Return of the Fly (1959) ***
I can’t say I had very high hopes for this film. To begin with, it is extremely rare for a made-on-the-cheap, quickie sequel to a well done, intelligent horror or sci-fi movie to be any good at all. If you doubt me, I’m sure your local Blockbuster has a wealth of crummy direct-to-video sequels to much better theatrical-release horror flicks for you to turn to by way of example. But more important in causing my initial wariness toward Return of the Fly was the information that had come my way regarding its premise. Most capsule reviews I had read went something like this: “The son of The Fly’s misguided scientist continues his father’s experiments with identical results.” Given that The Fly’s story hinges on a relatively unlikely stroke of bad luck, I had a hard time imagining an excuse for putting Philippe DeLambre in the same unfortunate position that would come across as anything but an excuse. But few things are as satisfying as being pleasantly surprised by something that you actively expected to be crap, and it pleases me to be able to say that I was wrong about this movie.
Oh, it starts inauspiciously enough. The first thing you’ll notice is that Return of the Fly was shot on black and white film, rather than the more expensive color stock used for The Fly, a veritable neon sign reading, “the studio didn’t think this movie was worth spending any money on.” Then we realize that we are watching the funeral of Helene DeLambre, a development that seems to say, “we had a hard time convincing the original cast to come back for the sequel.” Our sense of alarm is increased further by the revelation that Inspector Charras has also been written out of the story, his place taken by a subordinate called Beecham (John Sutton, from The Bat), who is portrayed as having assisted Charras on the DeLambre case despite the fact that he was nowhere to be seen in the previous film! At least the producers managed to hang on to Vincent Price, who reprises his role as François DeLambre. After Helene’s funeral, Philippe (Brett Halsey, who had previously appeared in The Atomic Submarine, and who would go on to lend his talents to an Italian horror movie called A Cat in the Brain) insists that his uncle François finally come clean about the death of his father all those years ago. After some protestation, François caves in and takes Philippe to the DeLambre Brothers electronics factory, where Andre DeLambre ended his life under a hydraulic press. And here we come to yet another cause for alarm for the future of this movie, the fact that Andre’s lab (which, you may remember, was located in the basement of his home) has been transported, as if via one of his teleportation machines, to the basement of DeLambre Brothers! As François shows Philippe around the still-unrepaired-after-all-these-years laboratory (apparently the same set as was used in the first film-- another dollar saved!), he tells the story of Andre’s accidental transformation and subsequent death, making sure to get in a couple of riffs on the ever-popular “some things man was not meant to know” theme. Philippe, of course, is not impressed, and the sight of the ruined lab only makes him more determined than ever to follow in his father’s footsteps.
But then, without warning, Return of the Fly goes and turns itself into quite a good movie. Philippe clandestinely sets up his own lab in the very basement where his father’s ought to have been with the help of Alan Hinds (David Frankham, who later played the doctor who wasn’t Basil Rathbone in the third segment of Tales of Terror/Poe’s Tales of Terror), an employee of his uncle’s. With Alan’s assistance, Philippe is able to secure copies of his father’s notes and plans without François knowing about it. François is a smart guy, though; he doesn’t need to see Philippe abscond with Andre’s notebooks to figure out what’s going on down in the cellar of the DeLambre mansion, and before long, he pays Philippe a visit in his new lab. This turns out to be something of a blessing for Philippe, in that the younger DeLambre is just about out of money with which to fund his experiments. By threatening to sell his half of DeLambre Brothers, Philippe is able to lever his uncle into backing him financially, and providing technical assistance as well. It’s a major coup for Philippe, and with François on board, it looks like he may actually succeed in his labors.
