Monsters! The Fly

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Technically, all Seth Brundle wants is to get his teleporter to work. He’s a scientist, working for the betterment of the world (and his own subsequent wealth and fame). Between the lines, however, he has a deeper, more personal agenda — he wishes to transform his essential nature. This effort pays off in spades, but not quite the way he expected it stats

WHO IS THE MONSTER? Like in American Werewolf, the monster of The Fly is the protagonist himself. Unlike the protagonist of American Werewolf, Brundle actually stops to think about what’s happening to him.

WHAT IS THE WARNING? Um, you know that whole "transformation of your essential nature" idea? Don’t do that.

The Fly has a number of things in common with American Werewolf. They are exactly the same length, they both have three unevenly-shaped acts, they both have very small casts and are are set in severely limited locations (The Fly is practically a chamber piece), both narratives insert a dame into the plot for the purposes of a romanceangle, both radically re-imagine their respective cinematic creatures and both abruptly end in explosions of lurid violence. You could look at both movies side by side and see how one squanders the possibilities of its story into pointless digressions and fake scares and the other coils its possibilities into a tightly-wound spring of narrative cohesion and inevitability.

I exhort young screenwriters to examine The Fly on a scene-by-scene basis. Look at where the writers enter the scene and where they leave it, what they say and what they leave out, what they find important to show and what they deem better left unilluminated. It is no surprise to me that this is director David Cronenberg’s most successful movie and his only real hit — it is his strongest, most well-constructed and durable script.

ACT I: At a party in an art gallery, Brundle addresses someone off-camera: "What am I working on? I’m working on something that will change the world and human life as we know it." Bang! Stakes high enough for you? Brundle is addressing Ronnie, who is a journalist, but Brundle doesn’t seem to care about that. He’s talking to her because he’s attracted to her and he wants to get her back to his place. He boasts, Ronnie demurs, Brundle presses his suit, Ronnie hesitates, next thing we know she’s driving Brundle to his place to see his whatever it is. As Mamet instructs, cinematic narrative is told "in the cut." The filmmakers don’t show Brundle winning Ronnie over, they end the scene on a question ("will she go home with him?") and begin the next scene with the answer ("oh look, she’s going home with him").

So who is Brundle and what does he want? His very first line involves the verb "to change." He wants to change — the world, human life — and himself. He’s a scientist who lives solely in his head — he doesn’t even build the contraptions he’s working on. He’s got plenty of mastery of the intellectual, he wants to obtain mastery of the flesh. That’s why he approaches Ronnie at the party — he wants to get laid. When Ronnie tells him she’s a journalist he loses his cool — he was perfectly willing to show her his whatsit when she was just a girl to impress, now that she’s got a professional interest in him she’s just another threat.

(The Fly is a love story folded into a story of self-discovery. A love story is: a man and a woman are attracted to each other, but something gets in the way. In The Fly, what gets in the way is business. The teleporter is Brundle’s business, journalism is Ronnie’s business, Brundle’s reticence to publish is an obstacle to overcome, his careless, headstrong pursuit of his business {provoked by jealousy} leads to his transformation, which then becomes a further obstacle, and so on.)

Ronnie takes her Brundle story to her editor, Stathis, who, we learn, is also Ronnie’s ex and a first-class creep. Stathis dismisses Brundle as a con-man and tries to get a leg over with Ronnie, establishing him as the third point of a romantic triangle. Brundle shows up at their meeting, having decided he can use Ronnie’s journalistic expertise as a plus, to help promote his work, in time, sure, but first, to make time with the girl and get laid.

With these basic plot elements set in place, Brundle, his work, Ronnie, her work, and Ronnie’s ex, the plot hurtles along at a breathless, inexorable pace, culminating in Brundle’s transformation.

