The horror genre is one that frequently insists upon sequels and franchises, even when they’re woefully misguided endeavors. There are too many sequels that are set up to fail and seem financially driven and creatively bankrupt, whether it’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, The Rage: Carrie 2, or American Psycho II: All American Girl. However, it’s always electric when one of these sequels does something special, different, and audiences are left with a Psycho II or The Exorcist III scenario on their hands. The Fly II is a horror sequel that was largely written off the moment that it was announced, sans David Cronenberg, even if its existence makes sense. The Fly II isn’t superior to its predecessor, but it does excel in many areas that are absent in the original. It brings something new to the table and marks a unique voice in body horror that still holds up 35 years after its overlooked original release.
The Fly II is the directorial debut of Chris Walas, the Academy Award-winning make-up and effects artist who’s not only responsible for the first Fly’s effects, but also some of cinema’s most memorable effects and creations like the face-melting from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Naked Lunch’s creatures, the Gremlins, and the special effect makeup in the Tales from the Crypt body-swapping classic, “The Switch,” with William Hickey and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s a natural choice to take over a Fly sequel in lieu of Cronenberg and getting the opportunity to really let loose, which makes The Fly II an ultimately fascinating sequel that doesn’t at all feel like a soulless cash-grab. It stands on its own merit as Walas works hard to prove himself in this field and he absolutely succeeds, despite any of the specific misgivings in this sequel.
The Fly II begins several months after the original with a harrowing maggot birth scene that echoes Veronica’s dream sequence from the original, albeit real this time. This is such a striking, bold way to begin the movie where Veronica is confined to a Bartok government facility and her Flybaby is thrust into a life where it’s destined to be co-opted and controlled, not loved. This sets The Fly II up for a unique first act with a young Martin Brundle as the sequel examines what Seth Brundle’s plight would have been like as a kid who’s been experimented on his entire life rather than a Goldblum-y scientific genius. The Fly II’s first act more closely resembles Beyond the Black Rainbow, Stranger Things, or something like The Brood, than it does The Fly. This becomes the film’s best and worst quality as it sets out to explore something new instead of just repeating the same beats as its predecessor.
The Fly II’s first act really leans into the innocence, confusion, and tragedy of Martin’s situation. In one sequence, Martin’s only friend – a golden retriever – gets turned into a lab experiment. This scene alone carries tremendous pathos and is more emotional than anything in the original Fly. This also becomes the first opportunity for The Fly II to really show off its special effects and lean into horror, which makes the moment hit even harder. The deleted baboon sequence in the original is horrific, but The Fly II’s golden retriever experiment is infinitely more devastating and moving. Cronenberg’s Fly is hardly void of emotion, but it becomes The Fly II’s secret weapon. It’s smart for the sequel to lean so hard into it during the film’s first act before Martin matures and the movie more or less returns to the originals’ status quo.
Later on, the sequence where Martin sneaks food to his deformed pet and cries over its sheer pain of existing is heartbreaking and unlike anything from its predecessor. It’s only fitting that this tragic loss of innocence is immediately followed with Martin’s transition to adulthood. On that note, Martin spends the following 80 minutes as an adult (and played by Eric Stoltz), but it’s crucial to remember that he’s actually only five years old. Martin looks mature, but his mentality and understanding of the world is still just that of a child. It’s another important distinction between the sequel and the original. The Fly II doesn’t explore this angle as much as it could, but it still casts a darkness over everything that follows. In doing so, it’s almost like Walas puts The Fly and Big in two telepods and that The Fly II is the mutated synthesis of them both.
The age-old question with sequels like The Fly II frequently boils down to: is it good, or is it just gross? Fortunately, The Fly II has far more going for it than simply some disgusting set pieces that rival those from its predecessor. That being said, there are some wonderfully uncomfortable effects showcases throughout this sequel. The movie’s most memorable moments involve a head that dissolves from Martin’s avid vomit, a skull that’s crushed by an elevator, and Martin’s cocoon (which is really something special that simultaneously looks like it’s out of The Blob and Alien). However, the hideous results of Martin’s dog and Bartok’s transformation post-telepod are also proper nightmare fuel.
The final version of “Martinfly” is also such a remarkable creation that’s void of any visible humanity and resembles Pumpkinhead and a Gremlin’s lovechild. Curiously, Walas on the film’s commentary talks about intentionally avoiding going too far in this department and just mimicking Cronenberg’s original. It does feel like there’s restraint here so that when these disturbing practical effects are turned to they stand out even more, but it’s by no means a pacified film, despite some of Walas’ claims. Further to this point, The Fly II eases its audience into this body horror ordeal, but even Martin’s initial “infection” is incredibly gross. It sets the tone for what’s to come and Martin’s final transformation does look genuinely awful and still original from the separately-disgusting Brundlefly from the original movie.
It’s impressively not until 47 minutes into the movie – nearly half-way in – that Martin starts to show symptoms and the movie leans into the body horror elements of the original. That being said, it’s hard to believe that it’s the triggering of Martin’s fly symptoms that usher in a broad hamminess. This may even be intentional on the film’s part. The first-half of The Fly II presents itself as an emotional character-driven drama that represents Martin’s humanity, all before it descends into schlocky horror that reflects Martin’s overbearing fly genes.
The Fly II’s first act is fascinated with the theme of those who are forced to grow up too quickly and tasked with something before they’re ready. There are some clear parallels here with director, Chris Walas, who’s on his first directorial job. The film is repeatedly a litmus test for whether Walas is ready for this responsibility or if he’s been pushed into this role too soon. It’s a compelling framework to view the movie, even if this angle gets progressively dropped once Martin becomes an adult. Walas’ promotion from special effects and make-up savant to director feels a lot like Stan Winston’s brief shift towards directing. This transition typically doesn’t work and there are far more stories of failure than success.
