David Cronenberg has long been one of the most fascinating of modern directors to have worked for most of his film-making career primarily within the horror genre. Fascinating, because during that time he used the genre to develop and expound a unique biology-based philosophical outlook that, in his own words, "emphasises the body as the first fact of human existence ". This was unusual at the time of his breakthrough hit “Shivers” in 1975, because the outlook which would come to be viewed as being inherent in much of this work was resolutely and unashamedly non-supernatural in its make-up and intrinsically materialistic, despite the outlandish metaphysics often underpinning it. That is, although Cronenberg’s stories often make use of strange or pseudo-scientific concepts such as telepathy or psychokinesis, which become a springboard for the director’s metaphorical meditations on the human condition and its horrors, they always return to the hard biological facts that lie behind the core needs and desires which define human beings as a species. This goes somewhat against the grain of the genre, since the horror film usually delights in the prospect of mysterious realms or dimensions that influence or control human destiny in none definable ways. But for Cronenberg there are no supernatural entities ghosts, devils and certainly no deities, to dictate some eternal set of values from beyond. Instead his best work of the 1970s explored the tension between biological and cultural modes of influence and 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" have 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 in which the human mind can also be "colonised" by parasitic ideas (which then spread through the population in a similar epidemiological pattern to that which defines the emergence of a contagious disease) and can consequently move away from its original evolutionarily-fitted motives and values. Cronenberg's own ambiguous attitude to biology and the consciousness-transforming powers of human/technological interaction marks yet another unusual feature of his take on the 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 of this period; whether his characters are infected and have their consciousness transformed by genetically engineered and sexually transmitted parasites, or by television satellite signals or virtual reality, organic game-playing machines, the director will often present the condition of the victim from the "inside", where the experiences can be seen as a revelatory state of enlightenment for those who are subject to the weird states that result, though ones that are always entirely a result of a redirect 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 wrought between the biological and cultural forces that bring about a change from one social paradigm to another that informs almost all of Cronenberg's work of the period, and still has echoes in his most recent films. The lack of any ultimate objective standards of good or evil or right or wrong gives the work a much more serious, existential ambience than is often the case in even the best examples of the genre, where the standard supernatural paradigm continues to hold sway. The director's 1979 feature "The Brood" deals with similar biological issues as his two previous films, "Shivers" (1975) and "Rabid" (1977); but this time the subject matter is even more fantastical -- bringing a bizarre psychotherapy cult, psychosomatic 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 had many of the director's previous films, a development which in retrospect lays the foundations for Cronenberberg’s later-period work in which character comes even more to the fore.
A heavyset Oliver Reed, with his once lustrous head of jet black hair now silvering gracefully, plays the mysteriously suspect media guru Dr Hal Raglan -- founder of a cult psychotherapy discipline called Psychoplasmics, and author of the best-selling introduction to the technique, "The Shape of Rage". Raglan runs the Somafree Institute: a secluded retreat in the sticks outside Montreal, where Raglan's patients live pointedly without any contact being allowed between themselves and their families or loved ones while they undergo Raglan’s intensive psychotherapy sessions, making him in many ways closer to a cult leader than a professional care giver. Here, Raglan conducts one-on-one sessions that aim to dissipate repressed mental pain and anguish in his clients’ pasts by transforming it into more readily medically treatable physical symptoms. One of Raglan's patients is Nova Carveth (Samantha Eggar) whose mental problems appear to have been caused by alleged abuses 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 stays with her mother, but is shocked to discover that she has returned from one particular visit covered in bruises and with bite marks all over her back! Suspecting that the child's sick mother is abusing Candice in the same manner as she herself was once supposedly abused as a child, Frank confronts Raglan at the Institute, but finds the psychiatric guru unhelpful and unwilling to suspend Candice's weekend visits, or to 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 host of debilitating 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 after first murdering the child’s teacher, Frank is eventually led back to the Somafree Institute and a horrifying revelation from his deranged wife...
Along with its almost sedate pacing and an edgy string ensemble score by Howard Shore, the many long and intense scenes of emotional dialogue during Raglan’s ‘therapy’ sessions with his dependent patients help make "The Brood” seem by far the most character-oriented horror movie the director had made at this point, and a departure in style which his study of deranged twin psychology, "Dead Ringers" would be the next project to extend further, leading eventually to the late period movies such as “A History of Violence” and “A Dangerous Method,” where character is the primary focus of the narratives. Despite being marketed as a trashy B-movie, the film de-emphasises 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 of the main characters and highlighting the unintended effects being wrought upon the couple’s traumatised daughter.
