The intersection between science fiction and horror has always been a strange one. The two have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning of the medium, but rarely with much genuine artistic success. An exception to this though is perhaps one of the more unusual horror franchises, one that broke through the low-budget B-movie purgatory it could have been relegated to and became a significant influence on this particular genre. Built on the foundations of a sturdy and fascinating original classic and perfected with a sublime remake, the films in ‘The Fly’ series have an important place in film history.
Continuing to spearhead the release of many classic films and major horror franchises on Blu-ray, Via Vision have once again gone above and beyond with this ultimate collection of ‘The Fly’ films. Not only is this the first release of the films on Blu-ray in Australia (the remake itself long overdue for one here), the set also includes the first Blu-ray releases of ‘Curse of the Fly’ and ‘The Fly II’ anywhere in the world and the first time all five films have been collected in one set in high definition. That makes this a very important release for sci-fi and horror fans alike, and one worth celebrating.
Based on the short story by George Langelaan, the film finds François Delambre (Vincent Price) investigating the death of his scientist brother Andre (David Hedison). He knows that Andre’s wife Helene (Patricia Owens) is responsible, but when she finally reveals what happened, he discovers a situation far more complicated - that during a teleportation experiment in which he used himself as a subject, a fly had been caught in the machine with him, resulting in a hideous hybrid. There’s nothing particularly original about the concept behind ‘The Fly’, even for the 50s, but the approach from director Kurt Neumann and screenwriter James Clavell balances the horror with well-considered characters and relationships. Shown in flashback, we see Andre and Helene’s relationship and how it disintegrates over the preparation for the experiment and its aftermath. The material here is still essentially B-movie standard, but there’s more meat on the bones that you would expect. It also distinguishes itself from its contemporaries by being a studio film, backed by Twentieth Century Fox and shot in Cinemascope. This helps to elevate the material, give it a shine and class beyond what it should have expected. The calibre of the performances benefits the most from this - Price and Hedison are both good value, melodramatic yet genuine, but the film rests almost entirely on Owens, who gives Helene a surprising amount of drive and power in the narrative for a film of that period.
Overall, no matter how handsome a film it is, ‘The Fly’ is a mostly digestible and forgettable film. It takes its time, treading water when the narrative has nothing to do, and even though its structure makes it a more intriguing prospect than it could have been as a linear narrative, the dialogue is often hammy and build for exposition. Hidden amongst it though are a few moments that are genuinely unnerving, especially towards the end. For all its flaws, ‘The Fly’ isn’t a haphazard film thrown quickly together. As an example of 50s horror and sci-fi, concerned about the shifting world around it, ‘The Fly’ at least deserves a mention in the history of both genres.
PICTURE & SOUND
Via Vision use the 2013 U.S. release for this disc in the set, and all the better for it. The 1080p 2.35:1 transfer benefits from an excellent restoration, resulting in clear and subdued colours, excellent detail and minimal film damage. This isn’t a flashy film, but its natural tones are a pleasant contrast to the impressionistic theatricality of most 50s horror. There are moments the film inevitably shows its age, but foregoing a more rigorous restoration, it still looks excellent in high definition. The DTS-HD MA 4.0 track is likewise a treat, showing off the often ingenious use of sound in the film, mixed well and with dialogue clear throughout.
As well as the video and audio presentation, all the extras from the U.S. release are carried over. This includes commentary with Hedison and historian David Del Valle, who offer a comprehensive overview of the making of the film and its place in film history. ‘Fly Trap: Catching a Classic’ (11:30) offers a very brief overview of all three original films, which is useful considering neither of the other films include special features in this set. It’s annoyingly brief, but it does offer a bit of space to the development of the original from the short story. ‘Biography: Vincent Price’ (44:03) is a 1997 television program covering the career of the horror great, while a Fox Movietone News segment (00:54) covers the film’s premiere. Finally, there’s the clever theatrical trailer (1:59) included.