Act I of The Fly is its longest at almost 40 minutes. Because the rest of the movie is so elegantly structured, I went back several times to check to see if my analysis was correct. At 24 minutes, Brundle botches his work but succeeds in getting laid, at 30 minutes he succeeds in his work (the babboon emerges unharmed from thetelepod) but botches his sex life (he tells Ronnie about a package from Stathis, which, it turns out, contains a veiled threat). At 36 minutes he succeeds in his work again (he goes through the teleporter himself and emerges looking like a Greek god) but has still failed in his sex life, at 40 minutes Ronnie comes back to him, he tells her of his success and they have sex again — he has everything and his life is complete. The act ends with a close-up of the thick hairs sprouting from Brundle’s back — the first sign that there is a downside to his transformation. Again, ending on the question.

ACT II is The Fly‘s shortest — barely 22 minutes. Brundle’s perfect happiness with Ronnie lasts only 8 minutes, during which he exults a little too much in his new-found self-actualization. Very full of himself, Brundle insists that Ronnie undergo transformation herself. When she balks he tosses her aside and goes looking for a cheap tramp to replace her. (It says something about Brundle’s intentions in Act I that, in Act II, he literally picks up the first woman he sees — not only was he unclear about what a "journalist" does, he apparently didn’t think Ronnie was anything in particular at all when he started chatting her up at the art-gallery party.) She refuses as well and now Brundle’s life, so perfect earlier, is now utterly out of balance — his work has destroyed his equilibrium, his desire for transformation has left him angry, alone and frustrated. Now, to make matters worse, his body, so recently so perfect, is now falling apart. Confused, he goes back to check his work and finds, to his horror, that he has made a mistake — his invention has brought about a change, certainly, but an unintended change.

ACT III is the remaining 32 minutes of the movie. Some time passes between the end of Act II and the beginning of Act III, during which Ronnie has, apparently, goes on to other work and forgets all about Brundle. The love story format demands that, in Act I, boy meets girl, in Act II boy loses girl and in Act III boy gets girl back, and The Fly pursues that impulse — in its own fashion. The obstacles placed between the lovers in The Fly — Brundle’s work (in the form, now, of his hideous transformation) and Ronnie’s work (in the form of her creepy, manipulative ex) — will finally prove too much for their love to transcend.

Ronnie finds that she is pregnant. This, in theory, represents a triumph for Brundle. The man who wanted to master the flesh has succeeded in creating new life. When Ronnie is reluctant to abort Brundle’s child (only David Cronenberg would think of putting The Fly‘s abortion fantasy into a major Hollywood release, and only he would then think it a good idea to go ahead and shoot it — and play the abortionist as well) Brundle reaches yet another crisis of his identity — he’s dying, and his last-ditch effort at transformation — rebirth through Ronnie’s womb — is in danger. He hits on one last possibility to regain equilibrium, a way to unify his work, his love, his life, his child, his desire for transformation — he will fuse his human-fly DNA with Ronnie’s and his unborn baby’s, becoming, in his mind, the ultimate being: man, woman and child all in one, through the power of his transformative machine. It’s a perfect solution but for some reason Ronnie is reluctant to pursue it. This leads to a murderous showdown in Brundle’s lab (only David Cronenberg would create a monster whose special power is to vomit acid) and Brundle becomes fused not with Ronnie and his unborn child but only his work — fused, literally, with his telepod. His efforts at transformation gone disastrously bad, Brundle has only one last choice: he will master the flesh by destroying it. He begs Ronnie to kill him and, after some hesitation, she does, bringing the narrative to an abrupt halt. Brundle’s desire for transformation ends and there is nothing more to be said.


46 Responses to “Monsters! The Fly”
  1. papajoemambo says:

    Something worth noting:

    “(only David Cronenberg would think of putting The Fly’s abortion fantasy into a major Hollywood release, and only he would then think it a good idea to go ahead and shoot it — and play the abortionist as well) “

    It’s important to remember attitudes and laws concerning abortion, here in Canada, are a lot looser than they are in the US.

