THE FLY (1958) – Blu-ray review

Post-WWII Atomic Age paranoia produced at least one good by-product:  all those wonderfully campy horror flicks that featured mutants grown to enormous size because of radiation.

Japan gave us “Godzilla” (1958) and “Mothra” (1961), but American filmmakers also capitalized on the nuclear hysteria by cranking out plenty of minor box-office hits—like “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” (1953), “Them!” (1954), “It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955), “Tarantula” (1955), “The Blob” (1958), “The Tingler” (1959), and this mad scientist classic, “The Fly” (1958)—which posters proclaimed was “The monster created by atoms gone wild!”

We think of “The Fly” as starring that great master of horror Vincent Price, but at the time this sci-fi horror film was made, Price was a character actor who got third billing and hadn’t acted in a B horror film yet. Sure, he played the Devil in an Irwin Allen sci-fi fantasy the year before (“The Story of Mankind”), but that was mostly a talky debate over the essential condition of humanity.

After he played the brother of the mad scientist in “The Fly,” then came “Return of the Fly” (1959), “The Tingler,” “The Bat” (1959), and, with 1960’s “House of Usher,” the first of many horror flicks he would make with the legendary Roger Corman. But you can see and appreciate the start of it here.

The top-billed stars of this picture are Al Hedison—a young actor who would change his name to David and appear in TV’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”—and Patricia Owens, a leading woman who had played opposite Marlon Brando in “Sayonara” the year before.

Most post-war mutant films were all about atomic radiation, but “The Fly” comes closer to the stories Nathaniel Hawthorne penned—about scientists who push the boundaries of exploration too far, and find themselves punished for their attempts to play God. Hedison is a rich man whose passion is science, and so he funds his own “la-bor-atory” in the basement of his home, with state-of-the-art equipment. What he’s working on isn’t the standard stuff of post-war mutation films, though. It’s a believable-enough concept:  a matter transporter device that breaks down the particular structure of an object (like an ash tray) and reassembles it seconds later in a different chamber in a different room.  But something goes wrong, as it almost always does in films of this sort. Terribly wrong.

The whole story is told in flashback, starting with Helene Delambre (Owens) phoning her brother-in-law, Francois (Price), to tell him she’s just killed her husband. Though the acting could have gone as terribly wrong as the experiment, the main players manage to emote without taking the film too far into the realm of melodrama, and that elevates “The Fly” over so many other B-movie horror flicks. Fox gave this one a bigger budget than most, and, as we learn in one of the bonus features, rushed it to production not long after buying the rights to a short story by George Langelaan that appeared in Playboy magazine.

Contemporary horror fans will be struck by how much more dramatic than horrific “The Fly” is. There’s the BIG REVEAL that was common in films of this type, but a slow, simmering build-up that’s devoid of cheap scares, false alarms, and gratuitous blood and gore. Today’s fright-fests are all about the scares—one right after the other—and that can desensitize viewers or mask the fact that newer films are working with plots that are often skeleton-bare. There’s some depth here—a moral to ponder—as there was in many of the ‘50s creature features that were really anti-nuclear protests on some level.

As for the “effects”? Well, picture going to Party City and buying a mask for this year’s Halloween party, and you’ll understand the level of sophistication we get. But there’s much more to this film than that singular effect, and it still holds up many years later as one of the classic B movies from that era.

Fox has done a nice job with this classic. Colors are rich and nicely saturated, edges are firmly defined, and there’s an ever-so-slight hint of three-dimensionality. There’s a thin layer of grain, but no noise to speak of. Aside from some scenes looking just a bit soft (which one suspects may have been done deliberately), this is a very clean-looking video presentation, and I saw no issues with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc. “The Fly” is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Fox went with an English DTS-HD MA 4.0 on this one, which really enhances the original soundtrack and makes better use of today’s home theater surround systems. As the transporter operates there are some nice effects that move directionally across the sound field. Dialogue is clear, and even the silences seem pristine.  Additional audio options are in German DTS 4.0 and Spanish and French Dolby Digital Mono, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and German.

There aren’t many bonus features, but what’s here is pretty fascinating. Though Vincent Price gets a standard “Biography” from that A&E series it’s still well done, and though it runs under a minute it’s fun seeing “monsters” showing up on the red carpet of the film’s San Francisco premiere in a Fox Movietone News clip. But the best bonus features are an 11-minute overview of this film and two sequels, and an above-average commentary with Hedison and film historian David Del Valle, who turns out to be quite the cut-up as he verbally jousts with Hedison over some of the film’s campiest moments. Of interest to horror fans is that Hedison actually preferred to have the transformation occur more gradually, as David Cronenberg opted to do in the 1986 remake. So this is a very worthwhile (and often very funny) commentary track.

Bottom line:
An interesting double feature would be to pair this original version of “The Fly” with the 1986 update starring Jeff Goldblum. In them, you can see shifts in the genre and in audience sensibilities and expectations, and that can be as fascinating as the transformations on the screen.