Nevertheless, Walas’ work on The Fly II is an excellent debut feature that’s not dissimilar to Winston’s first feature film, Pumpkinhead. Curiously, both effects men-turned-director fumble and retreat after their second films, The Vagrant in Walas’ case and A Gnome Named Gnorm for Winston. The Vagrant has a little more juice, even if it’s a deeply odd thriller that frequently verges on comical parody. It’s also worth pointing out that The Fly II’s strict release schedule meant that it was released between Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, both of which are formative films for the director. It’d be a shame to think about either of those movies not happening because of Cronenberg’s commitment to a Fly sequel and repeating his own tricks.
Performance is another important area to break down and Cronenberg’s Fly wouldn’t have connected with nearly as many people without Jeff Goldblum’s unhinged, fearless work as Seth Brundle (who makes a cameo in the movie through deleted scenes from The Fly that are treated like “new” footage, which is actually a clever conceit). Eric Stoltz is no Jeff Goldblum, but he still does great work here and makes this performance his own. Stoltz wisely doesn’t play Martin like a carbon copy of Seth, which wouldn’t have felt right in the first place. It’s better that Stoltz curates his own character and plays to his own unique talents as an actor rather than emulating someone else (and likely failing at the attempt). This is a great early example of what Stoltz can do, but it’s worth noting that the Martin Brundle role was originally offered to Keanu Reeves (with Josh Brolin and Vincent D’Onofrio also auditioning), which could have been fascinating. Neither actor had a ton of horror experience at this point, with Reeves coming off of productions like Permanent Record and Dangerous Liaisons. Curiously, The Fly II came out a week after Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which would have been a staggering double-feature if Reeves had taken the role instead of Stoltz.
Daphne Zuniga’s Beth Logan is also the film’s beating heart, who pumps in tandem with Martin. Their fly-fish meet-cute is a really effective introduction that never feels too on-the-nose and is a testament to The Fly II’s screenplay, which has writing credits by Mick Garris, Frank Darabont, and Ken and Jim Wheat. The script is actually full of parallels and callbacks that provide a malformed symmetry to the movie in the best way possible, like Martin’s helmet from his childhood that dispenses water and the projectile vomit that comes out of Martinfly as an adult. Even the transformed dog comes back in a justified way that makes its presence in the first act resonate more strongly. At its best moments, The Fly II operates like a sick love triangle, albeit one that’s between Martin, Beth, and Seth Brundle’s science. It’s Martin’s genetics that pull him away from this humble chance at normalcy.
The Fly II begins as a more delicate character-driven chamber piece, but the final 15 minutes basically turn the sequel into an action film in the vein of Alien or Predator. Government officials hunt down the monstrous Martinfly with automatic weapons, all while he picks them off one by one. Some of the film’s biggest moments get saved for this concluding massacre. It culminates in an ending that’s actually much darker than Cronenberg’s original. Walas explicitly cites Tod Browning’s Freaks as an influence and there’s no hiding it (along with I Think You Should Leave, if that had existed in the ‘80s). Both conclusions really push audiences out of their comfort zones in the best ways possible. There was also a planned alternate ending, which is enlightening for completely different reasons, but Walas ultimately sticks with the better conclusion. In it, Martin’s changed eye color indicates that Bartok is now Martin and that a switch has taken place. It’s almost like Walas tries to inject some of Cronenberg’s Scanners into The Fly at the very last minute. The Fly II’s theatrical ending doesn’t provide a clear look at Martin’s eyes, but this alternate version creates ambiguity over who has truly survived. It’s also able to set up another potential sequel, which of course never happened.
Alternatively, there are two other Fly sequels to draw inspiration and learn from – 1959’s Return of the Fly and Curse of the Fly from 1965. The original Fly trilogy from the ‘50s and ‘60s is certainly a product of its time and despite its minor flaws, Walas’ sequel easily trumps them. Walas’ sequel could have easily copied and pulled from these movies, yet it opts for something very different, albeit with some of the same DNA. Return of the Fly and The Fly II both focus on the offspring of the previous film’s protagonist, but Return of the Fly is set 15 years later, rather than mere months, like in The Fly II. Curse of the Fly is oddly more interested in the commercial commodification of telepods for international travel purposes. It’s more indebted to sci-fi than horror. The Fly II still has hints of what Brundle’s technology could do for the betterment of society, but they’re largely after-thoughts to the character study that plays out with Martin. That being said, there’s no Misfits song that’s inspired by Walas’ sequel.
On a financial level, The Fly II was technically a success, even if it’s remembered as a complete flop. The Fly II’s budget was allegedly just shy of $7 million dollars (which was less than that of the original), which it certainly made back with its worldwide gross of $38.9 million. This still pales in comparison to the original’s worldwide gross of over $60 million. A third film would have likely continued to make a profit, but the writing seemed to be on the wall in terms of The Fly’s diminishing returns as a horror franchise. However, it’s still a little surprising that this series didn’t live on through direct-to-video sequels like Species or Wrong Turn where it could have coasted for years. Chris Walas creates something imperfect, but special, with The Fly II that doesn’t deserve to be completely forgotten or dismissed with the many pointless horror sequels. 35 years later, it’s easier to view The Fly II outside of its predecessor’s shadow and appreciate its wild swings. The Fly II might leave some horror fans annoyed, but it shouldn’t be swatted away.
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