    Dr. Henry Morgentaller – known first and foremost for his abortion clinics – was just awarded the Order of Canada (the highest civilian award in this country and the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honour) while a Reformist Conservative Canadian govenment is in power, and 2/3 of Canadians polled supported his nomination.

    That doesn’t happen in America.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Something worth noting:

      Apparently when David Cronenberg met Marty Scorsese for the first time (Scorsese had been wanting it to happen for years), Marty told him that he looked like a gynecologist. So, he cast himself as one.

      Wasn’t “History of Violence” something of a hit? Certainly with the Academy?

      Is it just me or is the deleted scene on the dvd the most disgusting thing in any American movie, ever?

      • Todd says:

        Re: Something worth noting:

        Violence did okay but was a marginal hit at best, and I will maintain that the fault was with its script, which, like all Cronenberg scripts, contains scenes of great power and audacity sitting right next to bizarre, what-the-hell-was-that non-sequiturs.

        • craigjclark says:

          Re: Something worth noting:

          Actually, History is one of Cronenberg’s latter-day films (along with Spider and Eastern Promises) that he didn’t write the script for. He was certainly worked on shaping it after he signed on as director, but the last screenplay he actually signed his name to (which got produced) was eXistenZ.

      • papajoemambo says:

        Re: Something worth noting:

        The deleted scene in the DVD is lightweight for Cronenberg.

        I also recommend THE BROOD (Cronenberg directing Oliver Reed who is saving himself and his daughter from his ex-wife’s monsterous pack of anthopomorphic manefestations of her rage at their divorce), RABID (starring Marilyn Chambers as a young woman who turns into a monster when she develops a blood-hungry proboscis in her arm-pit and spreads a rabies like plague as a result of a botched skin graft), and THE CAME FROM WITHIN / SHIVERS (which makes leeches the new ALIENS in a 1970s Montreal apartment complex).

        All of them have GREAT moments.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Something worth noting:

          Someone will have to educate me regarding the deleted Violence scene.

          • papajoemambo says:

            Re: Something worth noting:

            Here ya go:

            • Todd says:

              Re: Something worth noting:

              “Is it just me or is the deleted scene on the dvd the most disgusting thing in any American movie, ever?”

              I think it might just be you — I just watched a giant writhing maggot pulled out of Geena Davis’s hoo-ha.

              And I’m not sure if A History of Violence counts as an American movie.

              • craigjclark says:

                Re: Something worth noting:

                Well, to be fair, almost all of Cronenberg’s films have been shot in and around Toronto, including The Fly.

                • johnnycrulez says:

                  Re: Something worth noting:

                  That’s because they love him. For Naked Lunch he actually wanted to shoot in Tangier, but Toronto offered him ridiculous benefits to shoot here.

                  • papajoemambo says:

                    Re: Something worth noting:

                    Well, there’s also the fact that his home and family are here.

                    The guy just lives up on Avenue Road here in downtown Toronto.

                    For NAKED LUNCH, he was ready to shoot in Tangiers, but the original Iraq War made getting insurance clearance for the finishing bond impossible, so they shot the whole thing in a series of warehouses in downtown Toronto.

            • notthebuddha says:

              Re: Something worth noting:

              exceeded in every way by the heart-attack scene in Carpenter’s _THE THING_

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: Something worth noting:

          I hyped THE BROOD up way too much in my head before seeing it to be seriously repulsed by Samantha Eggar’s spawn. I’m more mortified by them going through with the proposed remake than I am by the movie itself.


  2. craigjclark says:

    Another one of my favorite horror films of all time. I think Cronenberg’s genius is in playing it for the tragedy that it is, not just “Hey, look at this goopy monster,” which is the trap that the sequel fell into.

    One of my favorite Jeff Goldblum moments comes when he tries to get Geena Davis back on his side (after initially rejected her when he finds out she’s a journalist). The way he says “Cheeseburger!” is so perfect, it’s the line that I would quote to him if I ever had the chance to meet him.

