ReFramed No. 21: David Cronenberg's 'The Brood' (1979)

Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

David Cronenberg, one of Canada’s most widely renowned filmmakers and the patron saint of arthouse horror, has recently graduated to the critical upper-class.

The Brood

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle
Studio: New World Pictures
Year: 1979
US date: 1979-05-25 (General release)

Calum Marsh: David Cronenberg, one of Canada’s most widely renowned filmmakers and the patron saint of arthouse horror, has recently graduated to the critical upper-class. He’s spent the last decade shedding his reputation for vulgarity and establishing a new name for himself as a purveyor of serious drama, earning mainstream acclaim (and impressive grosses) in the process. Fresh off the promotional trail for last year’s well-received A Dangerous Method, a dry-martini of a drama about the tumultuous relationship of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Cronenberg -- who turns 70 this week, remarkably -- is wrapping up his latest project, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis.

For better or worse, it looks like Cronenberg is pretty much through with the strange and personal genre films that launched his career, having not touched anything resembling the low-brow since 1999’s outstanding (but poorly received) sci-fi anti-blockbuster eXistenZ. His career is probably in a healthier state as a result—in the very early 2000s, before he’d made the transition, he was barely scraping by, and was even forced to forgo his own salary to get Spider produced in 2002—but it’s sometimes hard for me to believe that the man who made Eastern Promises in 2007 is the same man who made Videodrome, one of the most radical and intelligent genre films of all time, way back in 1983.

So, Jordan, I suppose that makes this as good a time as any to reconsider some of Cronenberg’s early body-horror masterworks, starting with one of my personal favorites, The Brood, from 1979. More accomplished than his early cult favorites Rabid and Shivers but not as influential on pop culture as later hits like Scanners or The Fly, The Brood is, for my money, the Cronenberg movie most ripe for rediscovery now, when it feels as vital and scary as ever. An intensely personal body-horror film inspired by the director’s real-life divorce and custody battle, The Brood was dismissed in its day as crass, ugly and vulgar, a spectacle with no apparent appeal.

It’s not hard to see why critics were so put-off: less gratifying than many of the more mocking and lighthearted horror films produced during the era (this was the dawn of the slasher film, remember), The Brood asks you to take its horrors totally seriously, and those higher aspirations make it difficult to stomach. But that’s precisely what appeals to me about it: The Brood strikes me as a very mature and reflective kind of horror film, one that’s honest about its creator’s anxieties and fears. Do you feel the same way about The Brood, Jordan, or am I just taking this thing too seriously?

Jordan Cronk: Not at all. I concur with everything you just said. To me The Brood is the best and most mature of Cronenberg's early films, if perhaps one of the easiest to overlook. I think that is partly due to its subtlety and well-considered pace—here are no exploding heads or, save for the climax, anything radically grotesque on offer here, for better or worse. But as you mention, the film nevertheless feels intensely personal and very human in its depiction of familial strife and slowly percolating guilt.

What strikes me about the film revisiting it after many years recently is how patient and elliptical Cronenberg is with setting up the plot. Nothing is explicitly spelled out here—in fact, it can take a while to figure out just who and how each character serves the story. And for a film only 90 minutes in length, this feels brave and very trusting on the part of Cronenberg, who developed and advanced on this technique with nearly each successive outing, rarely sacrificing the cerebral for the purely visceral, though there is certainly much to make one squirm in the these early works.

Cronenberg would also go on to build on certain themes that he first fully explored with The Brood, particularly the physical manifestation of inner strife, guilt, and paranoia with his characters. I guess these touchy subjects, when presented in genre trappings, can leave audiences confused or uncomfortable, as if horror films should simply work as base entertainment and not mentally engage, which of course Cronenberg has strongly rebutted for decades now. In this sense it is disappointing that he hasn't worked in the genre for over a decade, despite the films we've seen in their stead being almost universally excellent.

But in an industry which now thrives almost totally on generic genre films, Cronenberg's retreat – conscious or not—into more classicist material strikes me as unfortunate. Luckily, however, we have films like The Brood, which have seemed to have had at least a tangential effect on some of the more recent psychological American indies. Do you think that Cronenberg simply feels like he's said all he's needed to say in this particular field, or is there more to this rather clean break between the two phases of his career?

Marsh: It's hard to say. An amusing thing about his most recent outing, A Dangerous Method, is that explicates so many of the themes that Cronenberg's earlier films had dealt with more obliquely and, more often than not, largely through metaphor. I mean, do you really need to make a film about Freud when all of your films are Freudian? The Brood, more than any other Cronenberg movie, deals with the anxieties which surround separation, sexuality and parenthood, and you don't need to be a psychoanalyst to discern the relationship between Cronenberg's personal demons and the literal demons in the film.

