Sunday Editor’s Pick: The Brood (1979)

by on January 22, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Jan 29 at 3:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


Cronenberg mania continues. Be sure to check out Nathan Lee‘s return-from-semi-retirement Alt Screen feature on his favorite director. Incredibly, it is the only major press on this ultra-major retrospective.


Jim Ridley for Nashville Scene:

Canadian splatter-movie auteur David Cronenberg was a lot more interesting when he made movies for drive-ins instead of arthouses, and this visionary horror film ranks among his most disturbing, provocative work. At an isolated clinic, psychotherapist Oliver Reed teaches patients how to manifest mental anguish in treatable boils and lesions on their skin–a practice that may be tied to a string of grisly murders committed by hooded, mallet-wielding dwarves. It’s haunting, it’s terrifying, it’s original, and it illustrates the governing theme of Cronenberg’s work: The mind is constantly at war with the flesh, and flesh is easier to destroy.



Nick Schager for Lessons of Darkness:

David Cronenberg’s pleasurably twisted The Brood (1979) may be the most damning movie ever made about psychiatry. Wacko therapist Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) is the preeminent practitioner of psychoplasmics, a revolutionary form of treatment in which the good doctor goofily role-plays with his unbalanced patients by earnestly pretending to be their neglectful fathers and abusive mothers. Cronenberg, showing his contempt for this buffoonish hack, tips us off about Raglan’s craziness by making the character wear turtlenecks underneath a leather jacket and by encouraging Reed to speak in a frustratingly inaudible hushed whisper. Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), the husband of Raglan’s patient Nola (Samantha Eggar), correctly deduces that psychoplasmics is a crock and demands that his wife be released from Raglan’s prison-like medical facility. However, in this alternate (read: Canadian) universe, people undergoing psychiatric treatment cannot be disturbed for fear that contact with the outside world will permanently screw up their fragile minds. To complicate matters, Carveth’s parents-in-law are murdered by dog-faced children dressed in snowsuits resembling the one worn by Carveth’s stone-faced daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds). This being a Cronenberg movie, it’s only a matter of time before fantasy and reality collide amidst penetration/expulsion imagery, and wouldn’t you know it, the monster children turn out to be physical manifestations of Nola’s conscious (and unconscious) rage. Nola’s painful childhood has left her terrified of abandonment and generally pissed off, and this anger is so great that she’s actually spawned a horde of these pesky pint-sized creatures. Even though she’s gone through the trouble of developing an external birthing organ to breed these tykes — thus presumably making it very hard to walk around — Nola nonetheless cares very little for her ugly new children, who are forced to reside in a bunk bed-filled attic when not doing their mother’s dirty work. Things come to a head when the evil little buggers kidnap Candy, forcing Carveth to confront his loony spouse. Cronenberg, seemingly intent on condemning psychiatry as a menace to humanity, makes sure that Raglan is the brood’s final victim. Yet the quack doctor’s demise is preceded by the film’s unforgettable, spectacularly repulsive vision of maternal love: Nola greeting her thoroughly freaked out hubby by giving birth to a bloody baby and then, like a cat confronted with a saucer of milk, licking the goo-covered infant clean.



Anton Bidel for Movie Gazette:

From its wintry Canadian setting to its prominent ‘mad scientist’ figure, from its darkly imaginative plot to its chilling Howard Shore soundtrack, and from its psychosexual transformations to its unflinchingly repellent body horror, ‘The Brood’ is unmistakably a film by David Cronenberg – but what makes it unique amongst the visionary auteur’s œuvre is its close connection to his personal biography. For at the time he wrote the script, Cronenberg himself had just been through a difficult divorce and bitter custody battle for his own daughter – and if ‘The Brood’ is concerned with transgressively extreme ways of finding release for inner feelings of rage and recrimination, then it is also clear that the film itself allowed the director to give ‘psychoplasmic’ expression to his own sense of anger and frustration. Cronenberg has even joked that ‘The Brood’ was his peculiar version of ‘Kramer Vs Kramer’, Robert Benton’s sentimental divorce pic released in the same year – although Benton’s film, perhaps to its discredit, never featured dwarfish homicidal psychopaths amongst its methods for bridging irreconcilable differences.


Walter Chan for Film Freak Central:

Widely recognized as the first mature film of David Cronenberg’s career, The Brood, his self-described Kramer Vs. Kramer, is also the director’s most bitter, uncompromising statement about gender politics as they pertain to progeny and sexuality. It encompasses auteur throughlines like the evolution of the flesh, new religions genuflecting before the “new flesh,” and again the literal externalization of sexuality–while adding to the mix an unhealthy dose of cynicism and anger. Whereas before, and since, the interplay of parasites and the evolution of new biologies is seen as something potentially positive for all its alien-ness (note Seth Brundle’s early-transformation optimism), in The Brood, the physiological changes are children of hatred and anxiety and the resultant progeny is sterile and malevolent. The picture is, in other words, a definitive metaphor for the coldness and cruelty of acrimonious divorce. Exciting for so many reasons (including the assembly of what is easily Cronenberg’s best cast to date: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggars, etc.), The Brood presents a trenchant dose of well-aimed social satire to go with the sort of theories of sexual evolution that tend to dissolve familial loyalties and subvert cultural standard. Already notorious for his ease with graphic violence, a scene where a mother bites through a weird “psycho-plasmic” placenta to lick the birth fluids from her angry spawn centres its discomfiting brilliance in the juxtaposition of the utterly natural with the essentially unnatural. Powerful and uncompromising, The Brood is an important film for the Cronenberg completist, and perhaps the first that holds together for the casual fan.



