Original release: May 25th, 1979
Running time: 92 minutes
Country of origin: Canada
Writer and director: David Cronenberg
Composer: Howard Shore
Cast: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle, Cindy Hinds
At the Somafree institute charismatic psychoanalyst, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) treats his patients with a mixture of role play and something much creepier called psychoplasmics, a method which urges the patients to physically manifest their psychoses.
Frank (Art Hindle) is in the middle of a custody wrangle with his wife Nola (Samantha Eggar), who’s a patient of Raglan’s. When their blond haired child Candice (Cindy Hinds) shows up with cuts and bruises on her body following a visit with Nola, Frank confronts Raglan, claiming that Nola is the culprit and insisting on seeing her.
However, the truth is much weirder and after Nola’s mother is murdered while looking after Candice, Frank broadens his investigation into Raglan, talking to former patients.
The Brood was in some ways a turning point film for Cronenberg. It was the first film with which he collaborated with composer Howard Shore, who would go on to score all of his subsequent films with the exception of The Dead Zone, which Michael Kamen scored with a very Howard Shore sounding composition.
It also saw a move away from the simmering madness of his earlier films Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), in which control was rarely possible. The contrast in the titles is indicative of this.
Whereas the earlier films promised mayhem, The Brood has something deeper, more focused to it and more depressing perhaps. Cronenberg has a lot of knockabout fun in his early shockers—there’s a quick if dark wit to them—but here, there’s a po-faced focus, a taming of style, a neatness to which the occasional moments of violence of body horror are a disturbing aberration.
Part of the reason for this focus could be to do with the fact that Cronenberg was himself going through a divorce and custody battle during the making of the film. He’s stated that The Brood was his most autobiographical work. Whether this is so or not, the film is marked by not only a fairly obvious dollop of woman hating and fearing (misogyny seems a lame, obscure word) but a genuine anxiety about the family itself.
Nola is obviously a nightmare wife and a viciously unsuitable mother but Nola’s own problems can be traced back to her relationship with her mother, who—it appears—was a drunken child abuser. Despite the awfulness of the women, the men themselves are fairly poor specimens. Nola’s father is a well-meaning boozer who’s always absent while Frank, despite being the hero, is a sulky boring non-entity who spends much of the film sighing. Art Hindle continues a long line of Cronenberg heroes, who are so bland that they’re almost transparent in strong daylight. However, despite the visible lack of charisma, Frank also hides murderous tendencies as the film plays out.
The Brood itself, the physical manifestation of Nola’s rage, is a small group of sexless beings that go on the rampage whenever she gets upset. They’re the motor of much of the horror of the piece, doing almost all the killing. There’s the creepiness of Don’t Look Now here, and the scene where two members of the brood sneak into Candice’s school is genuinely creepy.
However, there is also a silliness about them which occasionally comes through to the detriment of the film. Their first victim is killed with a meat tenderizer, but their second is killed with a pair of toy wooden mallets, which has the alert audience member wondering about weight ratios and the inability of adults to react quickly. Of course, this could be an intentional silliness but it detracts from the terror.
That said for a film which has such an obviously contemptuous attitude towards psychoanalysis, it might be interesting to get it on the couch. I’m wondering if that contempt is all that genuine.
The psychoanalyst Raglan is the only character to get a genuine performance; he’s a bit of a ham and showman. You feel he likes to role play because he enjoys doing the voices as much as for therapeutic value. Oliver Reed is immediately watchable and compelling, especially compared to Art Hindle’s rice pudding. The first scene of the film is a therapy session but it takes place on a stage in front of an audience of appreciative spectators. This indicates that perhaps the film and the psychoplasmics has something in common; the making flesh of that which is psychological, neuroses and psychoses etc.
As such, it might seem that Cronenberg’s anger encompasses wife, parents, and in-laws, but also children. It is—after all—Nola’s ability to reproduce, to create life in whatever form, which is re-imagined as the most repugnant secret.
If there’s something frightening about these childlike creatures, there’s something equally disturbing about seeing them gunned down. Ultimately, what are children anyway except our psychologies made flesh?
John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.
He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.