During the 1990s it felt as if horror movies had descended into the visceral and psychological methods of storytelling, such as In the Mouth of Madness, or Jacob’s Ladder, or Candy Man, or even Freddy Krueger exploring the realm of mythology in New Nightmare. Some monster flicks kept to their proverbial roots. The payout, of course, is what typically happens with most creature features, when the directors, producers, screenwriters turn on the cheese factor and make the movie a satire, such as Arachnophobia or Gremlins 2 or The Faculty. Seldom do we find anything that’s actually haunting. Anything that makes us sit on the edge of our seats. Anything that forces us to watch even though we want to look away. The horror pickins are slim. There is one director, however, who, up until this point in his career at least, did not bow to cheese in order to make a monster movie. Of course, I’m talking about 1997’s cult hit creature feature, MIMIC, directed by none other than Guillermo del Toro. Before del Toro was pitting giant robots versus behemoth sea monsters, his work was subtle and carefully crafted, honing in on character building and turning on the suspense until the deluge spilled over into a wonderfully cataclysmic conclusion. Thus was the work of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and also what we get with Mimic.
Before we begin, here is a classic IMDB synopsis:
“Three years ago, entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler genetically created an insect to kill cockroaches carrying a virulent disease. Now, the insects are out to destroy their only predator, mankind.”
Bravo IMDb, bravo. Yet again another astute generalization of one of my favorite creature features. You’re not wrong, IMDb, it just feels a tad oversimplified. For starters, if you’ve seen Mimic, but haven’t seen the Director’s Cut, stop now and go rent/buy/whatever you need to do to see this edition. Let me tell you, I was happy with the original version, but I LOVE this Director’s Cut. And sure, it really only adds about nine minutes or more of footage, but those added moments really help make the story shine all the better. I especially love the added bits at the beginning, the extended opening sequence that shows us this ravaging disease called Strickler’s, that is decimating a huge percentage of New York City children, and then we get Dr. Susan Tyler, played fantastically by Mira Sorvino . She genetically creates a new species of insect called the Judas breed. They target the city’s cockroach population, releasing an enzyme which causes the roaches metabolism to speed up and starve themselves to death. The Judas breed was created to be all-female with a short life expectancy. The last opening clip (from the Director’s Cut) shows Dr. Tyler releasing the Judas breed into the sewers. She kneels and watches as her “children” begin their work as she is stylistically swarmed by roaches. And a moment later we see a river of dead cockroaches and an announcement from the CDC that they have eliminated the “Strickler’s” disease.
Fade to black.
Now we find ourselves three years after the release of the Judas breed. Just three years. What can happen in such a short span of time? Well, if there is any indication from the name of the insect, Judas, well…historically things have never really worked out with things named Judas. Not to mention any species introduced into the wild trusting that a genetic “all-female” plug will hold, I mean, haven’t these people seen Jurrasic Park? To quote Ian Malcolm, “Life will find a way.” And life certainly did find a way, as our scientists are soon to find out. After the fuzzy “all-is-well-with-the-world” moment, the movie opens again on a man being chased onto a roof at night in the rain. Here we get our first glimpse at what has become the Judas breed. Strange clicking sounds and an odd shadowy face and the outline of what looks like a man in a black trench coat. The movement of this mysterious “man” and the design are incredibly creepy, and no wonder, as legendary The Thing and The Howling practical effects master/guru Rob Bottin had a hand in the development of the creature.
Let me stop here for a moment. I have a confession. Bugs freak me out. I think this is a well-known fact if you’ve read any part in my Subdue Series books you should know. I’m not sure why. I don’t recall being traumatized as a child, not with insects at least. The My Buddy doll my folks got me for Christmas is another subject entirely (thanks, Sis!). I think people have their own thresholds for fear. Some hate clowns. Others hate anything to do with eyeballs. Some teeth. For me, big nasty arthropods are what tickles my medulla oblongata (technically the amygdala, but medulla oblongata sounds cooler). Too many legs. Nightmare mouths. Multiple glass eyes. Ugh!!! And as the movie, Mimic, was so kind to point out in Dr. Tyler’s lab of horrors, certain species of insects can do some rather impressive stuff, such as certain warrior ants that even when injured will continue to attack. Wasps that turn prey into zombies. Spiders that lay eggs inside a host to be consumed as a snack when the babies hatch. It’s not evil in the sense of good or morality. There is no morality when it comes to insects. To quote another Jeff Goldblum line, “Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise.” And here perhaps is what trips my fear sensor the most, the absence of compassion, compromise, especially in something as large as what the Judas breed becomes.
