I recently had occasion to watch these golden oldies.
The Fly (1958)
This film based on the George Langelaan short story, has been somewhat overshadowed by the Cronenberg iteration, just as the original of The Thing from Outer Space now plays second fiddle to Carpenter’s version of events. Nonetheless it’s a fine outing in its own right, and was probably quite shocking when first released, though by modern standards the makeup effects seem more like a Halloween costume you’d get off the rack in Poundland, and of course there are no longer any surprises to be had from the plot, so I won’t apologise for any spoilers (though for the next two films it’s a case of caveat lector). Vincent Price plays Francois Delambre, a wealthy industrialist whose brother Andre is found horrifically murdered at their electronics factory, his head and arm crushed in a hydraulic press. Andre’s wife Helene admits to the crime, but will not give any reason for her action. The police believe that she is insane, but Francois, who secretly loves Helene, thinks her incapable of such an act and tricks her into revealing the truth. A genius inventor, Andre was working on a teleportation device, but an experiment he conducted on himself went hideously wrong when a fly found its way into the transmitter and its body was merged with Andre’s. Having failed to set things right, Andre destroyed all his work and then himself, so that nothing like this could ever happen again. The police are still sceptical, until the inspector in charge of the case sees something that convinces him Helene is telling the truth. Of course, knowledge of the story somewhat undermines its impact. There is no shock when Andre reveals what has happened to him, and we know exactly what Helene is up to with her attempts to catch a white headed fly, though viewers without preconceptions, at least initially, would have seen this as symptomatic of mental illness. All the same it is a beautifully constructed story, with the framing device put to excellent use in generating a sense of mystery. The characters are all well-drawn and played with panache by a talented cast, with Price in particular standing out. One could of course quibble at certain details, such as the idea of a lone scientist carrying out groundbreaking and, presumably highly expensive, research in his family basement, or the fact that though he has a fly’s head Andre still thinks like a human, at least at first (his mental deterioration is the prompt for suicide). And I had to laugh at the little boy, Philippe, who remarks to Francois with all the insouciance of someone four times his age, “You know what women are like”. Yes, quite. Underlying the story are serious questions about how far we should go with scientific research, what can and cannot be justified (Andre’s experiment on the family cat is a case in point – in Helene’s shoes I’d have kicked him into touch there and then). Like Frankenstein before him, Andre Delambre is undone by his own hubris and desire to play God. And I’m slightly gob smacked to read on imdb that James Clavell wrote the screenplay.
The Return of the Fly (1959)
Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past… And so we have Philippe Delambre in the wake of his mother’s death learning what happened to his father from Uncle Francois (Price reprising his role from the previous film). He determines to repeat his father’s work and this time get it right. Initially opposed, Francois is coerced into helping. As lab assistant, Philippe hires Alan Hines, who in reality is an industrial spy and sought by the British police for suspected murder. Hines is a rather nasty piece of work and the catalyst for much of the action in the film, putting Philippe through the matter transmitter with a fly out of pure malice when his treachery is uncovered. This also turns out to be Alan’s undoing, as the film Philippe-fly hybrid seeks him out to visit some righteous vengeance, and then gets back to base just in time for Francois to sort him out before the transformation proves irreversible. The spine of the film is in essence a repeat of the earlier film’s plot, with the Alan elements brought in to introduce some originality. And the character of Alan and his collaborator Max are the most entertaining part of the proceedings, two seriously unpleasant individuals, despite a certain surface charm in the case of Alan, who will do anything to further their ends, including murder. I have the same reservations before as regards Philippe retaining human intelligence once he has mixed with the fly, and in fact the problem is exacerbated in that he appears to have no problem tracking Max and Alan down, with no explanation for how he comes by this knowledge. And, in contradiction of the first film, Andre’s lab is shown as being at the Delambre factory rather than in his house, leaving Philippe to relocate to the house. I was also slightly puzzled that everybody who choose to confront Alan – British police, Philippe, Francois – all did so without any real thought as to what they’d do if he didn’t come quietly. One final quibble, I wonder why Return was in black and white when the previous film was in colour (according to Wiki it had a significantly lower budget, so that might have been a factor). I liked it, but more for the bad guys than the story, which probably means I’m a bad person.
Curse of the Fly (1965)
Six years later and still in black and white, but we seem to have abandoned flies altogether in spite of the title (they actually refer to the curse of the Delambre family, but I guess that wouldn’t have as much box office appeal). The film opens with a slow mo explosion of glass from a window frame, and then Carole Gray dressed in white bra and pants follows the glass. She’s playing Patricia Stanley, and escaping from a mental hospital. Martin Delambre just happens to be driving by and picks her up. He falls for her somewhat dubious explanation of why she is running about in her underwear in the middle of the night, steals clothes off a washing line for her, gets her a room in his hotel in Montreal, gives her money, wines and dines her, and after a week the two get married. Martin takes her back to the family pile and introduces her to his father, which is when things get seriously skewed. There’s a laboratory in the basement, and father and son are attempting to perfect the family matter transmitter. They haven’t had any fly incidents, but three previous human guinea pigs, including Martin’s first wife, have been horribly disfigured and are now imprisoned in outbuildings. There’s also a couple of Chinese servants, one of whom for no obvious reason seems intent on driving Patricia insane. Oh, and the family curse means that Martin has periodic bouts of aging. I think that’s everything, except for a twist or two I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. With the police taking an interest thanks to Patricia’s presence, things soon come to a head for the Delambre family. Okay, fly in the title aside, the only things linking this film with the previous ones is the family name and the conceit of matter transmission. At heart what we actually have here is a fusion of the old Gothic haunted house melodrama (Pat wonders if she is mad at times, and at other times is convinced these things are really happening) with the mad scientist story. While she might have escaped from an asylum, Pat is in fact the sanest person in this house of madness. Though both superficially passing muster in polite society, Martin and his father are prepared to do anything for what they believe is a greater good, including experiment on their loved ones and bury their mistakes (after chopping them up with an axe). There’s also an exploitation element to the story, as with Pat escaping in her underwear (since when did bra and pants become regulation wear in mental hospitals?), or to be found in the example of the deformed creature that attacks Martin. It’s a film that is all rather preposterous and slightly sleazy, but never quite goes over the edge, so that I can just about say that it was mildly entertaining, but valuable primarily for its context in the greater story arc, with good people and good intentions corrupted by failure and desperation. The Delambres are an example of a family that has fallen from grace, scientists whose research has become an obsession they can never truly satisfy. At the end they are farther from success than either Andre or Philippe, but so hubristic that they do not see where their actions are taking them, more Mengele than benefactors of the human race. It’s this subtext that elevates the story above the mock Gothic trappings in which it is so neatly wrapped up and make it interesting.