David Cronenberg has always been one of the most fascinating and unusual directors to work within the horror genre: fascinating because he has used the horror film to develop and expound a unique philosophical outlook that, in his own words, "emphasis the body as the first fact of human existence "; unusual because this outlook is resolutely non-supernatural and intrinsically materialistic in its metaphysics. That is, although his stories often make use of outlandish or unlikely concepts such as telepathy or psychokinesis as a springboard for their metaphorical meditations on the human condition and its horrors, they always return to the hard biological facts that lie behind the needs and desires of human beings. This goes somewhat against the grain since the horror genre usually delights in the prospect of mysterious realms beyond the senses that influence or control human destiny.
There are no supernatural realms, ghosts, devils, and certainly no deities to dictate some eternal set of values in Cronenberg's films -- instead he explores the tension between biological and cultural forms of transformation in a manner that, I've always found, has a certain resonance with the writings of the provocative British evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, who, in his influential 1976 best-seller, "The Selfish Gene", (in)famously characterised all organic life on Earth (including human life) as "vehicles" -- or survival machines -- whose existence, form and "function" has been determined by four-billion years of evolutionary change at the mercy of the replicating units known as DNA. Dawkins also came up with the metaphor of the "meme" -- a unit of cultural transmission -- to describe the way the human mind can be "colonised" by parasitic ideas (which then spread through the population in a similar epidemiological pattern to the emergence of a contagious disease) and can consequently move away from its original evolutionarily-derived motives and values.
Cronenberg's ambiguous attitude to biology and the consciousness transforming powers of human-technological interaction marks yet another unusual feature of his take on the horror genre: whereas most horror films are quite conservative in their ideology, and offer up traditional moral formulations of the "man-should-not-play-God" or "man-should-not-meddle-with-nature" variety, Cronenberg does not make any such moral judgements in his films; whether his characters are infected by parasites, television satellite signals or virtual reality organic game-playing machines, the director will often present their condition from the "inside" as a revelatory state of enlightenment, though one that is entirely a result of natural forces; the divide between the natural and the unnatural becomes harder to locate in the Cronenberg universe; it is the unquenchable human thirst for meaning and the tension between the biological and cultural forces that bring about change from one social paradigm to another that informs almost all of Cronenberg's work -- and the lack of any objective standards of good, or evil or right or wrong in the Cronenberg Universe gives the work a much more serious, existential ambience than normal, run-of-the-mill horror fare. The director's 1979 feature "The Brood" deals with similar biological issues as his two previous films, "Shivers" and "Rabid"; but this time the subject matter is even more fantastical -- bringing a bizarre psychotherapy cult, bodily mutation, murderous dwarf children and a warped re-conception of motherhood together in a dark and surreal domestic drama that is notable for placing far more emphasis on character than have many of the director's other films before or since.
A heavyset Oliver Reed plays the mysterious Dr. Hal Raglan -- founder of the cult psychotherapy disciple called Psychoplasmics, and author of the best-seller "The Shape of Rage". Raglan runs the Somafree Institute: a secluded retreat where Raglan's patients live without any contact from their families or loved ones. Here, Raglan conducts his Psychoplasmics sessions which aim to dissipate repressed mental pain and anguish by transforming it into medically treatable physical symptoms. One of Raglan's patients is Nova Carveth (Samantha Eggar) whose mental problems appear to have been caused by the alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother when she was only a child.
Nova's estranged husband, Frank (Art Hindle), takes the couple's young daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds) to the institute for regular weekend visits but is shocked to discover that she has returned from one particular outing covered in bruises and with bite marks all over her back! Suspecting that the child's sick mother is abusing Candice, Frank confronts Raglan at the Institute, but finds the psychiatric guru unhelpful and unwilling to suspend Candice's weekend visits or let Frank see his wife. As Frank starts to investigate the shadowy world of Psychoplasmics, he comes across a support network of ex-patients who blame Raglan's methods for a whole host of physical illnesses which include cancerous tumours. When Nova's parents are both murdered by a strange, mutant dwarf child and then two more of the creatures abduct Candice from her school, Frank is eventually led back to the Somafree Institute and a horrifying revelation from his deranged wife...
With its almost sedate pacing and long, intense scenes of emotional dialogue, "The Brood" is probably the most character-oriented horror movie the director has ever made apart from his study of deranged twin psychology, "Dead Ringers". Despite being marketed as a trashy b-movie, the film de-emphasis the surface trappings of squirm-inducing body horror that defined Cronenberg's previous two horror features and mainly focuses instead on the emotional traumas that end up giving physical birth to the film's bizarre, dwarf monsters -- presenting the same issues from the differing perspectives of each character. This is one Cronenberg film that features some bona fide, "proper" acting for once, and Cronenberg's script offers plenty of opportunity for the big name cast to do their stuff! This low-key, realistic approach only makes the surreal eruption of the monstrous, murderous dwarfs from the Freudian id all the more affecting and surprising! Cronenberg's films actually feature very few straight "scare" scenes and the director proves himself extremely capable here at building and sustaining nerve-jangling suspense and forbidding dread in the film's key murder sequences. The snow-suited, deformed dwarf children are one of the director's more twisted and downright creepy creations and, even though they obviously bear more than a passing resemblance to the hatchet-wielding dwarf killer of "Don't Look Now", here they are revealed in broad daylight as corporal, biological entities whose existence cannot be denied or confined to the shadows of the unconscious mind. Strangely though, for someone whose work usually thrives on original ideas and inventing strange and unusual ways of looking at human existence, "The Brood" leaves the ideology of Raglan's Psychoplasmics cult oddly, and tantalisingly, underdeveloped: sacrificing the director's usual warped, detailed re-conception of biological existence, to concentrate on the downbeat relationships of the film's characters instead; maybe this is because, if you stop to examine it, the central premise of the film is totally ridiculous! Though Cronenberg does save his most disturbed, speculative vision of transformation for the very end of the film -- when a haunting parallel between birth and cancerous growth is conjured-up to be majestically revealed with a theatrical, Grand Guignol flourish!
Anchor Bay UK present two versions of the film in a special 2 disc DVD edition. The first is the familiar R rated version (the version previously available in the UK) which has been slightly trimmed of a few seconds of gore in a couple of sequences. This version features a strong anamorphic transfer and 5.1 audio with optional DTS and Stereo 2.0 mixes. This is the cut UK viewers will be used to from previous releases, but fans will probably be more interested in the US unrated cut which is included on disc two. This fuller version features more detailed shots of one of the murder victims and extra scenes of the birth of Nova's mutant baby being licked clean at the end of the film. Unfortunately, the print used for this version is nowhere near as good as that of the R rated print on disc one. It appears to be the result of an NTSC to PAL conversion and features faded colours and a less detailed image. The only audio option is a 2.0 Stereo track and, also, this disc does not feature the subtitles for the hard of hearing that can still be found on the cut version! It is a shame that a composite transfer could not be compiled from two prints since there is only about ten seconds difference between both versions.
All of the extras are included on disc one. We get biographies of all three main stars; cursory film notes, and trailers for "The Brood" and "Scanners" (which has also just been released by Anchor Bay UK). The prize extra is an hour long documentary -- "The Directors" -- on Cronenberg's films which features interviews from many of the actors who have appeared in his features over the years leading up to "EXistenZ", as well as contributions from the man himself. This excellent documentary is an ideal primer on the unique world of Canada's most idiosyncratic auteur.
"The Brood" is not one of Cronenberg's most perfectly realised visions but it does feature some of the director's most haunting imagery and some perfectly judged scare sequences. It's an essential addition to any horror fan's DVD collection.