Tuesday, September 18, 2007

“I’m Not Even Going to Swat that Fly…”

September and October traditionally bring a welcome batch of horror themed releases to DVD, and this year finds 20th Century Fox (with it’s newly acquired MGM library) bringing out plenty of long awaited titles; some in superior re-issues, and many that have never been available on home video before in the US. With The Fly Collection, Fox groups the original and its two direct sequels with a fourth disc of extras, giving the first two films improved transfers over previous additions, and bringing the seldom seen third film its domestic home video debut.

Long one of Fox’s most profitable genre properties, The Fly (1958) features some of the most instantly recognizable horror images of all time, so potent that even 5 decades later they still have the power to chill. Produced inexpensively, The Fly nonetheless benefited from the considerable resources of a major Hollywood studio. Luscious Cinemascope color photography (make that “Terror-Color” as noted on the theatrical posters) combined with superior sets, costumes, and makeup made the film look far more expensive than it actually was and helped set the film apart from most horror efforts of the day. The efficient screenplay by future mega-author James Clavell, adapted from the Playboy-published short story by George Langelaan, gave producer-director Kurt Neumann (a German émigré whose suicide just after attending the film’s premiere briefly cast a shadow over the picture) a solid foundation on which to work from. The opening set up is a stunner – why did Helene Delambre crush her beloved husband Andre’s head and hand in an industrial press? And why exactly is she so intent on finding a very specific fly seen around the grounds of the Delambre home? She tells her incredible story to her husband’s brother François and to police inspector Charas, detailing Andre’s breakthrough experiments in teleportation, and of the little hiccup that took place when an uninvited guest joined him in one of the chambers…

Top lined by Al Hedison (the film came before his studio imposed name change to ‘David’, doubtlessly giving the actor many frustrating years of “I loved your brother in The Fly”) and Patricia Owens as the doomed Delambres, and much rests on their shoulders. Vincent Price, whose image would be most closely associated with the film in decades to come, and Herbert Marshall (as François and Charas, respectively) were far better known to audiences and gave the film a dose of gravitas; but it’s Hedison and Owens who have to carry the film. The role of Andre was turned down by many better known actors (including The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Michael Rennie) who balked at spending a large part of post botched-experiment screen time with their head first under a shroud, and then covered in ace makeup man Ben Nye’s stunning fly mask, but then-newcomer Hedison wisely jumped at the opportunity. Hedison cemented his genre credentials with the TV adaptation of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea 6 years later, and has enjoyed a very active career ever since. Co-star Owens’ career never took off, despite her ear-piercing reaction to her husband’s mutation quickly becoming one of the most iconic horror images of all time.

Growing up with this film makes this viewer impervious to some of its flaws. After the admittedly grisly (and gripping) opening, it does sag a bit – with pacing and tone more at home in a Douglas Sirk melodrama than the scream-fest promised by the subject matter. But one lab mishap later and we’re back on track – right up to a finale that I’d give my right arm to have seen in a packed house back in’58. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, there will be no spoilers here, but what Price and Marshall see in the garden during that penultimate scene taps directly into the nightmare vein like few other pictures have ever done.

Fox must have given itself whiplash producing a sequel, a serviceable effort that thankfully didn’t have to carry “Son of Fly” as a moniker. Return of the Fly (1959) opens with the dashing Philippe Delambre (Brett Halsey), having aged at least 15 years since the original (which would set the film in the mid ‘70s) and itching to get on with his fathers experiments in teleportation. Needing financial support, he turns to kindly uncle François (Vincent Price, the only cast member returning from the original) who first refuses and tries to dissuade Philippe away, but soon realizes that Philippe is as headstrong as his brother was and reluctantly agrees to back him, provided that he remain involved so that he can keep a watchful eye on the proceedings. Unfortunately, François isn’t watching Philippe’s assistant, Ronald, who has plans of his own to smuggle the plans for the teleporter out of the lab and sell them on the dreaded “open market”.

