The term “body horror” has clung to David Cronenberg and his oeuvre like a terrible case of herpes that will never go away. Though many of the Canadian director’s movies have nothing to do with corporal terror such as disease, mutation and mutilation, The Fly (1986) perhaps best typifies why Cronenberg has been labeled an auteur of this subgenre of motion picture.

Less a remake of the 1958 film of the same name and more of an update, The Fly tells the story of brilliant scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) who is closing in on creating a teleportation device. Once he perfects the formula, Brundle uses himself as a test subject one evening on a drunken whim. However, a fly sneaks into the teleportation pod with Brundle and their DNA is spliced together. At first, Brundle appears normal. He feels exhilarated, as if all his senses are heightened. He craves sugar and exhibits superhuman strength. But something is wrong. Brundle begins acting in an erratic manner, his face mottled. Then his body begins to fall apart, piece by piece, as the insect mutations inside his DNA begin to take over.

While the scientist emerged from the device completely transformed in the 1958 original, screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue and producer Stuart Cornfield instead wanted their character to change slowly during the course of the film. The team behind The Fly approached Cronenberg to direct but he was attached to Total Recall. Instead, they hired director Robert Bierman to shoot the movie. Soon after, Bierman’s daughter died in an accident while vacationing in South Africa and Bierman bowed out of the project. In the interim, Cronenberg had dropped out of directing Total Recall. Cornfield reached out again and Cronenberg said he would direct The Fly with one caveat: that he could re-write Pogue’s script. Though he kept the essence of Pogue’s narrative, Cronenberg re-wrote pretty much everything else, focusing on the idea of losing one’s personal identity and ramping up the elements of sexuality and the squirmy body horror that would become his trademark.

On the surface, The Fly is a story about a mad scientist whose hubris gets the best of him. But Cronenberg is more interested in the metaphorical idea of loss of control, especially when it comes to the body. When we get cancer, the body rebels. Malignant cells overcome healthy ones, an attack from within. Brundle’s body is at war with itself, the alien DNA of the fly slowly wresting control. But a key difference between Cronenberg’s script and Pogue’s original isn’t that a fly’s genetic material is taking over. Instead, Brundle and the insect are “evolving” into some strange hybrid creature. The true horror comes as pieces of Brundle slough off, first in a squirmy scene where he pulls off his fingernails. Despite all the alterations, Cronenberg insisted that Pogue get an equal co-writing credit.

Some critics believed The Fly to be a metaphor for AIDS as it came out right in the middle of the epidemic. Cronenberg claims that was never his intention and instead meant for the film to be an allegory of cancer or aging. Cronenberg demurred when asked about the AIDS connection and instead said he had hoped for a more universal look at life and death rather than a specific disease. Still, it isn’t difficult to see why some people drew a line between the two.

The body horror extends from Brundle to his girlfriend, Veronica (Geena Davis), a journalist. After Brundle begins to transform, Veronica realizes that she is pregnant. The terror of not knowing what is growing inside of you is a hallmark of body horror. She even has dreams of giving birth to a maggot.

The Fly and Cronenberg’s prior film, The Dead Zone, remain the apex of the director’s commercial appeal. The film grossed more than $40 million, the most ever by Cronenberg, and sat the top of the box office for two weeks. If anything, The Fly gave him freedom to explore other dark pathways unfettered. Rather than follow-up with another effects-laden blockbuster, Cronenberg set out to make a quieter, but no less tragic, movie about two gynecologists. Even stranger avenues would come, but The Fly would move Cronenberg to the A-list and even 35 years later, it still retains the power to shock.

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