Cronenberg’s The Brood


David Cronenberg swaps his  venereal ick-monsters for Samantha Eggar’s mater furiosa,  an annihilating female who commits her killings as would the villain of a Greek tragedy — through her offspring. Oliver Reed is the new-age guru of ‘Psychoplasmics,’ who teaches Eggar to direct her rage in an utterly unique way. The disturbing concept sounds less preposterous when one finds out it was written in response to a brutal divorce experience. Hell hath no fury.

The Brood
The Criterion Collection 777
1979 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 92 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 13, 2015 / 39.95
Starring Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle, Henry Beckman, Nuala Fitzgerald, Cindy Hinds, Susan Hogan, Gary McKeehan, Michael Magee, Robert Silverman, Felix Silla.
Mark Irwin
Film Editor Alan Collins
Original Music Howard Shore
Special Makeup Jack Young, Dennis Pike
Art Direction Carol Spier
Produced by Claude Héroux
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

What’s the score now?  Is 1983’s The Dead Zone the last David Cronenberg horror feature not to have seen a deluxe Blu-ray?  We’ve seen special editions from Criterion and Arrow that present everything from Stereo to The Fly in excellent transfers, with fascinating extras that expand our respect for the very different director that made his name tilting toward the squeamish side of existence. Yes, Shivers and Rabid are essentially exploitation films… but there’s no denying that their maker is on the trail of the marvelous. Cronenberg proposes perfectly logical biological premises, but not just to motivate a clever gimmick story as would Michael Crichton. The man from Canada is working out icky obsessions to which we can relate, even if we’d rather not.

1979’s The Brood is still a low-budget Canadian production mounted on a small scale. This time around Cronenberg steps beyond gross-out mutilations, rampaging venereal parasites and sexual vampirism to propose a more abstract, disturbingly evocative premise. This one would seem right at home in the bizarro experimental clinics imagined for Stereo and Crimes of the Future. Maybe his pictures were still small, but by this time Cronenberg was attracting serious acting talent. Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar are clearly intrigued by the raw extremes of their roles. Eggar’s central character does things never before seen in a movie. As was his talent, Cronenberg introduces us to yet another level of mind-warping weirdness.

The deceptively modest film sees unhappy husband Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), thinking of his daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds) doing his best to get his estranged wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) away from a research retreat called The Somafree Institute. Frank thinks she’s in the clutches of the mysterious Dr. Hal Raglan (Oiiver Reed), an experimental psychologist specializing in something called ‘psychoplamics.’ Candy has strange scratches on her back, and Frank thinks Nola has inflicted them on Candy’s weekend visits. Dismissed with the information that Nola is too disturbed to receive other visitors, Frank becomes convinced that Raglan is a quack running a dangerous cult. He contacts an ex-patient of Raglan, who says that the grotesque growth on his neck was something created at the Institute. Much more alarming is the fact that people Frank knows are being murdered by what seems to be a child or perhaps a dwarf. Is Raglan dispatching these

killers?  We see Ragland in sessions with Nola, encouraging her to focus her hatred on her estranged husband. Is psychoplasmics doing ‘things’ to Nola as well?  What’s going on with Nola’s midsection, underneath her clothing?

Transgressive writer director Larry Cohen used his horror films (God Told Me To and Q The Winged Serpent) partly to express his distrust of what he thought was mind control by organized religion. David Cronenberg is normally focused on our uneasy relationship with our own bodies, which we worship as beautiful even as we ignore or deny the processes that go on inside, physical things that our society tells us are disgusting. To Cronenberg the phrase ‘Life will find a way’ erupts in malignant mutations at every turn. The standard line on The Brood is that it was inspired by the director’s rough experience in a divorce. He even called it his ‘honest’ take on the same issues — distrust, rage, ‘fighting through the children’ — broached in Robert Benton’s divorce epic Kramer vs. Kramer.

And it’s true. Frank can’t communicate with Nola, which allows Dr. Raglan to convince her that Frank is the trouble behind everything. Dr. Raglan has ascertained that Nola’s capacity for psychic rage is off the charts, which makes her the perfect subject for his secret experiments. He eventually dismisses the rest of his patients to concentrate on her — and possibly to isolate certain new creatures that have arrived on the scene. The psychosexual hold Raglan imposes on his patients can be seen when they’re herded on a bus back to town — they’re all emotionally stricken in the belief that they’ve been ‘rejected.’ Raglan has been encouraging extreme emotions in all of them, to suit his researches.

What the wacky Dr. Raglan has come up with, is a psychological wrinkle on the Monsters from the Id from Forbidden Planet. A psychotherapist might theorize that emotional energy has to go somewhere, and that if we don’t cast off our bad feelings, they can have physical effects. Worried, stressed people can experience a collapse to their immune systems, for instance — I’ve seen hard evidence of this in my own family. Repressed people are sometimes encouraged to express their ill feelings, to externalize them, as a way of dissipating their negative effects. It sounds almost like Scream Therapy, although Primal Therapy is somewhat different.

Writer Robb White came up with a monster that reflects this very notion in a William Castle thriller, 1959’s The Tingler. The idea that unexpressed fear results in the growth of a ‘nervous’ parasite is awfully close to Cronenberg’s concept. The Brood just takes the concept to a logical extreme and mixes it with another primal, instinctual human process, birth and motherhood.

