The Fly (USA, 1986)
The sight of death in horror is, as David Cronenberg asserts, an intensely confrontational spectacle, one that asserts a certain level of attention and provokes strong affective reactions:
Undoubtedly there are scenes in some of my films which even I feel are repulsive in some ways and yet this is all part of my general feelings toward not only horror films, but… splatter films. They are films of confrontation. They aren’t films of escape. And what it is that the audience is forced to confront are some very hard truths about the human condition, which have to do, in my films particularly, with the human body and the fact of aging and death and disease and the loss of people close to you. These things are inevitable and yet very hard to come to terms with. And they are things that horror/splatter films force you to confront. (McCarty 1984: 80-81)
For Cronenberg, the horror genre has become less a medium for shock and terror than a platform for coming to terms with the death and decay of the human body, with its intensely vulnerable materiality, and the frail nature of the psyche that collects a body’s cumulative physicality into a single entity. “Each time I kill someone onscreen, I am rehearsing my own death,” he’s fond of saying. He returns again and again to spectacles of wounded, opened and mutated bodies, as they detail and explore the obscene insides of the body, the thin border separating blood and organs from the external world, but hidden away and rarely acknowledged except in horror films. These films are insistently physical, focusing on flesh, blood and bone, and anticipating a disturbed, perhaps disgusted audience reaction. And spectator responses are equally physical – the “confrontation” to which Cronenberg alludes is a physical one. Although Cronenberg is one of the most fiercely intellectual filmmakers of the modern era, it is the visceral response to certain sights that fixes viewers’ attention, forces them to acknowledge certain facts about death and the body that are often, in life as in the cinema, overlooked or idealized.
Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) follows a scientist, Seth Brundle, whose rash decision to experiment on himself leads to an incremental physical and mental transition in to a creature that is both human and fly: “Brundlefly.” The Fly, somewhat following the template of the 1958 Kurt Neumann original, is a “monster movie” in that the mutated creature becomes threatening and dangerous to those around him/it. However, the affective charge of the film comes equally from the grotesque decay enacted on Brundle’s body: after an initial exuberant burst of strength and athleticism, he develops growths and hair all over his body, he has trouble walking, he appears to be deathly ill. Body parts fall off and he collects them in his bathroom cabinet as “the Brundle Museum of Natural History.” He now digests food on the outside, vomiting an acidic liquid onto his food to break it down before his system can process it.
The fly skin that eventually bursts through his human skin seems hard and shriveled. Brundle is transforming into a monster (Brundlefly), but his transformation looks a lot like any number of horrible diseases – including cancer, a conceptual obsession that Cronenberg had already dealt with in similarly elusive terms in Rabid, The Brood, and Videodrome. The Fly is ultimately a story of a body in revolt against itself, and this revolt manifests by externalizing its symptoms, and by destroying the outer layer of skin. His lover, Veronica, is forced to witness the decay of Brundle’s body, and as much as she is repulsed by some of the things she sees, she is equally struck by their tragic implications. In spite of its reputation as a gore film, The Fly is a monumentally sad film, with an immensely tragic ending. Brundlefly, having shed all external human appearance, attempts to use his transporter to fuse his own body with that of Veronica and their unborn baby – the “ultimate nuclear family,” he quips. It is a monstrous decision, but one that’s driven by a desire to retain some level of physiological humanity (i.e., by fusing his/its genes with that of two more humans, the fly portion of his/its DNA will be the minority). Brundlefly’s attempt to maintain or regain humanity fails, and his/its body is fused with the inorganic transporter; it emerges a grotesque mess of organic skin and electrical wires, metal and machine parts. A hideous, pathetic creature, barely able to crawl, the Brundlefly/transporter fusion has no visible human elements. Its final gesture is to approach Veronica – who is both horrified and stricken – and to place the barrel of the shotgun she is carrying against its own head.
Throughout the film, Veronica has been an audience surrogate, witnessing the gradual decay of Brundle/Brundlefly with equal parts horror and sadness: his transformation is shown incrementally with displays and demonstrations for her benefit (and, of course, on another level, for the benefit of the audience). Veronica must repeatedly witness the grotesque and disturbing aspects of Brundlefly’s new body, and the camera forces the audience to witness them as well. In this final scene, as Brundlefly’s body loses all visible relations to the human, his/its ultimate death happens as the result of a deliberate, rational decision on the part of both Brundlefly and Veronica. The combat and excitement leading up to the moment of death has slowed and all that is left for the mute Brundlefly is a moment of realization that he/it is no longer human. Cronenberg’s film forces audience and characters to witness the bodily changes the main character is undergoing, coded in ways that are associated with disease and aging, ending with a scene that lingers on the horror and tragedy of the eventual suicide/mercy killing. The affective power of the film is largely narrative, stemming from an acquaintance with the charming, eccentric pre-transformation Seth Brundle and Veronica’s role as a sympathetic embedded spectator, but it is also insistently graphic and spectacular. The increasingly abject creature is displayed for the camera, and Cronenberg employs this spectacular abjection for a range of affects: shock, disgust, sorry, pity.
 Veronica’s former lover Stathis unsuccessfully attempts to stop Brundlefly in one of the film’s most shocking moments. Brundlefly vomits his acidic digestive fluid onto Sathis’ limbs, burning through his flesh and bone to separate his feet from his body. It is typical of Cronenberg that, in order to eventually help save Veronica, Stathis’ body must also be horribly, graphically damaged.