David Cronenberg: The Brood (1979)

After establishing that he could bring his particular thematic interests to popular entertainment in Shivers and Rabid, David Cronenberg made what many critics and scholars consider his first truly great film in 1979’s The Brood. The Brood is everything that makes the term Cronenbergesque an immediately recognizable and valuable descriptor: precise compositions, an obsession with the way that our bodies often work against our conscious desires, fascination with psycho-sexual forces, the presence of a mysterious institution, and often brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of violence. The Brood is a textbook definition of the Cronenbergesque, filled with memorable sequences and genuine thrills. It also features a legendary performance by Oliver Reed. Yet, for all its formal and narrative excellence, what makes The Brood stand out is its deeply unsettling, personal nature: it is a film so deeply rooted in Cronenberg’s own autobiographical traumas that it can’t help but get into your head.

The Brood took shape when Cronenberg was approached to write a script for a Canadian tax-shelter production company, Canadian Film Development Corporation, with producer Victor Solnicki. The original idea was to develop the story of Stereo, telepaths with strange powers, into a conventional narrative feature (which would eventually become Scanners), but as he was writing, Cronenberg found himself taken over by an entirely different story. As he explains it, “I couldn’t write the script I was supposed to because The Brood kept coming. It was a compelling script; it insisted on getting written.” The result was a script that came out “very finished” and close to the final film.

The Brood tells what is essentially the story of a couple’s fight for custody of their daughter; in interviews Cronenberg compares it to Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer. Frank Carveth’s (Art Hindle) wife, Nola (Samantha Eggers), is being treated at an experimental psychiatric facility, the Somafree Institute, under the direction of the charismatic and unconventional Dr. Hal Raglan, played with gusto by screen legend, Oliver Reed. When their daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds), comes back from a visit with her mother covered in cuts and bruises, Frank assumes parental abuse and tries to investigate Raglan’s institute and techniques. Over the course of the investigation, family members, including Candice’s grandmother (Nola’s mother) and grandfather are killed by a mysterious dwarf creature, later discovered to be inhuman, assexual, and without a navel. Upon the reports that the attacks happened during his sessions with Nola, Raglan shuts down Somafree and sends his patients away, except Nola.

At school, two dwarfs bludgeon Candice’s teacher to death in front of her students and take Candice back to Somafree. Frank, through the help of one of Raglan’s former patients, goes to Somafree where he discovers the horrifying truth: the dwarfs are the parthenogenetic brood of Nola, who respond to Nola’s rage and trauma without her knowing it. Raglan realizes the power Nola has and is killed trying to rescue Candice. Frank manages to kill Nola, upon whose death the brood die, and he rescues Candice. However, the film ends with a strong hint that Candy herself has Nola’s condition herself and is likely to repeat her mother’s horrifying fate in the future.

The Brood, for all its speculative fiction trappings and psycho-scientific action, is a dark and violent film. It contains some extremely disturbing sequences, such as a teacher being beaten to death in front of her grade school students and a man strangling his wife to death. Due to tax-shelter production timelines, it was filmed in winter in and around Toronto and Mississauga, where it is set. It is a cold film, filled with markers of 1970s suburbia, snowsuits, and snowy streets, but not an overly dark or shadowy one. The cinematography of Mark Irwin captures the sterile environment of suburban Ontario in winter, and contrasts it with the wood panelling and warm-darkness of Raglan’s Somafree Institute, which closely resembles a Northern Ontario cottage retreat.

The Canadian national psyche is often portrayed and perceived as one of politeness and restraint, but if The Brood can be considered a significant, and specifically Canadian film (and I think it is a major one), it is in its treatment of the long-standing Canadian literary tendency toward themes of repression and darkness lurking behind the mundane. Margaret Atwood argued in her famous book Survival that the concepts of “survival” and “victim” were central to Canadian literary identity. The Brood deals with how we are victims of our very own psychology and biology. It also deals how the individual grapples with the survival of their own traumas, and how the body and the mind are bound together despite our Cartesian illusions of their separation. (As an aside, it is slightly ironic for me to reference Atwood, who in Cronenberg on Cronenberg is noted by the director as saying that she felt “literature should be uncensored but that films should be.” Suffice to say, Cronenberg took umbrage with that opinion. Yet, I think it shows how The Brood treats very Canadian themes, while pushing against the restraint that is our national hallmark).

The Brood is a film about being a parent, about the bond created between people when they procreate, and the intense torment at the severing of such bond, whether between two parents or between parent and child. It is self-admittedly a highly autobiographical film for Cronenberg. When he was writing the film he was himself going through a divorce and fighting his ex-wife for the custody of their daughter. His wife then went to California to join a religious group and wanted to take their daughter with her. Cronenberg refused. He eventually gained custody of his daughter, but it was a dark time for the director. The parallels in the film to the director’s own life are obvious, but it is one of the few times the director has opened up about the direct influence of his personal life on one of his works. Yet, he refuses to allow reality to dictate the terms of the story, and it obviously goes in some very fantastic directions.

While this does not simply explain the film, or offer an understanding that forecloses interpretation, it does in part explain why the film has such a visceral effect on audiences, even audiences who haven’t had those exact experiences. The Brood “feels” real. While there are arguably more disturbing moments in the director’s later films, and elements just as autobiographical, The Brood cuts even deeper and is more unsettling. It gets at the dark feelings that can be harboured about intimate relationships, and about how our psychological state shapes our reality (and vice versa). It is, as the director notes, a film about “catharsis.”