Troy Olson for Wonders in the Dark:

David Cronenberg’s first great film. While the metaphor on maternal abuses and contentious custody battles is obvious, it’s much more interesting to look at the film as a bitter and bloody display of Cronenberg’s own unconsciousness boiling to the surface and being splashed on the screen. The Brood openly shows Cronenberg’s externalized rage which in turn creates Nola’s externalized rage which ultimately creates the parthenogenic (look it up) progeny in the film. Cronenberg also seems to be tapping into societal feelings of the time (Kramer vs. Kramer came out around the same time) set about by the the rise in divorce rates and the decaying structure of the nuclear family. The film also contributes to the fascination psychoanalytical theorists have with Cronenberg’s work. Good portions of Barbara Creed’s concept of the “monstrous-female” are derived from this film and it’s abundantly clear why. Nola’s mutated body is both alluring and repulsive; Her children represent both birth and death; Her womb is ultimately a threat to Frank and Candace by virtue of her uncontrolled rage.

The film’s virtues don’t lie only in metaphor and theoretical musings, it’s also fantastic taken on its own as a creepy scare film. The look of the creatures is certainly inspired by Don’t Look Now, with their odd faces, one even wearing a bright red snowsuit. The first time we see one of them, an attack on Nola’s mother with a meat tenderizer, is horrifying in its suddenness, while Dr. Raglan’s attempt near the end to rescue Candace from a cabin filled with the creatures is amazingly tense. In the best of the scenes, two of the monsters are playing on a tire swing outside of the elementary school while the students congregate around the entrance. Cronenberg uses long shots and the obscurity provided by the snowsuits so that we aren’t sure who are the human children and who aren’t. This eventually leads to them walking into the school, murdering the teacher with wooden mallets (mostly shown with nothing more than the shocked reactions shots of the children), and taking Candice back to her mother.



Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Just how the brood materializes, it will be the pleasure (or horror) of the spectator to discover for himself (though the technical definition of the term “brood” offers some hint). It should suffice to say that Cronenberg’s film admittedly shares much with a film like Lynch’s Eraserhead in its revulsion with all things gynecological. Like Lynch’s film, The Brood is partly about a man’s disgust at his female partner’s reproductive capability, which is itself surely linked to the man’s sexual desire for this female partner and how this desire is thwarted or even quashed by this alien process that the woman is undergoing. This is a horribly sexist and somewhat juvenile response, as I’m sure both filmmakers understand, but its effectiveness as the subject for a horror film is undeniable, and each film exploits this horror quite well. But unlike Eraserhead, Cronenberg’s film is explicitly about engaging with and attempting to overcome such horrors, and Cronenberg’s exploitation of Frank’s disgust at his wife as precisely the kind of psychosomatic trauma that his films rely upon as “issues” with which his characters (and his films) are trying to “come to terms.”
Compared to most horror films, The Brood displays a remarkable amount of sensitivity about the effects that the film’s events have on the characters’ emotional health. This is particularly evident in all of the speculation about the ways in which the film’s events might be affecting young Candy. The couple’s divorce, the possible abuse, the witnessing of her grandmother’s fatal beating with a meat tenderizer — each is a new cause for Frank’s concern about the lasting psychic damage that may be visited upon his daughter. Perhaps conscious of the physical and emotional abuse that Nola suffered at the hands of her own mother, Frank is no doubt wary that a cycle of trauma and neurosis would be perpetuated, handed down from generation to generation. In Frank’s estimation, this trauma is like a contagion, spreading and consuming every object of Nola’s rage.



Chan also speaks to Cronenberg:

The Brood is your first collaboration with composer Howard Shore. Can you tell me what you did with score to this point, and how did the relationship come about?
Rabid does not have a score technically, in the sense of a score written specifically for the movie. It’s actually the same thing we did for Shivers in that Ivan [Reitman] would find “drop needle” music–that is to say, music that you could just buy by the yard and then you could cut it and fit it like a tailor to the movie rather than have it composed specifically for the piece. With The Brood I was very excited to finally have the budget to actually afford a score.

Pretty widely documented as a very personal film, a reflection of a difficult divorce, The Brood feels the most bitter of your films to me.
Yes, it’s the only movie that I’ve done that has no humour in it. I can’t recall one joke–I’ll have to look at it again to be sure, but no, it was a very personal film in a way that most of mine aren’t.
Are you familiar with “The Simpsons” episode that pays homage to The Brood?
You’re serious? (laughs) No, I wasn’t aware of it.


Also playing Sunday, at 5:30:SCANNERS (1981).


Time Out (London):

This looks less like Cronenberg’s popular mid-’70s exploiters (Rabid, Shivers) than one of his early experimental films remade on a higher budget, with a small group of ‘scanners’ (warrior-telepaths) fighting off a sinister mind-war army that is backed, indirectly, by industry and the state. Part conspiracy thriller, part political tract, it is Cronenberg’s most coherent movie to date, drawing a dark (but bland) world in which corporate executives engineer human conception to produce ever more powerful mental samurai. And he punctuates it with spectacular set piece confrontations which really do dramatise the abstract, ingenious premise. As always, there’s a nagging feeling that the script is not quite perfectly realised on screen, but Patrick McGoohan’s bizarre cameo performance, and the extraordinary moral and sexual ambiguity of the final scanning contest, more than make up for it.


David Chute talks to Cronenberg, for Film Comment:

Scanners, plagued by production problems, was an ambitious shambles. But its financial success has won Cronenberg his first major-studio distribution deal and his largest production budget: $5 million. If Scanners‘ blossoming, bloody, exploding head-which was featured in the trailers-is now the first thing many people think of when his name is mentioned, Cronenberg isn’t complaining. “Actually,” he says, “I rather like the exploding head as a symbol of the power of my films: the human mind filled with so much energy that it can’t be contained physically.”


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