For whatever reason, Fox decided to shoot this horse before it even got to the track by shooting in black & white. Losing the color photography robbed the sequel of what made the original so special. Fox was smart enough to keep the Cinemascope, but the damage was done – even Price was taken aback by the bizarre decision and commented on it publicly – and the look of the film was barely distinguishable from other low budget genre efforts of the day. The cast isn’t bad; Price could do this sort of stuff in his sleep (but unlike many of his peers, never did) and Halsey was always a capable actor who had the misfortune of coming along during the “everyone looks like Jeffrey Hunter” era in the late ‘50s and like dozens like him, had to hope that their name was at least third or fourth on a casting directors list. A glance at the credits of director Edward Bernds, replete with titles like Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters and Dig That Uranium, must have done little to inspire confidence in the cast, but does a better job here than his résumé would indicate. One nice twist is having the human/fly merging as the result of sabotage rather than the usual scientific hubris. When Philippe discovers Ronald’s betrayal, there is a scuffle resulting in the unconscious Philippe being stuffed in one of the telepods and Ronald ready to disintegrate his atoms into the ether. But when Ronald spies a fly crawling across a cube of sugar (a rather important shot that is unfortunately diffused by repeated use) he decides, not to kill Philippe, but to turn him in to another creature like his father. It really is a mean-spirited bit of villainy – especially considering that it’s done almost as an afterthought to the crime of industrial theft. It also bears noting that once joined with the fly, Philippe seems to have the presence of mind to go after the people responsible for the disfigurement - one guesses that the poor fly had no such agenda. According to DVD Savant, Glenn Erickson, Return was released on a double bill with the enjoyably preposterous The Alligator People, and the sight of Lon Chaney staggering through the frame shouting “I’ll kill you, alligator man!” probably seared itself into more peoples memory than anything in it’s co-feature.

In an effort to comply with the law of diminishing returns, Curse of the Fly (1965) staggered into theaters under the company banner of producer Robert L Lippert. Though the longtime low budget entrepreneur actually produced all three original Fly films, but it was only for the grim third installment that Lippert received screen credit – possibly because Fox realized that there was no sense expending energy trying to convince the audience that the film was anything other than an insanely cheap, quickly produced exploitation without any of the style of the previous entries. Lippert had been producing low and ultra low budget movies for some time, usually without credit, as the ‘Lippert’ name was too closely connected with grade Z fare like 1951’s Lost Continent, but his dollar squeezing reputation held him in good stead with studio bosses, who often brought him in to keep costs low in their ‘B’ picture units.

The show opens promisingly enough, with Patricia Stanley (the fabulous Carole Gray) running through the woods clad in only her underwear. She almost literally runs into Martin Delambre on the road, to whom she relays a somewhat suspicious story about being employed as a domestic in a large house where circumstances became so dire that she had no other choice but to flee in the middle of the night. In just the first of many credulity strains, Martin decides to take her with him to Montreal and put her up in a hotel room and buy her all new clothes. Of course they’re married within days, much to the chagrin of Martin’s father, Henri (the original cinematic Prof Quatermass, Brian Donlevy) who thinks that Martin ought to keep his mind on the family’s teleportation experiments. Younger brother Albert operates the other telepod in an identical lab in England (it’s not the same lab, of course. Not a bit. Totally different). As in the earlier films, the fact that the teleportation machines actually can transmit inanimate objects with success; one waits for someone to say “Let’s stop while we’re ahead and put every mail system and shipping agent out of business!”, but of course, it’s never good enough. It’s also interesting to see how cold the Delambre family has become in the ensuing years; this particular branch not only experiments on humans, but keeps the deformed results locked in a little prison on the estate grounds. It is also mentioned that Martin is the third generation of the Delambre family to be “cursed”, which would be fine if his father were Philippe from Return, but then who exactly is Henri? Pink Panther fans will enjoy seeing Burt “Cato” Kwouk as the Delambre’s butler/lab tech/mutant wrangler Tai

The direction by Don Sharp, coming off the terrific Hammer production Kiss of the Vampire, is disappointingly flat. Curse continued the Cinemascope tradition of the series, but compositions are non-existent. Its favored status among those who should know better can probably be attributed to its rarity – it’s much easier to champion a film that lives mostly in memory, especially if that memory is 40 years old and remembered through the eyes of an eager, Famous Monsters of Filmland reading youngster. It is also worth noting that there is no actual “fly” monster in the picture, although the police seem to have a nifty snapshot of Philippe emerging from the telepod with the fly head – perhaps his webcam was left on? It’s inclusion in this set is welcome for the sake of completion, but it will be few peoples favorite.

The fourth disc holds a few interesting extras – probably not enough to need a separate disc, but welcome nonetheless. A 1997 Biography episode showcasing Price is the best extra here, as it focuses on his entire career, rather than just The Fly or his horror work in general. Also included is a very brief featurette that breathlessly runs through each film in under 12min and a better than usual selection of publicity materials from the Fox vault.