There are a handful of truly hallowed, highly visual films in horror cinema during the 1980’s. The genre really kicked up a gear in the latter part of the 20th century with a new advent in what practical and visual effects could achieve on-screen. We saw such all-time horror greats such as The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser and An American Werewolf in London light up our screens, terrifying us but also wowing us with their visual flair. One such film that undoubtedly belongs in that list is David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
Hatching The Fly
The genesis of The Fly began in the early 1980’s. The film’s eventual co-producer Kip Ohman approached screenwriter Charles Pogue with the idea of remaking The Fly. Pogue read George Langelaan’s story and watched the original film, which he admitted he had never seen. Deciding that this was a project that had legs (or wings?), he talked with producer Stuart Cornfeld about organizing the production. The duo pitched the idea to executives at 20th Century Fox and received an enthusiastic response. Pogue was given money to write his first draft treatment of the film’s screenplay.
The initial draft was similar to that of Langelaan’s original story, but both he and Cornfeld thought that it would be better to rework their vision to focus on a gradual metamorphosis instead of an instantaneous monster. This gave the production license to really spit-ball some ideas on practical prosthetic effects. Executives read the first draft and were unimpressed, so much so that they immediately withdrew from the project. After some negotiation, a deal was met whereby Fox agreed to distribute the film if Cornfield could set up financing. The reticence of Fox brings to mind a similar reaction to James Cameron’s Aliens which had been pitched some few years earlier.
Enter.. Mel Brooks?!
The films new producer came in the unlikely form of Mel Brooks and his production company, Brooksfilms. Cornfeld was a frequent collaborator of Brooks, The pair having previously worked together on David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Cornfeld gave his script to Brooks, who liked it but felt that a different writer was needed. Pogue was temporarily removed from the project when Cornfeld hired Walon Green for a rewrite. It was felt that Green’s draft was not a step in the right direction. Pogue was subsequently brought back to polish the material.
Brooks and Cornfeld set about finding a suitable director for the project. Their first choice was David Cronenberg. Unfortunately at this time Cronenberg was working on an adaptation of Total Recall and was unable to accept the job. Instead, Cornfeld decided on a young British director named Robert Bierman.
Bierman was flown to Los Angeles to meet with Pogue, putting the film into the very early stages of preproduction. Bierman’s time on the project was short-lived though after a family tragedy saw him exit the project. Cornfeld around this time heard that Cronenberg was no longer associated with Total Recall and once again approached him with The Fly.
Cronenberg agreed to sign on as director if he would be allowed to rewrite the script. Around this time, Brooks made the decision to leave his name off the credits for the film so as people would not go to the movie expecting a Mel Brooks picture and all that comes with that. It was a smart decision so as not to detract from the drama and horror of the piece, a professional production choice.
The Return of Cronenberg
Now there were two drafts of The Fly in existence, the Pogue draft and Cronenberg’s. The two differed in a number of ways. Character names and personal relationships altered and the like but the main meat of Pogue’s draft was utilised and rewritten by Cronenberg. Despite the re-write being intensive, Cronenberg insisted during Writers Guild arbitrations that he and Pogue share screenplay credit. Cronenberg felt that his version of The Fly could not have existed without Pogue’s script to serve as a foundation.
With production now in full swing with a completed script, Cronenberg assembled his crew and set about casting his actors. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were cast as lead actors with support from the likes of John Getz, Joy Boushel and Leslie Carlson. Cronenberg even made an appearance himself in a cameo as a gynecologist.
Taking Flight: The Practical Effects of The Fly
Believe it or not, The Fly is an Oscar-winning film. Makeup and creature effects creator Chris Walas along with makeup artist Stephen Dupuis, designed and created some truly remarkable and memorable effects work for the film more than worthy of the Oscar nod.
The first makeup to be designed was in fact the final Brundlefly creature. Using this final form as a basis, the various stages of mutation needed to transform Seth Brundle into that final incarnation were designed afterwards.
The transformation was intended to be not only a metaphor for disease but also the aging process. To that end, during the course of his transformation Brundle loses his hair, teeth and fingernails. His skin becomes more and more distended and discoloured. The intention of the filmmakers was to give Brundle a bruised and cancerous look to belay the disease metaphor. It gets progressively worse as the character’s changing genetic makeup slowly breaks down. The final Brundlefly creature literally bursts out of Brundle’s hideously deteriorated human form in a particularly memorable sequence.
The creature itself was purposely designed by Walas to appear deformed and not at all a viable or robust organism. This is a creature that should not exist. There is no intelligent biological design, it should not be and it’s appearence only strengthened that fact. Various looks were tested for the makeup effects. The transformation itself was broken up into seven distinct stages, with Jeff Goldblum spending many hours in the makeup for the various incarnations.
Cuts & Deleted Scenes
Filming on The Fly ended early in 1986. A rough cut of the film was shown to Fox executives, who were very impressed. A rough cut was then previewed at Toronto’s Uptown Theatre in the spring of that year to a test audience. This test screening prompted a number of changes and cuts to be made to the film. Due to a strong audience reaction, the graphic and now infamous “monkey-cat” sequence was cut from the film to make it easier for audiences to maintain sympathy for Brundle’s character so as not to make him a clichéd mad scientist.
At another preview screening held at the Fox lot in Los Angeles, a cut was shown that featured the “butterfly baby” coda. As before, the screening results dictated that the scene be cut. As a present hallmark of David Cronenberg’s prior movies, The Fly was tightly edited to maintain a strong pace and to downplay the gore. The final cut runs at 95 minutes, and although very few full scenes were cut, many others were trimmed down. The cuts that were made, although fascinating to watch now, were ultimately the right decision for The Fly to be a cohesive whole.
Why We Still Love The Fly
The Fly is without doubt one of the best and most beloved horror films of the 1980’s. I’d also go out on a limb and say it is probably, alongside John Carpenter’s The Thing, one of the best remakes of all time. It’s a film that works on multiple levels. It succeeds as a remake because it respectfully tips the hat to what came before without being a facsimile. It intelligently taps into our fear of disease. The film plays on our fear of our own dwindling mortality. It does all these things whilst also working as a switch your brain off creature-feature. For these reasons, The Fly has enjoyed a lasting and celebrated reputation and will continue to for many years to come.