David Cronenberg may have ultimately denied that The Fly, his 1986 remake of a 1958 movie, was meant to be an AIDS allegory, but that Seth Brundle’s transformation into “Brundlefly” is meant to reflect the deterioration of a body due to disease is clear. Heck, disease as a theme is made explicit: “The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don't have to worry about contagion anymore. I know what the disease wants,” Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) explains to his girlfriend, Veronica (Geena Davis). “It wants to... turn me into something else.” It doesn’t even matter that what he’s talking about isn’t really a disease; it’s a genetic mutation, brought on by Brundle’s teleporting misadventures. But Cronenberg’s script keeps his characters talking in terms of disease, and in doing so, he gives us the most extreme version of what happens to a person — and to the people around him — when a disease takes hold of the body.
I am by no means the first — or even the hundred-and-first — person to reflect upon The Fly and its portrayal of disease. But rewatching the film last night, I found myself moved by one scene in particular that struck me as an incredibly accurate depiction of what it’s like to be helpless before a disease.
The scene comes mid-movie, before Veronica realizes she’s pregnant with a Brundlefly baby, but well into the course of Brundle’s deterioration. Brundle, post-teleportation, has been kind of an arrogant prick up till now, what with his new, bulgy muscles and his supercharged sexual stamina and all the other stuff becoming genetically spliced with a fly apparently bestows upon you. He hasn’t passed over into horror movie monster territory yet, though. Here, he’s just a man, terrified of what’s happening to him.
After having fled Brundle’s apartment when he tried to get her to “Drink deep, or taste not, the plasma spring!” (er — be teleported so she could have sex as long as he can, basically), Veronica returns after Brundle gives her a call.
When she arrives, she is aghast at how he has already transformed. At this point in the movie, he is still recognizably a man, but he is stooped and walks with the aid of two canes. His skin is gray and lumpy, and it’s oozing some sort of mucus. His fingernails have all fallen out.
“There must be someone we can go to, some test that can be done,” Veronica rationalizes.
“No! I won’t be just another tumorous bore…” he insists.
“Then what do you want me to do?” she says. “Why did you call me?”
Brundle doesn’t answer. Instead, he pokes at some donuts on the table nearby, then holds one up — and immediately barfs on it. “That’s disgusting!” he says, just as horrified as Veronica is at what’s happened. Then he tried to scratch his ear — which promptly falls off. Veronica gasps.
“My—ear—no—” He looks at her helplessly. Then says: “I’m scared…Help me. Please, please.”
And Veronica puts her arms around him.
It’s not a scene that lasts very long, but it’s memorable for its gross-out factor. It’s also notable, I think, for the way it gets at exactly what it feels like to be confronted with something awful, something that’s hurting a loved one — something you can do nothing to stop or ease or slow. When Veronica asks, “What do you want me to do? Why did you call me?” she’s almost angry; why did he call her? She can’t do anything for him, and it’s awful to have to see him in this state. It’s the response of someone who is utterly helpless to do anything for a person in pain — a person they love.
Brundle is pitiful as his former bravado completely dissolves and he says, simply, “Help me.” There’s no help; he has been joined with the fly on a molecular level. All either of them can do is watch him fall apart.
It’s a wrenching moment and, I imagine, a recognizable one for anyone who has watched someone succumb to sickness. Fortunately, the melancholy and heartbreak of The Fly is balanced by romance, humor and — naturally — body horror and gore. It’s a surprisingly emotional ride for a movie in which the main character barfs on his food before consuming it.
- His teeth fall out, he barfs on donuts then eats them, he melts a man's arm off -- but I swear the part that makes me squirm every time is when he pulls that first fingernail off. Yick.
- Here's a great article that talks about the balance of tone Cronenberg achieves in this movie.
- This piece is pretty hilarious, and also makes a good point about lady reporters falling in love with their subjects -- which, movies can just stop with that shit, thanks.
- And here's the piece that led me to that piece.
- Finally, I've linked to this episode of The Canon before, but it's a great discussion between Devin and Amy about The Fly.