Who will deliver me from this body of death? —St. Paul
David Cronenberg makes sure that, before everything goes south for Seth Brundle, we get a good, long look at him. The opening shot of Cronenberg’s The Fly—stationary, focused on Brundle’s face, and held for a beat longer than we might expect—has the air of a photograph taken for posterity. The shot invites us to take our time acquainting ourselves with the film’s central character. The film will soon begin to destroy this man, so it’s pertinent we get to know him.
Far from being a stereotypical mad scientist, unbalanced by megalomania or hubris, Seth Brundle is just a nerd. You instinctively like him. He is single-mindedly focused on his work and is self deprecating about it. “I don’t have a life, so there’s nothing for you to interfere with,” he freely admits. He’s sincere about wanting his work to better humankind, but he’s not above using it to try to impress an attractive woman he meets at a science conference. As portrayed by Jeff Goldblum, Brundle is both handsome and a little strange looking, with narrow features and slightly protuberant eyes. He takes his fashion cues from Einstein. It’s totally believable that this is the sort of guy who tries to pick up a date by taking her back to his grungy laboratory even before learning her name.
The woman’s name, once Brundle gets around to learning it, is Ronnie Quaife, a reporter who decides to write a book on Brundle’s experiments after he gives her a demonstration. He has developed a system for teleportation: an item gets disintegrated in one pod and then reconstructed in a second pod across the room. But there are kinks in the system when it comes to teleporting living things—the less said about what happens to the first animal test subject, the better—and Ronnie grows to care about Brundle after witnessing how deeply he feels his failure. They begin a romance even as Brundle vows, in what may be the point of no return for him: “I don’t know enough about the flesh. I’m gonna have to learn.”
“The flesh” is the motif that dominates the rest of The Fly. We, along with Brundle, will learn more about the flesh than we ever wanted to know. After the scientist hastily tests his invention on himself—unaware of the literal fly in his ointment—he falls victim to an agonizingly gradual process of insectile mutation. All of it is depicted in sickening, moist detail, with only one possible endpoint. That is not a spoiler; Cronenberg makes it clear that he is not interested in plot twists so much as in the particularities of Brundle’s bodily suffering. The suffering is what holds the meaning. In this respect, The Fly has much in common with a film that most Christians will be familiar with: The Passion of the Christ.
Not to put too fine a point on it, of course. The Passion is devotional art, while Cronenberg’s film falls into the “body horror” subgenre. But both films draw their aesthetic frisson from similar sources. The experience of having a body—with all its attendant limitations, weaknesses, and appetites—is the one truly universal human experience. This is why Christ’s incarnation is so central to Christian theology, and it’s also why body horror is so uniquely powerful. The one thing you cannot escape is your physical self. What if your own body becomes alien and hostile to you? What if the thing that you fear the most is yourself?
As a thought experiment, this idea is agreeably creepy: scary in the same way that the urban legends swapped over flashlights at a sleepover are scary. But when such horror is made manifest on film, afflicting a specific individual in definite ways over a sequence of moments, it stops being entertaining. It becomes something else. It starts to accrete meaning.
In the case of The Fly, the repeated surfacing of the word “flesh” in the dialogue suggests parallels with its appearance in the Bible. It shows up a lot in Paul’s letters as a synecdoche for all those parts of human nature that we would rather forget we possess: the gluttonous, hateful, selfish impulses that believers and nonbelievers alike must control. The sin nature is an infestation within every person. Like Seth Brundle, we struggle against the creeping influence of this infestation, but all too often it is a losing battle. In our worst moments, we are revolting, in both senses of the word.
Each of us knows the special anguish of succumbing to this contagion. Of lying to our friends, betraying our lovers, hating our neighbors, harming the innocent. Of looking at what we have done and not recognizing the person who did those things. Of becoming exactly the sort of person we never thought we’d become, then fearing that we can never return to the way we were.
Watching Seth Brundle’s transformation, we are disturbed for reasons beyond just an empathic disgust at the outrages being visited on his body. Brundle is not losing simply his physical form; he is losing his very self. And we have an inkling of what that might be like.
Given this accrual of meaning atop The Fly’s genre trappings, it seems less like a horror movie and more like a tragedy. Unlike many horror-movie characters, who serve only as meatbags to be abused for the thrill of the viewing audience, Seth Brundle is thoroughly alive and human to us. All of the work done in the film’s first half to sketch out Brundle’s character pays off. We remember the quirky, likable nerd of that first scene, and at the climax we mourn for him even as we are terrified by him. When the picture fades to black, it might as well be signifying the end of the world. We are utterly wrung out. This is catharsis, classically defined as the total purging of pity and fear through an experience with art. It’s about as Greek as you can get.
Yet The Fly’s most tragic moment comes not at its harrowing climax but at its halfway point, when Brundle just begins his deterioration. Covered in ulcers and barely able to stand, he invites Ronnie to his laboratory in order to reconcile with her while he still has time. The more he explains to her the changes he is undergoing, the more he realizes how horrifying it all is, until he can only whimper, “Help me … please, please help me.” The tragedy is that there is no one in the film’s universe who can. And the horror, for us in the audience, is that Cronenberg’s film temporarily transports us to that universe, where there is no Messiah who can save us from ourselves.