I know an old woman who swallowed a horror DVD. I don’t know why she swallowed a horror DVD. Perhaps she’ll die.
Every good film deserves a sequel, right? After David Cronenberg’s intelligent yet creeptastic The Fly made serious box office bucks in 1986, studio execs started putting together a part two. To direct, they brought in Chris Walas, the special effects and make-up wizard who created the gleefully ghoulish gross-outs seen in the first film. But whereas Cronenberg’s explored the mysteries of the flesh, Walas set out to recreate the thrills of the classic 1950s monster movies he grew up with. Although Cronengerg’s style still gets aped plenty, The Fly II makes its own way by going back to its B-movie roots.
Martin Brundle (Eric Stoltz, Anaconda), the son of the first film’s title character, starts his life orphaned in a laboratory, watched 24 hours a day by scientists behind a mirror. A genetic oddity thanks to his daddy’s sinister experiments, Martin ages rapidly, growing to the size and maturity of a college student in five years. His intellect grows even faster, to the point where his kindly billionaire benefactor Anton Bartok (Lee Richardson, The Exorcist III) enlists him to complete his father’s teleportation technology.
While working late in the lab one night, Martin runs into fellow inventor Beth Logan (Daphne Zuniga, Spaceballs) and romance blossoms. But the past comes back to haunt Martin. His rapid aging is just one part of his real problem. Martin’s father’s teleporters once accidentally combined his DNA with a fly. That same DNA now has Martin’s brain acting all crazy and his skin getting all goopy. Once his transformation gets out of hand, it’s back to the lab for Martin’s final confrontation with Bartok and the nefarious scientists who kept him in the dark about who—or what—he really is.
“Yeah! Rubber monster stuff!”—Director Chris Walas
This review will, by necessity, reference The Fly several times. This is because The Fly II flat-out demands viewers see the first film before going into this one. Characters and plot elements from the first make a comeback with little or no explanation, except viewers’ prior knowledge of Cronenberg’s work. With this in mind, how did the creators come up with a script, knowing they could not bring back Jeff Goldblum or Geena Davis, the first film’s stars? They expanded on a rarely-mentioned element of the first film: Bartok Industries, the unseen source of funding for the teleportation experiments. Although Bartok only got a nod in the first film to explain where the money came from, The Fly II takes us inside Bartok’s ominous laboratories, from its gleaming white hallways to its dank, dungeon-like animal pits.
Those expecting sheer unrelenting terror from this film will find themselves scratching their heads during the first act, which is more like something out of The Goonies. Young Martin (Harley Cross, Kinsey) invents an outrageous looking helmet covered with various gizmos, including one that squirts water into the face of any nearby authority figure for a cheap laugh. Armed with this burdensome-looking headwear, Martin has a few cutesy misadventures while exploring the labs that are his home. Then, the movie takes on a John Hughes meets Michael Crichton vibe as Martin and Beth fall for each other while testing their various scientific doo-dads.
When Martin feels betrayed by Bartok, he starts to transform. That’s when the movie transforms as well. From this point on, The Fly II mimics the first movie. Martin has to deal with various body parts falling off as he mutates into a new life form. Although this element of the plot took up most of the first movie’s run time, the sequel covers the high points, and then moves on to Martin’s next step, a full-blown insect-like monstrosity, almost devoid of any remaining humanity. This is the creature we face during the blood and guts-heavy finale, when “Martinfly” finally faces off with Bartok.
In Cronenberg’s film, the change the hero goes through is one of disease and decay—it’s referred to as a “disease with a purpose.” The Fly II, however, has a different metaphor. Martin’s transformation is that of adolescence, of growing up. Martin matures in more ways than one. He learns his father figures, both Bartok and his actual father, are not what they appear. It’s the unfortunate moment in childhood when the child discovers his or her parents have flaws. As his adventures progress, Martin grows stronger and more confident, but also frightened at the grotesqueries of his appearance. As his condition worsens, Martin disappears into himself, enveloping his own body into a giant cocoon-like shell. It’s only when he’s confronted with his past that he emerges from the shell and takes action—murderous bloody action. When it’s all over, the surviving characters are finally in a place to move on with their lives. (Well, except one.)
If I were to go back in time and suggest any changes for the movie, I’d have a big one: Turn down the lights. There’s just no sense of atmosphere. Even the “dark” scenes, such as the animal pit and the finale, are still all bright and shiny. The creepy scenes could have been much creepier if the creators had cast some shadows, or done that thing where they make the room all smoky. This would have given the entire film a sense of dread it’s sorely lacking.
The script demands a lot from Stoltz. He starts out as an innocent, knowing nothing of life outside the laboratory he’s grown up in. He then experiences romance, betrayal and madness, in that order. He might lack the raw intensity that we’d get from a more experienced actor, but he does all that’s required. Zuniga doesn’t have much to do except be “the girl” in the movie, but she convinces the audience that her character is loyal to Martin, no matter what new shape he takes. Richardson gives it all he can to make Bartok human and vulnerable, but there’s no mistaking him as our villain when we first see him.
The Fly II doesn’t show its age at all, thanks to the new transfer on this DVD. Every drop of red blood or green slime looks as bright and vibrant now as it did in 1989. The sound is also excellent, in both DTS and Dolby flavors, making the most of the operatic score.
Starting off the extras on the first disc, Walas provides a commentary with film historian Bob Burns. The track features plenty of interesting anecdotes from the set, but it really shines when the two reminisce about their favorite monster movies from long ago. Especially interesting to movie geeks is Burns’s recollection of visiting the set of George Pal’s Destination Moon in his younger days. There’s also a deleted scene with some out-of-place humor, and an alternate ending that wouldn’t have added much to the film. Two documentaries make up the meat of the second disc. The “Transformations” doc has Walas and various members of the production team looking back on the film, with all bases covered, from casting to effects to marketing. The “Fly Papers” doc was made in 2000 for AMC, and covers all five films in the Fly semi-franchise, going back to the original 1950s classic starring Vincent Price. Narrated by Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek), the narrative here contains clips from all five movies with interviews from several of those involved. A storyboard-to-film comparison with optional commentary and a film production journal focus mostly on the special effects work. An interview with composer Christopher Young elaborates on how he emphasized sadness over scares when writing the score. Also included are the film’s original electronic press kit, some still photo galleries, and theatrical trailers for other sci-fi favorites. Overall, it’s an excellent DVD presentation.
It’s not Cronenberg. The Fly is intense, frightening, laced with metaphor, and contains emotional, heartbreaking performances. In its script, The Fly II attempts the same, with a similar transformation process from hero to monster. Walas has a different goal, though. He’s here to make a 1950s B-movie with an ’80s blockbuster budget. Taking this mindset and linking it to the 1986 version is its biggest flaw. It’s cheesy fun, but it can’t buzz out of from under the shadow of the original.
In the commentary, Walas makes no apologies for the film. With a nostalgia-fan and special effects whiz in the director’s seat, The Fly II is less about story and symbolism and more about the creature and the gore. If this sounds like fun for you, then check it out. But if you prefer a movie’s brains to be in its script instead of splattered all over the floor in a slimy mess, then you might want to pass.