With Helene’s death, her and Andre’s son Philippe Delambre (Brett Halsey) inherits the family legacy, and under the watchful and disapproving eye of François (once again, Vincent Price), recommences his father’s studies where he had left off. However, upon seeing the success of the transportation device Philippe has built, his assistant Alan Hinds (David Frankham) decides to steal Philippe’s work. When Philippe confronts him though, Alan throws him into the machine along with a fly, so as to condemn him to the same fate as his father.
Everything about ‘Return of the Fly’ is connecting the dots of necessary plot points. While the meanderings in the narrative of the original somehow built a sense of intrigue and tension, here they just feel like a story waiting for some new plot point to come along. As well as the experiments, we have the subplot of Alan conspiring to steal the plans, something that feels like it probably belongs to another film. There’s also a half-hearted romance for Philippe with childhood friend Cecile (Danielle De Metz), but that just feels like an excuse to have a woman in the picture to scream at the monster. Vincent Price and Brett Halsey do some good work, but there’s just not enough substance or interesting material to play with, and while the motivations of the characters in the original were odd but understandable, here they don’t have much steam behind them. That said, the film does have a few beats of genuine horror that were surprisingly uncomfortable, many of which feel like the seeds for where David Cronenberg would go with his remake of ‘The Fly’ in 1986.
I’d like to say there's some underused promise in ‘Return of the Fly’, but I doubt this was ever intended as anything other than immediate and disposable entertainment. It certainly starts off as a casually interesting film, but bungles around in its last half hour, unsure of how to milk its titular monster for all its worth. Where ‘The Fly’ felt like something unexpected, an elevation of what should have been a typical B-grade horror film, ‘Return of the Fly’ is just a B-grade horror film, saying nothing and contributing nothing to its audiences than a few scares and cheap storytelling.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘Return of the Fly’ looks pretty fine on Blu-ray with its 1080p 2.35:1 transfer, with some cursory restoration work clearly done to make the black and white image as surprisingly sharp as it is. The transfer betrays the age of the film often, but considering the lower budget and the speed with which it was made, I doubt it’s going to look any better. The U.S. release from Shout! Factory as part of their second Vincent Price Collection boasted a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, but here we just get a Dolby Digital Stereo track. It’s not that distracting though, as there isn’t much going on that the track doesn’t serve nicely.
Unfortunately, no special features are included with this disc. The Shout! release included a commentary with Halsey and David Del Valle, as well as a gallery and trailer, but I imagine there were licensing issues in the way of including them here.
Having escaped from institutional care, Patricia Stanley (Carole Gray) is picked up off the road by Martin Delambre (George Baker). The couple fall in love and marry, and he brings her back to his family estate, headed by patriarch Henri (Brian Donlevy), the son of Philippe, and run by two Oriental servants Wan (Yvette Rees) and Thai (Burt Kwouk). What Patricia doesn’t know though is that the family have secretly been continuing and perfecting their teleportation device to success, albeit with terrible consequences for those used to test it.
Where the previous films were relatively straightforward and underwritten, ‘Curse’ is quite a complicated and confusing narrative. It still feels like it moves purely between narrative beats, but there are so many and most aren’t as considered as they should have been. It often makes ‘Curse’ difficult to follow and annoyingly confusing, and the cast can’t seem to make head or tales of their arcs. Looking at it from 2017, the Asian stereotypes and yellow face is understandably uncomfortable, a holdover from the lazier racial tropes of B-grade horror films. However, ‘Curse’ sets itself apart from the first two films by being the first with genuine visual imagination.
Hidden amongst the uninspiring and banal stretches, director Don Sharp peppers the film with strangely gothic and unexpectedly chilling images giving the film a strange, surreal quality. In fact, of the three original films, it’s the only one that leaves you with images that are hard to forget, if only because of how unusual they are. It’s also an interesting choice to essentially place the Delambres as essentially the villains of the story, clever men who have made terrible decisions and destroyed lives in the process of advancing science. The film might not be the bravest piece of B-movie filmmaking, but there are flashes in ‘Curse of the Fly’ that make it a far more interesting film than you expect it to be.
