One of my favorite phenomena in the history of genre cinema is the R-rated horror film that feels like it was made for children. Mostly born of the VHS era, titles like The Dentist, The Ice Cream Man, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and practically any Charles Band production you could name all feel like they were intended for a juvenile audience in their artistic sensibilities, but also happen to be overrun with sex, monsters, and intense gore. Much hated for its deviation from its predecessor’s more adult tone, The Fly II (1989) is an impeccable specimen of the R-Rated children’s horror. Directed by Chris Walas, the special effects artist responsible for the grotesque mayhem of Cronenberg’s iconic 1986 remake of The Fly (1958), The Fly II is an over-the-top indulgence in ooey-gooey practical effects work worthy of the most vomitous nightmare. Most of the The Fly II’s negative reputation is in the claim that Walas’s special effects showcase was the only thing on the movie’s mind, that there is no plot or substance to speak of outside the movie’s many, many gross-out gags & surreal bodily transformations. That criticism discounts the most interesting aspect of The Fly II, the fact that everything outside its Lovecraftian, sci-fi creature transformations plays like a late-80s kids’ movie more than any direct Cronenberg descendent likely should. The two central relationships at the film’s core are essentially a boy-and-his-dog coming of age drama and a wish-fulfillment fantasy about growing up overnight, conveying R-rated perversions of movies like Big & My Dog Skip. The juxtaposition of these kids’ movies sensibilities and the nightmarish gore of the film’s gross-out creature transformations makes for a much more interesting tension than The Fly II is often given credit for. The movie deserves to be understood less as a diminished-returns echo of Cronenberg’s work and more as a high-end, well executed specimen of one of the strangest corners of VHS-era horror cinema.
For a movie with hardly any cast rollover from the Cronenberg “original”, The Fly II is shockingly confident in operating as a direct sequel to its predecessor. Tertiary player John Getz, the only returning cast member, watches in horror as “Geena Davis” (replacement actor Saffron Henderson, whom the film makes no attempt to disguise) gives birth to the resulting child from her first-film love affair with Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly. Goldblum himself only appears in-film in the form of pre-taped video diaries documenting his (disastrous) teleportation experiments, which are essentially deleted scenes from The Fly repurposed to legitimize this film’s existence. It’s difficult to take too much notice of these casting cheats & narrative workarounds, though, since the birthing scene that opens The Fly II is so overwhelmingly traumatizing that the petty concerns of series continuity are entirely beside the point. “Geena Davis’s” pregnant belly writhes with the contortions of a monster struggling to break free from within. She shrieks, “Get it out of me!” as surgeons pull a mutated, inhuman knot of tissue from inside her body, a cocoonish husk that leaks a milky bile from its creases. The husk cracks open to reveal a healthy-looking human baby inside, which the surgeons lift into the light with perplexed awe. This unholy surgical nightmare of an opening scene is a warning shot for the many grotesqueries to come. The body horror of bug-like transformations & fleshy decay from Cronenbrg’s The Fly repeat here, but Chris Walas uses them as a mere launching point for a relentless onslaught of even more varied gross-outs: mutated pets, infected injection wounds, face-melting bug bile, and an extension of the first film’s climactic reveal of the Brundlefly’s final form into nearly a half-hour’s worth of shameless creature feature mayhem. It’s easy to see how someone could dismiss the film as an excuse for indulgences in gross-out practical effects (especially given Walas’s background & the flimsy connective tissue between its narrative & the previous film’s) but that unwillingness to engage with the film doesn’t consider two very important factors: practical effects gore is inherently cool on its own and this particular story would still be remarkably bizarre without it.
