I wrote in my review of The Haunting about, how after seeing so many 1950s B-grade horror movies, what a pleasure it is to see a movie from this era by a major studio–here, 20th Century Fox. The Fly boasted a bigger budget and better production values than most horror movies of the time, decent actors, and a real director (Kurt Neumann, who unfortunately died of natural causes only a few weeks after filming of The Fly concluded). (Note: See the review of the 1980s remake of the Fly here.)
The Fly begins with an apparent murder. A night watchman at a factory in Montreal responds to the sound of a machine running and finds a woman crushing a man in a hydraulic press. The watchman recognizes the woman as Helene Delambre, wife of scientist and factory co-owner André Delambre (played by David Hedison, who later played CIA agent Felix Leiter in the James Bond movies), and immediately calls François, André’s brother (played by Vincent Price) who jointly owned the factory with his late brother.
François contacts someone he knows on the Montreal police force, Inspector Charas. During the inspector’s visit to her large and well-appointed house, Helene freely admits killing her husband to François and Inspector Charas, but refuses to admit it was murder or explain the details of the event. She also seems obsessed with flies buzzing around the house, claiming she is looking for one with a white head. She goes so far as to enlist her young son, Phillippe, in a search for this particular fly. When François lies and claims that he’s found the white-headed fly and trapped it, Helene consents to tell her story to him and Inspector Charas, which is shown to the viewer in flashback.
Helene explains that her late husband, a brilliant scientist, had been working on a secret project in his home’s basement laboratory for months, neglecting his family and business responsibilities. François confirms that this is true. What François never knew is that André was close to finishing the project and had recently demonstrated it to Helene. In the lab, there were two pods about the size of a refrigerator. André shows Helene how he can put an object in one pod and teleport it to the other. Obviously, such an invention could be worth a fortune and revolutionize society.
The only problem is, the pods can transport inanimate matter just fine, but living things (like a guinea pig and, oops, the family’s pet cat) disappear into the ether. Finally, André achieves a late night breakthrough. Lacking an immediate animal subject at hand, but confident he’s solved the problem, he decides to transport himself. Unbeknownst to André, a fly also happens to fly into the pod just before he activates the machine.
When Helene brings breakfast to her husband the next morning, she finds the laboratory door locked and a typed note underneath that there’s been an accident and she must trust André. She can only bring in the food if she makes no attempt to see him and leaves immediately afterwards, and must knock once if she agrees. She knocks once and when the door opens, André is wearing a blanket over his head and moves about clumsily. In a second typed note, he asks her to look for a certain fly with a white head.
After a couple days, Helene finds the fly in the house but it escapes into the garden. Meanwhile, André’s condition is growing worse. During one visit, the blanket inadvertently falls and Helene screams when she sees that André has the head of a fly. He also types in a note that he feels his human will receding and the fly brain taking over. If they cannot capture the fly to reverse the process, André wants Helene to kill him before he completely loses his humanity. Helene is horrified but agrees. Unable to locate the fly in the garden in time, she leads André to the hydraulic press where the movie opened.
Inspector Charas doesn’t believe Helene’s story, although he accepts that she believes it. He tells François that Helene is surely guilty of murder, but that she will escape execution due to insanity. François, who knows the brilliance and eccentrity of his late brother, isn’t so sure the story isn’t true, and asks the inspector what he would need to do to convince him. Inspector Charas replied that of course he would need to see this other fly with the white head. But by now, the fly has long since flown away and it would be impossible to find it…wouldn’t it?
The Fly (1958)
Story/Plot/Characters— The premise is really good, and unlike many other movies of the time, has aged well into our current era of genetic manipulation. The dialogue is realistic and there are good actors to speak it–for once, Vincent Price isn’t the only real actor in a cast of wooden amateurs. The setting and characters are distinct and well-rounded. (4 points)
Special Effects— Surprisingly good for the time period. André as the human-fly hybrid is convincing, and the basement laboratory is a top-notch mad scientist lair. Unfortunately, the final “shocking” scene is almost unbearably cheesy, and elicited only laughs from my daughter and me. (1 point)
Scariness— Structured more as a mystery than a horror film, there are a couple shocks but little that’s really scary. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— I like the basement lab and the secret husband in the basement with a fly head. Still, this is a bit too genteel, with many scenes taking place in the sunny rooms and gardens of Helene’s house as she and her son search for the missing fly. (.5 points)
Total=6 points (Pretty Good)
A Pretty Good movie that could have benefitted from a more Gothic setting and better special effects in its final scene but is nonetheless fun and well worth watching.