Playing the old extrapolation game, The Brood proposes that the intense feelings encouraged by Dr. Raglan express themselves in physical growths. One man has odd tumors, but Nola is doing something entirely different, that brings up all kinds of strange associations. Some of them touch on taboo territory… and keep right on going. Cronenberg has no fear of trespassing where ‘polite’ filmmakers fear to tread.

The Brood ought to have come with a warning, “Not recommended for pregnant women or anybody sensitive about the subject of pregnancy.” That said, it’s a regular gold mine of fascinating ideas about the tensions within families and the dynamic of the mother-child relationship. Do people still choose to have kids, ‘just because?’ Or do they have them to fulfill their own failed dreams, or to serve as subservient companions, as dramas have been telling us for centuries? Nola and Frank had their natural child Candy as an expression of love. Nicholas Roeg’s foggy psychosexual mystery thriller Don’t Look Now has a red-garbed child-substitute ‘thing’ that seems to relate to older ghost stories, perhaps the child-demons of Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura and

Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit. The psychoplasmic ‘red riding hoods’ of The Brood are something else entirely, very real manifestations of mental energy turned physical.

I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, because the best shock of The Brood is discovering Cronenberg’s strangely credible concept. Nola’s gone primal, all right, and her bizarre new form of motherhood involves ‘mothering’ that’s totally instinctual, animalistic. I’ve heard more than one mother describe the birth experience as a ‘loss of control’ process where one’s body takes over entirely. The birth mother has no more self-control than a caterpillar metamorphosing into a moth. The process is semi-automatic. The strongest image in the movie will seem utterly gross to some people, and was the first thing cut or trimmed from various versions. Yet it is entirely natural for other mammals. Many women viewers accept it without the expected revulsion. Well, they would if a natural baby was involved. Obviously, if this purposely vague description sounds taboo to the viewer, The Brood is not recommended.

David Cronenberg’s dialogue and characterizations have improved greatly. He hands interesting material to his actors. Samantha Eggar remains in a single setting, yet makes a powerful impression of a woman broadcasting intense ‘negative waves’ in all directions. Oliver Reed is in control, calm and cool in this one. His Dr. Raglan impresses as a power-hoarding egotist accustomed to deciding the fate of those in his

‘care.’ Raglan is a sane man with a mission, a leader who inspires loyalty from his lackeys. He’s no mad doctor. When push comes to shove, he tries his utmost to do the right thing.

The only area where Cronenberg still falls short is his direction of actors. We think he gets good performances when he casts well, and the players here respond positively to characters that aren’t superficial bad guys or victims. A teacher Frank befriends is particularly likeable. But Cronenberg is a washout directing the little child actress. Candy doesn’t react on the right level to many things that happen. Cronenberg probably lacked the necessary time to invest in this part of the story: the show isn’t about a child’s feelings, after all. But a disturbing scene in a day care center just seems odd — we wonder why the children aren’t freaking out and being traumatized, even as we’re happy not to have to watch a scene like that.

David Cronenberg wouldn’t necessarily solve these problems in his next picture, Scanners. But he did jump the rest of the way to mainstream recognition, with a concept requiring less intellectual investment from his audience. It’s about more than exploding heads, honest! The Brood is definitely not simple exploitation, and its ideas are sufficiently compelling to convince many that its writer-director has serious business in mind. The only friends of mine that have rejected Cronenbergs films outright are a pair of fine-art matte painters, convinced that the man is simply obsessed with gore and ick, like a freak who didn’t progress past his potty training. I know that I turn my nose up at a lot of things that offend my so-called tender sensibilities, yet I cut Cronenberg more slack than that. To each his own.

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Brood looks great. Reportedly uncut, it’s far, far better than the cable TV version I saw in the early 1980s. There’s nothing particularly artful about the cinematography, but the images stick in the mind anyway. The preposterous concept seems oddly… credible, which is high praise for a bizarre fantasy, even a sick one.

David Cronenberg is so articulate and plain spoken about his movies that we don’t tire of his interviews and commentaries. Criterion producer Karen Stetler gives us good interviews with two of the actors, a very nice interview with a relaxed, receptive Cronenberg and a well-crafted documentary on the production’s genesis. Oliver Reed appears in a full episode of The Merv Griffin Show, which is just great: the other guest is Orson Welles, and the two match wits and trade off being gentlemanly playful. Here finally is the evidence of Oliver Reed’s charm.

We also get a handsomely transferred copy of Cronenberg’s early 35mm feature Crimes of the Future. It’s a color effort that yields a lot of bizarre ideas that might be better expressed in book form. But we can see that the director started with fantastic ideas first, and had to invent movies to contain them. I can direct readers to the worthy older Savant article Working with Cronenberg on Crimes of the Future written by Savant guest correspondent Jon Lidolt. Jon ventures a good précis of the nearly incomprehensible ‘plot’ of Crimes, using just 91 words. Now how come I can’t write as efficiently?

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Brood Blu-ray
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Making of documentary with actor Samantha Eggar, the producer, cinematographer Mark Irwin, the A.D., and makeup artists; HD transfer of Cronenberg’s 1970 feature Crimes of the Future; 2011 Cronenberg career interview; Interview from 2013 with actors Art Hindle and Cindy Hinds; 1980 appearance by actor Oliver Reed on The Merv Griffin Show; insert foldout essay by critic Carrie Rickey.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 23, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson