Saturday, July 9, 2016

Like Father, Like Son When it Comes to Losing Your Head -- and Hand. And a Foot :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Edward L. Bernds' Return of the Fly (1959)

Our sequel today picks up fifteen years after the events of its originator at the graveside service of Helene Delambre, who never really recovered after assisting her scientist husband’s suicide when he placed his head and hand into a hydraulic press after his experiments in matter transportation went staggeringly awry, where his atoms were mixed with a fly, turning him into a monster. Only Helene, his brother, Francois (Price), and the Chief Inspector knew the real truth, with the Inspector being responsible for the murder of the other half of this failed experiment, trapped in a spider’s web, crushing the pitiful creature with a rock before a spider pounced. But now their son, Philippe (Halsey), demands and gets the truth as to what really happened to his father and what haunted his mother so badly all these years that drove the woman to her grave.

And once his uncle spills the beans, the son is soon determined to perfect his father’s machine. At first, Francois wants no part of this but soon comes around, mostly to make sure Philippe doesn’t make the same critical mistakes his father did. Moving all the machinery to the basement of the old ancestral mansion, using his father’s notes, Philippe, Francois, and Phillipe’s assistant, Ronald Holmes (Frankham), soon have the transporter rebuilt and fired up and successfully disintegrate and reintegrate several varmints. Too bad for all involved that Holmes is acting under an alias, is a wanted man for murder, and is currently engaging in some industrial espionage.

And after his assistant uses the contraption to destroy the body of one of Scotland Yard’s finest, Phillipe sniffs out his true intentions before he can cash-out. Unfortunately for Philippe, this confrontation does not go his way at all and he winds up in the transporter, too. Also, Holmes tosses a fly in there with him because, basically, his former boss suffers from a severe case of pteronarcophobia, and two, he’s seen what the transporter can do when two different test-subjects get zapped at the same time (-- the cop and a hamster), and three, he’s just that big of an asshole. Francois arrives too late to stop this and takes a bullet while Holmes escapes, but he does manage to trip the switches for the reintegration process and comes face to face with his worst nightmare come true...

After squandering a ton of money converting their projection booths to accommodate 3-D stereoscopic films, a fad that barely lasted for six months, most theater owners were either skeptical or downright hostile when Darryl F. Zanuck asked them to now widen their screens for his newly unveiled CinemaScope process in late 1953. However, having learned a harsh lesson over the non-standardization of the 3-D free-for-all, Zanuck promised more consistency to appease exhibitors, promising a steady supply of product in this new widescreen format.

To do this, the mogul’s 20th Century Fox struck a deal to make the lenses and equipment for CinemaScope readily available to other studios; and Fox even went so far as to bring in Robert L. Lippert to produce a series of B-Pictures shot in the same widescreen process. And so together, they formed Regal Pictures in 1956, which landed Lippert a seven year commision to make 20 pictures per year, each shot in seven to ten days with a budget of $100,000. Though one should note that Zanuck hedged the deal, not allowing his new B-Unit to smirch the reputation of his A-product, which is why things like Stagecoach to Fury (1956), Kronos (1957), and Hell on Devil’s Island (1957) were all shot in “Regalscope."

Fox and Zanuck never were ones for genre pictures and seldom dabbled in horror and sci-fi [-- the only real monster movie I can think of is The Undying Monster (1942),  which is pretty great if you've never seen it], which makes their production of The Fly (1958) a bit of an anomaly, especially after the big-budgeted flops of This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956) for rival studios, Universal and MGM. But even though this A-picture was shot in CinemaScope and color, the production cost was fairly low when compared to those other examples ($350,000) and The Fly proved to be a huge a hit for the studio and became one of its biggest money-makers of the year. And perhaps slightly embarrassed by this, but not embarrassed enough to not cash-in, when a sequel proved to be in order, the studio quickly distanced itself and turned the franchise over to Lippert.

