The Fly II: Special Edition Review

“Like father, like son…”

Three years after David Cronenberg repulsed audiences with The Fly - a superior remake of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 cheapie - 20th Century Fox greenlit the inevitable sequel. The success of Cronenberg’s film must have been a surprise to many people, including the director himself. It remains his most profitable picture, and was greeted with great reviews; despite the OTT gore effects. Yet, it was filled with genuine emotion, and characters that the viewer could identify with. The auteur has always possessed a talent for filling his films with meaning; often through the most unlikely of stories. The Fly is also his purest use of the “body horror” theme - a thread evident in most of his work, from his ultra low budget debut Shivers, to modern examples like Crash and eXistenZ. With the poor Seth Brundle (sympathetically played by Jeff Goldblum), the director explored his fascination with flesh to the full; as Brundle slowly deteriorates, before turning into the horrid creature of the title. He even included an effective romance, giving the fantastical story an emotional anchor.

The Fly II is hardly in the same league…

Released to poor reviews in 1989, it’s a million miles away from Cronenberg’s thoughtful, nauseating masterpiece. Yes, the gore effects are still top-notch, but aspects like story and characterisation were quickly thrown aside. The directorial duties passed to Chris Walas, who handled the make-up effects on the Cronenberg picture; making him an ideal candidate in the eyes of studio moguls. Some audiences might be pleased that Walas went in a different direction with the films story, but anyone with a knowledge of the ageing franchise will know that The Fly II takes its cue from Return of the Fly - the original sequel to Neumann’s classic. Hollywood must have been getting desperate when they essentially rehashed an entire series of films. Like Return, the sequel follows the exploits of the The Fly’s spawn; in this case, Martin Brundle (Eric Stoltz).

As the film begins, we see a Geena Davis look-a-like (Saffron Henderson) giving birth to Martin; who is squeezed out in some sort of insect pod. The doctors split open the larvae to reveal a seemingly-normal baby boy. Unfortunately, his mother dies during the procedure, making Martin an orphan. From his birth onward, he is kept and raised in a research laboratory, at the sinister Bartok Industries. Due to his fly genes, Martin possesses accelerated growth, and becomes an adult in five short years. The head of the corporation, Mr. Bartok (Lee Richards) manipulates Martin into helping them perfect the telepods Seth Brundle left in his lab - the dreaded machines that fused man with fly. However, as Martin gets deeper into the project, and as he falls in love with late night co-worker Beth (Daphne Zuniga), he begins to uncover Mr. Bartok’s nefarious plans. Soon, he starts to exhibit insect characteristics, and attempts to find a cure before his human self is lost completely…

Despite its flaws, time has been kind to The Fly II. I remember the first time I saw it, which happened to be on television. Like many people I downright loathed it, especially since I watched it in quick succession with Cronenberg’s effort. Perhaps it was the absence of anticipation, but I enjoyed The Fly II much more on my recent viewing. In most respects, no one should go into the sequel expecting the same kind of film. Walas doesn’t care about the deep, emotional story arcs, or subtext. He made a simple, straightforward monster movie. There’s nothing intelligent about it. If you treat The Fly II in the same way you’d treat a Friday the 13th or Halloween, then you’ll probably enjoy it for the simple elements it gets right.

Remarkably, the film is attributed to four screenwriters, based on a story by Stephen King-regular Mick Garris. Among them, was future Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, who has come a long way since. The progression of the story, and the simple, exposition-riddled dialogue help to undermine the enterprise, but for the first 30-minutes, The Fly II holds some promise on a narrative level. Martin’s incarceration in Bartok Industries is actually pretty interesting - the government conspiracy aspects of the tale are a logical route following the events of the first film, but the writers never make the most of it. Instead, we get a few old-fashioned scares, as the young Martin (played in the early scenes by Harley Cross) sneaks around the compound; uncovering their secrets. He discovers a room filled with animals - all used for experimentation - and becomes rather attached to a dog. On his return, the cage is empty, but Martin soon finds his treasured pooch; who is placed into one of the telepods by a foolish scientist. Those who remember the baboon sequence from the first film will know what to expect - the poor animal emerges as a deformed monster; relegated to a dark observation room, where scientists monitor their latest “creation”. It’s a cheap attempt to pull on the audience’s heartstrings, but I’ll be the first to admit that the tactic actually works. It really sells the heartless nature of Mr. Bartok and his colleagues; getting a brilliant pay-off in the final scene, which is wonderfully ironic.

