Insect Asides

THE RETURN OF THE FLY — I thought maybe I’d seen this, but when I stuck it in the Panasonic and was surprised to find it was in b&w, I knew I hadn’t. And since it appears in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, and since I’m sworn to see every film illustrated in that green-tinged tome, I had to see Edward Bernds’s sequel.

We begin at a funeral, and I assume this to be that of the protag from Film 1. “He died as he lived, with a massive insect head on his shoulders…” I imagine a coffin with a massive bulbous bit at one end, and another tiny coffin next to it, for the “help me” fly-guy. But no! This is the funeral of Mrs Fly, who died of grief some years later. Now her adult son has returned to continue dad’s work in teleportation, rather like Eric Stoltz in THE FLY II.

Again the setting is, pointlessly, Montreal (or is there an assumption that if you lived in Montreal you’d HAVE to invent the telepod just to get out?). Again, Vincent Price is on hand as a gloomy best friend, rather a waste of his horror movie talents, but Uncle Winnie is always welcome. Here, he has to explain how Mr Fly Snr wound up with a fly’s head and arm (arm?). I have to admit I’m curious about how this will play out — he can’t just get ANOTHER arthropod in his telepod, and ANOTHER fly head stuck on his neck, can he? And yet, if a fly isn’t involved somehow, it’s rather a cheat on the title, isn’t it?

Whizzkid Brett Halsey has a morbid horror of houseflies, we soon learn, which is reasonable enough considering his family history. Soon he’s disintegrating rats and leaving them whirling about as disembodied molecular streams overnight, but his lab assistant, a shifty Cary Elwes type Englishman, is plotting to con him out of his invention. At this point, I start to hope we’re going to get a human-rat fusion, and when an unwelcome snooper gets disintegrated and then reintegrated, we do!

Horror upon horror!

What director Bernds lacks in vowels, he makes up for in truly fucked-up imagery. I think I’m in love.

Disgusted with his new-born rodent detective, the proto-Elwes disposes of the man-handed rodent by stamping savagely upon its little furry torso (and we actually see it BULGE beneath the pressure!), but the dead detective with the giant joke-shop paws can’t be gotten rid of so easily. Bundling the furry-fisted flic into the trunk of a gigantic finned monstermobile, he arranges the proverbial watery grave for both man and Merc’.

But! What seems like mere seconds later, wunderkind Brett Halsey (a no-name actor who literally HAS no name, just a series of random syllables) is roundly pummeling the bad guy — only to get knocked unconscious and placed in the transportation booth. Adding bio-insult to injury, the villain deliberately picks a fly out of the sugar bowl and casts it into the booth with young Halsey, consigning the pair to a conjoined future. Poor Halsey, hoist by his own telepetard.

The bad guy flees, shooting Uncle Winnie in the nearest spleen, and then the cops arrive and start shooting at Halsey-fly, who runs away into the grounds, catching his vast head on overhanging branches. Perhaps as a side-effect of having a fly’s leg, he runs like a man carrying an Olympic torch clenched between his buttocks. The sight of the fly-headed man clambering over a low fence is inexplicably hilarious (inexplicable that it should be any funnier than him just walking).

Meanwhile, a housefly with the head of Brett Halsey is buzzing about, going “Help me!” Why do man-headed flies always say that? Maybe, like Roald Dahl’s vermicious knids, they only know how to say one thing. More importantly, why have I never seen this film before? It’s like THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE made by a talented director who cares, rather than a fast-fading Roy Del Ruth, staving off extinction by perambulating a muppet through a mock-up everglade. And yet it’s exactly as bad as THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. Which is amazing! Orson Welles was right — it has no limitations!

The human-head is represented at first by what looks like a real fly wearing a tiny Don Post Studios mask, then by a cheap superimposition, with a translucent Halsey visage shimmering where a set of mandibles ought to be. Either approach is aces with me, as long as he gets more to do than cry “Help me!” in a Mickey Mouse falsetto.

OK, so now fly-head is off on a mad quest for vengeance against people who, as a transplanted insect, he has no possible knowledge of, gamely maneuvering his space-hopper cranium through doorways, clanging it against metallic ceiling lamps, and pincering everyone in his path. Bernds’ script, hitherto a model of Holmesian logic, now falls at the hurdle of imagining “the murderous thoughts of a fly.” Not only is he attacking his body’s enemies, he knows how to open doors, something I never saw a fly do. Fiona suggests maybe flybody and flyhead are each sharing one hemisphere of the scientist’s brain, and this is slightly borne out by the romantic interest the big fellow shows in nubile Danielle de Metz. I never saw a fly do that, either. Yet the good guys still hope to persuade him back into the pod so his various bits can be jumbled back together.

