The Brood (1979)
Directed by: David Cronenberg.
Written by: David Cronenberg.
Starring: Oliver Reed (Dr. Hal Raglan), Samantha Eggar (Nola Carveth), Art Hindle (Frank Carveth), Henry Beckman (Barton Kelly), Nuala Fitzgerald (Juliana Kelly), Cindy Hinds (Candice Carveth), Susan Hogan (Ruth Mayer), Gary McKeehan (Mike Trellan), Michael Magee (Inspector), Robert A. Silverman (Jan Hartog).
David Cronenberg’s The Brood was hardly a critical favorite when it was released back in 1979 – and I think it’s fair to say that if Cronenberg had not had gone onto the have the career he has had since, that The Brood would most likely have been largely forgotten by now – and it certainly would not have gotten a high profile release on the Criterion Collection a while back. Taken as a film unto itself, The Brood is an effective horror movie – creepy and chilling, with one of the grossest, most memorable climaxes you could come up with, but is also a rather silly film, whose basic elements do not make a whole lot of sense. The movie largely overcomes those deficiencies though, because what works about The Brood works really, really well. It’s also fairly clear though, that The Brood has become better remembered than it would otherwise be, because of Cronenberg – and because of how many of his pet themes are very much present in the film. He would go onto refine these themes in later, better movies – just as The Brood represents a step-up from his first two films, Shivers and Rabid, which on some level addressed the same concerns.
The film’s main character is not one of two top billed stars, but rather it’s Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), whose wife, Nola (Samantha Eggar) is under the care of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) – an unconventional doctor who specializes in “psychoplasmics” – in which mental anguish and pain manifests itself physically. Frank has, in many ways, given up on his wife – but he is legally obligated to allow his daughter – around 6 – visit her mother in the hospital every weekend. When she comes back with wounds all over her, he is determined to stop these visits – but is told if he does, he will lose custody completely (that makes absolutely no sense, but whatever). So, he decides to investigate Raglan to prove that he is crackpot – and dangerous – and that his daughter will be in danger if she keeps going. As he starts investigating, a series of grisly murders starts striking those close to him – and seemingly committed by one or more dwarfs or small children. What he eventually discovers is more shocking than he ever would have imagined.
It is perhaps the least surprising news ever to find out that when Cronenberg was making The Brood he was going through a rather bitter divorce and custody battle. If you were feeling ungenerous to the film, you could almost see it as a horror film in which the worst nightmare of “Men’s Right Activists” comes true. Frank is clearly the better, more responsible parent – he is Candice’s best interests at heart, does everything he can to protect her – but he’s stuck in a society in which he has no chance to win in court against the mother. The portrait of motherhood on display in The Brood is perhaps the most disturbing and poisoned that one could conceive. Apparently Samantha Eggar only shot for 4 days on the movie – and yet, it is Nola who everyone remembers in the film. The finale, in which we discover her secret (SPOILER WARNING) is which the dwarfs who have gone on a killing spree are the physical manifestations of her rage – that she birthed and carrying in an external womb. Yet, there is something tender even in the film’s most infamous disgusting moment – when she births a new one, and then likes the blood off of her new offspring.
To think, however, that the film is misogynistic would only to be looking at the very top part of the surface of the film – because in The Brood, both parents will end up doing some pretty horrible things – it’s just that Nola’s are more obvious. Frank keeps leaving Candy with others – as he goes off on his search, prioritizing his desire to win custody of his child, over his child – and often it’s in those moments where the killer dwarfs from Nola strike – Candice witnesses her grandmother beaten to death by the dwarves, and later, will see her beloved teacher suffer the same fate. The climax of the movie involves quite literally a fight to the death between the two parents – a fight in which both of them don’t try and save their daughter, who is at the mercy of the murderous dwarves at the time. The ending of the movie seems like a normal one – the “good” guy prevails, while the evil woman is punished – yet by then the damage has been done. The good guy has become a murderer – and the scars that both parents have inflicted on their daughter are permanent. The Brood is a divorce drama disguised as a horror film.
You would also need to ignore the fact that Nola, for all of her faults, was somewhat powerless over what she becomes. Like her daughter, she was first marked by her parents’ divorce – which has haunted her until her adulthood, where she believes her mother was abusive to her (whether or not she was, remains unresolved – although the film certainly hints that at best, he mother is an alcoholic). Her husband clearly never understood her, and wanted her to be more “normal’ – something to drove her even more crazy. All this doesn’t even mention Dr. Hal Raglan, a classic Cronenberg creation – the male doctor who experiments on and exploits female subjects, and then is horrified by the results. Cronenberg has always been fascinated by psychology – although he has often found it be extremely problematic – no more so than in The Brood, where it is quite literally responsible for what happens.
All of this makes The Brood sound fairly fascinating – and I didn’t even mention the fine role for Cronenberg favorite Robert Silverman – and it really is. The Brood is a film who’s surface level is, as Roger Ebert described it at the time of its release an “el sleazo exploitation film” (he wasn’t a fan) – but when you start peeling back the layers, you find a surprisingly complex film. And yet, it really must be said that analyzing the film is more interesting than actually watching much of it – Frank does make for a rather dull protagonist, and even if Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar kind of make up for that, with their over the top performances (Eggar in particular is wonderful). But stretches of the movie are rather dull, and some of the scenes involving the dwarf killers are not as effective as they should (they actually more effective in quieter moments, where they aren’t murdering anyone).
Cronenberg would go on to make better films that explore the connection between the body and the mind – The Dead Zone, Videodrome and The Fly were all less than a decade away, and all of them are better films. The Brood is a fascinating film in many ways – but it is a perfect example of a film that is helped by auteur theory – it’s more interesting when taken as a part of Cronenberg’s whole filmography, than a film unto itself.