The Spiders of Instruction

Watching first ‘The Fly’ and then ‘Island of Lost Souls’ – the first the original 50s shocker, the second the classic 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’, starring Charles Laughton as the titular doctor – was a shocking experience, because both end in scenes of the blackest nightmare.

In ‘Lost Souls’, Moreau is forcibly – and amateurishly – dissected by the beast men that he has himself created; in ‘The Fly’, the minute man-fly – pale human head and arm emerging from black chitin, small buzzing voice wailing ‘Help me! Help me!’ – is trapped in a web and bitten at by a spider, before both are squashed with a rock by an utterly horrified policeman.

But in both cases these moments of horror precede a resetting of the balance, a return to the normal. With the death of Moreau and the burning of his island lab, his experiments are rendered un-reproducable and (it’s assumed) their man-beast results are all destroyed. With the destruction of the man-fly, the only remaining end-product of Delambre’s scientific work is smashed; he has himself earlier broken all his equipment, one of his last sane acts before he became a rapacious, inhuman fly-man.

Looked at from this point of view, each ending resolves as near perfect tragedy. The shocks that sprang from each scientist’s tragic flaw are resolved; the by-products of those flaws are erased from the world, if not from the mind. The remaining characters – and the audience, come to that – are left sadder, but wiser; silent in safer, but also very clear diminished, worlds. Implicit in each scientist’s fall is the force for good that their work could have represented; that possibility, too, has gone.

But that possibility had in fact been eradicated long before the end of the film. Moreau’s comment on the ultimate futility of his attempts to raise animals to the level of man – ‘the beast creeps back in and begins to assert itself again’ – could be read as the subtext for both movies; but that subtext expresses itself in very different ways in each film.

In ‘Lost Souls’, the beast is Moreau’s own overweening ego. Beginning with whimsical experiments with asparagus and various flowers, he ends by creating a race specifically designed to worship him. Science can give man a sense of god-like power over nature; Moreau falls headlong into the moral trap that that represents, lacking the strength of mind to see himself as only ever fallible, only ever human. But nature triumphs; at the end of the film, he’s brought face to face with his very human limits, in the most direct and painful way imaginable.

Oddly, ‘The Fly’ is a harsher film; odd because it’s protagonist, unlike Moreau, is brought low by no great moral failing. It’s pure chance that the fly ends up in the teleporter with him; and his struggle against his new, insect self is powerfully shown. He remains a good man, right to the end, always battling the insect inside himself. But there is no escaping the consequences of his actions, and he ends by dying twice – once as fly-man, and once – horrifyingly – as man-fly; in both cases, his death is suffused with a sense of regret and injustice.

That sense of injustice is what makes the film so bleak. ‘Lost Souls’ shows us a pitfall of scientific enquiry, but doesn’t imply that all scientists could fall; rather, it shows us what happens to an atypical researcher, a brilliant man lacking a certain moral compass. ‘The Fly’ implies that research itself will lead to horror; that – inevitably – chance will throw a spanner in the works, turning the potentially revolutionary into the always destructive.

Darker by far than its 30s brother, ‘The Fly’ despairs of the possibility of safe progress beyond a certain point. Dr Moreau is flawed, but adult; ‘The Fly’ implies that scientists are little more than children, playing with tools far more dangerous than they could ever know or take full precautions against.

At the end of all scientific enquiry – it’s implied – is a reduction in scale, a Lovecraftian understanding of our true, insignificant place in the universe, of the impossibility of our ever achieving effective, constructive agency within it. The helpless enquirer can only ever become a fly; tangled in the web of truth, all that can be done is to pray for oblivion before the spiders of instruction reach and painfully break you.

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