David Cronenberg burst onto the international filmmaking scene with the freaky 1976 horror film Shivers, which he quickly followed up with Rabid (1977). Both of these films were heavily subsidized by the Canadian government (as were Cronenberg’s earlier experimental feature film efforts), but following the success of Rabid, Cronenberg struck a partnership with fellow Canadian Ivan Reitman and continued to explore his growing fascination with the decay and mutation of the human body.
After achieving an international cult following, cemented with the release of Videodrome in 1983, Cronenberg leveraged this success into his first Hollywood job, directing the screen adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983). However, it wasn’t until Cronenberg took on the remake of a classic b-movie for Twentieth Century Fox that he was truly able to achieve the culmination of his “body horror” obsession…and make an indelible film that is widely regarded as a horror classic.
The first version of The Fly, starring Vincent Price and directed by Kurt Neumann, was released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. It was a relatively standard genre film that was followed by two quickie sequels, Return of the Fly and Curse of the Fly. Never going much beyond the surface of the scientist’s conundrum, the original film was a straightforward b-movie that culminated in a memorable shocker of a finale.
Cronenberg took the original premise and expanded on it in many interesting ways, most importantly by keeping the focus on the horrific body transformations experienced by Dr. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and their effect on his relationship with reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). As the film progresses, Brundle’s early giddiness at the initial amazing results of his experiment are replaced by a growing revulsion as the realization dawns on him that he is no longer in control of his own body. This theme of the “body in revolt” is a common element in many of Cronenberg’s films and achieves an early pinnacle in The Fly.
On paper, a studio-backed remake of a b-movie may seem like a recipe for a disastrous film, nevermind a work of art. But with the generous budget offered by Twentieth Century Fox, Cronenberg was able to fully develop the themes he began to explore in his early independent work while simultaneously delivering a piece of first-rate entertainment. As such, The Fly is a quintessential example of the work that was done during Hollywood’s Second Golden Age (1981-1989).