My rule-of-thumb when dealing with sequels is anything made less than 2 years or more than 10 years after the original is a shameless cash grab, devoid of any redeeming artistic quality. When a sequel comes out immediately after a successful original it tends to be rushed out crap meant to make a quick buck before the buzz of the original has faded. When a sequel comes out more than a decade after the original then it is usually an attempt by the studios to milk a property one last time before their copyright expires (See Carrie 2: The Rage, and the Birds 2 for some especially glaring examples). Seeing as we are unquestionably dealing with a sequel of the first variety (The Fly was released in August 1958, it’s sequel in July 1959 – less than one calendar year later), it’s a pleasant surprise that Return of the Fly is a serviceable film in its own right. Not that Return of the Fly isn’t a rushed cheapie: that much will be obvious in the opening sequence. The whole thing is shot in cheap black and white, rather than the expensive Technicolor of the original. Of the main cast in the previous film Helene is killed-off off camera before the credits even role, and inspector Charas is replaced by a new detective named Beecham (who is privy to all the old inspector’s secrets for some unstated reason). Only Francois Delambre (Vincent Price) will be joining us for the sequel. All clear signs that the studio did not think the project worth investing much money into.
The film begins with a radical departure from the style and parting message of the original film. Fifteen years have passed since the mysterious death of Andre Delambre. His wife, Helene, who had never quite recovered from the horror of his mishap with the teleporter has now died herself. Their son Philippe is determined to follow in his father’s footsteps and perfect the teleporter technology that he was working on just before his unfortunate encounter with the fly. His mother had forbid all research in this direction, but with her death he’s finally free to do as he pleases. Francois, even though he once described Andre as a brave explorer in a hostile land, and looked on approvingly as Philippe declared his own intent to be just such an explorer, is less than thrilled at the possibility of his nephew repeating his brother’s mistakes. Francois explains the whole sordid tale of the first movie, and gives the standard speech about the danger of meddling in God’s domain. Philippe is not to be dissuaded, after seeing the ruins of his father’s old laboratory he becomes more determine than ever to repeat the experiments of his progenitor. With the crumbling, cobweb strewn laboratory, the stormy night raging outside, and the superstitious peasant (here a watchman) warning about curses and evil spirits: The whole sequence resembles nothing so much as the old universal horror films, Son of Frankenstein in particular. Indeed, Philippe’s determination to redeem his brilliant father’s tarnished legacy is the same driving motivation of Wolf Frankenstein in the earlier film.
To conduct his research Philippe is going to need money, and uncle Francois isn’t likely to pony-up the cash. Fortunately, Philippe is able to pitch the idea to Alan, one of Francois’ scientists, is so taken by the idea that he’s willing to work on it for room, board and the promise of a cut of the future profits. Or at least that’s what he says, in reality Alan is a con man operating under an assumed name, who has recently fled the authorities in England. Alan has connections with a seedy businessman named Max Barthold in Montreal, who sells corporate secrets from his front: a funeral home. The two agree on terms after threatening to betray each other to the authorities if either one of them gets any funny ideas.
Alan and Philippe head to Philippe’s mansion where they begin work immediately. The housekeeper, Mrs. Bonnard and her daughter Céline, also inhabit the mansion. The original Fly had an interesting female lead in Helene, and a talented actress who was able to sell the poor woman’s mental breakdown in the face of impossible horror. This sadly will not be repeated in the sequel, as Céline’s chief responsibilities will be looking beautiful and screaming (to be fair, she fulfills the former task admirably). It isn’t long before Alan and Philippe exhaust Philippe’s limited funds, and they are forced to turn to Francois for help. Francois still has no interest in funding the project, but when Philippe threatens to sell his half of his father’s company Francois has no choice but to step into line. If Francois has any doubts they are quickly alleviated when Philippe manages to send an ashtray across the room.
Philippe has learned one thing from his father: the absolute stupidity of using himself as a test subject. Indeed, Philippe doesn’t want to test the device on any human being at all until after he has completed rigorous animal trials. Nor is going to grab the beloved household cat and send it through the teleporter, his first series of trials will be with good old fashioned guinea pigs. It’s refreshing to see a movie scientist who isn’t a complete imbecile when it comes to laboratory safety. With the tests proceeding nicely and the hour getting late, Philippe suggests that they attempt an experiment that needs to sit over night. So, they vaporize a guinea pig and then rather than reassemble him immediately they leave him hanging somewhere in the ether between pods. Francois heads home, Philippe heads to bed and Alan begins his plan to steal Philippe’s research.