PICTURE & SOUND
As this is the first Blu-ray release of ‘Curse’, it’s hard to say where this transfer has actually come from. The 1080p 2.35:1 transfer hasn’t had any work done to it, betraying its low budget and its age, but it still benefits from the clarity and detail that comes with high definition. Bizarrely, it also includes a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, not a particularly great one but a step up from the Dolby Digital Stereo track on ‘Return’. Again, the track betrays the film’s age and only a very rigorous restoration could improve it, but I doubt it would be much and doubt anyone will be bothered anytime soon.
There are no special features included on this disc.
Science journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) finds the most fascinating of subjects when she meets Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), an antisocial, charming and brilliant scientist who has secretly created an advanced teleportation device. What begins as work though soon blossoms into a passionate romance, the two finding a connection they had each been lacking. It all goes to hell when, during drunken bravado, Seth tests the machine on himself and his genetic code is spliced with a fly. In utter horror, Veronica watches as Seth begins to change, quickly becoming a monster beyond her deepest nightmares, yet a monster she still cares for.
With co-writer Charles Edward Pogue, Cronenberg fashions the DNA of the original film into a tightly constructed, deeply emotional chamber piece built around an intense relationship, with Veronica’s jealous ex-boyfriend and boss Stathis Borans (John Getz) hanging around the edges. Its narrative focus is sharp and exacting, its rhythm and tone carefully calibrated for maximum effect, and where a lesser director could have got caught up in the potential excess of the horror, Cronenberg makes sure that not an atom of the film is wasted. In the same way that Cronenberg refuses to compromise the emotional integrity of Veronica and Seth’s relationship, he also refuses to hold back on the full horror of Seth’s transformation, a masterwork of make-up and prosthetics so gruesome and horrific that you can barely look but can’t look away from.
It all comes at service of the narrative though, and though ‘The Fly’ is most definitely a horror film, the fact that it plays as an emotional love story is its greatest surprise and greatest accomplishment. The final act, where the film moves from chamber piece to gothic opera, brings the horror to its thunderous climax, but in its final moments is as heartbreaking as any great tragedy. This is where this remake succeeds where the original failed - true horror acts as an allegory for the human experience, and Seth’s transformation is a horror substitute for terminal illness, making Veronica’s story that of a partner watching the person they love die. The film was an enormous commercial and critical success, and much of that is a credit to craft and the stunning performances from Davis and Goldblum, but it was also released to a world in the grip of the AIDS crisis. It provided an unexpected allegory and catharsis to dramatise the experience of millions at a time where Hollywood was not ready to deal with it directly.
David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ is a mighty piece of horror cinema, one that exceeds the original in every way. It’s a powerful, horrifying and deeply moving masterpiece, one that demonstrates the potential the genre has to speak to its audience, connect with their emotions and use the mechanisms of horror to genuinely affect them. Even thirty years later, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its enormous power.
PICTURE & SOUND
Once again, Via Vision have used the U.S. Fox release as the basis for this disc, in this case the 2007 release. The 1080p 1.85:1 transfer shows its age a bit, but still serves the film beautifully. It’s clear, crisp and well-balanced, and unless Fox put the film through a more extensive restoration, I imagine it’s the best we’ll get for now. The same can be said for the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, which serves the film well and balances nicely between the dialogue and Howard Shore’s beautiful score.
Unfortunately, not all the extras from the U.S. disc have been carried over here, all of which came from the tremendous 2-disc DVD release. The highlight of the set was the ‘Fear of the Flesh: The Making Of The Fly’, an incredibly thorough making-of documentary that in its original form exceeded the length of the actual film, but this disc loses the enhancement pods, making it a much shorter documentary (1:42:45). It’s still a great piece of work, but it’s disappointing the full documentary couldn’t have been included. ‘The Brundle Museum of Natural History’ (11:52) looks at collector Bob Burns and the material he has collected from the film, which offers a great overview of the design of Seth’s transformation. There are also deleted scenes (11:13), extended scenes (5:42) and film tests for various sequences (7:52), as well as TV spots and an EPK. The film itself is also enhanced with both a commentary from Cronenberg and a trivia track that offers more behind-the-scenes information as you watch. As well as the additional interviews from the documentary though, this disc also lacks the still galleries and written materials that came with the U.S. disc. The content offered is still terrific, but considering we've waited ten years to get this film released on Blu-ray in Australia, it is disappointing to have a truncated collection of extras, particularly for such a tremendous set.
