Curse of the Fly (1964) ***

Director: Don Sharp

Staring: Brian Donlevy, George Baker, and Carole Gray

Runtime: 1h 26m

Categories: House Full of Crazies, and Mad Science

The original The Fly (1958) took place in contemporary Montreal when it was released in 1958, its sequel which came out a year later took place 15 years after that; placing it in 1973. Aside from the fact that Philippe Delambre was a young man instead of a child there were no obvious changes to the setting. This is fair enough; speculating on what the world will look like fifteen years in the future is a lot more risky then speculating on what it might look like in 150. After all, you might be wrong, which is why Escape from New York (1981) seems ludicrous but Alien (1979) is still reasonable enough. However, the second sequel to The Fly (1958) really strains the limits of my faith in technological/societal stagnation. While no definite time-frame is given for the events of the third entry in the series, we have some clues. Philippe Delambre is already dead, and his son, Henri, has grown to old age and has two adult-aged sons of his own: Martin and Alan. So a conservative estimate would place this film at 50-60 years after the events of Return of the Fly (1959); so we’re looking at a movie that takes place in 2023-2033. At 60-70 years in the future, it is the most distant sci-fi film I’ve ever seen where the setting is not noticeably different from the world in which it was filmed. Indeed, in many ways the Curse of the Fly is a more traditional film than the original film, and would be better suited to the company on 1930s horror films than the 1960s.

The film opens with a woman, Pat, escaping from an asylum late at night, clad only in some rather unflattering grandma-style underwear. She is picked up by the latest scion of the Delambre family: Martin Delambre, who was just en-route to Montreal to purchase new equipment for the family’s teleporter. The two spend a romantic week together and pretty soon Martin asks Pat to marry him, and move in to his mansion in the countryside. One can be forgiven for assuming that Pat, who has just escape from the asylum, would have more emotional baggage and skeletons in her closet. However, that is not the case because the Delambre residence has, in the past few decades, devolved into a full-blown The Addams Family (1991) / The Old Dark House (1932) style mansion full of crazies. The patriarch Henri is a classic mad scientist, obsessed with progress at the expense of human lives. He himself suffers from terrible radiation burns as a result of reckless teleportation, and compared to his other test subjects he got off lightly. Those test subjects, which include two of his former lab assistants and Martin’s first wife Judith are now monstrous abominations. The creatures are kept locked up in the stables, as none of the Delambres has the stomach to dispose of the brutes, though at this point euthanasia would be considered the humane option. Martin is definitely less insane than his father, but he shares his dream of affordable teleportation at any cost. He also shares the family curse: as a result of his being fused with the fly, some of Philippe Delambre’s descendants age extremely fast. Without regular injections Martin and his father would wither and die in a matter of hours. Their assistants are a Chinese couple, Tai (who is actually played by an Asian actor) and Wan (who is played by a squinting white woman), who are only marginally saner than their employers. Of the bunch only Alan Delambre is remotely normal, and unsurprisingly he wants to stop helping with the family’s experiments. The fact that he is also maintaining the base in London for testing long-range teleportation helps keep him out of the atmosphere of crazy in the Canadian mansion.

At first, things go pretty well for the newlyweds. Pat is willing to put up with Martin’s workaholism (a common problems for mad scientists), and she doesn’t ask too many questions when Henri appears out of nowhere one night. The first worrying sign only comes when the warden of her former asylum turns up with inspector Ronet to try and bring Pat back into her care. It’s amusing that Pat, probably the sanest person in the Delambre household is the one under suspicion of being a mad woman. As it turns out Martin’s marriage to Pat and divorce from Judith are both perfectly legal. Henri isn’t willing to risk the fact that the police are just going to let them keep on in peace. He decides that the old experiments must be disposed of before inspector Ronet can come back with a search warrant. Showing that he’s a true Delambre, Henri’s first instinct is to use the teleporter for this task. He sends both of the abominations to London leaving Alan to dispose of the resulting fused horror that pops out on the other side. Why Judith is spared from this purge is not made clear. The other issue is why bother to teleport the bodies across the Atlantic ocean to be disposed of? A corpse in London will turn up a lot faster than one in the Canadian wilderness. More to the point, why not just use the teleporter to vaporize the body and then never bother to reassemble it?

