Still Buzzing about The Fly…
It’s easy to think of the 1958 film The Fly in two words: “help me.”
That phrase – often said in a silly high-pitched voice meant to mimic the film – is from an iconic moment that still brings chills today. It’s so popular that the actors even signed autographs with “help me.” So if it helps the film gain new audiences as time goes on, that’s fantastic.
But it’s everything that happens before “help me” is heard at the end of the film that makes The Fly deserving of credit for being better than your typical B-movie horror film.
The original novella by George Langelaan appeared in Playboy magazine in 1957 and the rights were quickly snapped up by Twentieth Century Fox. With a major studio behind it and the casting of well-regarded actors Herbert Marshall and Vincent Price, The Fly was elevated out of standard B-movie territory. (At the time, Price was known as a respected character actor, not horror star. After The Fly, however, Price filmed House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler in 1959 followed by a full slate of horror films in the 1960s.)
Shot in Cinemascope, The Fly is a beauty to look at with vibrant color by Deluxe (think Technicolor). You could easily take scenes of the movie’s loving family – Andre Delambre (played by David Hedison, who was billed as Al Hedison here), his wife Helen (Patricia Owens) and young son, Philippe (Charles Herbert) – and insert them in a 1950s romance or comedy.
But The Fly is really quite sad. Hedison plays an altruistic scientist who has created a “miracle” he calls the “disintegrator integrator.” His hope is to send food and supplies to famine and disaster areas in the blink of eye. Just when he thinks his invention is ready, he accidentally teleports himself and a fly with disastrous results (hence “help me”).
The Fly spawned two sequels: Return of the Fly (1959) and The Curse of the Fly (1965). (This story only deals with this trilogy, not David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake or its sequel.) In Return, Andre’s now-adult son tries to vindicate his father’s legacy by perfecting the experiment; Curse follows another generation of the Delambre family that clearly hasn’t learned lessons from the past.
The sequels also were made in Cinemascope, yet oddly shot in black and white. Each film in the trilogy has a different look and personality. The original is a tragedy, Return feels most like a horror film and Curse is a peculiar grab bag of genres. So while you should find something to enjoy in each film, one will definitely become your favorite – mine will always be the original.
Here’s a bit more about each film.
The film opens in a dark factory where the night watchman stumbles upon a horrific scene: a woman is standing near a hydraulic press where you can see blood and human limbs. It is the electronics factory owned by the Delambre family and she is immediately recognized as Andre’s wife.
What should be an open-and-shut case of murder isn’t one. A too-calm Helen insists to her brother-in-law Francois (Price) that she didn’t kill “her husband.” The journey to discover the truth is why Hedison has called this film a murder mystery.
We learn the full story in flashback where the film blossoms with light, color, happiness and a lovely romantic musical theme.
Though Andre works for days at a time in his lab, he is a devoted family man and appreciative of his charmed life. When he shares his latest experiment with Helen and how it will help the world, she couldn’t be prouder.
“Are you a magician?” she asks after he teleports a plate. But their happiness is short-lived: on the back of the plate, the words “Made in Japan” are backward. Andre frantically returns to work until he gets it right – even if it means sacrificing the family cat for the greater good. (You’ve been warned, cat lovers.)
His research finally succeeds, but one tiny fly seals his fate and the film takes a tragic turn. Helen tries to help without knowing the full truth which she learns in a Phantom of the Opera-like unmasking.
As the fly starts to take over his brain, we can see Andre physically fighting himself. Hedison does a great job at silently showing this battle. When he struggles to write “help me … kill fly please … love you” on a chalkboard, it’s heartbreaking.
Andre’s realization that his experiment is too dangerous leads him to destroy his lab and commit his last unselfish act. Yet it’s not the worst moment in the film: that comes when the fly is finally found and the infamous “help me” cry is heard.
In a documentary about the film, Hedison said he fought to make the film more realistic and sadder by having Helen, whose hair and makeup were always perfect, and Andre physically show the emotional torment of their situation. Hedison suggested progressive makeup for Andre that at one point would only show his human eyes and the heartbreak in them. “I think it could have been a wild, wild movie,” he said.