The sequel follows Veronica and Seth’s son Martin Brundle (Eric Stoltz), brought up in a secure research facility. Having inherited his father’s genetic mutations, his growth is accelerated, making him a functioning adult at five years old. Much like in ‘Return of the Fly’, Martin is encouraged to pursue his father’s original research, unaware of the consequences of what had happened and what is really happening to him, his body slowly transforming him into a monster as well.
Initially, director Chris Wallas (who was in charge of the Oscar-winning make-up effects of the first film) imbues the film with a fascinating gothic sensibility, with an opening act that makes the promise that this will be as uncompromising and disturbing as you’d expect. However, once Martin reaches ‘adulthood’, the narrative slows down to an almost snail pace, becoming so convoluted and confused that, by the time the (albeit superb) transformation make-up takes centre stage, the film has already lost you. Much like the original sequels, there’s just the feeling of treading water, but while those films got by on their camp appeal, this film takes itself so seriously and pins its middle act on a lacklustre romance that has none of the original’s immediacy. Most of this falls to the uninspired performances from Stoltz and love interest Daphne Zuniga, neither of whom can muster chemistry between their characters amongst the spotty screenplay. In fact, none of the performances stand out, all of them stuck in stock characters with little to do, with actors consistently taking the easy route.
That said, it is a handsomely made film, and Wallas does a fine job with his direction. The creature effects easily steal the film, though they lack the really palpable textures of the original, but ‘The Fly’ was a success because the effects were woven into the tapestry of the film, rather than their whole point. Having watched all five films in this franchise, ‘The Fly II’ is certainly the least successful as a satisfying experience. It’s obvious, melodramatic and often quite dull, and even though this might have been due to the fact I’d just watched a genuine horror masterpiece minutes before, I suspect it may be the fault of the film all on its own.
PICTURE & SOUND
As with ‘Curse’, this is the first time we’ve seen this film on Blu-ray anywhere, so there’s little to compare it to. The 1080p 1.85:1 transfer looks pretty good, though proper restoration could have improved sharpness and dirt on the image. The film itself looks relatively flat, but again, this probably has a lot more to do with when it was filmed than any fault in the transfer. Also as with ‘Curse’, the film comes with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that does the job, though it can be a bit too aggressive at times. The dialogue doesn’t punch through as well as it could have, but again, without a proper restoration, this is probably the best we’re going to get.
The great surprise of this set is that, of all the films included, ‘The Fly II’ comes with the most extensive collection of extras, all taken from the 2-disc special edition DVD release. ‘Transformations: Looking Back On The Fly II’ (48:33) provides a thorough and comprehensive look at the development and making of the film, mostly as an extended interview with Wallas. ‘The Fly Papers: The Buzz On Hollywood's Scariest Insect’ (57:40) acts as a great retrospective of the series, one of those terrific making-of documentaries produced by Fox in the 90s for cable and video. Narrated by Leonard Nimoy, it covers all five films and discusses their cultural legacy, and actually provides an extensive look at the making of the original films. There are also a collection of featurettes, including a Storyboard-to-Film comparison with optional commentary (7:11), a 1989 EPK (5:10), a production journal of raw behind-the-scenes footage (18:06) and a composers masterclass with Christopher Young on his wonderful score (12:45). We also get deleted scenes, an alternative ending, a collection of trailers and various stills galleries of production art, images and storyboards. Finally, Wallas and Bon Burns provide a relatively informative commentary, though Burns does a lot of the work. It’s great to see all this material included, but it’s a pity the same hadn’t happened for Cronenberg’s superior film.