“Catharsis is the basis of all art,” Cronenberg has stated. The Brood could be read as a deeply misogynistic statement of a man who hates his ex-wife. But rather than read it as dangerous, it can be read as perhaps freeing. Films are, in Cronenberg’s words, a kind of play:

[Filming disturbing things] is much more like play. That’s really the way I think of film. It’s the adult version of tiger’s play. There is an exhilarating, youthful and entertaining element that must be involved...I don’t look upon it as a responsibility. It’s really my own need to do that, and to do it in a public way. This leads to an audience being involved too. And audiences want that. They want you to overwhelm them.

It would be simple to take the director’s words at face value, as a way for him to both acknowledge the film’s debt to the reality of his situation at the time and suggest that it is a fundamentally positive thing: cathartic and cleansing. And yet, the very plot of the film hinges on  the idea of Psychoplasmics, Dr. Haglan’s therapeutic technique for helping patients with mental disturbances. Yet, these sessions as they apply in Nola’s case, in her digging into her repressed fear and aggression, have real consequences and manifest in the murderous brood she nurtures through her sessions with Haglan, and which result in the murder many of those close to her. The suggestion in the film may be that as necessary as catharsis may be, it has real effects, biologically and psychologically. Possibly fatal ones. Cronenberg has acknowledged the influence of the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet on The Brood, as the Krell were also destroyed through the manifestation of their own repressed emotions (and lend their name to Candy’s school in the film as well).

Other Cronenbergesque elements include the Somafree Institute itself. Institutes and organizations have featured in many of Cronenberg’s films from the beginning, from the Institute of Neo-Venereal Diseases in Crimes of the Future and the Keloid Clinic in Rabid to the Spectacular Optical Corporation in Videodrome and Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics in eXistenZ. These various collective groups and corporate arrangements fit into how Cronenberg’s films portray human beings as being subject to forces they don’t entirely control and how collective action often takes on a will of its own. If an institute or clinic shows up in a Cronenberg film, you know it’s not going to go well.

Somafree in The Brood, with its experimental therapeutic treatments, is straight out of the actual legacy of 1970s self-help communes, the most famous of which, the Esalen Institute in California, has a long pop cultural influence. Many famous actors and cultural figures either taught or attended sessions at Esalen, which combined Eastern spirituality, meditation, and yoga to further the creation of a utopian society of science and faith in oneself. Somafree’s promotion of Psychoplasmics through the person of Dr. Hal Raglan and his book, The Shape of Rage, is not only a shot at the religious pursuits of the director’s ex-wife, but emblematic of the late-70s culture that turned to self-care and non-traditional religions in the wake of the the failure of the counter-culture. As Cronenberg himself notes, “I’ve always said that, if I don’t make it in the film business, I can always open a Psychoplasmics clinic north of Los Angeles.”

Somafree and its leader, Dr. Hal Raglan, offer some of the film’s greatest moments. Raglan stands out as one of the most memorable characters in Cronenberg’s oeuvre, as he is played with grand charisma and gusto by the great English actor Oliver Reed. While Cronenberg has admitted his resemblance to Art Hindle’s Frank Carvath, Raglan is himself a kind of stand in for the director, a common idea in his work as Cronenberg has compared himself to Luther Stringfellow in Stereo and Antoine Rouge in Crimes of the Future: these unseen institutional directors put the events of the films in motion. Raglan’s Psychoplasmic sessions greatly resemble the kinds of intense acting and mirroring exercises popular among students of drama. The opening sequence of the film finds Raglan conducting a session on a darkened stage in front of a rapt audience. The blurring of the line of therapy and performance makes it an incredibly gripping and dynamic opening.

What it also communicates from the beginning is that the level of acting talent Cronenberg was able to get with his largest budget to date of $1.5 million CAD. Oliver Reed was a known commodity having played Bill Sikes in the Oscar-winner Oliver! and key roles in many other films. Samantha Eggar was another Oscar-nominated actress, who only spent a few days on set in her performance as Nola, but manages to bring an intensity and seriousness to a key role.

Overall, The Brood marks a further turn for Cronenberg from exploitation fare to more polished work. It is an intense and personal film that offers much to the viewer beyond mere genre thrills. In many ways it is a serious film about how our darkest impulses can shape our lives in ways that we don’t even comprehend (again reflecting Cronenberg’s Freudian, and, in this case, even Jungian interests).

While The Brood has a reputation as a great horror film, it is more than that. Those seeking cheap thrills will find it to be less gruesome than perhaps its reputation has it, but all the same it is particularly disturbing in its chronicle of familial conflict and its deeply intimate look at strife. Cronenberg himself didn’t feel that such impulses were necessarily at odds; as he notes, “I don’t think that films have to be positive or uplifting to be valid experiences. A film can be depressing and still be exhilarating.” The Brood is certainly exhilarating, but as a film viewing experience, you may find it sits uncomfortably with you for days afterwards. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps it’s a sign of a great work of art.

9 out of 10

The Brood (1979, Canada)

Written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle, Susan Hogan, Cindy Hinds, Nuala Fitzgerald, Harry Beckman.