Return of the Fly (1959)
After the gorgeous saturated color of The Fly, it’s surprising to see the black and white coloring of this sequel. But it sets the film’s tone from the opening scene of the now-cliched funeral in the rain by casting a mournful pall.
It’s Helen’s funeral about 15 years later judging by the fact that Phillipe is now a handsome young adult (played by Brett Halsey). Adding to the somberness is the voice-over by his Uncle Francois (Price) about his love for Helen and how she never recovered from her husband’s horrific death.
Philippe, who can’t stand the sight of a fly, also has been haunted by his father’s death and the rumors that have swirled since then. He wants to rebuild the lab and perfect the experiment in his honor. “It will be his monument, his vindication,” he says.
When his uncle refuses to help, Philippe leaves the family company taking another worker, Alan (David Frankham), with him. They’re quickly broke and Uncle Francois, in protective mode, volunteers his money and his skills.
Perhaps Philippe is on to something and will have more success than dad, but we’ll never know. Philippe’s plans are worth money and some people will stop at nothing to get them – even cruelly throwing an unconscious Philippe and a fly into a transporter.
Return satisfies as a sequel with familiar characters and settings like the basement laboratory (or la-BOR-a-tory, as Price so eloquently speaks) and a tidy ending. In fact, it would be a decent horror film if not for the oversized fly head used in the film that leads a character to comically teeter around like a kid in an adult’s Halloween costume. (The fly’s head in the original film is much more to human scale.)
The Curse of the Fly (1965)
If you aren’t familiar with Curse, that’s understandable: The film was not widely distributed nor easy to see until it was included on a nifty four-disc DVD set in 2007.
Curse is an odd yet interesting film. It messes with continuity by rewriting the end to the original film and pretending the second never happened. To make matters worse, Curse doesn’t even have a fly in it! But it does stay true to its title by focusing on “the curse of the Delambres, the curse of the fly,” that has followed the family since Andre’s deadly experiment.
Fans of British horror films will recognize the look of the movie ( it was filmed at Shepperton Studios) and the opening credits will grab your attention.
A window smashes open and a woman in bra and panties jumps out, running shoeless along the grass and down a road. It’s all in a painfully slow motion that makes you wonder if you’ve accidentally put on a 1960s sexploitation film. A car appears and a man steps out to throw his coat into the bushes where she’s hiding. Within minutes, he’s driving her into town, paying for her hotel room and clothing. In a day or so, they’re picnicking on the grass and he’s proposing.
Yes, your head will be spinning with this absurd opening to the third film that only grows stranger.
The man is Martin Delambre (George Baker) and his father is Henri Delambre (Brian Donlevy). They are the grandson and son of Andre from the original film. If you’ve seen the earlier films, you’ll think “Wait – Andre didn’t have a son named Henri!” and you would be right.
That’s one of the many continuity problems in Curse that throws most everything out from the other movies (that’s almost everything, as the curse of the title comes into play) outside of the family name and experiments.
Martin brings his new bride home (to a very strange mansion) and dad, though seemingly a nice guy, is pretty upset since they’re hiding a few secrets around the house. Although the Delambre men (including brother Albert in London) have “perfected” the disintegrator integrator and easily teleport between Quebec and England, there are still some issues. Dad has a few radiation burns and you won’t want to look in the stables
Though this film is a mish-mash of ideas (including a strange housekeeper and even stranger occupants that recall Rebecca and Jane Eyre), some of the “failed” experiments are intriguing. I was reminded of similarities to later films, including some by David Cronenberg and makeup artist Dick Smith’s work in Altered States making me wonder if Curse served as an inspiration.
In addition to such stars as Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall and Brian Donlevy, you’ll notice some familiar character actors in these films.
Kathleen Freeman, Emma the housekeeper, The Fly. Through her 50-year career, Freeman starred in a range of films and television work including Singin’ in the Rain, 11 Jerry Lewis comedies and The Blues Brothers.
Dan Seymour, Max in Return of the Fly. You’ll recognize his face immediately as the bad guy in such films as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, Key Largo and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. You may remember him as Maharajah of Nimpah from the 1960s Batman TV series, too.
–Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.