The problem with The Fly II, is that we never once care about the characters. In fact, that damn dog is the only being we ever feel sympathy for. There’s a number of reasons for this, beginning with the weak script, and ending with the performances. The cast is disappointing to say the least, yet the material didn’t give them much room to breathe. Zuniga is entirely wasted as Martin’s love interest, and doesn’t project the inner turmoil that Davis’ character did so well. While it was important to allow Martin to confide in another character, she’s just too poorly-written to register. She also has little chemistry with Stoltz. The only actors to make an impression are Richardson, and John Getz, who returns as the unlucky Stathis Borans. The former is perfectly slimy as Bartok, revelling in the chance to play a complete bastard. Getz meanwhile, appears briefly in two scenes; stealing the film with his limited screen-time.

Which leaves us with Stoltz. The Pulp Fiction star is no bad actor, and he has proven time and time again that he has the chops to pull off demanding roles. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem right for the good-willed Martin, with little in the way of range. He’s either subdued or over-the-top, depending on the scene. That isn’t to say his performance is awful; far from it. Stoltz has always been better suited to darker, more sinister characters, and in that respect, we never really root for him - we do, after all, want to see him transform into the fly, so we can get what we came for…gore!

Most of the mayhem doesn’t occur until the last act, but it’s definitely worth waiting for. Walas excels in this area - the make-up effects certainly match the first film for overall panache. The director doesn’t go into the details of Martin’s slow change into Brundlefly, but he doesn’t need to. The prosthetics on Stoltz are top-notch (at least as far as 80’s techniques go), yet the eventual creature is a mite under whelming (it doesn’t look like a fly). That said, the climax is pretty satisfying, as the creature begins rampaging around the bowels of Bartok Industries. It’s a very familiar scenario, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Among the gory highlights, is a man’s face burnt off by fly-juice; another sole’s head crushed under an elevator, and Bartok’s inevitable comeuppance. The violence is certainly the films best element, and Walas manages to provide some indelible images. He also wraps up the film in a satisfactory manner, with the final frame lingering in the memory.

Ultimately, The Fly II is an underrated sequel. It’s no classic, and conforms to the law of diminishing returns, but it’s not the abomination some people will lead you to believe. As a stripped-down, simplistic horror yarn, it pushes the right buttons; providing a true guilty pleasure. Fans of the series are advised to give it another chance.

The Discs

While a “Special Edition” of Cronenberg’s classic was pretty much a given, few people expected Fox to give the sequel a deluxe overhaul too; myself included. But fans of the picture should be ecstatic, since The Fly II really impresses in this two-disc package. With a fine transfer, and a very generous platter of supplements, it’s everything a fan will need to re-evaluate Walas’ gooey concoction…

The Look and Sound

I have yet to see the new edition of Cronenberg’s original, but online critics have congratulated the studio for its excellent transfer. It seems that Fox maintained the quality for The Fly II, since the anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) presentation is very good indeed. From the get-go, this transfer makes the previous DVD obsolete. The colour reproduction is excellent, while those all-important black levels are maintained with care (I’d say 90% of the film occurs at night, or in darkened corridors, so this is a plus). Lighter scenes are pretty good too, with accurate skin tones, and a fair amount of detail. Compression artefacts are absent, and the only problems arise from the sheer age of the materials - a light coating of grain, and the odd, minute instance of print damage. A few specks of dirt aside, the transfer is clean and vibrant. I wasn’t expecting The Fly II to look this good, but it manages to hold its own.

