Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Fly


(1958) ****1/2

Johnny Sweatpants reviewed this last year, but I'm giving it a whole star and a half above his rating. This movie is a freakin' great horror movie and I'll tell you why: Patricia Owens. With her wide, horrified eyes, she evokes the full measure of the unique brand of madness, terror and humiliation this story has to offer.

The only way to appreciate this flick is to forget that you already know what happens. The precise nature of the horror is drawn out with skilled slowness. A night watchman hears a noise, sees Helene Delambre running away from the industrial press -- and sees what's left of Andre Delambre, his upper body mercilessly crushed. It's a satisfyingly bloody scene.

The nature of the act is further spelled out for us: how could this happen? Who loved each other more than those two? Helene's calm demeanor makes the reality of it even more mysterious, and then she spots a fly and freaks out. And she really freaks out. I actually watched this flick recently to screen it before my friend's five-year-old checked it out, and it was the level of her rabid misery that made me decide to say no.

When she agrees to tell the story, at first I was put off by the happy music and the sunny dispositions, then I remembered that they're heading for a fall. We see the development of the transporter, and then Andre gives his "I love life...and science" speech in a lawn chair and you just know he's doomed.

Each touch that builds from there is a perfect step to horror. First Andre is shoving typed messages under the door of the basement lab, saying his life is in peril and he can't talk. When she's inside, his head is hidden under a black cloth and his arm shoved in a jacket pocket; he gestures that she read his messages in the next room while he slurps a bowl of milk. Through it all you see her brittle strength holding tough in the face of this oddly intimate mystery. Then she catches sight of his hand...

The part of this story that's so unique is how domestic a horror story it is. It's like Dad lost his keys somewhere in the house, but instead it's his freakin' head -- he literally lost his head! And poor Helene has to lead the maid and her son (terrible kid actor, just terrible...every single line sucks) on this mad search to catch a fly, looking crazier all the time. Can you imagine? How humiliating is that, to have your life and your happiness depend on a damn fly?

Meanwhile, Andre is not doing well. Whatever combination of intelligence came with the fly head is changing, turning him into something else. He types out the eerie message "Can't wait. Can't think easy since morning. Brain says strange things now." Brrr! Chilling, seriously. It's a little silly that his human hand and fly hand sometimes fight each other, but the concept is solid.

The kicker is when the cloth comes off, naturally. This is where the carefully sculpted scare that's been building falls flat, because JSP was right when he said in his review that the guy with the fly head is hysterical. He looks more like a hairy black relative of Greedo's than a fly, but without that expressive mouth (clearly part of the problem is that they wanted to keep the head size normal, so that no clues would show through the cloth). As he lays down his fainted wife and trashes the lab, I was looking hard at him, trying to find that nugget of scare that had been so carefully tended, and I just couldn't do it.

Thankfully, there's Patricia Owens. She wakes up and he dons the cloth, and they proceed to the industrial press. From the moment she sees his head to the clamp of the press, she never says a single word. It's all in her eyes, the trance-like acceptance that her beloved husband is a monster and must be destroyed. It's genuinely powerful.

For all the ineffectiveness of the fly head, finally seeing the human-headed fly in the web completely makes up for it. Not just the pitiful, buzzing "help meee!" but worse, the fly entreating the spider to "go awaaay! go awaay!" Damn, it's great. Whew!

What I thought was kind of funny was the whole "tampering in God's domain" theme Andre and his wife got into when things went bad. I wanted to say "no, dude, teleportation is a good idea -- you just screwed up." Screwed up indeed.

Totally slamming. I just watched a few weeks ago, and it was even more fun this time around.

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