Soon after the death of the man on the roof and some cut scenes of Dr. Tyler and her husband, Dr. Mann, and their on-screen hopes of becoming parents, solidifying again the overarching theme of Mimic, fertility, some well-meaning “hood-rat” children out to make a quick buck bring Dr. Tyler an “interesting” find they discovered below ground near one of New York’s many metro tracks. Dr. Tyler soon realizes just what this large bug really is. Though “just a baby,” as she says, the creature is as large as the palm of her hand. But Tyler isn’t alone in her lab. There’s a shape at the window, a mysterious “man” in a dark trenchcoat. Okay, pause. I have to once again give a nod to both Rob Bottin and the original author of the creature in this flick, Donald Allen Wollheim who came up with the short story, titled, “Mimic,” a first-person narrative about a dude who notices a strange “man” in a trenchcoat standing on the streets in his town but never says anything to anyone. Following the sound of screams, the narrator discovers the “man” dead in his apartment, but upon closer examination, he unveils that the mysterious “man” isn’t a man at all, but a large bug imitating a man. This, for me, adds to the creep factor here. Not only are we dealing with larger than normal insects, but we’re dealing with an insect that has evolved to “mimic” us.
Stories begin to collide at this point. All leading back deep underground onto some abandoned metro tracks that would inspire curious urban spelunkers to explore. Dr. Tyler, Dr. Mann, officer Leonard (played wonderfully by Charles S. Dutton) and Manny (a father searching for his lost autistic son who “followed” the Judas breed into their underground metro hive). All these motivations would seem to make the movie feel too complicated, but in actuality, they add to the movie’s believability. That they happen upon each other, sure, could be a stretch, but otherwise getting a glimpse at their personalities and motivations actually benefits how audiences feel towards them. I wanted them to survive. There were no “villains” here. Even Dr. Mann’s doomed assistant, Josh (played by Josh Brolin), though kind of cocky and moronic, you don’t hate the guy and you felt something when he was killed off, fairly horribly I might add. All this was accomplished without a bunch of unnecessary backstory. At this stage in del Toro’s career, he had made a name for himself for interweaving likable heartfelt characters into his story, not through exposition, but dialogue and interaction.
Mimic is not without some cheese.
This is, after all, a creature feature.
Whoever came up with the genius plan to get the old boxcar trolley operational is…a moron. Seriously. But, not altogether unrealistic. People come up with horrible ideas all the time. Consider the Shake Weight exercise dumbells. Yup. Someone thought that was a good idea too. No, though the trolley idea was moronic, it was not out of the realm of what someone in that situation would probably do. The real cheese for me was what the “King” Judas bug was doing at the end. But, let me explain the entry of this “new” character. Nearing the climax, we discover that part of the genetic code used to create the Judas breed came from a species of insect that has one male as the only fertile member of the colony. Of course, they had created the species as “all-female,” thus supposedly limiting the lifespan of the Judas breed exponentially. However, as fans of Jurrasic Park should know, “life finds a way,” and thus the species adapted. Part of the enzyme that gave Judas the ability to eliminate the cockroach infestation by accelerating the roaches reproduction rate, essentially burning them out, in turn, gave them the ability to mass reproduce at an alarming rate. Consider how in just three years the Judas went from cockroach size to human size, developing the necessary biology in order to grow. Reproduction, fertility and natural childbirth seem to be a motif in Mimic.
Back to the cheese.
A big creep factor in this movie was the fact that these insects were not acting in any personal way. Insects do not have politics, remember. They simply…are. They do as their genetic makeup implies for them to do. They attack when provoked. They feed and breed for survival alone. There is no pleasure, “no compassion, no compromise (I’m telling you, Jeff Goldblum should have been cast in this movie as Dr. Mann).” That said, in the end, the “King” Judas bug didn’t seem to be following the movies preestablished rules of insect politics. The “King” acted mightily pissed off. Before being mowed down by a subway car, that sucker “looked” like he wanted blood. Half-burnt, limping after Dr. Taylor. But, that’s just a small blip on an otherwise decent and definitely creepy creature feature flick. My only other “WTF” is the last line in the movie when Dr. Taylor and her bo Dr. Mann reunite, both are happy the other survived the subway fire that wiped out the Judas colony. Dr. Mann whispers in his wife’s ear, “We can have a baby,” or something to that extent. As the last line, this kinda has me in a loop. After everything they survived, the ordeal, that’s what he tells her? This, of course, brings the circle around regarding the theme of natural childbirth and fertility. But what did it answer? Or better yet, what question did it raise? Unnatural fertility will breed monsters? Seriously? Maybe I’m missing something.