“Geena Davis’s” inhuman husk-baby is raised as the property of the evil corporation who funded the original film’s teleportation experiments. Martinfly, son of Brundlefly, grows up incredibly fast (and with incredible intelligence) thanks to his father’s compromised DNA. In the early stretch he’s a Book of Henry-style smartass (complete with homemade helmet contraption) who maintains a lifelong rivalry with the evil scientists who study/torture him – corporate villains he refers to as “the people who live beyond the [two-way] mirror.” Because of his accelerated Brundlegrowth, Martinfly doesn’t last long in this juvenile state. On his fifth birthday he’s revealed to be a full-grown Eric Stotlz, a super intelligent specimen with the emotional intelligence of a young child. In this “adult,” rapidly decaying body, Martinfly fulfills common childhood fantasies about growing up overnight, claiming the privacy & personal property privileges of being a grown-up that most children long for. This bizarre version of Big is made horrifically perverse when the five-year-old Martinfly woos himself a twenty-something girlfriend (with their taboo lovemaking secretly surveilled & documented by the evil corporation’s science lab staff, of course). Concurrently, Eric Stoltz’s adult-toddler also befriend a golden retriever who is kept on-site as a test subject in the continued (and increasingly unsuccessful) teleportation experiments. This boy/dog-bonding children’s media trope is turned into its own skin-crawling nightmare when the poor pup is horribly mutilated in a failed transportation, then kept alive for years in intense pain & physical dysfunction for further research, a mangled mess of muscle & fur. Martinfly eventually gets his ultraviolent revenge on his lifelong abusers, particularly the Daddy Warbucks father figure who placated him through the torture/research, when he retreats into a second husk and metamorphosizes into a giant, killer bug beast, destroying the facility that has imprisoned him since birth. Everything preceding that traditional creature feature payoff, however, is a bizarre, nightmarish perversion of kids’ movie tones & tropes, which is exactly what makes The Fly II stand out as a unique practical effects gore fest.
Of course, there are a few moments of so-bad-it’s-good camp that flavor The Fly II’s VHS era pleasures. I’m particularly tickled by a scene where a dejected Martinfly bitterly stares at a bug-zapper while his housefly brethren are obliterated by its allure – the blue glow of their destruction lighting his melodramatic monologue about the meaningless of life. The over-the-top staging of that third act slump feels entirely at home with the film’s other campy touches, which recall the juvenile, unsubtle eye of vintage superhero comics. Not only does the movie begin as a kind of superhero origin story and heavily features a smiling Lex Luthor-type archvillain as its antagonist, it also leans heavily into the increased strength & agility Martinfly’s transformation affords his body. Even the creature’s final form is surprisingly mobile (especially for a hand-built puppet), leaping from platform to platform in the evil science lab like a visibly grotesque superhero, getting revenge on faceless baddies who torture animals for profit. This comic book sensibility is partly what makes The Fly II feel like it was made for children despite the intense gross-out gore featured throughout. The movie’s direct sequel even took the form of a short-run comic book instead of a feature film: a miniseries titled The Fly: Outbreak, published in 2015. Considering The Fly II’s distinct comic book sensibilities, the larger boom of R-rated kids’ horror in its late-80s era could be understood as a continuation of the tradition established by EC Comics in the 1950s, where juvenile morality tales were filtered through increasingly grotesque, supernatural plots. The same year of this film’s release there was even a more deliberate, direct attempt to keep that EC Comics tradition alive in the launching of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt horror anthology series, which also juxtaposed adult sex & gore with juvenile media sensibilities.
Like the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt and other VHS era oddities of its ilk, The Fly II feels like the exact kind of movie that would grab a child’s attention on late-night cable after their parents fell asleep, then scar them for life with nightmare imagery of melted faces, mutated dogs, gigantic bug-beasts, and milk-leaking husk babies. Its tone can be campy at the fringes (as expected, given the material) but it’s also complicated by the severity of its details, especially its dog torture & Eric Stoltz’s lead performance, which is heroically convincing, considering the ludicrous plot it anchors. The Fly II may over-indulge in Chris Walas’s artistic interest in practical effects gore (an attention to tangible, hands-on craft that only becomes more valuable the further we sink into CG tedium), but the consensus claim that those effects are the only noteworthy aspect of the film deliberately ignores how incredibly bizarre its R-rated children’s movie sensibilities can be and where that astoundingly self-conflicted tone fits in with the larger history of horror as a modern artform.