The weather is so incredibly perfect today that it reminds me of the days in my youth when I’d hide away in a wood-paneled TV room with the air conditioner blasting, watching classic horror movies like THE FLY (‘58). I can never thank local Philly stations like 17, 29, and 48 enough for providing such perfect escape from the sun and my fellow humans. I’ve got a soft spot for many a classic monster movie but I have to admit there’s something special about THE FLY because it truly horrified me in ways that many could not. It’s just such a grotesque and tragic concept and the ending is just plain freaky.
Ironically I don’t believe anyone is even in any real physical danger throughout the course of most of the film. It’s really about the horror of making a humongous mistake that try as you might you just can’t fix, and then eventually begging someone you love to help you commit suicide so you can escape your hideous error. Somehow the relatable humanity of it all makes it more uncomfortable for me to watch than its peers. It stresses me out way down deep like a record scratch or a creased book cover or a stain on a favorite shirt.
Incomparable Vincent Price stars as Francois Delambre who learns his sister-in-law Helene (Patricia Owens) likely crushed his brother Andre (David Hedison) in a hydraulic press. It seems like a pretty indefensible act until you learn that poor Andre was sporting the head of a housefly thanks to colossally botching an experiment with a molecular transporter. To be fair, his intentions were swell, if it worked the transporter would have made all transit obsolete, but by some bad luck (or karma for previously testing the device on a cat) a house fly flew into the machine and their molecules got all kinds of mixed up. The only way to possibly fix things is to find the housefly that now has a miniature human/Andre head and reverse the process. This is when I start getting agitated and my neurosis kicks in. How the hell are you supposed to find a fly? They are so hard to wrangle! Worse still, in my mind, is that Andre’s son actually catches the fly but is told to let it go by his mother who is ignorant of the dilemma at the time! When Helene finally does understand the gravity of the situation she has several opportunities to capture the fly and louses every single one of them up. It’s very frustrating to behold and if I were her, I’d probably never stop kicking myself. If you are a person cursed with both morbid self-criticism and chronic empathy you don’t want to witness any of this. It’s as exasperating as watching a bank heist gone wrong movie.
But it’s the ending of the film that delivers my kindertrauma. After everyone involved has failed spectacularly in every possible way, the fly with Andre’s head is spotted in a spider web in the garden (too late to save Andre from his crushed skull but not too late to verify that Helene isn’t an insane murderer). Consistent with everyone’s luck in this movie, tiny Andre is wrapped in webbing, about to be eaten by a huge (compared to him) spider and is screeching in a high-pitched wail “Heeeelp Meeee!” I acknowledge that this scene is so bizarre that it reflects many shades of unintentional humor as well, but the look of abject fear and pitiful helpless misery on Andre’s face is profoundly disturbing. His expression kind of reminds me of the stretched-out distorted ghoulish faces that scream in the opening credits of NIGHT GALLERY; visages that also cause me anxiety. He’s just so minuscule and powerless in the face of a heartless devouring universe (and perhaps they all are). Mercifully he is crushed by a rock.
Somehow all ends (momentarily at least) well in THE FLY. Helene’s good name is cleared and Uncle Delambre and his nephew basically skip off to the circus. I, on the other hand, remain tormented by what I’ve seen and can still hear that horrid pleading voice buzzing in my head, “Heeelp Meee”!
I will never forget watching this with my father on a VHS he checked out of the library. My mother and sister were off on a mother/daughter Girl Scout camping trip. I was absolutely obsessed with horror movies at the time but wasn’t allowed to watch anything rated R. The Cronenberg remake of The Fly was out in theaters and while that was certainly off limits my dad figured I could handle seeing where it all started. Needless to say I was petrified throughout most of the film and never forgot it. I’m actually glad my parents restricted my viewing habits as a kid. Deprived of the current horror films of the 1980’s I was forced to look backwards to the films of yesteryear to scratch my horror itch.
I’m twitching just looking at those screencaps. Kindertrauma, indeed. The surreal, horrifying nature of the last scene is absolutely scarring. And the weird lighting makes it feel like the worst fever dream you could ever imagine,
I first saw this on a big screen at a local Unitarian church (!) when I was nine. It definitely made a big impact on me and I totally forgot it was more than twenty years old while I watched! It seems pretty modern or even timeless for a movie made in the 1950s, which I think is in a large part due to the overt bleakness of it. Think about it….how many other movies from the fifties or before would dare include a wife smashing her husband’s head in a hydraulic press? Or the whole idea of someone committing suicide in such a manner? Not many other genre films of the time dealt with personal tragedy in such a dark and gruesome way. The end scene with the spider is just icing on the cake.
Yeah, the ending really bothered me as a kid. I was confused about how the fly could talk – I thought that they established that the the guy with the fly head was Andre, so … what was the deal with the fly with the human head? Was this what flies were always thinking when trapped in a spider’s web, but they normally could not articulate it? Was the fly with the human head really Andre?
Man, and they just sit there watching as the spider crawls closer and closer! Did they think they were watching an episode of Wild Kingdom? Do something man!
And then the inspector that was all up in Helen’s business just squishes the fly! Whut? Unlike Andre, I don’t recall the fly asking to be squahed – what a hypocrite.
Chuckles72 – that ending is one of the (many) reasons why I prefer David Cronenberg’s remake. If you can accept the baseline science-fiction premise that a scientist has developed teleportation, Cronenberg’s plot makes much more sense, as to how it would work and what would happen if a fly and a human were mixed together.