This is one Cronenberg film that features some bona fide, "proper" acting for once, and Cronenberg's script offers plenty of opportunities for the big name cast to do their stuff. Reed plays Raglan as an isolated enigma, apparently as repressed as the patients who live in his snow-bound retreat. 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 and the film is at its most effective when it contrasts mundane surroundings such as suburban kitchens or a primary school classrooms with its outlandish manifestations. A scene in which one of the dwarf children is discovered writhing around on the bathroom floor of Nova’s parents' house is a masterpiece of the uncanny, in which the macabre invades and transforms the everyday world. Cronenberg's films actually feature very few straight ‘scare’ scenes and the director proves him-self extremely capable here at building and sustaining nerve-jangling suspense and forbidding dread in some 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 corporeal, biological entities, whose existence cannot be denied or confined to the shadows of the unconscious mind. This does result sometimes in what I take to be an unintended humorous element creeping into the movie at key points, though, which is only made more acute by the downbeat and resolutely serious tone the screenplay adopts at all times. But it’s hard not supress a chuckle, for instance, at the police detective’s deadpan explanation for the existence of the dwarf killer after its body is eventually found in the home of Nola’s parents: ‘my guess is some crazy woman didn’t want anyone to know she’d given birth to a deformed child. She kept the kid locked up in an attic for years and didn’t tell anybody … after all, it wouldn’t be the first time!’
Seriously?? … How many times does something like that actually happen in everyday life, really? This macabre Gothic trope does turn out to be close to the actual explanation offered at the end of the film though, when it comes wrapped up in Cronenberg’s conflation of biology, faux psychotherapy and trauma therapy.
Strangely though, for someone whose work usually thrives on original ideas and the invention of 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 usually warped but detailed re-conceptions of biological and psychological existence in order to concentrate on the downbeat, dysfunctional relationships of the film's main characters instead; maybe this is because, once you stop to examine it, the central premise of the film is totally ridiculous, thus making it best to simply skip past what is actually involved as quickly as possible. In truth, the most disturbing things depicted in the movie are the messed-up mental states of just about everyone in it. Art Hindle’s concerned father Frank appears utterly reasonable on the face of things, yet still, even he leaves his daughter to be babysat by her Grandmother, even though the reason his wife is in therapy in the first place is because she believes that her own mother once abused her as a child. This sums up the extent of the breakdown in the parents’ relationship: the miscommunication and lack of understanding between men and women and the way this can be converted into physical harm of the offspring is what really lies behind the central metaphor of mental anguish being psychosomatically converted into physical harm. 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 that allows Samantha Eggar to unleash her demonic witch mother persona in all its perverse glory: a counterblast aimed at the cult of motherhood which likens the cultivation of female neurosis and hysteria to the process of giving birth itself.
As a twisted metaphor that explores Cronenberg’s own cynicism about male and female relationships and about parenthood in the light of his own then-recent divorce and custody battle for his daughter, the film is a perverse delight that revels in its catty deconstructions aimed at the expense of the shibboleths of modern psychotherapy -- painting Raglan and his weirdly homoerotic relationship with his unquestioningly loyal young male assistant as part of a trendy professional conspiracy in law and society to write the average heterosexual male parent out of the parenting equation. Like “Shivers” and “Rabid” before it, which envisioned with clinical detachment the emergence of a new consciousness that destroys contemporary society in the process of establishing a new one, “The Brood” is another half-reactionary, half revolutionary meditation on strange new states of being -- in this case founded on the effect that our parents’ hang-ups might secretly have had on all of us in forming us as individuals -- both physically and mentally -- without our knowledge or approval. The evil witch woman and her devilish familiar; the strange atavistic relative kept out of sight in the attic: these are dark recurring Gothic tropes which have cropped up again and again throughout literature but which occur here, in late seventies surroundings, cloaked in talking therapies and medical-speak and popular semi-religious therapy cults for over-indulged hysterical mothers. ‘She married me for my sanity, hoping it would rub off,’ opines Frank on his marriage to Nola when discussing the breakdown of his relationship with caring primary school teacher Ruth (Susan Hogan). ‘Instead it worked out the other way.’ “The Brood” is probably David Cronenberg’s most personal film. Described, accurately as his version of “Kramer vs Kramer” it embodies some of his most honestly held fears and features a spellbinding central performance from Samantha Eggar as the rage-breeding neurotic mother par excellence .
The new HD transfer for the UK Bu-ray from Second Sight is an excellent improvement on previous DVD editions and comes with a selection of engrossing featurettes: “Producing the Brood” offers an interview with producer Pierre David; “The Look of Rage” gives us Cronenberg’s cinematographer Mark Irwin in conversation; “Meet the Carveths” features an interview between Fangoria's Chris Alexander and the two stars of the film Art Hindle and the grown up former child actress Cindy Hinds; actor Robert A. Silverman provides an overview of his career in “Character for Cronenberg”; while “Cronenberg the Early Years” features the director himself talking about his early films. All in all this is an excellent treatment of one of the director’s best and most mature works from his seventies filmography. Recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT!