1958: Mystery -- 1986: Procedural
"Mystery vs Procedural?" you may ask. To me, a mystery style keeps certain information from the audience until it is discovered by some cast member. There is a quest on the part of the characters in the story to discover what's going on. That can be either "Who done it?" or "What was done?" but we don't know because the cast doesn't know. Similarly, if we as the audience are "in on it" from the start, but the characters aren't, then it's a procedural to my mind, a "How did they do it?" story. There may be suspense or surprise in either of these forms. As the title above shows, I think the 1958 film is cloaked in mystery, while the Cronenberg number lets us in on a lot from the start, and we watch Seth and Veronica catch up to us as they figure things out. At that point it becomes a meta-mystery as we all try to figure out what else is going on and how far it will go. By contrast, even after we discover what went on in the 1958 film, we are still wondering "how far did it go?" It's all been done by that time, but we haven't seen it.
George Langelaan wrote what is basically a mystery story, a horror story, and a sci-fi tale. When the story was first transformed into a movie for the 1958 release, the adaptation took the form of a mystery. The 1986 redress of the tale, departing from the original story in most aspects, turns into a procedural story. This is what is done, this is what results. Any mystery is subservient to the Pogue-Cronenberg procedural story. In fact, in 1958 we aren't told (although who doesn't know it by this time?) that a fly has gotten into the disintegrator with André until he types a message to Helene to offer her an explanation. And he doesn't write her that explanation until she accidentally sees the claw that resides in his left coat sleeve. Even at that moment, when she is told, both she and we remain unaware of what is beneath the velvet cloak André keeps over his head.
I'll possibly touch on this distinction in another of the essays in this Rematch, but I think it's important to note that Neumann's film is not exactly a horror story. It's 1950s science fiction with a touch of horror. Langelaan's short story doesn't really evoke horror except that Helene describes something as "horrific." I ran across a reference to David Cronenberg as "the king of venereal horror," which is more commonly called "body horror," and he makes great use of his hobby in this film. None of us wants to fall apart physically or mentally. We watch as Seth's fingernails sluice away. His skin develops lesions and then warps before our eyes (and his) in an uncomfortable way. Because Cronenberg seeks to be inside Seth's mind during this process to the extent that you can in the externalized world of cinema, we find identification with Seth's plight a little too easy. Cronenberg plays upon the horror any young man or woman feels when observing the appearance of an elderly person. "Oh God, will I look like that some day? No! Never. I'd rather die first!" It's a horrible thought.
But the body horror to the young probably comes not so much from the fact of round middles and wrinkly skin as it comes from the idea of change. Change that cannot be stopped, even with great expense. Change that cannot be predicted, because there is so much biological variation within our species that we never know whether we will be one to keep all the hair, or one to lose it (on the noggin); or whether we will be one of those misfortunates who grows excessive hair in places where no hair belongs. It's a crapshoot that both males and females face. We wind up like Seth Brundle after a fashion if we live long enough, looking like something merged with the DNA of another species. These are changes that we cannot control. And that's the real horror: loss of control of the person's body. (For a contrasting example, exercising to lose weight, or lifting weights to provide bulkier musculature produces change that is largely under the control of the exerciser.)
André Delambre goes through one massive change, and his entire goal is to undo it. If only he could find the fly with the white head he could go through the disintegrator-integrator journey once more, and he's sure things would be set right.
In both movies the ultimate horror comes not from what we see, or are told, but from what we imagine as we watch: that I could be be merged with a fly, or it could be my loved one. What would we do? we wonder. And we are struck by the most classic horror of all: fear of the unknown.
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