David Cronenberg, 1979
Starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle
Frank Carveth is in a heated custody battle with his wife Nola over their five year-old daughter Candice. Nola happens to be in a psychiatric institute under the care of experimental psychotherapist Hal Raglan, who is exposing Nola to something he calls “psychoplasmics.” This encourages her to externalize her rage and neuroses and allow them to physiologically manifest themselves. Frank discovers that Candice has been physically abused while spending the weekend with Nola and angrily confronts Raglan, saying he will refuse to allow Candice to further visit her mother. Raglan insists, so Frank tries to discredit him.
Raglan discovers that Nola was abused by her alcoholic parents, particularly her mother. Soon after, while Candice is with her grandmother, the woman is beaten to death by a small child wielding a meat tenderizer. More people in Frank’s life turn up dead – presumably at the hands of the same dwarf or child who killed Nola’s mother. When one of these creatures is found deceased and it is revealed to be something subhuman, Raglan closes down the psychiatric hospital and releases all the patients, except Nola. Soon Candice goes missing and Frank is desperate to find her, certain that Nola has put her in some kind of danger…
The Brood was Cronenberg’s most technically advanced film to date with a large enough budget to hire accomplished actors – Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar – and to guarantee a more focused visual style and more subtle, impactful effects. The script is also richer and more developed, with carefully written side characters whose roles are gradually established as the script unfolds. Nothing of this kind was apparent in Shivers or Rabid. Cronenberg began relationships with some of his long-term collaborators on The Brood, including composer Howard Shore, art director Carol Spier, and D.P. Mark Irwin.
In terms of Cronenberg’s early films, The Brood is body horror at its most advanced – guilt and rage so pronounced that it manifests itself in the flesh. These themes would continue to develop in Videodrome, The Fly, and some of his later films, but this is their true origin in Cronenberg’s work. This is also his most personal film. At the time of production, he was going through a bitter, painful divorce with his then-wife, which included a custody battle. The Brood is also one of his only films about the struggles of the family unit. Though The Fly begins to touch on this theme at its conclusion, it would be years until he made another, in the form of both History of Violence and Eastern Promises, which effectively function as an entwined double feature.
Though The Brood is relatively tame in terms of violence, the crowning – pun intended – moment is when Nola gives birth at the end of the film, rips the placenta open with her teeth, and licks the bloody mutant-baby clean in a moment of visceral disgust. Scenes like this encouraged viewers and critics to assume The Brood is misogynistic, as Nola, the destructive mother, is its monster and villain. Fortunately it’s not that simple and balance is not restored when Nola is killed; her hatred and malice is shown to pass on to her daughter, Candy, in the form of welts on her arms. As Nola was abused and warped by her own mother, it seems that Candy will share the same fate and the cycle of familial abuse will never be broken. The mysteries of the female body and motherhood become full blown horrors in a way that would not be repeated in Cronenberg’s future work.
Nola’s brood, the “children,” may seem silly to describe, but they are quite effective on film. Cronenberg shows as little of them as possible, so that we might confuse them with real children at first. They are reminiscent of Don’t Look Now or even Alice Sweet Alice, another film where the killer is a small person wearing a child’s coat, attacking with surprising violence and force of will. Cronenberg uses deception and misdirection as long as he can until he is finally forced to show us their deformed, bestial faces. They are exceptionally strong and violent, though much of this occurs quickly or off screen, leading us to believe we’ve seen more – and much worse – violence than we really have.
Art Hindle (Black Christmas) is decent as the suffering lead, though he is hardly able to compete with the histrionic performances of Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar (The Dead are Alive). This is one of the great Oliver Reed’s finest performances and he really helps Hal Raglan emerge from the scene as a powerful, three-dimensional figure. As Nola is the monstrous feminine, Raglan is utterly masculine, confident and confrontational, directing the lives of his patients with sympathy, but also hubris. As with Shivers and Rabid, it is an experimenting scientist that sets the events in motion, his well-intentioned, but misguided experiment leading to violence and chaos.
After the urban spaces of Shivers and Rabid, The Brood is full of rural, woodsy, and even suburban settings. The feelings of loneliness and isolation that Cronenberg was developing in Shivers and Rabid come full circle here. While Shivers examined the futility of a bourgeois, middle-class lifestyle and Rabid looked at urban nihilism, The Brood is all about the inherent dysfunction in the family structure. Though Frank and Nola first found love – Candy is the physical expression of this – it is a doomed love, damned to violently self-destruct because of the horrors of past family life (Nola’s parents) and future hopes (Raglan and the brood).
The Brood is available on DVD, but it’s embarrassing that a region 1 special edition disc (or blu-ray) hasn’t been released yet. Hopefully Criterion will address that sometime in the next year or so. Regardless, the film comes highly recommended and was one of my first favorite Cronenberg movies, perhaps unsurprisingly because I’m the product of a nasty divorce and abusive home. Similar in tone to horror films like Deathdream and art house fare like Cassavetes’ Faces, The Brood is a chilling portrait of divorce where the emotional drama is as dread-filled as the horror elements.