Friday, October 14, 2016

Like Father, Like Son

The Fly II

If David Cronenberg's The Fly is a drama with gooey special effects thrown in, then The Fly II (1989, directed by Chris Walas) is a melodrama with gooey special effects thrown in. Indeed, where the original film has no real villains, just several characters inflicting pain on one another in ways that real people inflict pain on one another, the sequel has very definite villains, almost of the mustache-twirling variety. Unlike Cronenberg's film, no one is going to call The Fly II a masterpiece. Certainly, some of the critical thrashing it received when it came out can be put down to outrage at the hubris of making a sequel to Croneberg's film in the first place. The remainder of the vitriol might come from the outrageous gore director Chris Walas throws at the audience. Cronenberg's film is gory, sure, but in this arena alone, the sequel outdoes it. As an example of the state of the art in 1980s practical monster movie special effects, this film rivals Carpenter's remake of The Thing.

The story picks up a dangling plot thread from the first film: Veronica Quaife was pregnant by Seth Brundle. At the beginning of this film, we find her in the delivery room giving birth to her baby, the one she wanted to abort before Brundle pleaded with her to carry it to term. Veronica dies in childbirth, and though her son is born in a mutated amniotic sac, he appears to be normal once he's cleaned up. But he's not normal. Taken in as the ward of Bartok Industries--the company who funded Brundle's experiments--Martin Brundle grows at an accelerated rate. He also proves to be as much of a scientific prodigy as his father. His progress is overseen by Anton Bartok, who has told Martin's handlers to treat Martin as if he were his very own son. As a child, Martin learns a hard lesson about his handlers when the dog he has taken as his own vanishes. The dog is an experimental animal, and the twisted thing that results from the company's attempt to recreate Seth Brundle's work breaks Martin's heart. When Martin enters adolescence, he takes a liking pretty scientist Beth Logan, They enter into a relationship, but one that is observed by Martin's handlers. Martin, Bartok suspects can untangle his father's work. He's the same kind of genius. He wants to nudge Martin in that direction using Beth as a carrot. Beth is horrified at how she's being used. Martin remembers his dog. Soon, the two of them flee Bartok industries. Martin is beginning to change. His father's mutant genetics are starting to assert themselves. The two of them seek out Stathis Borans, who knew Martin's parents, to see if he can shed any light on his condition. Borans bears the Brundles no love after what Brundlefly did to him, but he helps them anyway. Martin spins a cocoon as he metamorphoses, just before Bartok catches up to him. When he emerges from the cocoon as his father's son, he wreaks violent retribution upon his captors...

Eric Stoltz in The Fly II

The Fly II brings a lot of thoughtful ideas to the scenario offered by the original film. Chief among them is the ethics of experimenting on animals and people. Indeed, its E. C. Comics-style ending, in which its villain gets a poetically just comeuppance, is predicated on the idea that you wouldn't want to do to an animal what you would likewise do to a human being. It is suitably grotesque.  More endearing is the Martinfly's kindness to the police dog that the guards send after him once he emerges from the cocoon, which has the double task of demonstrating that Martin is still ineffably Martin once he's a monster, and throwing into stark contrast what Martin is willing to do to human beings in his rage. It's a nice touch in a film where animals are probably better than people.

Eric Stolz in The Fly II

This film also elaborates on the life cycle of the Brundlefly. In the original film, It's a straight-up transformation, perhaps because the Brundlefly in that film isn't arrived at through reproductive means (although reproductive horror is very much a part of both the first film and the second). In The Fly II, the Brundlefly has an egg case, a larval stage (which is conventionally human), a pupa, and an adult. Each of these iterations--save perhaps the conventionally human larval stage--has been thoroughly designed. Hard-wired insectile behaviors are explored, too, given that mutating Martin is fascinated by a bug zapper just before he spins his cocoon.

And if that weren't enough, the film follows up on the possibilities for genetic engineering offered by the telepods, taking its cues from one of the first film's deleted scenes (the infamous "monkey cat" scene). This is one of the drivers of its plot, both as the hero's bete noir and as his redemption. This is not a film that skimps on plot threads.

Some of this is funny. John Getz's Stathis Borans gets the film's best lines: When Martin introduces himself as Seth Brundle's son, he deadpans "Striking family resemblance." When asked where his compassion has gone, he laments, "I had to give it up. It cost me an arm and a leg." Bitter old cynics are always good for laughs and Getz tears into his extended cameo. Most of the film is grim, though. It picks up on the first film's sense of tragedy and plays to it, though the screenplay sometimes trips itself up with its need to compress time. The film's dumbest idea is to pair Beth Logan, a grown woman, with five year old Martin Brundle. No matter that he seems like an adult, it's still statutory rape. For a screenplay that has so much going on in its mind, this is a misstep. That's what you get when you have four screenwriters, I guess.

Lee Richardson in The Fly II

Director Chris Walas comes to the director's chair from the special effects department. Many special effects supervisors act as the directors of their own gags, so this isn't unusual (see also: Joe Johnston, Tom Savini, and Stan Winston). This is a film that's heavy on the effects, and Walas won an Oscar for his work on The Fly, so it seems like an ideal match. It's not, though. The heart of The Fly was the drama, not the effects. Walas, it seems, is not an actor's director. Both Eric Stoltz and Daphne Zuniga are adrift in this movie.  Zuniga's line readings are horrible. It's hard to blame the actress, though, given that the director makes so many bad choices with other actors. Stoltz is a more naturally gifted actor and gets by on that. Getz is channeling his performance from the previous film, which helps. The real eye-catcher is Lee Richardson as Anton Bartok, who is alternately a kindly father figure to Martin Brundle and a full-on Bond villain. When his plans for the telepods is revealed in the second act, he gets a speech that would be the envy of Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavros Blofeld:

Martin: "You...want it to happen?"
Bartok: "Of course I want it to happen. You are the pattern and the prototype for a whole new age of biological exploration! With you as the model and the telepods as the tool, Bartok Industries will control the form and function of all life on Earth."

Richardson clearly relishes most of his lines once he goes full-bore villain, and Walas lets him chew the scenery. That he's the film's true monster is manifest soon enough.

The Fly II

While Walas isn't a good director of actors, he's a pretty good with the hunt for Martinfly in the last act, as Martin closes in on Bartok while indulging in creative carnage with his new abilities. This part of the film comes to ghastly life as Walas, the maker of special effects, steps to the fore. This has a terrific monster, one that satisfies the tradition of the sympathetic monster. Martinfly is smart, too, which makes the dual hunt (as Bartok's men hunt Martin and Martin hunts Bartok) more chess game than biplanes and a building. And, man, does Walas cut loose with the gore. The scene where one of Bartok's guards gets a face full of acid is thoroughly ghastly, but it's just a warm-up to the elevator scene that follows a few minutes later, where an unfortunate flunky is trapped underneath an elevator with only his head halfway out of the shaft. That scene burned itself into my memory in 1989. It's still a gut punch today. I can see why the last act of The Fly II put so many people off. It's a gorehound's movie. Unlike the gorehound films that Cronenberg used to make, this is a film that doesn't fully integrate its images of violence with its ideas, nor is it a film that values its characters over its special effects. Still, I'll admit that I have some affection for it. It's more creative with its mayhem than many another horror film from the 1980s. I do like its monster.

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