Regardless, Mimic was an excellent escape from the visceral and psychological methods of storytelling that seemed to dominate the 1990s. And Mimic was definitely one of del Toro’s best pictures if you ask me. This flick could have very feel come off as a cheap B-movie, it had the trappings for such a disaster, but it didn’t. Mimic came out as a genuinely creepy monster movie. If you haven’t seen this one, you need to, but be sure to watch the Director’s Cut. It’s only really nine minutes of added footage, but those added moments make the movie all the better.
My rating: 4 out of 5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
You can get Reinheit for $2.99 on Amazon!
Welcome, my friends to the start of a brand new series here on Machine Mean. I’m more than ecstatic to present to you the first of many Creature Features that will be reviewed during this duration. And what better way to kick things off than with one of my favorite horror sub-subgenres, mad science. Looking over the landscape of Creature Feature movies, there seem to be plenty that fit the bill of mad science, including, I would argue, those radiated atomic age giant sized monsters. How could we not include those? Did Dr. Oppenheimer and the rest of the Manhattan Project not considered (if not to each other to be) mad scientists? Following a successful test of his bomb, Oppenheimer dedicated his life to restricting the use of such a device. His intellect pursued the impossible and when said impossible was achieved, he drew back in quiet revulsion. Mad science…and even creatures of the macabre have a tendency to show us the things we most fear. Considering the mad scientists of the atomic era, they created and let loose upon the world a weapon so powerful that it changed the global culture and set us into a new age. Most had their own motivations, no doubt about it, but I would be confident to assume a majority of those motivations were intellectually based. Pushing the boundaries, so to speak. Creature Feature movies come from a similar vein. Unresolved fears gleaming into a new dawn. Numerous what if scenarios. Of invaders. Of the future. Of what lurks in the basement or in the woods or under the bed or out in the swamps. And some relate to our unresolved fears within our own bodies…and our minds. David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) is a masterpiece of body horror, also known as venereal horror. Let’s take a closer look.
Here’s a synopsis of the film from the always wonderful IMDb:
“A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong.”
This IMDb synopsis isn’t wrong. It just feels horribly simplified, right? There’s so much more to say about The Fly. One could point out the romantic triangle between the “mad” scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and his newly minted lover/journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) and her ex-lover/editor Stathis Borans (John Getz). One could also point out a possible allegory of puberty, as Seth undergoes “changes” in his body, pimples, and other oozing features while becoming obsessed with his physique and sexual intercourse. Or we could go with the basic plot of an eccentric scientist and his doomed experiment. But neither of those feels quite right, do they? No. Something deeper is going on.
Before we consider The Fly, we ought to consider the director. David Cronenberg, also known as the King of Venereal Horror, back in the 80s and late 70s, set in motion a series on what film nerds refer to now as organic-horror, biological horror, or simply body horror. Anything to do with the horror of the human anatomy. For Cronenberg, we can look to Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Scanners, Shivers, The Brood, eXistenZ, and Rabid that could arguably be counted toward his run on body horror themed films. Each one taking on a different aspect or story regarding our humanistic fears about our own bodies juxtaposed to our vulnerability to disease or technology or parasites. In The Fly, this fear seems to be centered around the fear of mind versus body. Fear of what our minds create, that is technology, doesn’t feel dominate, though it definitely plays a part in Cronenberg’s philosophy.
We cannot ignore it.
Seth Brundle admits during the first hour of the movie that he has extreme motion sickness and he feels that this is a crippling condition. He cannot travel very far without getting sick. So, motivated by this horror he feels handicaps him by isolating him, scientist Brundle sets out to create a teleportation device, so that he may beam from one point to another without ever getting sick. His endeavor works. He has invented and created a teleportation pod, or tele-pod. But there’s a catch. The machine cannot properly read or understand flesh. This failure is clearly and disgustingly seen in the teleportation of Baboon #1 as the poor monkey is turned inside out. The machine doesn’t understand flesh, just as the character Seth does not understand flesh. He works exclusively alone, isolated from even his peers until he can no longer tolerate being alone. As he says to Veronica, the reason why he sought her out in the first place was because he had been alone for too long, he desires, craves, lusts for human contact. In a way, this illustrates the drama taking place between mind and body. His mind wants to continue its intellectual pursuits, but the body demands human interaction and thus intervenes and creates obstacles in the path of his goals.
