The Curse of the Fly (1965) ***
When I first heard about this movie (it’s never been released on videotape, and it has reared its head on TV only very rarely during my lifetime), my initial reaction was something to the effect of: “Okay guys-- you’re really pushing your luck here. I can see why the Delambre boys would want to keep working on Andre’s teleportation gizmo, even in the face of two horrific mishaps, but you’d think the events of the last two movies would have left them very sensitive to the need to keep insects out of the lab whenever the machine was being used.” I mean, come on-- how many times can you “accidentally” stick a fly’s head on a guy before the audience refuses to buy it anymore? But considering how much thought the writer of Return of the Fly put into the need to get around this problem the last time around, I ought to have expected rather more from The Curse of the Fly than I did. And sure enough, this movie takes the most elegant way of all out of the suspension-of-disbelief trap: The Curse of the Fly features no fly-headed guys at all! Instead, it focuses on exactly what its title suggests-- the deleterious effect that a continuing obsession with Andre Delambre’s teleportation machine has had on his descendants, an effect which approaches in its destructiveness the level of a literal curse.
Our story begins with the escape of a young woman named Patricia Stanley (Carole Gray, from Island of Terror and Devils of Darkness) from the mental hospital in which we will later learn she has been confined ever since the death of her mother some years ago. Her escape seems to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision, as she hasn’t even bothered to get dressed first. She just smashes the window to her ground-floor cell, leaps over the sill, and runs off into the night in her underwear. So when she meets up with a passing motorist on the road a while later, it is understandable that the man stops to see if there’s something wrong. The driver turns out to be Martin Delambre (George Baker, who showed up in a variety of minor roles in many of the James Bond movies), the great-grandson (I think-- more on this later) of Andre Delambre, and it just so happens that he and Patricia are both headed for Montreal. Martin, you see, is on a combined business trip-vacation, for the dual purpose of procuring some vital pieces of equipment for his research and taking a much-needed break from the same. Patricia doesn’t really seem to know why she’s going to Montreal; she has no friends or family there, nor does she have a home or a job to go back to in the city. Maybe she just figures it’s the nearest place large enough for her to hide from the asylum employees who are sure to come looking for her when they find her cell empty the next morning. But as it happens, Martin himself proves ample reason for her to stay in Montreal, at least for so long as he’s there, and when the time comes for him to go back to his lab out in the country, she decides she’d like to accompany him there as well. Indeed, Martin and Patricia go and get themselves hitched as the last act of their Montreal adventure.
If ever you needed an illustration of why it’s a bad idea to marry someone you just met a week ago, allow me to suggest The Curse of the Fly. Patricia understandably said nothing to Martin about her escape from an insane asylum, so we can reasonably expect some unpleasant surprises in his future. But that’s nothing compared to the secret Martin is keeping from Patricia. Given that he’s a Delambre, we have some idea what his “research” consists of from the moment he first mentions his name; though he may keep it a secret from Patricia that he’s building a teleportation machine, he can’t keep it a secret from us. Now, considering what happened to Andre and Philippe Delambre in connection with their work on the same project, this could well turn into something that Patricia would want to know about. Then again, she might be even more interested in the fact that Martin turns all gross and lumpy and scaly if he doesn’t shoot himself up with some sort of drug periodically. It doesn’t take a Nobel laureate to figure out that Martin’s two big secrets are connected, and of course they are, if indirectly. Apparently Philippe Delambre kept some fly genes in his system even after he got his own head and limbs back at the end of Return of the Fly, and passed those genes on to his descendants. Martin’s problem is that his body wants to age as rapidly as a fly’s, by which standard he should have died in infancy. The drug he injects controls this accelerated aging, and can even reverse it if it is administered in time, but if he misses a dose, all that time catches up to him in mere minutes. It’s a bad scene all around, and we can forgive the man for wanting to keep a lid on the story.
Now, about that research... As we learn when Martin arrives back home at the mansion in whose basement the lab has been built, both Andre and Philippe Delambre took some of the secrets of the teleporter with them to the grave; the device, in its third incarnation, simply does not work properly. Oh, it’ll zap things and people from place to place most effectively-- Martin’s lab in the Quebec countryside has a mate in London, where his father Henri (Brian Donlevy, best known to folks like us for his portrayal of Professor Quatermass in The Creeping Unknown and Enemy from Space) and brother Albert (Michael Graham) work, and the two labs have been transporting things back and forth across the Atlantic for some time. The problem is that anything living that enters one teleportation cabinet leaves the other one all kinds of fucked up. Henri got off lightly on his last trip to London-- his back is covered with a skin deformity similar to a huge keloid scar, though he stupidly insists on lying to Martin, claiming that his trip was a complete success. Previous volunteers, it is hinted, were not as lucky as Henri. The equipment Martin picked up in Montreal was meant to address this problem.
