Cronenberg’s public therapy session: The Brood
Finally, and I was owed this. Having waded through the bad Rabid and the absolutely awful Fast Company, I can’t begin to describe how pleased I am to see David Cronenberg hit his stride. The Brood is probably the quintessential Body Horror film, and deals with all the Cronenberg recurring themes in a story that is compelling, repulsive and more than a little unsettling.
It doesn’t start very promisingly, if I’m honest- as we see Oliver Reed’s quack psychiatrist Dr Raglan, the inventor of Psychoplasmy, role play with a patient before a live audience. However, soon enough Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) visits Raglan to complain that his daughter is being harmed by her institutionalised mother (Samantha Eggar). He’s right, she is, but not in the way that he thinks. She’s actually being menaced by the products of Nola’s rage- the murderous Brood. The film slowly builds to a climax that frankly defies description, and finishes on a deeply depressing but inevitable low note.
This film contains two of the most disturbing scenes in Cronenberg’s career, and that’s really saying something. The first is the savage murder of Candy’s teacher- a demented and raw beating at the hands of two of the Brood armed with wooden hammers that takes place in front of her class of young children. It’s an astonishingly vicious scene, and one that I cannot believe would ever be filmed by anyone again. The second, is the iconic end scene where we see the birthing of the Brood. This is not particularly easy to describe, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that the image of Eggar licking amniotic fluid off the skin of a mutant dwarf stayed with me for a long time.
Aside from containing some definitively Cronenberg imagery, The Brood also tackles all the recurring Cronenberg themes. We’ve got a shadowy medical facility operating in an unethical and experimental field. We’ve got distortions of the body representing mental state. Oliver Reed’s Raglan adopts several different identities over the course of the film, purely in the name of therapy, and there are other identity issues at the crux of the film. This hits almost every Cronenberg hot topic.
That it can contain so many different themes without being a bloated and confusing mess is purely down to the script. The Brood was Cronenberg’s unpaid therapy session as he went through a horrendous divorce and he has actually said that he feels The Brood is more honest with the subject than Kramer v Kramer, and although that comment may be tongue in cheek, I still feel that there’s a kernel of truth to the assertion. Take, for example, the closing shot of the film- this leaves the viewer in no doubt that the cycle of violence will be continued in the next generation, and I have to agree- any child that undergoes the mental trauma Candy suffers is bound to have some issues herself.
It is also a very theatrical script. The therapy sessions between Raglan and Nola that are conducted one on one require Reed to play several different “roles”- Nola’s mother, father and potential replacement. His purpose here is to inflame Nola’s simmering rage for psychiatric purposes. Quite why he wants to do this is lost on me, but needless to say, anyone that he plays comes to a downright messy end.
As touched on above, the acting is sublime. The Brood contains arguably Oliver Reed’s most restrained performance, and I was quite pleased to be reminded of how good the great man could be when playing understated. Eggar is superbly unhinged and repellent as Nola, and Hindle is stoic as Frank, but a special note must be made of Cindy Hinds as little Candice, who manages to be suitably traumatised and puts in a touching show. I bet she’s in therapy now.
The direction also shows a marked improvement from previous efforts, and is certainly both the most competent film of his young career and also has some real confidence in it’s imagery that was maybe lacking a bit from Shivers and Rabid (I’ve conducted a Stalinist purge on Fast Company and erased it from my memory). The climactic scene, for example, where Nola lifts her dress is revolting and he places the camera further back from it than he did in comparitive scenes in previous films allowing us to see the full abomination. The murders themselves are also brilliantly staged, the first one in particular is absolutely gripping. This is a stylish film.
Overall, would I recommend The Brood? Yes. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that this is probably an essential Cronenberg film. This is the first film he made that flirts with greatness, and is a disturbing but compelling body horror played out by the master.
I give this one a well-earned 3 Changs- excellent.
Next up is the first unarguably great Cronenberg film: Scanners.
The order so far: