Plot: A scientist (David Hedison) is found dead, his head and arm crushed into an unrecognizable mess. His wife (Patricia Owens) confesses to the crime, but refuses to provide details, although she seems obsessed with finding a strange white-headed fly. As the investigation begins they find she actually crushed him in a hydraulic press twice… something the victim’s brother (Vincent Price) cannot fathom, as they had a loving marriage. Owens begins to come unraveled, going berserk when a nurse crushes a fly on the wall. Finally, Price coaxes the truth from her: his brother was destroyed by his own invention – a disintegrator-integrator – which horribly mingled his body with that of a housefly, turning him from man to beast. As they attempted to find the fly that now had his arm and head, his mind became more and more frayed, until he finally begged her to kill him. Price keeps the story to himself, allowing the court to believe her insane, and sparing her from a murder charge.
Thoughts: I wish I could have found other films between the last one (1942’s Cat People) and this 1958 classic, but as I tried compiling my list, I was stunned at the utter dearth of memorable horror films from the late 1940s and early 1950s. This isn’t to say there weren’t scary movies, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the right choice for my little project here. It actually gets back to what I said about horror at the very beginning – horror is subjective. Each person, and in a larger sense, each culture determines for itself what it considers terrifying, and in the late 40s and 50s the fears of the American public weren’t running along the lines of vampires and witches and monsters. In the wake of the atom bomb, we were afraid of science gone wrong. With the rise of the Soviet Union, we feared the threat of international communism. The result is that the best, most iconic scary movies of this era don’t necessarily fall into the category of horror, but belong more appropriately on the science fiction list (which I hope to use for this same sort of project in the future). The truly disquieting films of the time were things like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – both excellent films worth discussing, but I feel like they belong more in the realm of sci-fi than true horror.
So that brings us to 1958 and The Fly, which still straddles the line between science fiction and horror, but falls with enough of its bulk on this side of the line to make it on the list. While not exactly built on hard science, the movie attempts more of a feeling of realism than most other sci-fi shockers of the area, which often dealt with the likes of insects and other animals mutating into giant beasts thanks to radiation exposure, eventually leading to their death by missile and their ridicule at the hands of a guy in a satellite and his two little robot pals. In The Fly, director Kurt Neumann does make an effort to help the science seem plausible, at least to an audience without deep understanding of such things. (At one point, while trying to guess the nature of his brother’s experiment, Price even suggests a flatscreen television.)
Vincent Price, of course, gets top billing for this movie, but for my money that really should have belonged to Patricia Owens as Helene. Price is in the framing sequence – the 30-minute buildup to the flashback and the 10-minute denouement at the end – but Owens really carries the film. We see her at the beginning as the shellshocked, borderline deranged woman who has just witnessed her husband’s death, then go to the backstory where she’s a kind, devoted wife. She’s really magnificent in the part, going from the heights of joy for her husband’s success to a slow spiral into despair when his experiment falls apart. Finally, at the end we get pain and resignation from her. Genre pictures are rarely recognized for the performances of their actors when award season rolls around, but I would put Owens’s performance in this film right up there with any great actress of the era.
The film follows a fairly standard format for horror films of the era, where the truly terrifying stuff happens largely off-screen. This is to the good, because when the blanket comes off David Hedison and we finally see his transformation… well… just as Owens is as fine an actress as any of the day, his creature costume is as goofy as any of the day. It’s a silly-looking monster helmet with a some device to make the pincers twitch a little bit. I find the final scene far more chilling – Price and the inspector (Herbert Marshall) manage to track down the white-headed fly to a spider’s web where it’s been captured and about to be consumed. The effect of a tiny little David Hedison caught in the spider’s web, superimposed against film of a real spider, is impressive by 1958 standards, and the effect of his miniscule voice pleading for help as the predator advances upon him is creepy even today. It’s probably the most memorable scene of terror from the film, far more so than the human-size fly.
The film plays upon the fear of unchecked science, questions of insanity, and a good dose of body horror (which, no doubt, is why David Cronenberg was the man tapped for the 1986 remake). All of these elements add up to one of the best films of the era.
From the end of the age of monsters, we’re about to step into the world of more psychological terror. Next on my list is the film many consider the first slasher movie, the 1960 film Peeping Tom.