At the same time Pat finds herself the victim of a miniature Gaslight (1944) campaign, accidentally by Martin who wants to keep the fact that her new in-laws are a clan of lunatic scientists from her, and deliberately by Wan the “Asian” housekeeper. You see, Wan still looks up to Judith, Martin’s teleporter-mutated ex-wife, and regards the new mistress as an unwelcome interloper. Pretty soon Pat is catching glimpses of the deformed Judith late at night, hearing the ghostly sounds of the mutated woman playing piano. Wan’s attempts to drive Pat insane fail though, as the young mental hospital escapee proves to be far more psychologically stable than anyone is willing to give her credit for. Seeing her attempts to drive Pat insane have failed Wan lets Judith out to kill her replacement.

At the same time, inspector Ronet, having been educated into the family history of the Delambre’s by the aged (by my count he is at least 90) inspector Charas has decided that the family warrants further investigation. For their part the Delambres foresee Ronet’s arrival, and begin to destroy whatever evidence they can get their hands on. With Judith’s dead body laying about no one is interested in waiting around for the police aside from Pat and Martin who refuses to leave her side. The “Asian” housekeepers make a break for it in the car, and Henri decides it’s best to teleport across the Atlantic to Alan’s lab in London that risk jail in Canada. Alan, still reeling from the horror he had to destroy after the last teleport refuses. Martin ignores him and sends Henri across anyway. Alan though has destroyed the teleporter on his end, and the mad scientist is left floating through the void, a mass of disassembled atoms. Presumably he’s handing out with Andre’s cat somewhere in the ether. Martin is still willing to try an escape by conventional means but he cannot force Pat to come along with him, and in the process of trying he forgets his vital injections and instantly dies and rots into a skeleton. The Delambre line thus extinguished the credits roll.

The Curse of the Fly is an excellent example of a sub-genre shift that occurs later in a film series when the events of the original would start looking ridiculous if they were repeated yet again. Though I enjoyed Return of the Fly (1959) I found it a bit hard to swallow that Philippe Delambre was mutated in the exact same manner of his father. A third generation of Delambres accidentally teleporting along with a housefly would snap anyone’s belief suspenders. I know if that particular fate had befallen my father and grandfather the biggest line items in my laboratory budget would be flypaper and raid. Rather than repeat the formula of the first two films then the Curse of the Fly reinvents itself as a member of the venerable subgenre of House Full of Crazies. Indeed, it is an excellent example of that subgenre. The only problem was that by 1964 when this film was released that subgenre was loosing popularity. Indeed, the only examples of it I know from the 1960s were intentionally playing it for laughs: Spider Baby (1967) and William Castle’s remake of The Old Dark House (1964). I suspect that audiences found Curse of the Fly to be intolerably old-fashioned. This in turn explains the film’s relative obscurity now, despite its obvious charms.

It is of course amusing that a film set so far in the future would seem so dated in respects to its genre. However, the genre isn’t the only thing dated about Curse of the Fly, most noticeably the fact that a white actor is playing a Chinese woman in yellow face. This practice was common enough in the silent era and into the early 30s (it was also common for black Actors to play Chinese and Slavic roles in yellow and white face respectively). However, by the mid-60s it was largely abandoned for the obvious reason that it didn’t fool anyone who had actually seen an Asian person before. The fact that she is cast opposite a genuine Asian actor only makes the choice more bizarre. The only way I can square it is to assume that she was sleeping with the producer or director on the side. This of course would not be the only, or even most conspicuous casting of a white actor in an Asian role in the 1960s, that honor of course belongs to The Caste of Fu-Manchu (1969). Though to be fair, Christopher Lee’s last name could have confused Jesus Franco.

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