In one way, fly-guy shouldn’t be funny at all — with his outsized head, big hand and misshapen, dragging foot, he has the proportions of John Merrick. But the filmmakers seem somewhat sensible to his comedy potential — time and again his physical awkwardness is highlighted, as when he has to nudge his big clawed foot to get it over a bannister he’s climbing, or when his enormous head gets caught in some net curtains. Throughout his bug-eyed ordeal, he remains neatly dressed in a natty suit, an unbuttoned collar his only concession to comfort (I can imagine Groucho’s response: “A trained scientist, running around open at the neck? With a fly’s head? The idea!”) At times, the effect puts me in mind of the late Frank Sidebottom.

Bernds eschews the multi-faceted fly-eye POV shots which are a principle distinguishing touch in Kurt Neumann’s original, presumably considering such playfulness beneath his dignity. Have another look at that guinea pig and see if you think his concern is justified.

A happy ending! Even for the fly! Next came CURSE OF THE FLY, which I saw ages ago. British-made, it has a really striking opening with a woman smashing through a window and running in slomo through the woods… and then it gets a bit dull. Dependable journeyman Don Sharp directed, Brian “Quatermass” Donlevy plays another member of the ill-starred Delambre family of scientists, and the movie was British-made.

I should investigate the world of ’50s Twentieth Century Fox sci-fi horror — there does seem to be an interesting, crazed camp sensibility going on. Meanwhile, I can’t leave the subject without a nod to MANT! ~

From MANT! directed by the fictitious Laurence Woolsey, from MATINEE, directed by the factual Joe Dante.

27 Responses to “Insect Asides”

  1. Like Ian McCulloch (the actor, not Echo) and Richard Johnson, Brett Halsey added class to some some dodgy Fulci trash.

    Did you see this?

  2. Yep, you read that right. Some “some” dodgy trash.

  3. Something even BETTER from Joe Dante:

  4. Reckless Youth is so accurate it hurts!

    Am about to read the Thomson piece. I’ll try not to quibble with his selections, because the field is way open.

    Which Fulci was Halsey in? I see some Bava and Cozzi…

  5. Halsey was in Fulci’s erotic thriller THE DEVIL’S HONEY (the one which opens with an amazing sax scene) and TOUCH OF DEATH (entire grisly chunks of which crop up in the uproarious A CAT IN THE BRAIN [“Fulci! What are you doing, Fulci? Fulci!”]).

  6. Oh, and I see Halsey also got top billing in Fulci’s DEMONIA, which I hadn’t even heard of.

  7. The next Fulci I watch will be Sette Note in Nero, AKA The Psychic, with Jennifer O’Neil, which looks pretty cool.

  8. Christopher Says:

    I guess I haven’t seen Return of the Fly either now…None of the images is familiar..I remember the first and 3rd ones tho…I thought I’d seem “Matinee”also,till I saw it last sunday..Pretty fun seeing the old timers in that carrying on like it was 1962.
    Theres a laugh out loud moment in The Revenge of The Creature when the gillman chucks Brett Halsey and sends him gliding on strings into some palm trees.
    Halsey also did several spaghetti westerns including one of the ones directed by Mario Bava.

  9. The more I investigate Bernds, the more promising he seems. Apart from the renowned Queen of Outer Space, enough in itself to make him immortal, he directed America’s first time travel movie, which featured Rod Taylor BEFORE The Time Machine. We might have another William Castle here, the difference being that Castle was attracted to weird plot ideas and Bernds seems more interested in crazy images.

  10. David Boxwell Says:

    I have seen only one of Bernds’ works: QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (58). And to the think the QOOS is receiving the last rites as I write . . .

    He was one of the Artists in Allied Artists in the 1950s and respect must be paid!

    He was Capra’s sound man, and I can’t think of any sound recordist from the classic studio era who went on to direct, even if it was Bowery Boys yuck-yucks and Three Stooges nucks-nucks.

    Yeah, we hail Chuck Jones and Tex Avery for their genius bodies of work, yet a quick perusal of Bernds’ prolific body of work provides an even GREATER roster of punning titles. My absolute favorite: GET ALONG LITTLE ZOMBIE.