So who were the previous guinea pigs, and what became of them? Patricia finds out the day after her arrival at the Delambre place when she goes out into the backyard to hide from Police Inspector Ronet (Jeremy Wilkins of Hyper Sapien: People from Another Star), who has come looking for her on behalf of the asylum from which she escaped back at the beginning of the film. While Henri and Martin attempt to convince the detective that Patricia is a Delambre now, and that the asylum will thus have to go through them in order to re-commit her, Patricia herself stumbles upon a row of locked stables, each of which contains some hideous creature. Yup, these are the old volunteers, alright. The teleporter has left them missing eyes or ears; covered in bulging, rugose, scar-like patches; paralyzed in one or more limbs; and even apparently brain-damaged. As we shall soon see, most of these creatures had once been colleagues of the Delambres, but one, the young woman (Mary Manson) in the stall on the far left, had been Martin Delambre’s first wife, Judith! Patricia faints dead away when she lays eyes on the deformed things in the stables, and when she comes to, her husband and father-in-law try to convince her that her faint was merely due to the stress of Ronet’s surprise visit, and that her encounter with Judith and company was just a nightmare she had while unconscious.
And thus the broad pattern for the movie is established. Patricia will go on seeing things she shouldn’t, and Martin and Henri (the latter especially) will play upon her knowledge of her own mental problems in an effort to keep her from learning the truth. Meanwhile, Ronet will be checking into the background of Patricia’s new family, eventually learning the whole sordid story from the now-retired Inspector Charras (Charles Carson), who had been in charge of investigating the death of Andre Delambre in the original The Fly. And back in London, Albert Delambre is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the sacrifices his father demands of him in the name of the family project. When Ronet finishes putting the pieces together at just about the same time that Albert finally loses his patience and Patricia finally uncovers irrefutable evidence that she really has been seeing all that she believed she had, time has run out for the Delambres, and all hell breaks lose on all three fronts. This time, when all is said and done, the prospects for a third sequel are looking pretty slim.
Among those few who remember it, The Curse of the Fly has about the worst reputation imaginable, and I suspect that goes some way toward explaining its never having seen release on videotape. What seems to bother most people is the complete absence of any flies from the proceedings, which, I admit, could easily get in the way of one’s appreciation of a movie called The Curse of the Fly. But in my opinion, that refusal to do what the audience expects is the best thing about this movie. Yet another fly-in-the-teleporter mishap would be extremely hard to swallow, and the legacy of so intelligent a movie as The Fly really ought not to be tarnished by the sort of dumb-as-a-stump sequel that a more conventional approach would surely have yielded. That what the filmmakers came up with instead is a worthy continuation of the series can, I believe, be seen in the fact that many of the ideas explored here would turn up later in a more intense and horrific form in David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly and its unfortunate 1989 sequel. The concept of the teleportation device functioning as a gene splicer, the special inability of the machine to handle living subjects, the idea that two objects transported at the same time would be fused together rather than have their parts mixed and matched-- Cronenberg would borrow all of these from The Curse of the Fly, and though Cronenberg wove them into a more satisfying whole than is the case here, this movie doesn’t deserve anything like the opprobrium it has received. The worst things I can think of to say about it are that it suffers from an extremely English sense of pacing, and that its creators seem to have had some difficulty keeping the chronology of its back-story straight. At one point, Henri says that three generations of Delambres have devoted their lives to the teleporter project, which would seem to make him the son of Return of the Fly’s Philippe. Then again, when Charras (who would have to be about 120 years old by now if Henri is Philippe’s son) tells Ronet the story of his involvement with the Delambres, he seems to telescope the events of both earlier movies into a single incident, in which case Martin and Albert are that third generation, and Henri is the son of a composite Andre-Philippe character whose post-accident history more closely resembles Philippe’s than Andre’s. Or maybe the character this movie calls Charras is really supposed to be Return of the Fly’s Inspector Beecham. Finally, I suppose it’s also possible that Charras is just senile (which, again, would be no shock at his age), and can no longer keep the two elder Delambres and their similar stories straight. In any event, no one involved in its creation seems to have given much thought to the idea that this movie most likely takes place some 70 years after The Fly. But taken on its own terms, with only minimal reference to its two predecessors, The Curse of the Fly is a thoughtful, well-crafted film that deserves far better than has been its lot in life.