The body horror genre can be neatly divided into two eras: before The Fly, and after The Fly, and even in the after era there are few movies that have been able to meet both the visceral nightmare images Cronenberg and his special effects team created, and the emotional fallout of it. Despite Seth becoming something very not human by the film’s end, it’s Cronenberg’s most human movie, with far more time spent on both Seth and Ronnie’s feelings about what’s happening to Seth’s body than you would expect.
Seth isn’t just horrified at what his body is experiencing, he’s fascinated with it in a scientific way, collecting his shedded parts (fingernails, teeth, what might be his penis) in a makeshift “museum” in his medicine cabinet. Once he establishes that he’s genetically fused with a fly, he’s even a little excited about what that allows him to do, like climb walls and never needing to sleep (or, early on before it really takes hold, becoming a non-stop fuck machine that Ronnie can’t keep up with). Up to a certain point, he even manages to maintain a sense of humor about the whole experience, as exhibited when he has Ronnie film him explaining how he’s forced to vomit on his food before eating it to break it down, because “solid food hurts.” If he can still joke about things, then he’s still human, on the inside at least. Flies don’t know what “jokes” and “sarcasm” are.
Even when Seth’s body and personality start to change, even when in the early stages of his transition he casts her aside and cheats on her (with a woman he seduces by breaking another man’s arm in an arm wrestling contest), even when she realizes she’s pregnant and possibly carrying some sort of thing inside her, Ronnie still returns again and again, because the trust he put in her at the beginning of their relationship is sacred. Maybe it’s wishful thinking: he’s a brilliant scientist, perhaps one day she’ll show up and he’ll have figured out a cure, a way to reverse the damage. He’ll be normal again, and they’ll go on with their lives as partners, friends, lovers, the brilliant scientist and the ace reporter who reveals his amazing, revolutionary work to the world. They’ll be together. Even up to the very end, Seth wants that too, even if by then he means it more literally than figuratively. But he still wants her there, in his life, by his side, forever.
Mind you, this isn’t all explicitly spelled out in the dialogue. It’s how it feels to me, in seeing the sorrow in Ronnie’s eyes, and how she sobs in despair when she has to put Seth out of his misery at the end of the movie. To the end, she still loves him, and mourns their potential future, lost due to a stupid moment of not paying attention. It’s what I take away from the desperation and pain in Seth’s voice when he talks about their unborn child. It’s the chill I feel when whatever last remaining shreds of humanity in Seth pull together to tell Veronica to leave, not because he doesn’t want to see her anymore, but “I’ll hurt you if you stay.” He’s not threatening her. He’s in misery. Seth Brundle is grotesque, but he isn’t scary. The Fly isn’t scary, it’s heartbreaking.