He underwent a startling transformation
The Fly is a nearly perfect horror film—it has tight writing, excellent performances, visceral practical effects, and well-developed themes about the horrors of deteriorative genetic inheritance. It was a breakout performance for Jeff Goldblum and, before that one episode of Rick & Morty, the most likely reason the average moviegoer would know the name “Cronenberg.”
But what many don’t know is how pivotal the film is in Cronenberg’s body of work—re-examining some of the themes of his earlier film The Brood and serving as a turning point for how his movies depicted women.
Filming in Doubles
Cronenberg is what you might call a semi-auteur. While happy to collaborate with and adapt materials by others, there’s an easily traceable set of fixations across his body of work that seem to draw him to certain stories—masculinity, fear of penetration and body horror, humans conforming to artificial roles, the cycle of influence between self and media, and the limits of consent.
Cronenberg has touched on these ideas in nearly every film he’s made. Most interestingly, he’ll often re-examine ideas from his early films in more developed ways later on—Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999) both explore the influence of the then-controversial medium of videogames and how it affects human interactions; Scanners (1981) and Dead Ringers (1988) both feature gynecological themes and obsessively bound siblings; Rabid (1977) and Crash (1996) proceed from the world-shaking effects of a vehicle accident; and Eastern Promises (2007) re-explores the issue of culture clash stumbled through in M. Butterfly (1993).
There isn’t a perfect one-to-one example for every film Cronenberg has ever made, but there’s clearly a pattern of returning to prior subjects with time and growth as a storyteller. The Fly (1985) marks one of the earliest cases of these revisitations, but what makes it special is the way it sent shockwaves through the rest of his career.
Cronenberg’s Woman Problem
While there is a certain novelty to the earliest Cronenberg films, the thing most likely to jump out to fans of his later work is how jaw-droppingly misogynistic they are. The roving killer of Rabid is an insatiable woman with a disease-spreading stinger. The virulent sex virus of Shivers is kicked off by a “highly promiscuous” woman. Videodrome’s Nicki mainly exists to be relentlessly horny before she’s killed for it and later used to tempt the male protagonist. Scanners’ brief dip into discussion of pregnancy is extremely male-centric.
But the biggest offender is The Brood, written while Cronenberg was in the midst of a custody battle with his ex-wife. Accordingly, the antagonist of the film is the beleaguered protagonist’s ex-wife, who in addition to scheming to steal away their daughter, turns out to be birthing murderous gremlin-children from fleshy external wombs that obey her every command. To say it’s thinly veiled is an insult to cheesecloth, and the unusually subpar effects for a Cronenberg feature do it no favors.
The Pogue Draft
While Cronenberg had worked with co-writers once before, on Fast Company (1979), The Fly was unique in that the two contributing writers never met. Charles Edward Pogue was both the writer of the initial draft and the person who’d championed remaking the 1950s film in the first place.
While Cronenberg’s main condition for coming on as director was that he be allowed to rewrite the script—and thus introduce some of the recurring themes that held his interest—he believed Pogue’s version of the script to be so foundational to the finished film that he insisted on giving Pogue a co-writer credit. While it’s impossible to know exactly what specific elements influenced Cronenberg and when, we can look at the tangible results.
The basic structure of The Fly isn’t unusual for horror as a genre, where female protagonists are more common, but it is a reversal of the “hapless man, monstrous/unknowable woman” dynamic of Cronenberg’s early work. Geena Davis’ Ronnie is essentially the protagonist, and her fears about carrying a fetus infected with fly genetics are treated with intense sympathy. The film’s sense of dread comes as much from her thwarted attempts to access abortive care as from Jeff Goldblum’s slowly decaying body. At the end of the day, it is a shockingly rare instance of a pro-choice film.
After The Fly
Cronenberg returned to male protagonists after making The Fly, but the experience seems to have encouraged him to engage critically with how he approaches filmmaking. His next film, Dead Ringers—also co-written—is predominantly interested in the idea of how men pathologize and dehumanize women as “others.” Naked Lunch critiques the idea of the female muse as an interchangeable, disposable source of artistic manpain. And eXistenZ deliberately set out to reverse the gender dynamics of his work in Videodrome. The exploration of these themes isn’t always perfect, but there is an ever-present sense of Cronenberg grappling with the person he was, his own internalized misogyny, and toxic masculinity in a way that, while centered in a cis man’s understanding of the world, is extremely queer- and trans-applicable—but that’s a subject for another day.
Cronenberg’s pet subjects are readily identifiable to any casual viewer of his work. But his films, and The Fly in particular, demonstrate a willingness to return to prior occupations and revise his assumptions and approach. For fans, it’s a pleasure to follow this development—and ultimately, it makes for deeper, more complex art.