Divorce does odd things to the creators of genre entertainment and I’m not talking about the stressful heartbreak of such films as Marriage Story or Kramer Vs. Kramer. No, the strain of divorce affects people differently; George Lucas’ divorce gave us child slavery and ritualistic sacrifice in the form of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, for example – but that’s fucking child’s play compared to how David Cronenberg managed to work out his feelings…
The Canadian King Of Venereal Horror (bet that looks snazzy on a business card), Cronenberg was guaranteed to give us something we’d never seen before, especially considering how eloquent the man is when tackling such subjects as lust inducing, sex parasites and an outbreak of madness caused by a vagina in an armpit; but while Shivers and Rabid dealt with awful shit befalling a gated community and Montreal respectively, The Brood dialed back the scale to give us his most personal movie at that time.
Frank Carveth, a man who’s clearly gone forward in time and stolen Sebastian Stan’s bone structure, is in the middle of an exceptionally custody battle with his wife Nola for their quiet daughter Candice. Matters are made all the worse by the fact that Nola is quite seriously disturbed due to how she was treated by her own mother as a child and is currently in the middle of a highly experimental therapy known as Psychoplasmics at the hands of Dr. Hal Raglan. Now, anyone who is even remotely familiar with the works of Cronenberg knows that the mention of “highly experimental therapy” usually is sign that things are about to go spectacularly tits up and sure enough Raglan’s new technique, which requires people with mental disturbances to work through their suppressed emotions through physiological changes to their bodies, looks set to wreak some terrible damage on the lives of all involved. After Frank finds bruises and cuts on his daughter’s back after a weekend with her mother, brutal murders start occuring thanks to weird, sexless, mutant creatures that seem to be twisted versions of bloodthirsty children who seem to be targeting those who Nola has a beef with. As the bodycount slowly rises, Frank starts to find out from other patients of Raglan about the harmful effect Psychoplasmics can truly have on our frail human bodies, but no one could have predicted the freakish side effect it’s had on the increasingly enraged Nola…
The Brood sees Cronenberg in a more introspective kind of mood; sandwiched between drag racing drama Fast Company and the head popping sci-fi of Scanners, it’s far more of a deliberately paced piece of work on a smaller, more intimate scale and thus is arguably the most creepy of all of his earlier works with it’s ideas and genuinely unsettling concepts crawling into the back of brain and setting up residence like an unnerving squatter. The revelation that these feral “children” are coming from tumor-like wombs growing on the outside of Nola’s body thanks to a horrific side-effect to Raglan’s methods (bang up job you’ve done there, doc…), is honestly shocking, as is the spiteful violence they inflict thanks to their mother’s subconscious demands. An attack on someone in a kindergarten as horrified, normal children look on stands as some of the most chilling violence the auteur has perpetrated on film and the creatures themselves, while obviously crudely done, are furiously memorable threats with their lopsided features and beak-like lips.
The cast is suprisingly top drawer, Oliver Reed plays Raglan exactly how you’d expect a maverick psychiatrist played but Oliver Reed would act, alternating between bullying and doing that uncomfortable, seductive rasp he does (you know the one) whereas Samantha Eggar seems genuinely unhinged, bugging her (already huge) eyeballs at everyone in sight and enthusiastically licking blood off the head of a newly born mutant foetus like she was born to it. In comparison, Art Hindle’s Frank has the thankless task of being the “straight man” of the film and the direct comparison to Reed and Eggar’s combined, unrestrained set chewing means he comes across as quite bland but he still fills his “hero” duties fairly well.
There’s an argument to be made that The Brood takes somewhat of an unfairly male view of proceedings by utterly demonising the character of Nola by neglecting to give her a single, normal moment in the entire film. We never really get a bead on her as an actual functioning human being and her raving threats that she would rather see her daughter dead certainly makes it tough to feel any remorse for her as she unwittingly sends her little army of little tumors babies to batter in the skulls of anyone she perceives as a threat. Frank seems like a fucking angel in comparison and maybe Cronenberg’s bias is a little telling, but it’s worth remembering that for a horror film to work, it sometimes means that the filmmaker has to choose a side and while it’s not quite as elegant metaphor for a mentally ill mother struggling to bond with her child as, say Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, The Brood still finds worthy things to say when tackling these themes.
Like any film made during this time period, the filmmaker’s imagination often exceeds his reach and it’s easy to find yourself needlessly critiquing fashions or furniture. Even for a low budget film made in Canada in the 1970’s, the movie’s set design contains an excessive amount of wood panelling and the whole movie looks like it’s been dipped in a bucket of beige, but our Dave reliably still brings the anus clenching moments when he has to. I’ve already name checked the disturbing scene in kindergarten but another cheekily apes Hitchcock’s The Birds as Raglan creeps through a room full of temporarily inactive mutant children while Frank struggles to keep Nola occupied and another where Frank photographs Candice’s bruises while she absent-mindedly plays with a flower is a stark and uncomfortable reminder of a more real and insidious kind of horror.
Yes, the film is as emotionally cold as the Canadian snow the characters trudge through during the exterior scenes (a common complaint of Cronenberg’s early works) but it proves to mirror the curdling of the relationship the two leads once had that’s now become bitterness – and the ability to grow wombs on the outside of one’s body… let’s not forget that, yeah?
A mature slow burn that still boasts the director’s signature fascination with corrupting the human form, The Brood isn’t mentioned as much as some of Cronenberg’s features but as killer child movies go, the man definitely isn’t kidding…