    • Todd says:

      And, again, it’s a wonderful piece of screenwriting, advancing the plot in the cut. Goldblum, who looks spooked and freaky enough already, says “Cheeseburger” to Davis and we all go “What the hell?” before we find out that he’s asking her out on a cheap date.

    • papajoemambo says:

      The level of intensity maintained in this movie – especially if you’re watching it wide-screen – is almost unbearable at times.

      This is my favourite Cronenberg movie and I love his stuff a LOT.

      • craigjclark says:

        I couldn’t call this my favorite Cronenberg film when there’s also Dead Ringers and Videodrome to consider. It’s right up there with them, though.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Re: Cronenberg and Scripts

    I can’t find the interview now, but Cronenberg has said that budget concerns force him to work from shorter (62-80 pages!), tighter scripts. Do you think that might be part of the issue with his other, smaller films (this was certainly his largest project as the time)?


    • Todd says:

      Re: Cronenberg and Scripts

      A script’s brevity certainly encourages narrative economy, but that economy can be squandered, as it is in American Werewolf, or fully exploited, as it is in The Fly.

    • craigjclark says:

      Re: Cronenberg and Scripts

      As the owner of a number of Cronenberg’s published screenplays (and a couple unpublished ones), I can confirm that they are frequently very short. I think that mostly stems from the fact that he cuts things to the bone during the writing stage so he doesn’t end up shooting a lot of scenes that would get cut out in the editing room anyway.

      Crash, for example, is a slim 70 pages.

  4. ndgmtlcd says:

    Also, Cronenberg shows off a great, deeply sarcastic sense of humor in this film.

  5. chatoyant_1 says:

    The Vincent Price original was almost tragicomic, certain key scenes to be revived in many a Robin Williams riff. But in this Cronenberg version, it’s interesting with the truly gripping “kill me” scene, how it sets forth a sense of tragedy, but then after the gunshot, has some other tone to it, which I suppose puts it squarely in the postmodern club. It’s almost too light in relation to what just happened, to support the sense the audience should care about those two remaining characters even… which in turn, make it difficult to be a “tragedy” per say.

    Have you seen the “Fly” as opera collaboration with Placido Domingo and Cronenberg in L.A.? According to wsfu online:

    “Make no mistake. This IS classic tragedy: the story of a man whose ambition drives him to the pinnacle of success, then pushes him over the edge. Way over the edge.

  6. johnnycrulez says:

    The early Cronenberg movies are great, as has been mentioned.

    Shivers and Rabid are both sort of monster stories. Rabid is a vampire story and Shivers is a parasite story, and both are great.

    Also, if you haven’t seen Romero’s Martin you really should. It’s one of the coolest vampire movies I’ve ever seen.

  7. memento_mori says:

    Cronenberg said in an interview something about Brundle “talking to the monkey” — that’s when he gets drunk and has the conversation with the baboon. It’s kinda telling in that he persuades himself to go through after “talking to” a primate. The animal side of his brain says, “Go on! Do it” and the human side just goes along with it because it’s tired, drunk, mad, lonely…

  8. Anonymous says:

    According to Cronenberg

    According to Cronenberg, he realized the scene might be a little weird, and talked to Geena Davis about it. Since they had the whole director-actress trust thing going, she was the one who asked him to play the doctor. So it’s a little different than… say… Spike Lee getting it on with Rosie Perez.

    At least he wasn’t using gynecological instruments for mutant women, like Dead Ringers.

  9. kornleaf says:


  10. samedietc says:

    I don’t recommend it, but have you seen The Fly (1958)? I just saw it, and I can barely remember it, which says something about how vivid it was.

    Coming to it after Cronenberg’s, one of the weirdest things to me is how most of the story is a flashback and how unmonstrous the Fly-man Andre Delambre is.

    I don’t mean his make-up is not scary, I mean that his actions are not particularly frightening–he acts more like a petty, tyrannical husband (though imprisoned in his lab) than a Gothic monster of the Id. All he wants is for his wife to catch the fly that has his face (which might be a nice inversion of correct housewifery–instead of wanting a clean, fly-free house, she cries when flies are killed), and the worst thing he does is to bang his fist on the table when he’s upset and type out messages.