Fox also award the film with a fine assortment of audio options. We get both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS tracks, and like the video transfer, they defy their age. The DTS option gives the film a fuller range, and its certainly a great experience - every creepy sound, or mushy gore effect has great resonance. Dialogue is crisp and entirely audible, and incidental effects are transferred well. The surrounds are used greatly; especially the rears, with menace creeping up on you. But the most effective element of the soundtrack, is Christopher Young’s score. It has an epic sweep, that is utilised to full effect on this transfer. While these tracks won’t hold a candle to modern studio fare, they still amaze for a film made in 1989. Brilliant.

The studio also provides a Dolby Surround track in Spanish, and a Stereo track in French. The film is accompanied by English and Spanish subtitles.

Bonus Material

There was clearly a great archive of material for The Fly II, and instead of cramming it all onto one disc, the studio wisely spread it across a double-disc package. It’s a very entertaining collection, and aficionados will appreciate the depth some of these materials enter.

Disc One

Audio Commentary by director Chris Walas and film historian Bob Burns

This is a fitting start to the supplements, and provides an honest and rather frank retrospective on the film. Walas is initially reluctant to open up about the film, but after some prodding from Burns, he soon gets chatting. The director is very vocal about what worked in the film, and what didn’t, and the passing of time hasn’t effected his memory of the shoot. He offers insight on how he achieved the gore effects, commenting on his background in the field. Walas is also unafraid to mention the critical drubbing that The Fly II received on its release. Burns meanwhile, is a good host, with a fine roster of questions to ask the filmmaker.

The first disc also includes an alternative ending, which is certainly worth a look. It is radically different to the conclusion that eventually made the cut; although I won’t spoil it for those reading this page. There’s also a brief deleted scene, in which Martin terrorises a car full of kids. Unfortunately, it just isn’t scary, but it’s good to have the scene here for posterity. You’ll also find trailers for the original The Fly, the Cronenberg remake, Return Of The Fly, Aliens, and The Omen.

Disc Two

The materials here are mostly video-based, beginning with:

“The Fly Papers: The Buzz On Hollywood's Scariest Insect”

This is just brilliant, and almost makes the disc worth buying for this feature alone. It’s both extensive and exhaustive; documenting the history and popularity of this series. Beginning with the original Vincent Price classic and its sequel, the documentary is a loving, fact-filled piece, filled with input from the horror genres most memorable faces. Talk then turns to Cronenberg’s update, with a fine smattering of behind-the-scenes footage. This is a lengthy but very entertaining history lesson on the series, narrated with a great deal of charm by Leonard Nimoy; revealing the documentary’s age. Still, fans won’t complain - it’s a brilliant extra.

“Transformations: Looking Back On The Fly II”

Naturally, this covers the special effects contained in The Fly II, and runs for a little over 50-minutes. There’s a great deal of footage from the set, and new interview material, including Walas. We get to see some of the effects being created, mixed with the eventual scene. It’s very intriguing for fans of schlock-cinema, and featurettes focusing on gore always get my attention.

“Composer's Master Class - Christopher Young”

This is pretty self-explanatory, providing a new interview with the gifted musician. For around 13-minutes, Young discusses the mood he was trying to set with the film, and how he achieved his goals. There’s some talk of his other work, but this mostly concentrates on his score for The Fly II.

But that’s not everything! Fox also provide the original 1989 featurette, used to promote the film on its release. It’s forgettable, and only lasts for 5-minutes, but does include an interview with Stoltz; who was very serious about the role. Completing the set, are two trailers, a clutch of storyboards, a film production journal, and a storyboard-to-film comparison, which has optional commentary from Walas. An excellent presentation, overall.

The Bottom Line

Yes, The Fly II is inferior to Mr. Cronenberg’s masterpiece, but it doesn’t deserve the critical venom that it received all those years ago. Watching it now, the film functions well-enough as a simple, gore-ridden monster movie, with great make-up effects. It doesn’t possess the complex themes or emotion of The Fly, but passes the time like any dumb horror film should. Fox’s “Special Edition” is just that - an outstanding two-disc set, that should please both fans of the film and connoisseurs of the genre.

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