Alan doesn’t get far, as his movements have been tracked by a police officer that suspects foul play. When he goes to photograph Philippe’s plans that night, the cop is waiting to arrest him. After a brief struggle, in which Alan gets the upper hand the cop is killed. The noise of the fight wakes up the rest of the household, but Alan is able to vaporize the cop before anyone makes it downstairs. After everyone goes to bed he reintegrates the body only to discover that the guinea pig and the police officer have been fused together, the guinea pig now has tiny human limbs and the policeman now has gigantic guinea pig appendages. In the film’s most grotesque shot, Alan crushes the human guinea pig-human abomination under the heel of his boot, we see the tiny human hands groping out of the sides, as the creature vainly tries to save itself. Alan drags the police officer to his car and ropes Barthold into helping him dispose of the body.
When the car is resting at the bottom of the lake he returns to the lab to finish stealing Philippe’s research. Philippe however, has had his suspicions aroused by all the strange comings and goings of the night and he tries to re-integrate the guinea pig when Alan is out only to get nothing. When he finds the handcuffs left behind by the police officer he s convinced that Alan is up to no good. However, for whatever reasons (possibly he wants to keep the nature of his research secret for the moment) Philippe phones his uncle Francois for help, rather than calling the police. Alan is not a man to be easily ambushed, after discovering that he cannot simply talk his way out of the bind (despite his best efforts), he pulls a gun on Philippe. In the ensuing struggle Philippe is knocked unconscious. Alan then tosses the unconscious Philippe into the teleporter along with a fly that has been buzzing around the lab. The reason for this last bit of maliciousness is unexplained; perhaps Alan thinks that splicing Philippe with a Fly will kill the poor scientist. Perhaps it’s just that this wouldn’t be much of a sequel to the Fly without a man/fly abomination. Alan then makes his escape, in the process shooting Francois who has just arrived to help his nephew, and stealing Francois’ really cool-looking car. The injured Francois calls the police and rushes to the lab to re-integrate Philippe.
The results of this action shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has seen the original: when Philippe is brought out of the transporter ether he emerges as a half-fly abomination. At first glance the creature is a marked improvement from the original, the mask is both more realistic looking and more grotesque, and in addition to having a fly arm, Philippe also has a fly leg. This later appendage is a great addition for suspenseful scenes, as the audience and characters can her it faintly dragging along the ground, a subtle rattle that cues us in that the monster is nearby. The only problem is that the creature’s head is just too big, yes I know, fly’s have a proportionally much larger head than human, but the result here makes our monster look like a life-sized bobble-head doll. The police are understandably horrified by the monster and begin shooting and chasing it as soon as it has materialized. Philippe evades the police and escapes into the countryside, once his immediate safety is assured he begins to extract his revenge on Alan and Barthold.
There is one thing I didn’t understand about the original Fly, and which extends to this movie as well: How is consciousness divided up between the two teleported monstrosities? The strict materialist explanation that understands consciousness solely as an attribute of the brain is insufficient to explain either film. In both cases the fly-man displays human motivations and reasoning in addition to violent, insectoid impulses. In original Andre felt like his human reason and emotions were gradually being over-ridden by the fly’s instinct. The Philippe-fly obviously retains a glimmer of Philippe’s personality and memories, because it’s first action upon escaping the police is to hunt down and kill Alan and Barthold. As Barthold’s identity and involvement could only be deduced from a brief exchange Philippe had with Alan it must also retain a part of Philippe’s reasoning as well. The fly-humans in both cases also must retain some of their intelligence and memory, as they are capable of creepy, high-pitched pleas for help. Given all that we have to assume that the film is arguing that consciousness is not rooted solely in the brain, and that instead, that it is the product by some intangible soul. Such beliefs are common enough, but I have never seen it argued that the intangible soul could be manipulated by physical events, much less chopped up and reassembled with non-human soul added as filler.
Queer theology aside the Return of the Fly is definitely a step down from the original, but not by as much as one would imagine. There certainly are no performances on par with Patricia Owens’ role in the original, but the b-movie and untested youngsters that have been pressed into service acquit themselves well. As usual, Vincent Price is a lot of fun to watch, particularly in scenes where his character is distressed. The film also lacks much of the gruesomeness of original, there are no scenes capable of matching Andre in the press or the fly in the web; though it should be noted that the guinea pig with human hands comes close. However, when viewed as just another 1950s sci-fi horror movie rather than the sequel to a classic, Return of the Fly becomes a perfectly serviceable film in it’s own right. Certainly it’s no masterpiece, but given the speed with which it was produced and the limited budget it was operating under it turned out rather nicely.