While the mind is presented as being purely objective, the body is thought of as being subjective. During the duration of the movie, these ideas of mind and body are turned inside out, just as the Baboon was, and exposed for the ugliness this philosophy can bring upon us. Ideas become twisted. Seth creates a machine to solve his motion sickness problem. Okay, but he’s alone and finds solace in journalist Veronica. His bodily craving is resolved, for now, until more fleshly desires present themselves when Veronica puts the moves on our bumbling scientist. Suddenly he understands the dilemma between mind and body due to his ignorance of body and correlates his discovery with the tele-pod machine. He then successfully transports Baboon #2. They celebrate. Unfortunately, Veronica has to, as she says, “scrape off the heel” of her shoe the problematic ex-lover/editor Borans. Unschooled in the ways of human interaction, let alone women, Seth believes his new girlfriend is cheating on him or whatever and gets drunk and decides to go through the pod himself. Abandoning mind for bodily created jealousy. Unknown to him, a fly joins him in the pod and away they go. The machine wasn’t programmed to account for two separate genetic codes and so decides on its own, or more likely a fallback program, to splice them together. Seth emerges from the other pod in a cloud of white smoke seemingly unharmed or changed, instead, he is glistening and muscular, perfection one might say of both mind and body…but as horror fans, we know all too well there are no such guarantees.
Something went wrong.
It is interesting how Cronenberg differed here from the original 1958 film. When scientist Andre Delambre (played by Al Hedison) emerges from his pod he is instantly changed. His head is that of a fly’s head and his once human hand is a mandible-like claw. Differing, in this 1986 adaptation, Seth Brundle emerges seemingly unchanged but then goes through a slow and grueling deformation of his flesh and eventually his mind too. At first, he denies what’s happening, as any good horror character will do. When Veronica realizes something is amiss and tries to make him realize he is different, Seth screams at her, “You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you? I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh. Drink deep, or taste not the plasma spring! Y’see what I’m saying? And I’m not just talking about sex and penetration. I’m talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!”
The pacing of this film is magnificent. Shortly after the above scene, Seth witnesses the first of many parts of his body that begin to fall off. Slowly, with each stage of decomposition, which quickly is realized as a perverted form of evolution, his bodily-humanity is degraded, ruined, being transformed into something else. At first, Seth accepts this new discovery, jokingly referring to his medicine cabinet as a Brundle Museum of Natural History. But the more insect he becomes, the more he realizes his once beloved intellect will also slip away into the obscurity of a brutal body-dominate fly. This realization is made in one of the movies best lines when Seth asks Veronica is she “ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first… insect politician. Y’see, I’d like to, but… I’m afraid, uh… I’m saying… I’m saying I – I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake. I’m saying… I’ll hurt you if you stay.”
Seth quickly goes to work to try and resolve this transformation before he loses his mind to the bug. The machine analysis in an algorithm that he would have to splice two or more pure humans to reverse the insectoid growth. Devastated over Veronica’s departure, Seth discovers she is pregnant and chases her down when she seeks an abortion. Ina dream, Cronenberg himself plays the gynecologist, which is stoically brilliant. Seth, of course, crashes into the changing room and takes her away, imploring that she does not kill what remains of his humanity. She cannot and so he goes about his last-ditch attempt to reverse the progression of the insect with one of the best transformation effects ever conceived on screen as Brundle becomes a fully matured Brundlefly. The attempted abortion and the splicing algorithm give clues to this “other” possibility of resolving the conflict between mind and body. The mind can take action to destroy physical progression. Consider how people are outside of the movies. Why do people pursue cosmetic surgery? Why do we have organ transplants?
The Fly calls to our extremes. The war between our minds and body’s. Seth ignored his body, pursuing only the mind, to end up pursuing his physical desires over the discovery his intellect had made, only to realize all too late the need for an equal relationship between both mind and body. The Fly is definitely one of my favorite 1980s horror flicks and one of my favorite Cronenberg films. Great composition. Amazing practical effects. Top notch character acting. And gratifying gross-out scenes. But not just that, The Fly also has a deeper meaning that I find equally satisfying to all the blood and guts and giant humanoid insects, what would I be without my mind? What would I be without my body?
My Rating: 5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.