David Cronenberg is a director whose films have often been accused of a lack of warmth and emotion, generally by people who (at best) are only looking at the surface of his work. Of his earlier films The Brood (1979) and The Dead Zone (1983) are the best ripostes to that point of view. Which isn’t to say that The Brood is in any way easy or comfortable viewing, in fact it is among the director’s most harrowing works, a scream of rage and sorrow that comes from personal experience.
After experiencing a traumatic divorce and child custody battle Cronenberg was spurred to make The Brood in part after feeling sickened by the liberal platitudes and awards given to Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). The director’s experience of divorce was clearly extreme judging from the work of art with which he chose to exorcise it. The Brood concerns a father Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) who is separated from his wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) and engaged in a custody battle over their daughter Candice. Nola is undergoing therapy with the charismatic and unconventional Dr. Hal Raglan (a terrific Oliver Reed in a very interesting piece of casting) and visitations from her daughter are seen as a key part of her treatment. When Frank finds bruises on his daughter following a visit, he is convinced that his ex-wife is a danger and informs Raglan he intends to fight for sole custody.
When Frank leaves Candice in the care of her grandmother, the woman is attacked by what appears to be a dwarf, or even a child, that has hidden in her home. Candice is traumatized but unhurt, and Frank suspects that Raglan and Nola are in some way involved.
If this sounds like a dour and depressing domestic drama, well it kind of is. However this is a Cronenberg film and every scene is covered in a thin but viscous film of creepy weirdness and threat. The opening scene establishes that Raglan’s system of treatment – known as psychoplasmics – goes far beyond primal scream therapy. The psychotherapist encourages his patients to physically manifest their neurosis. During a role play session in which Raglan plays the part of a young man’s unloving father, the patient breaks out in boils that seep pus before fading away.
The Brood comes from Cronenberg’s tax shelter years. Like almost all Canadian filmmakers in the late 1970s, he and his producers took advantage of government initiatives intended to promote domestic film production. However the funding was linked to the financial year and meant that there was a production boom in the winter. This may partly explain the charge that Cronenberg was an unemotional and cold director; his early films have a chilly atmosphere that is partly an effect of circumstance. He is also a director who rarely indulges in sentimentality, something that is often mistaken for callousness.
Coming from such a dark place, The Brood is clearly open to charges of misogyny. However, although Nola is an example of the common fairy story/horror trope of ‘the bad mother’ the film’s other female characters are generally sympathetic. Also it is the new-age therapy and hubris of Raglan that real engine for horror and allows Nola to unleash her demons in a way that is pure Cronenbergian body horror.
Art Hindle has the most screen time, and is the ‘hero’ of the story but it is Nola and Raglan make a lasting impression. Despite less screen time the British actors dominate, despite reports that they had a previous relationship that led to some onset friction. Eggar makes Nola an almost tragic figure, mentally fractured and damaged while Reed’s Raglan presents a vain figure of brooding machismo entranced by his own celebrity cult.
This is one of Cronenberg’s scariest horror films. The killer dwarf/children owe a dept to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) and their attacks are horrifyingly staged. One sequence where they infiltrate a kindergarten class and assault a teacher in front of the uncomprehending faces of children is truly upsetting. Later scenes of body horror caused some censorship hassles (Cronenberg described the censors in contemporary interviews as ‘animals’) and are still extremely queasy. The film’s 1970’s aesthetic makes it one of the beigest movies ever made, something that contributes to the sense of nausea along with Howard Shore’s discordant soundtrack.
Ultimately, the film is so bleak in its outlook that it is difficult to enjoy, this is horror as the absolute antithesis of escapist entertainment, rooted in dark fears of domestic trauma. The Brood is a key work in the Canadian cinema of the 1970s and the horror genre of that decade.
This review previously appeared on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk