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David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ Is Still a Perfect Horror Movie

His new film, ‘Crimes of the Future,’ is disturbing, but it can’t compare to that 1986 remake’s balance of scares and pathos, its ingenuous mix of social commentary and gross-out genius

This weekend saw the release of Crimes of the Future, the first David Cronenberg film in eight years. But perhaps more importantly, it’s also the first Cronenberg movie in a long time to feel like his old movies — body-horror classics such as Videodrome in which weird/disgusting things occur and the audience is equally repulsed and entranced. Longtime fans were especially excited after the 79-year-old auteur said before his new film’s Cannes premiere, “There are some very strong scenes. I mean, I’m sure that we will have walkouts within the first five minutes of the movie. I’m sure of that. Some people who have seen the film have said that they think the last 20 minutes will be very hard on people, and that there’ll be a lot of walkouts. Some guy said that he almost had a panic attack. And I say, ‘Well, that would be okay.’” That sounds like the twisted Cronenberg we know and love.

Alas, he was overselling Crimes of the Future’s shock value a bit. To be sure, it’s a moody, peculiar film about a near-future in which humans can grow new organs inside themselves and, according to one character, “Surgery is the new sex.” But in terms of horrifying and disturbing images, it pales in comparison to the director’s finest works. 

When you describe a filmmaker as being “shocking,” you always run the risk of raising expectations in an audience’s mind, dooming the viewer to be disappointed when what’s on screen isn’t as outré as he or she imagined. As a result, my guess is that some will be underwhelmed by Crimes of the Future — “Wait, that’s it?” — but I feel utterly confident in saying Cronenberg’s masterpiece still holds up. Thirty-six years after it came out, his remake of The Fly has lost none of its ability to unnerve and gross you out. There are images in it that have haunted me ever since. But it’s also a delicate love story and a poignant metaphor for the AIDS epidemic. The Fly is a product of its era but also transcends it. If there’s such a thing as a perfect horror movie, this is it.

Over the course of his career, the Canadian writer-director has largely avoided the corporate studio system. “I haven’t made my films within Hollywood,” Cronenberg once said. “I flirt with it. I want to use the machine. … The closest I came was with The Fly, which was the only studio film I’ve done.” The movie, based on a short story (which had been previously turned into a 1958 film, directed by Kurt Neumann), has a classic horror setup. Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, a quirky scientist who’s working on teleportation, convinced he’s on the verge of a major breakthrough. But in the tradition of many mad scientists before him, Seth is going to discover that you shouldn’t mess with the laws of nature. Playing God rarely works out well.

In 2022, being told that a movie stars Jeff Goldblum probably creates an expectation that you’ll see the tall, eccentric raconteur essentially playing himself, which is what he’s mostly been doing since Jurassic Park. But although Seth is certainly an odd duck, it’s amazing to see a Goldblum performance that goes beyond his current self-satisfied, internet-boyfriend persona. There’s something wiry and unpredictable about him in The Fly — an edge that’s been sanded off of late. As Seth, he resembles an actual human being, which is why what happens to him is so awful.

Early on in The Fly, Seth meets Ronnie (Geena Davis), a journalist interested in his work who falls for him. Indeed, things seem to be going well for Seth both professionally and romantically, but then one night he gets drunk, insecure after mistakenly thinking that she’s trying to get back with an old flame. And then he makes a decision that will impact the rest of his short life: He impulsively elects to use himself as his teleporter’s latest guinea pig, “jumping” from one pod to another, unaware that a fly got into the machine at the same time. 

Even prior to that, though, The Fly has primed us to anticipate horrible things transpiring. A failed initial experiment involving a baboon is so stomach-churning that it sets the stage for the shocks to come, which are more unsettling because they’ll involve characters we’ll come to care about. No matter how wonderfully revolting the makeup work is in The Fly — artists Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis won the Oscar — the slow, painful deterioration of Seth wouldn’t be nearly so wrenching if it wasn’t for the tender rapport between Goldblum and Davis. In their eyes, we see a tragedy unfolding. 