By 1959, Lippert had dumped the Regal moniker and rechristened his unit as Associated Producers Incorporated (API). And to pull off this mandated sequel, Return of the Fly (1959), he turned to the two men who had produced Space Master X-7 (1958), which had served as the equally successful bottom bill for The Fly, producer Bernard Glasser and director Edward Bernds. I got into the history of these two when I wrote up Space Master X-7 a while back, so feel free to check that out. Anyhoo, with orders to use the still standing sets from the first film to help save costs (-- the film would still be shot in CinemaScope but would be filmed in black and white, just like it's co-feature, Roy Del Ruth's The Alligator People), meaning another rare feat when Lippert’s B-unit would be allowed to actually shoot on Fox’s back lot, Bernds got to work on the script, which proved interesting enough to coax Vincent Price back into the fold. (Though most of those “interesting” moments wound up cut out, much to the star’s chagrin.)

As for the main character, Glasser cast Brett Halsey. Halsey seemed to be cursed with bad timing throughout his Hollywood career. He got signed at Universal but barely made a scratch before the studio was bought out by MCA, which cut staff and purged all contract players in 1958 [Some folks might recognize him as one of the two teens who get killed in Revenge of the Creature (1955). He was the one who didn’t get fast-balled into a palm tree.] He landed on his feet at American International, where he headlined the likes of High School Hellcats (1958) and Submarine Seahawk (1959). And then, after starring in Return of the Fly, he got signed by Fox to a multi-year contract. But then this was voided, too, after the whole Cleopatra (1963) debacle, which nearly bankrupted the studio. The actor would have much better luck abroad, working with the likes of Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci.

Halsey does fine as Phillipe, but he really isn’t in the film all that much. His pasted-on head on the tiny fly almost had as much screen-time as the real actor did. And after his transformation, stuntman Ed Wolff, a former circus giant, took over as the Human Fly breaks out of the lab, is merrily chased around the hills by the cops for a spell, and then spends the rest of the movie tracking down and killing those who double-crossed him. All the while, Francois, the Inspector (Sutton), and Phillipe longtime girlfriend, Cecilia (De Metz), manage to capture the Fly Human and hope the Human Fly can be herded back to the lab where they think they can, hopefully, reverse the process.

Apparently, Glasser and Bernds wanted to insert footage from The Fly to pad out the sequel and fill-in the backstory but Fox nixed this, feeling the color footage wouldn’t mesh with the rest of the film, leaving it to Price to get us all up to speed with a massive plot dump at the beginning.

I had never seen this sequel before but from all the photos and stills I had seen over the years I felt the monster design and mask for Return of the Fly looked so much better than the original. And while I still think it looks better in theory, in action, oh, great googily-moogily; it's so huge the poor stuntman ensconced inside can barely keep his balance as he runs around. And watch as Wolff keeps reaching for it, to steady it, as the encephalitic contraption constantly wobbles and teeters around and threatens to topple him. 

Apparently, the giant had little stamina as well, which also hampered efforts to give the plodding chase scene any real juice. The inflatable proboscis of the Human Fly was a nice touch, and they really could've had something there if the size of the whole apparatus was halved. Also sad to report that the fly with the human head F/X might be even worse than the original.

However, I freely admit when the bad guy, played beautifully by Frankham, sends the cop through the transmitter, turning him into were-hamster, and he steps on the hamster with the human hands, thaaaaat kinda freaked me out a bit as the thing stubbornly refused to die. Beyond that, Return of the Fly is a bit too paint by the numbers to really generate any real amperage. Not all that terrible, but no more than serviceable as far as sequels go.

Return of the Fly (1959) Associated Producers (API) :: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation / P: Bernard Glasser / D: Edward Bernds / W: Edward Bernds, George Langelaan (story) / C: Brydon Baker / E: Richard C. Meyer / M: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter / S: Vincent Price, Brett Halsey, David Frankham, Danielle De Metz, John Sutton

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