To mangle the great English poet Alexander Pope, sometimes sequels rush in where originals have already tread. For every "Bride of Frankenstein," "Godfather Part II" or "Empire Strikes Back," there are those continuations whose sole function is to cash in on the original’s success. There’s good news as the 1958 science fiction classic "The Fly " occupies side one of another installment in Fox Home Video’s "Double Feature DVD" series. The bad news is that the vastly inferior 1959 sequel "Return of the Fly" rides shotgun. For fans of the original, Fox rewards us with a great-looking anamorphic transfer and exceptionally clean sounding audio. Watching both films, the DVD proves worthy in providing an object lesson in how not to sustain a story.
Kurt Neumann’s 1958 "The Fly" features Al Hedison as a scientist whose research in matter transmission brings about disastrous results. Using himself as a guinea pig, his experiment goes horribly awry when a fly accidentally enters the teleportation chamber with him. His molecules now intermingled with the fly’s, Andre slowly and agonizingly starts to deteriorate. Unable to communicate verbally, he types notes to his equally tortured wife Helane (Patricia Owens) as she desperately tries to find the unique looking fly (with a white head) needed to reverse the metamorphosis. Andre’s brother Francois (Vincent Price) belatedly learns of his brother’s fate and pieces together the tragic circumstances that doomed Andre. If you have never seen the movie, the last scene does not erase from the memory easily. If you have seen it before, it still packs a wallop.
1959’s "Return of the Fly" picks up years later with Andre’s son, Phillippe, carrying on the family tradition of mixing human molecules with insects’. Phillippe is an accomplished researcher in his own right, but rumors and innuendoes about his father’s death have plagued him all through his upbringing. Attempting to set right Dad’s legacy, he succeeds in recreating the matter teleporter. However, his lab assistant Alan Heinz nefariously plans to steal the secret and sell it to the highest bidder. Once the plot is exposed, a scuffle ensues in the lab with Alan trapping Phillippe in the chamber, along with another pesky fly. Now, the altered Phillippe not only fights to reconstitute his wholly human form, he seeks out Alan to exact retribution.
"The Fly" tapped into the schizophrenia of American life in the Fifties. The promise of technology stoking post-World War II optimism in the late Forties boomeranged within a vengeance within a decade, with millions living under the shadow of McCarthyism, the Bomb and the growing pressure of suburban conformity. Like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Incredible Shrinking Man," and even "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman," "The Fly" incorporates a scientific menace as metaphor for the loss of individuality by progress. "The Fly" charts the accelerated disintegration of Andre’s humanity by his own hand. Andre’s work consumes his life. Even his leisure time, like taking in an opera, is not safe from his tinkering with formulas and equations. After the transformation, the black-veiled, silent Andre physically distances himself from Helane and barely communicates with her. Helane’s devotion to bring him back drives her to near insanity (her actions are deemed by Francois and the authorities as the act of an irrational). The only thing Helane and Andre have left is their love for each other, poignantly brought home when he haltingly scribbles "love you" on a chalkboard. But it is not strong enough to stem catastrophe. Andre’s capacity for self-determination has been completely engulfed by his conviction to science. Impotently screeching "help me," he echoes the primal scream of a generation betrayed by their innocence.
Unfortunately, the subtleties that made "The Fly" a literate excursion into domestic terror vanish in "Return." Taking over the reigns from Neumann (and novelist James Clavell’s adaptation of George Langelaan’s story), Edward Bernds’ stab at the material is nothing more than a flimsy knock off. Everything about the film seems cheap: the scaled-back lab set, the paper-mache fly make-up, even the black and white photography seems a low-budget compromise to the luster of the original. Having Vincent Price around is always welcome, but his presence cannot compensate for the "made for a quick buck" atmosphere pervading every frame. The extortion subplot is lame, although it offers veteran character actor Dan Seymour ("Casablanca" and "Key Largo" to name two of his appearances) as the fence for the stolen plans. Bernds’ attempts at horrific grandeur carry no weight. Betraying his roots as a director of Three Stooges shorts, his shots of Fly/Phillippe stumbling around forests and mortuaries make for unintentional laughs rather than pathos. There isn’t enough character development to make the viewer remotely care whether or not he becomes human again, stays mutated or decides to go on Jerry Springer as "Men turned into insects and the Women who love them."
Like their previous double feature DVDs, Fox does not skimp in the video department. The sources for both films are extremely clean and the widescreen anamorphic transfers culled from them are practically perfect. In the case of "The Fly," the saturated colors blaze boldly. There is some edge enhancement, but it does not detract from the exceedingly sharp detail delineation (down to the cilia in Hedison’s fly make-up). Fleshtones look a bit bright, but only as an accurate representation of the overall color scheme. The black and white images in "Return" exhibit good gray scale, with the occasional flare-up in contrast levels. The pure black levels in "The Fly" account for the vibrant color rendition, while "Return’s" deep (but not pure) blacks yield solid shadows. Both transfers appear free of digital or compression artifacts.
The Dolby Digital audio tracks for both films present a variety of listening options. "The Fly" offers a Dolby Digital discrete 5.0 track (although the packaging states "4.0 Surround") in addition to a Dolby Surround soundtrack. "Return" tenders a newly created surround track as well as the original mono audio. In both cases, the sources are clean, free of hiss or distortion and some instances possess good dynamic range. "Fly’s" 5.0 track suffers the same anamoly that popped up with the discrete audio for "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." The discrete mix has a tendency to place the dialogue in speakers other than the center channel. Switching to the 2.0 mix alleviated the problem, but took away some of the energy. The surround track in "Return" does not really enhance the viewing experience, despite a few moments of surround channel activity during the teleportation sequences. As a whole, the surround channel is more or less silent for both films. Despite instances where there could have been rear channel embellishment (the scene in "The Fly" with a "disintegrated" cat’s meows filling the air leaps to mind), the audio mixes emphasize front channel imaging and improved fidelity. Both films also contain a French monophonic soundtrack.
Repeating the extras sections of the previous Fox Double Features, trailers for both "Flys" are included, as well as trailers from the David Cronenberg 1986 remake, its 1989 progeny "The Fly II" and the "Voyages" double bill. English and Spanish subtitles round out the special features.
If you want an arch example of ’50s science fiction cinema, pop in side 1 of this disc. Short of morbid curiosity, you would do just as well to avoid side 2. Just as science should not delve into certain secrets, some sequels are best left on the drawing board.
P.S. So far, the quality and programming of Fox’s double feature DVDs are very impressive. Their catalog particularly lends itself to pairing similarly themed titles. May I suggest the following twosomes (and their tag lines):
- "Journey to the Center of the Earth" (1959) / "Five Weeks in a Balloon" (1962)
(From the earth below to the sky above!)
- "The Innocents" (1961) / "The Nanny" (1965)
(One Nanny in Hell, the other from it!)
- "The Lost World" (1960) / "One Million Years B.C." (1966)
(The Monsters Strike Back!)