At first, Seth’s transformation after his “jump” leaves him exhilarated, blessed with enhanced agility and strength thanks to his house-fly companion. But in one of the film’s very 1980s aspects, that brief burst of superpowers proves to be little more than a temporary cocaine high, leading to a disastrous crash. The accompanying rush of arrogance fades away as well, and soon Seth’s body is breaking down, with Goldblum navigating every terrible stage of his character’s physical and mental disintegration, the fly’s DNA rewriting his own. You can feel this confident scientist’s growing realization that his end is nigh, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. All we (and Ronnie) can do is look on, helpless to change the outcome but concerned by just how much worse it’s going to get for him.

With its portrait of a man whose body rebels against him, The Fly was chillingly timely at a moment when AIDS was making national news — this mysterious, unstoppable, fatal disease that reduced once-healthy individuals to emaciated shells of themselves. But in our COVID times, the movie’s air of creeping sickness remains eerily prescient — not to mention that Ronnie’s sadness at having to watch her boyfriend waste away is oddly reminiscent of recent dramas, like The Father and Vortex, which feature characters succumbing to dementia. 

Cronenberg has long resisted the idea that he makes body horror. “[T]hat’s not my expression,” he recently said. “I’ve never used it. I never imagined it. Somebody came up with it and it stuck because it’s catchy and it makes it easy to compare things. But, for me, it doesn’t describe my movies at all.” Nonetheless, especially in The Fly, he flexes his unique skill for illustrating how awful it is when our physical self can no longer be counted on — how our body can turn on us, trapping us in a prison we can’t escape. Seth’s downfall isn’t because of hubris but, rather, a stupid, impulsive mistake he makes in a moment of weakness. Yet, we watch him pay, all the way to the movie’s anguished ending.

So many horror movies involve bogeymen — masked killers, evil spirits, menacing outside forces — that the relative simplicity of The Fly’s terror might be hard for contemporary viewers to absorb. At heart, the film is about a happy young couple whose relationship is cut short by an illness that will destroy one of them — and could claim the other person as well. As Seth gets progressively worse, he will imperil Ronnie, who finds out she’s pregnant with his child. Especially now when Roe v. Wade is in danger, it’s startling to watch a 1980s studio movie in which abortion is seriously discussed as an option. (She’s afraid the baby will be a monster and wants to kill it, while he will stop at nothing to protect the fetus since it may be the only semblance of his human essence that remains.) That we never actually find out what happens to the pregnancy is symbolic of The Fly’s taut efficiency: Anything that’s unessential to the central story gets pared away, Cronenberg honing in on the invisible terror eviscerating Seth from within, mutating him until there’s very little of “Seth” that remains.

In other words, abandon all hope ye who enter The Fly — there’s no happy ending awaiting these characters. But even so, Cronenberg goes incredibly dark with his finale, bringing up questions about euthanasia that are so troubling you may — for a moment anyway — be distracted from the brilliantly sickening makeup effects being implemented. (You’ve never seen vomit like you do in this film.) Horror movies are meant to scare us, but few elicit tears the way that The Fly does, the magnitude of these characters’ personal apocalypse amplified by how chilly Cronenberg’s approach is. The furthest thing from a warm and fuzzy filmmaker, he lends the material a respectful distance, staring at the horror from a remove that makes everything that happens all the more terrible because of its icy inevitability. 

What’s most frightening in life are the things we can’t see — the anxious certainty that we’re all slowly breaking down, powerless to keep our bodies from one day betraying us. Cronenberg said that the last 20 minutes of Crimes of the Future will be hard on people. I don’t think that’s accurate, but it’s absolutely true in the case of The Fly’s final stretches, which are exhilarating and nightmare-inducing and weirdly moving all at once. Cronenberg would part ways with Hollywood soon after, but he left behind one of the landmark studio movies of the decade. Few major motion pictures have been so nerve-shredding and beautiful at the same time. Surely none of them have been so disgusting.