Originally written for suite101.com and published on 03/05/09 – now hosted at Xomba.
The films of David Cronenberg have never shied away from using psychological tricks both thematically and in terms of effects, especially sound. This has led to the films themselves – notably his 1979 film The Brood – being subject to a certain amount of psychoanalytical discussion and debate. Although The Fly (1986) has had less written on it from that angle, akin to many of Cronenberg’s other films it makes considerable use of the impact of sound on the audience.
Sound is the sense through which we experience the most intense emotional response, yet the language used to describe what we hear is far more vague and emotive than that used to describe what is seen. Outside of the occasions where sight proves ineffective, such as in the dark, the majority of hearing is relegated to the realm of the unconscious and unspoken realms of awareness.
Fitting for a medium whose very basis requires the audience to sit in a darkened room that sound should becomes a vital tool in its arsenal for audience manipulation. Horror and science fiction cinema in particular have long made use of the importance of sound in creating and sustaining fear. Exploiting to their full extent primal visceral sounds such as the repetitive thud of the heartbeat and the sharp disjointedness of the scream.
Howard Shore’s Ominous Score
Music in horror cinema is rarely without purpose, it nearly always has a message, whether explicit or subliminal. Howard Shore’s score manages to walk the fine line between ominous and obvious to create an effective backing to the film, creating reassurance and building tension in line with the requirements of the plot.
Presumably it is this deftness in accenting the action and manipulating the audience’s emotions that has led to an ongoing collaboration between composer and director for over thirty years. Interestingly the composer has gone on to write an opera based on the plot of this film, though not related to the score he composed for the film itself.
Sound and Visual Effects Combine to Make a Monster
Throughout David’s (Jeff Goldblum) metamorphosis sound plays a vital role in underlining the horror of the events unfolding. From the ominously buzzing flies, to the out of context use of perfectly ‘natural’ sounds to accompany his increasingly unnatural actions; the sound grounds the increasingly outlandish images and events that both characters and audience must find a way to come to terms with.
In horror cinema a change in speech patterns of a character is often one of the earliest indications of a character being possessed. In the course of The Fly, David’s psychological condition is reflected in his voice, and the changes in his voice shape his changing relationship with Ronnie (Geena Davis). Despite the physical transformation he undergoes, his voice remains his own, and while she recognises his voice she still believes she can help him.
This thread of familiarity allows her to reassure herself that the tics and obsessions he develops are only magnifications of those he has naturally. Notably when she realises that he is beyond her help, it is his words not his actions that spur her to flee. The changes in his voice are subtle, building to the point where his computer’s voice recognition system no longer recognises him; he has truly passed the point of no return.