    (I want to somehow connect the fact that he loses his voice to the fact that the movie is set in Quebec, which is already a hybrid, mutant area in terms of language.)

    In some ways, due to the unmonstrousness of the fly-man, and the flashback structure (you already know who gets it in the end when you start the film: the fly-man himself), I don’t know if I would consider this a classic monster movie.

    The sub-par b/w sequel from the next year is much more a typical monster narrative, I think, with the monstrousness split between the fly-out-for-revenge and the petty gangster that betrayed the young scientist-cum-fly. (If the first movie is about love missing it’s mark–Andre loves his work almost more than his wife, Andre’s brother loves Andre’s wife–the second, without women, is more about the camaraderie and betrayal among men.)

  11. jbacardi says:

    This has nothing to do with Cronenberg’s outstanding film, but someone did mention the Vincent Price version, which always reminds me of a story he told in a lecture I saw him deliver in 1975- apparently, when he and Herbert Marshall were filming the final scene, in which they see David Hedison’s head on the fly trapped in the spider web, they were prompted off camera by someone saying “Help me…help me…” in a funny voice, and they couldn’t keep a straight face, requiring a at least a dozen takes to get it right. I can’t watch that film without remembering that story…

  12. curt_holman says:

    This is how Brundlefly eats.

    Don’t forget that Seth Brundle and Stathis Borans have the same initials. But no vowels in common.

    “Brundle’s desire for transformation ends and there is nothing more to be said.”

    I love The Fly but the sudden ending bothers me a little. Your commentary made me wonder what else the film could have, and it occurred to me that it could have ended with a little scene of Brundle’s employers/financiers salvaging the pods, implying that the whole cycle could start again, in classic horror movie fashion.

    The Fly II is not as good, but isn’t a waste of time, either. There’s a scene that has Jeff Goldblum reprising his role when a character watches one of Ronnie’s old video tapes from the telepod experimentation days. He talks about the experience of teleporting himself the first time and says something like “I didn’t feel anything, and at first I thought I was still in the original transporter.” It’s written well and so short that I wondered if it was an out-take from the Cronenberg film.

    I friend of mine complained that Ronnie and Borans shouldn’t be worried about whether Brundle is contagious, given that his condition is affected on a genetic level. Which is a fair point, given that they’re science journalists — but somehow, I suspect that when you see someone’s body parts fall off as he turn into a big buggy freak, such subtleties might escape you.

    If you’re interested in “transformative” monster movies, you might want to consider From Beyond, Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story.

    • craigjclark says:

      Re: From Beyond

      It… ate… him…

    • notthebuddha says:

      Re: This is how Brundlefly eats.

      Ronnie and Borans shouldn’t be worried about whether Brundle is contagious, given that his condition is affected on a genetic level

      A process that reconciles human and fly DNA could easily make a benign gut microbe into a horrible disease, no problem. Of course, then we have to wonder why Brundle didn’t turn into a combination of human + fly + dust mite + E. coli + odor-causing bacteria + ….

      it occurred to me that it could have ended with a little scene of Brundle’s employers/financiers salvaging the pods, implying that the whole cycle could start again, in classic horror movie fashion.

      Isn’t that a bit redundant with Ronnie’s pregnancy?

    • greyaenigma says:

      Re: This is how Brundlefly eats.

      I looked on my shelf of Lovecraftian horror, saw From Beyond and couldn’t quite recommend it. Re-animator had some fun stuff in it, though.

      Important safety tip! If you’re being hunted by killer light-attracted bees, don’t wait in the light.

  13. rxgreene says:


    I watched this version of “The Fly” in the front row of the theater. It was a double feature with “Aliens”.

    The most terrifying moment was when Seth ate the doughnuts. I nearly back-flipped out of my seat, much to the amusement of my friend.