Some critics misinterpret these anxieties as a kind of implied misogyny--because Cronenberg's anger and frustration is pretty clearly derived from his divorce, the film doesn't exhibit much sympathy for its female antagonist--but there's a sense of honesty behind the film's fear that never strikes me as hateful or vindictive. It's also reflective enough to be self-critical, which I think is important here.

Cronk: Yeah, I don't get a hateful or misogynistic vibe here at all. We're clearly dealing with one man's psychological exorcism as it were—via Cronenberg, of course, and on through to his cipher, Frank, played by Art Hindle. But I actually think the film is a rather pointed indictment of certain aspects of psychology. The true villain in the film for most of its runtime is Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), who is conducting unspecified experiments on Frank's wife, Nola, who's been institutionalized. Even the actual "brood" are less villains in a conventional sense then a collateral effect of Raglan's mad scientist techniques—meaning they’re hard to actively root against when the puppet master is clearly defined.

Cronenberg continued to blur these designations in subsequent films, and though there is often a clear-cut struggle between two bodies or minds, there is also a host of supporting players whose implications within the narrative are left ambiguous. This lends The Brood in particular a very creepy, slow-burn feel—the violence, when it does erupt, does so in quick bursts and without much warning. This tact imbues the climax with an even getter power, and let's just say Cronenberg's approach here also resulted in one of his greatest and most unforgettable sequences. I’ll admit to lapsing on a lot of the intricacies of the plot, as I hadn't seen the film in quite a while, but the big third act "reveal" has a permanent home in brain. It's a moment many genre filmmakers work all their careers hoping to achieve but one which Cronenberg tapped early and even managed to refine as the years passed.

Marsh: Absolutely, and the film even sneaks in a classical last-minute twist that's surprisingly effective, both viscerally and thematically, and it's integrated in a way that coheres exceptionally well. But for me, there are two sequences, one major and one so minor that you might not even recall it, that I find absolutely terrifying: the first is the film's most infamous death scene, in which a kindergarten teacher is beaten to death by the children of the brood—I think it's the contrast between the violence enacted by the kid-like brood and the innocence of the students forced to watch it that really gets to me. The second and even more disturbing sequence, though, is a very brief shot that comes just after the teacher's death: we see two of the brood kids, clad in brightly colored one-piece snowsuits, walking down a long stretch of Canadian highway holding hands with the young child of the protagonist. Nothing happens, here, mind you—they just walk, silently. But it is completely horrifying.

Unfortunately, though, not everybody finds The Brood quite as scary as we do: the last time I saw this movie it was showing at midnight at a local rep theatre, and the event was treated like one big laugh-along joke. Seriously, you'd think we were there to watch Plan 9 From Outer Space—people were cracking up at every opportunity. Like I said when we were talking about Showgirls, I hate to be that guy telling people where and when to laugh or have fun, and, yeah, audiences are welcome to find this movie or any other movie hilarious if that's what they prefer. But the problem for me is that if you approach a movie like this wanting to find it funny, it's way too easy to do so. It's much more satisfying—and I think the movie is ultimately more enjoyable—if you're willing to give the movie a proper chance and take it seriously.

Cronk: Indeed. I don't really see a whole lot here that is unintentionally funny. I guess the brood itself can be a disorienting, but I think that's only because we're not familiar with children inflicting violence on adults in such a blunt fashion. Meaning, it must be a joke because psychotic kiddies with weapons is unfamiliar in our day-to-day entertainment lexicon. And I know exactly the sequence you mean as two members of the brood walk with the young daughter down the snow-covered highway later in the film. It's a beautiful, ominous, almost disturbing scene in which, yes, nothing is going on in terms of plot advancement. It works almost like a pillow shot, furthering establishing atmosphere while giving us, the viewer, a chance to reflect, even as the shot goes a long way toward unsettling us even more.

It's moments like these which really reflect a mature stylistic sensibility on Cronenberg's behalf. We're so used to being inundated with scares and violence at this point that sometimes we can forget that even the smallest gestures can carry the greatest weight. These little moments add up to an extraordinarily engaging work, one with interesting implications beyond its plot and one just open-ended enough to be satisfying while not imparting a feeling of undue contentment. Cronenberg's never really been one to tie up his films in neat little packages, but it is still interesting to look back at an early work such as The Brood and already see such a confidence on the part of the director and, by extension, the faith he was already willing to bestow on his audience—who, let's face it, haven't always lived up to their side of the bargain.

Still, The Brood is an unassumingly modest yet powerful work, one readily available for rediscovery and one that could find its way sneaking into your memories and nightmares at unexpected junctures. If that's not the mark of worthwhile genre film, then I don't know what is.





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