Unfortunately for the DeLambres, though, the situation is rather more complex than it seems, for Alan Hinds is rather more complex than he seems. In fact, he isn’t Alan Hinds at all, but rather a British career criminal by the name of Ronald Holmes. Holmes means to steal Philippe’s work and sell the finished product, with the aid of an equally unscrupulous undertaker named Max Berthold (Dan Seymour), to the highest bidder. The trouble with this plan is that Holmes is a wanted man, and one night, an English policeman shows up in the lab, waiting to arrest him. It’s late and everyone else has gone to bed, so Holmes figures it’s worth the risk of trying to use Philippe’s teleportation machine to disintegrate the cop. The gambit works, but again there’s a snag. Earlier that day, you see, Philippe and “Alan” disintegrated a guinea pig with the intention of storing its molecules until the next day, at which point they would attempt to re-materialize the creature. Obviously, there will be some explaining to do if Philippe resumes the experiment in the morning and gets a detective with a head wound instead of an overweight rodent. So Holmes takes another gamble, and re-integrates the cop; imagine his surprise when two creatures materialize in the second booth, a dead Englishman with hairy, rodent-like paws and a guinea pig with human hands and feet. (A note to the punks: Watching this movie raised to a whole new level my appreciation of how incredibly fucking stupid the lyrics to the Misfits’ “Return of the Fly” really are.) Holmes then crushes the deformed animal with a big piece of machinery and puts the cop in the trunk of his car which he then drives into a lake.
But Holmes’s problems still aren’t over. When he returns to the lab, he encounters Philippe, who is understandably curious about why his partner was driving somebody else’s ‘58 Fury away from the mansion with the lights off, why there is a large, inexpertly cleaned bloodstain on the laboratory floor, and why there should be a pair of police handcuffs lying amid the clutter in the lab. Holmes explains himself by pulling a gun on Philippe, and ordering him to unlock the cabinet in which he keeps all his notes and plans. When Philippe hits him on the head with the handcuffs instead, the confrontation turns into a badly-choreographed brawl, which ends with Philippe knocked senseless and locked in the disintegration chamber. Just to be that much more of a bastard, Holmes catches a fly, and puts it into the chamber with Philippe-- it seems like a funny thing to do, because Philippe claims to have had a life-long horror of flies, and it would doubtless seem even funnier to Holmes if he knew the reason for Philippe’s phobia. Holmes then disintegrates Philippe, grabs the plans to the machine, and makes his escape.
Of course, it doesn’t take François and Cecile (The Magic Sword’s Danielle De Metz; I still haven’t figured out whether she’s supposed to be Philippe’s wife, his girlfriend, or just the housekeeper’s daughter) very long to realize what happened and re-integrate Philippe. But after they do, they find good reason to wish they hadn’t. He pops back into existence with (that’s right) a fly’s head, and two-- count ‘em, two-- fly limbs, one in place of his left arm, the other in place of his right leg. Naturally, there’s also a correspondingly scrambled fly buzzing around in the chamber, and both creatures escape when the fly-man smashes the booth and flees into the night. The rest of the movie has the fly-man prowling around Montreal seeking vengeance, Beecham’s police force attempting to apprehend the fugitive monster, and the DeLambre family combing the house for the man-fly just like last time. But contrary to all expectations, Return of the Fly also has a couple of surprises up its sleeve.
On the balance, I’d say that Return of the Fly is fully the equal of its predecessor. True, it lacks the earlier film’s integrity as a work of science fiction, working more as a straight monster movie. And true again, it’s an almost ludicrously cheap flick; notice how much time and effort Brett Halsey spends trying to keep his fly head from falling off as he runs, and note also the way in which the close-ups of the man-fly make the spider puppet from the original The Fly look like the work of Industrial Light and Magic. And of course, there’s the small matter of Vincent Price’s acting, which suggests that his surprisingly restrained, subtle performance in The Fly was just a fluke. On the other hand, it moves at a much faster pace than the first film, and I think it deserves a heaping pile of credit for coming up with a genuinely plausible way of turning Philippe into the same sort of monster as his father. Making a sequel that is exactly the same movie as its predecessor may work alright in the zombie and slasher genres, but to follow that route in a sequel to a film like The Fly would be to insult our intelligence, and despite all appearances to the contrary (I am, after all, a Joe D’Amato fan), I do not generally appreciate having my intelligence insulted. But one need fear no such insult from Return of the Fly. Look no further than this film for proof that not all half-priced sequels suck.