SHRIEK Women of Horror: The Fly

geena davis

by Evan J Peterson

Tuesday will be our second-to-last night of SHRIEK: A Women of Horror Film and Discussion Class, located in the Scarecrow Video screening room. This week, we’ll watch The Fly, David Cronenberg’s radical body horror remake that established a rare female viewpoint in the horror genre.

Stats on The Fly (1986)

Body count: One person, one baboon, and a lot of non-lethal gore

Nudity: male and female

Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Nope. The two named female characters never talk to one another without a man involved and between them.

Major protagonists: male and female

Villains/Antagonists: male

Major actors: Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum, John Getz

Director: David Cronenberg

Writers: Cronenberg and Charles Edward Pogue (screenplay), George Langelaan (story)

Several SHRIEK attendees have wondered why I chose this film. Geena Davis doesn’t portray a Final Girl, nor is she a villain or monster, and she splits the protagonist duties with Jeff Goldblum’s character. This speaks more to the audience than the quality of Davis’ character: audiences tend to forget how important, independent, and effective she is as a protagonist, albeit overshadowed by her lover, the monster.

The film opens with a wide shot of an industry party, the nature of which (science meets art) is only visible in little details. Immediately, Cronenberg has us looking at amalgamations.

The second shot is of Jeff Goldblum’s character, Seth Brundle. Now that we’re actually looking at characters and hearing them talk, we’ve been put into the viewpoint of Geena Davis’ character, the awkwardly named Veronica Quaife. She seems unimpressed with Brundle, who tries to impress her by vague-bragging about his latest invention that will “change the world.” He also invites her back to his laboratory (which is his loft apartment) with the promise of professional-machine-made cappuccino. Quaife is still unimpressed.

The power dynamic is immediately established: Quaife holds the power as the journalist looking for a suitably interesting scientific lead, and Brundle is the one who is at her intellectual mercy.

Moreover, this sets up the way of watching the film. While Goldblum and Davis do have lengthy, separate scenes from one another, and both are clear p.o.v. protagonists, when they’re together it’s usually about Davis watching Goldblum, documenting him, and figuring him out. This gives us a female character through which to see this story play out, undermining the “male gaze” of most films, in which the female body is filtered through a (heterosexual) male way of seeing her.

I first read about this in Linda Badley’s academic treatise Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic. I was familiar with Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze, but Badley points out how groundbreaking The Fly is in disrupting this.

While most horror films of the era rehashed images of the female body, often naked or topless, as sexualized and then stabbed, ripped, and otherwise destroyed, The Fly spends an unusually large of time sexualizing Jeff Goldblum’s body. He is presented to the viewer as far more sexy and more often naked than either Geena Davis or Joy Boushel, who plays the minor character Tawny. While Boushel’s breasts are exposed for the camera, Tawny is not a very “sexy” character—she’s costumed and made-up to look far rougher around the edges than Veronica. She’s presented to us not as “pretty” but as “easy.” Seth Brundle has significantly more nudity than either of them, much of which is presented to the viewer as pure eye candy.

It needs to be noted that Veronica and Tawny both spend several scenes watching Seth. Veronica records him on video as part of her journalistic work, while Tawny is watching Seth peacocking around to impress her. Again and again, Goldblum’s character is gazed upon from a female position of watching him show off, whether he’s demonstrating radical breakthroughs in science or beating a competing suitor at arm wrestling (with viscerally shocking results).

Cronenberg, it should be noted, is not “gay.” His sexuality seems to be more complicated than simply “straight,” though. He delights in bizarrely sexual science fiction and horror (which is one reason I adore his work), and he consistently presents male and female characters as vulnerable, though often powerful, in their nudity. I’ve read that he is indeed attracted to men, but that he hasn’t actually acted upon this. As in his films, Cronenberg’s own queerness is palpable but restrained.

I point this out because the very concept of the “male” and “female” gaze presupposes heterosexuality and other gender norms. Cronenberg isn’t just giving us tall, dark, and muscley Jeff Goldblum for his pleasure or for the audience’s. For a horror film at that time, he created a distinct way of seeing that belongs to most female viewers rather than most male.

After the nudity, of course, comes the gore. The Fly is an intensely gory film, yet only two characters actually die—one of them a charismatic baboon (I mean that literally—an actual baboon). This film is revolting, practically torture porn, except that it’s not one character torturing another with weapons. It’s the torture of Seth Brundle’s body slowly turning against him, literally disintegrating to reveal something alien underneath, and while Seth and Veronica can only watch.

Unlike the slasher vs. Final Girl formula, there’s a passive, receptive damage going on in The Fly. It’s not a killer stabbing (i.e., penetrating) sexy teenagers and then getting stabbed at the end by a tomboyish girl; it’s the woman and her lover watching as the man’s body and mind rots away. There’s something more stereotypically feminine about the whole film than the vast majority of horror films.

Cronenberg was of course aware of the AIDS crisis implications of this film, but that’s not his complete metaphor. Moreover, he wanted to make a love story about illness, not just about HIV. If we strip away the science fiction element, we have a tragic love story about degenerative illness. I’ve done my best to pick films for SHRIEK that feature more than just action and suspense. I want to show very human characters played by adept actresses and going through very human trials…plus monsters!

In my own view, the film isn’t feminist. I consider feminism something as diverse as those who believe in it, and that means one feminist’s disappointing protagonist is another’s girl-power hero. I see Veronica Quaife as a bit of both. She’s sexually harassed at work as well as stalked. As a woman in 1986, shortly before sexual harassment became very public issue in America, Veronica Quaife doesn’t laugh off this harassment or even take it in stride—she aggressively rebuffs these unwelcome advances. Then again, she ends up turning to her aggressor for support when things keep getting worse. Does this mean she’s in control, or outside of it?

Why doesn’t she have anyone else to turn to? Cronenberg claims that he intentionally kept the cast very small, necessitating that they turn to one another. This is the only conceivable reason why a clever, independent woman like Veronica Quaife would seek support from someone so volatile and aggressive, a character who even refers to himself as “scummy.” The film is conceived as an opera, complete with Howard Shore’s swooping score. The small cast and the tragic love story combine to raise the narrative power of this intentionally revolting horror film, and Cronenberg establishes a distinctly female viewpoint for the audience.

Join us this Tuesday for SHRIEK: The Fly!

You can reserve your space in the class here:

Stay tuned for our final session on The Babadook!

The SHRIEK community film class is designed to offer everybody an affordable, accessible way to learn about film and women’s studies while enjoying kick-ass heroines in some of the best horror films ever made. We hope to inspire more women to get involved in film making, especially in the horror genre, where women are severely underrepresented behind the camera.

Check the Scarecrow calendars for the Tuesday night horror flicks during October and November.

Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.

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