Halloween Horror: The Fly (1958)

Watching The Fly was kind of like my first experience of reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When I finally read Robert Louis Stevenson’s actual book, I was surprised by the narrative structure of that classic tale: how the story follows a Mr. Utterson and not Dr. Jekyll directly, and we only discover the nature of Mr. Hyde piece by piece. Also about transformation and terror, the 1958 version of The Fly is similarly different from the story I expected from the many references and allusions to the film in popular culture (such as The Simpsons parody). Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Fly is not told from the point of view of the scientist; we find out about his horrible transformation first from clues and then through a flashback.

The first act of the film involves a murder investigation. One night in Montreal, wealthy industrialist and experimental scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison) is found dead, having been gruesomely crushed in a hydraulic press in the factory owned by him and his brother Francois (Vincent Price). Andre’s wife Helene (Patricia Owens) confesses to killing her husband, but she refuses to say anything more. She behaves strangely, being obsessed with flies, particularly one with a white head that her son Philippe (Charles Herbert) says he caught and released the other day.

Tonally, I had expected campy sci-fi horror. The film stars Vincent Price after all. Instead, like certain 1950s science fiction such as Them! (1954), The Fly is serious in tone and cautionary in theme. The lesson: Don’t play God! Depending on your taste in old genre films, you might find this approach either a hinderance to ironic amusement or a bolster to credibility. I prefer old genre films that still work, and The Fly mostly does. Certainly, the Poe-like mystery of the first act enhances the entire film’s interest.

As far as horror goes, The Fly is both outdated and still unsettling. I’m sorry to say that the big revelation of the fly head is no longer terrifying (unlike the revelation in Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera from 1925, which still freaks me out). The fly head just isn’t scary; it looks too much like a rubber Halloween mask. What got under my skin is when we finally see the little fly with the white head and arm. The special effects are still effective, perhaps even more so because the effects look so strange. And you’ll never forget the creepy tiny voice shouting ”Help me! “Help me!” which does much to convey the deeply unpleasant idea of being turned into a fragile house fly.

7 out of 10

The Fly (1958, USA)

Directed by Kurt Neumann; screenplay by James Clavell based on the short story by George Langelann; starring Vincent Price, Patricia Owens, David Hedison, Charles Herbert, and Herbert Marshall.