(1979) Written and directed by David Cronenberg; Starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar and Art Hindle; Available on DVD
Perhaps no other director can depict being uncomfortable in one’s own skin as effectively as David Cronenberg. In Cronenberg’s case, this isn’t simply a metaphor but a physical reality – with all of the nasty implications that go along. In many ways, The Brood is the archetypal Cronenberg film, displaying many of the recurrent themes that he would refine and revisit throughout the subsequent years. Mental illness, bodily deformities, and physical transformation are all part of the miasma that emerges from Cronenberg’s mind and infects our unconscious.
Oliver Reed plays Dr. Hal Raglan, a psychiatrist* with a new radical therapy program, and author of the book The Shape of Rage. He has established the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics, a residence facility where he can conduct his experimental therapy in private. He’s developed a cult-like following among his patients, who view him as a paternal figure. In an early scene he bullies one man to regress into a childlike state. The patient suffers a breakdown, which is seen as a breakthrough by his colleagues. But something else is occurring. The man’s anger takes on physical properties, with numerous sores appearing over his body. One of his star clients is Nola Carveth (played with over-the-top conviction by Samantha Eggar). Of all of his subjects, she exhibits the most extreme effects of her treatment. It becomes clear that she’s a means to an end for Raglan and his novel therapy. It’s a credit to Reed’s performance that Raglan remains three-dimensional, and not entirely unsympathetic. He’s narcissistic (as evidenced by the attention he diverts to his hair in one scene) and self-serving, but he’s also aware of the psychological damage that Nola has experienced. Raglan is unable to control what he’s unleashed, but despite the consequences to Nola and others he’s compelled to see it to the end.
* Cronenberg gets kudos for actually making the distinction between psychiatrists and psychologists. Most filmmakers seem to use the labels interchangeably – one of my pet peeves.
Nola’s ex-husband Frank (Art Hindle) takes a vested interest in Nola’s treatment after he picks up his five-year-old daughter and notices bruises on her back. When he attempts to confront Nola about the abuse, Dr. Raglan stands in the way, claiming that Frank would just hinder her recovery. Raglan’s stonewalling only strengthens Frank’s resolve to take over custody of his daughter, away from the influence of her disturbed mother.
(The next paragraph contains some spoilers. Read at your own risk)
Anyone in Nola’s periphery becomes a potential threat, and thus a target for her unbridled anger. Her mother is the first to die a brutal death, at the hand of a vaguely seen assailant. It slowly dawns on Frank that the killer and its companions (which reminded me of a cross between the murderous dwarf in Don’t Look Now, mixed with the baby creature from It’s Alive) are physical manifestations of her rage – monsters that spring from her unconscious. If you ever wondered what Forbidden Planet would look like if it had been directed by David Cronenberg instead of Fred M. Wilcox, it might look something like this. We get a tantalizing peek into the humanoid creatures’ strange lifecycle after a doctor performs an autopsy. We learn that the creatures can only see things in black and white – a perfect reflection of Nola’s current mental state. She appears to suffer from borderline personality disorder, typified by regarding others in terms of polarities, vacillating between love and intense hate. Frank is sheltered from her outbursts, protected by her delusions of getting back together and restoring their family unity.
This film was Cronenberg’s first collaboration with composer and fellow Toronto native Howard Shore. His somber, brooding score (I couldn’t resist) goes a long way to create tension throughout the film, maintaining a relentless sense of unease. Shore has continued to work with Cronenberg over the years, with his music a perfect match for his sensibilities
The Brood works on multiple levels. It could be seen as an extended metaphor for the dangers of over-dependency on therapy, or the potential for ill effects inflicted by some of the less-than-ethical practitioners that foster such dependency. It could just as easily be regarded as a commentary on the damage left in the wake of a failed marriage. The characters and situations in The Brood were purportedly influenced by Cronenberg’s real-life experiences with a messy divorce.
The Brood was well-acted and disturbing – much better than I expected. In less capable hands its premise about the physical manifestations of rage would have been silly, but Cronenberg sells it. There’s a deliberate, measured buildup, without showing too much of his hand too soon. For most of its running time, the film is surprisingly restrained. The makeup effects are used sparingly, until the truly disturbing, bloody climax. Cronenberg seems to argue that mind and body are not distinct, mutually exclusive entities, but inseparable. The Brood suggests what we all might be capable of, given the proper stimuli, and implies what the next, terrible stage of our evolution could look like.