  11. Also: both Pardon My Terror AND Pardon My Clutch. I always like “Pardon My” titles, my favourite of course being the Abbot & Costello Pardon My Sarong, which strikes me as even more gloriously silly than Sturges’s spoof So Long Sarong.

  12. Christopher Says:

    Ha Ha!..that was better than Zita Johann in the Mummy..”save me from det Mummeh!”
    or Maria Montez…Gif me daht Cowbra Jool”
    Pardon My Schlong”

  13. Bernds also directed “World Without End,” a science-fiction picture I used to run into on Channel 11 in Los Angeles during my misspent youth.

    You have to admire any director who has the sense to have young Rod Taylor take his shirt off. Don’t remember much about the film other than that it featured Amazonian women (cf. “Queen of Outer Space”) and that, at some point or another, a giant spider leapt from behind a corner of a cave. Or was that “Missile to the Moon”?

    Those doors on display look a bit like “Forbidden Planet” …

  14. I’ve always thought ntonioni’s casting of Rod Taylor in <i.Zabriskie Point was the most baroque thing he ever did.

  15. Christopher Says:


  16. Montréal was the setting for George Langelaan’s original short story. In THE FLY (1958), the one location shot is some brief stock footage showing our Museum of Fine Arts.

    I was always amused by the character names which are French, as opposed to Québécois. It’s as if they made a film set in New York and the characters had names like Nigel Hawtrey or Alistair Beckham. Another inaccuracy is the continental police “Inspector” in the Fly films. In Montréal, he would have been a “Detective”.

  17. I just got a copy of World Without End, that’s the time travel one I was talking about. Psyched to see it!

    Queen of Outer Space recycles about everything from Forbidden Planet: costumes, sets, props, score — everything except the ideas. So I’m sure WWE partakes of the same pool.

    “It’s as if they made a film set in New York and the characters had names like Nigel Hawtrey or Alistair Beckham.”

    Heh! I like those examples. In reality, everyone in New York is called Dan.

  18. SEVEN NOTES IN BLACK is a surprisingly good little film. (QT used the music in KILL BILL 1 but don’t let that put you off.) Technically preferable to the cult gore flicks Fulci started to churn out two years later (Tarkovsky saw ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS in Italy in 1979 and called it “trash”) – in terms of Fulci’s other gialli, we actually preferred SEVEN NOTES to the better known ONE ON TOP OF THE OTHER, DON’T TORTURE THE DUCKLING and THE NEW YORK RIPPER, though it can’t touch the great LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN.

  19. Lizard would be a masterpiece if it had a better ending. An unpleasant arm injury does not constitute a climax! But the rest is sensational, a mad stylistic smorgasbord that’s utterly inspirational, makes you want to grab a camera and kill! Kill! Kill!

    The first minute of Seven Notes already shows Fulci’s later tendency to overuse his SFX so they go from shocking to hilarious to pathetic, but it seems more acceptable here than in, say, The Beyond.

  20. Agreed re those inserts in the opening scene of SEVEN NOTES. He used the same irritating technique (gorehounds probably consider it a “flourish”) in the final scene of DUCKLING back in 1972. Makes you want to shout, “Mr Fulci! What are you doing, Mr Fulci? STOP, FULCI!!”

  21. david wingrove Says:

    Isn’t SEVEN NOTES the one starring glamorous Jennifer O’Neill? I’ve often been dazzled by her elegance and cool (notably in Visconti’s sublime THE INNOCENT) but am put off by rumours that she’s actually a hard-core right-wing Republican.

    OK, if Brigitte Bardot, the idol of my impressionable childhood (thanks to VIVA MARIA!) can be a supporter of Le Pen and the Front National, I guess anything is possible. Still, it’s all a tad depressing.

  22. I keep reading that the Bardot connection with Le Pen was trumped up, but I don’t know enough about it to be sure.

    Since when could holding a shot until it ceases to work pass as a flourish? I guess there’s a little of that going on with the depressing realism school also…

  23. david wingrove Says:

    Brigitte did tell HELLO! magazine at the time she married one of Le Pen’s cronies “I am not marrying a political party, I am marrying the man I love!”

    Still, I guess Eva Braun could have said the same thing.

  24. Could you provide a link to your discussion of the film THEM? I didn’t see it among your considerations of other ’50s sf films. Thanks.

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