Looking back at David Cronenberg’s The Brood

Feature Ryan Lambie 12 Nov 2012 - 09:24

A blend of horror and drama, The Brood still has the power to shock. Ryan looks back at Cronenberg’s disturbing 1979 movie…

Following up the intimate, disturbing and controversial body horror of his first two features, Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), David Cronenberg went off and made an uncharacteristically straightforward drama about drag racing called Fast Company (1979). Starring William Smith and John Saxon, it would be one of the few movies to properly explore Cronenberg’s fascination with cars – a topic he’d return to in his unsettling adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel, Crash (1996).

After making Fast Company, Cronenberg immediately began filming The Brood, another film which took advantage of the private investment trickling into the Canadian movie industry at the time. The Brood is commonly described as Cronenberg’s most autobiographical movie to date, since it’s partly about a father attempting to take custody of his child – something Cronenberg himself was going through while he was writing the script.

Cronenberg has joked in the past that The Brood is his version of Kramer Vs Kramer – a 1979 divorce drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, which proved to be a hit both at the box office and with the Academy. Cronenberg dismissed the film as “False, fake, candy” in the book Cronenberg On Cronenberg.

“There are unbelievable, ridiculous moments in it that to me are emotionally completely false,” Cronenberg said, arguing that The Brood, with its streak of typically Cronenbergian horror, was a superior depiction of divorce. “I was really trying to get to the reality, with a capital R, which is why I have disdain for Kramer.”

Like so many of Cronenberg’s films from his 70s and 80s period, The Brood contains a scientific innovation which has unforeseen effects. The movie opens on psychotherapist Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), who treats mentally disturbed patients at his remote Somafree Institute. He’s come up with a new technique called psychoplasmics, a process that frees his patients from their pent-up psychological trauma, which then manifests itself on their bodies in strange and grotesque ways. 

We’re then introduced to Frank (Art Hindle), a father battling his wife for the custody of their young daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds). Their break-up is complicated further by the fact that Candice’s mother, Nola (Samantha Eggar) is a patient at the Somafree Institute. When Candice returns from a visit to her mother with scratches and bites on her body, an angry Frank tells Doctor Raglan that his daughter won’t be coming to the institute again.

This, it turns out, is only the beginning of Frank and Candice’s problems. There are small, humanoid creatures lurking in the town, and they attack and kill first Candice’s grandmother, and later her grandfather. These childlike beings – discovered to be toothless and asexual – have something to do with the Somafree Institute, and Frank’s determined to find out what the connection is. 

The Brood is one of Cronenberg’s purest horror films, and it was also his most technically accomplished piece of work at that point. Although still relatively low budget (it was made for around 1.5 million Canadian dollars), it’s better shot and lit than the swiftly-produced Shivers and Rabid. Its writing and acting are superior, too, and Cronenberg’s gradual build up of tension is well-handled.

Where his previous movies opened with a jolt – the murder and dining table autopsy of a young girl in the subversive Shivers, an explosive motorcycle crash over the beginning credits of Rabid – The Brood opens with a sequence that’s reserved and quietly creepy. We see Dr Raglan performing a demonstration of his pioneering technique, in which he takes a patient through a therapy session in front of an audience at his institute. During a lengthy scene, in which Raglan assumes the character of the patient’s father in a bout of role play, the latter removes his shirt to reveal that his body is covered in crimson weals. 

From there, the mystery gradually unfolds, Cronenberg gradually feeding us bits of information like a breadcrumb trail. We learn that Nola was neglected and traumatised as a child due to her alcoholic mother and cowardly, equally booze-dependent father. Following a brief exchange between Dr Raglan and Nola, in which Nola talks ominously of “bad mommies, fucked-up mommies,” Cronenberg introduces us to his nasty little creations. 

Rather than bust his effects budget with prosthetics or elaborate costumes, Cronenberg keeps his little monsters largely out of view. In the first attack, on Regan’s grandmother, we see little more than the flash of a tiny figure clad in red, lashing out with a meat tenderiser. It’s a brief, bloody killing that looks not unlike a scene from one of Dario Argento’s giallo movies, or maybe the conclusion of Don’t Look Now, which appears to have inspired it. What makes the attack doubly disturbing, though, is the creature’s guttural howls and shrieks – with little more than a clever use of sound and cutting, these diminutive creatures are imbued with genuine menace.

These monsters, clad in little snowsuits, are only part of what Cronenberg has in store. In the final act we see two of the creatures spirit Carol away, and Frank, gradually realising that the whole situation must have something to do with Raglan’s experiments, heads off to the institute. There, Frank finally learns the truth from the doctor: the creatures are Nola’s progeny, her anger made flesh.

In the film’s most infamous scene, Frank confronts Nola, who sits alone in her room. Lifting her gown, Nola reveals what psychoplasmics has done for her: attached to her body is a disgusting, womb-like sac. Biting into it, she pulls forth a tiny mutant foetus, which she then lovingly licks clean of gore. Frank can only look on in horror.

It’s a masterfully-wrought scene of horror, made all the more nauseating and powerful by Cronenberg’s restraint before this point. In a film largely devoid of graphic gore, it scorches through the screen.

Unfortunately, this sequence was a little too much for contemporary, who trimmed this sequence in many territories – something Cronenberg, understandably, wasn’t happy with. “I had a long and loving close-up of Samantha licking the fetus […] when the censors, those animals, cut it out,” Cronenberg said. “The result was that a lot of people thought she was eating her baby. That's much worse than I was suggesting.”

You might think that this sequence, plus the robust presence of Oliver Reed as Doctor Raglan, would be the most noteworthy things about The Brood, but they aren’t. Once watched, the aspect of the film you’re least likely to forget is Samantha Eggar’s remarkable performance as Nola. She’s watchful, restrained, and unforgettably disturbing.

It’s this aspect, perhaps, which would point the way to the next stage of Cronenberg’s career. As well as a maker of confrontational, often controversial movies, he’s also an excellent director of actors, and The Brood is perhaps the first film where this truly comes to the fore. Horrifying though its birthing sequence is, it’s the image of Eggar’s blood-spattered face, eyes wide, shrieking, “You’re lying, you’re lying, you’re lying” over and over again that is The Brood’s most compelling.

Some criticised The Brood for being reactionary and perhaps even anti-feminist. For Cronenberg, the film symbolised the upheaval of divorce, and it’s likely that he exorcised much of his anger and frustration in this film. “The Brood got to the real nightmare, horrific, unbelievable inner life of that situation,” the director later said. “I’m not being facetious when I say it’s more realistic, even more naturalistic, than Kramer. I felt that bad. That’s why it had to be made then; it wanted to be made full blast.”

“Full blast” is an appropriate term for The Brood, a film that prowls patiently before it finally pounces. The 1970s was the decade when the monsters of sci-fi and horror cinema came home to roost, and although there are certain aspects of The Brood which look dated all these years later, its moments of body horror have lost little of their potency.

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