Apr 5, 2012

Curse of the Fly (1965)

Director: Don Sharp
Producers: Robert L. Lippert, Jack Parsons
Writer: Harry Spalding
Cinematography: Basil Emmott
Music: Bert Shefter
86 min; 20th Century Fox; B&W

Brian Donlevy (Henri Delambre), George Baker (Martin Delambre), Carole Gray (Patricia Stanley), Yvette Rees (Wan), Burt Kwouk (Tai), Michael Graham (Albert Delambre), Jeremy Wilkins (Inspector Ronet), Charles Carson (Inspector Charas)

Shards of glass explode from a broken window and fly in slow motion towards the camera. A woman wearing nothing but a bra and panties escapes through the window and runs away into the dead of night. She is picked up on the side of the road by young scientist Martin Delambre- the two begin a mutually-agreed-upon “no questions asked” relationship, and are soon married. The viewer knows from the start that the girl, Patricia, has escaped from a sanitarium and is conditioned to be concerned for Martin’s safety since she is mentally unstable. However, upon meeting the rest of the Delambre clan, we realize that she is less dysfunctional than they are, and instead fear for her own safety. This seemingly unlikely premise begins to make more sense as Curse of the Fly unveils.

In this third instalment of the “Fly” franchise, Brian Donlevy plays the son of David Hedison’s ill-fated character in the 1958 horror classic, The Fly, who trades body parts with a house fly. (The son was played by Brett Halsey in the 1959 sequel, Return of the Fly- however for the 1965 movie, the character’s name is changed from Philippe to Henri). Although the three films were released within seven years, a longer space of time seems to exist between each instalment.  The 1959 movie takes place fifteen years after the first, and an unknown (but presumably longer) gap of time occurs before the 1965 film, as Henri now has two grown sons, who begrudgingly assist their father in his experiments.

Henri and Martin Delambre
Albert Delambre

Henri Delambre continues his father’s research in perfecting a teleportation device, and beams himself frequently from Montreal (where he lives with Martin) to his other son Albert’s lab in London. Albert, the most rebellious of the siblings, yearns to have a normal life with his new girlfriend and to quit working for his father. Martin, too, is equally eager to have a normal life, but still attempts to juggle domesticity with research. So desperate is he for a relationship, that marrying a strange scantily-clad woman on the side of the road seems like a reasonable action. (Of course, considering that the girl is played by Carole Gray, whose cheekbones, thick eyebrows and bountiful lips contribute to her unusual, otherworldly beauty, one can scarcely blame him.)

Martin, Patricia, Henri and Wan

At its heart, Curse of the Fly is a Gothic melodrama, which updates the familiar plot of a newlywed bride moving into a creepy castle and uncovering a family secret. However, in post-modern fashion, the creepy castle is a country estate with barns, lattice, and a lab. The skeleton in the family’s closet is the result of Henri’s previously failed attempts in perfecting his teleportation device: misshapen mutants are behind locked doors, and fed by the morally ambiguous maid, Wan (who looks like she dropped in from Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage).

This busy plot is missing just one thing... a fly!

The closest we come to seeing an insect is in a glossy photograph from the previous film, held by the nosy inspectors, who have long held the Delambre clan under suspicion. (Charles Carson reprises the Charas role, played by Herbert Marshall in the 1958 film.) In this movie, however, the real monster is human. Like all scientists in science fiction-horror pictures, Henri has honourable intentions of bettering mankind with his technical advancements, however he benignly endangers human life to achieve these goals. In Harry Spalding’s screenplay, the central characters are neither truly evil, nor truly good- even the most seemingly reprehensible people have a moral code (however skewed), that their actions are ultimately for virtuous means.

The central theme of this film is entrapment- perhaps no more literal than with the mutants kept behind locked doors. Patricia escapes one institution, and unwittingly becomes (through wedlock) trapped in another. Henri’s sons, too, are psychological prisoners: their attempts at having romantic relationships are frowned upon by their father, who prefers to have them emotionally shackled to his laboratories. Curse of the Fly surprisingly becomes an engrossing watch because of these undercurrents and bizarre relationships- however, the film’s greatest flaw is in the presentation of its theme.

Patricia in danger
Don Sharp and his cameraman have properly created a moody, Gothic atmosphere with chiaroscuro lighting and shadows- in this case, there is little difference between Patricia venturing through this estate and Barbara Steele roaming around an old Italian castle, each experiencing strange phenomena. However, too often, scenes play out in long shots, to take advantage of the widescreen presentation, which does a disservice to the material. Instead, this scenario should have been filmed in a tight 4x3 ratio (or at least with more closeups) to emphasize the feeling of claustrophobia and enclosure.

The beady-eyed, thin-mustached character actor Brian Donlevy had spent nearly four decades playing cads who exploit their power, and this role is a further example. His career is synonymous with many stars of Hollywood’s Golden era, who would end up paying the bills in later years by appearing in exploitation films during the 1960s. The film scholars who decry this practice often conveniently fail to mention that these former matinee idols still approached their work with professionalism, despite how “beneath them” it appeared. Indeed, in one of the most notorious of the actor’s exploitation film roles, his work here is surprisingly complex.

No, Brian Donlevy does not "phone it in"

Still, it is Carole Gray who steals the film. This South African born actress had appeared in several European genre films throughout the 1960s, before retiring from the cinema at a still young age- it would have been interesting to see her career develop. Her unusual screen presence is perfect for a role about a decent person with huge problems of her own, and for a movie where all of the characters are slightly odd somehow. Her unconventional allure explains Martin’s attraction to a girl met under strange circumstances.

Curse of the Fly has had an unfairly bad reputation over the years: in part, no doubt, because it has been hard to see (and thus be re-evaluated) until finally coming out on DVD in 2007 (and even then, while only being packaged with the other Fly films), and likely some fans expressed disappointment because there is no “fly”. (Well, that’s the exploitation business for you- where some fun can be had while being had.) Still, fret not- if you want to see a monster movie, you’ll get what you pay for- the monster however appears in a more human form, which is perhaps even more creepy. That somehow seems fitting for a movie where nothing is as it originally appears.

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