David Cronenberg Retrospective: The Brood

David Cronenberg: Canadian by birth, madman by the grace of God.

There’s an expression that says Hitchcock figured out tension; Spielberg mastered awe; Lucas nailed artifice.  Cronenberg, on the other hand, figured out something altogether different.  From his earliest efforts (Rabid, Shivers), through his 1980s output (Videodrome, The Fly), to his more recent films (History of Violence, Eastern Promises), a couple of very particular threads run through his work.  The first is biological horror – the sensation of watching your body change, turn into something alien, something that you can’t necessarily control.  The second is the force of manipulation, and its consequences. Whether the issue is child manipulation, body manipulation, or manipulation of one’s psyche, you can count on Cronenberg to examine the issues, then ABSOLUTELY FREAK YOU THE FUCK OUT, COMPLETELY.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at The Brood, shall we?  Produced in 1979, during what Cronenberg readily refers to as his “dark period (which is really saying something),” The Brood stars Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle, and Oliver Reed.  Eggar and Hindle play Nola and Frank, two 30-something year olds with an 8-year old daughter.  Nola and Frank have a deeply troubled marriage, and Nola is undergoing intensive therapy sessions in an effort to overcome their issues. Her sessions take place at a live-in facility, where she is kept isolated from her friends and family.

David Cronenberg - Yep, that's about how I imagined he looks.

Cronenberg has admitted that The Brood is (loosely, one hopes) based on the divorce he was suffering through at the time.  I’m fairly certain everyone who’s been through a divorce describes it similarly, but when Cronenberg says he’s suffered through the most hellish divorce ever, you have to pause.  See, Cronenberg’s divorce involved religious cults, child possession, and kidnapping.  IN CANANDA.  How’s your divorce looking now, lightweight?

So anyway, The Brood focuses on Nola’s unconventional treatments at the hands of Dr. Hal Raglan, owner of the Raglan clinic and expert/founder of “psychoplasmic” treatment.  This is a program in which troubled individuals are encouraged to “go all the way” with their anger issues.  The patient acts out the source of their issues, with Dr. Ragland as a surrogate.  The intensity of the pent-up emotions causes boils, bruises, and other body injuries to appear on the patient, though the freeing of such emotions also seems to relieve them of their internal anguish.

Yes, Daddy.

At this point, I have to digress to talk about Oliver Reed. Reed was one of those classically-trained British actors who was ludicrously talented, and managed to occasionally demonstrate that talent, in between bouts of drinking so over the top that they defined him throughout his career (seriously, read his obituary. You cannot imagine.).  Reed was a man’s man; the sort of guy who could drink 3 bottles of scotch, fuck your wife, then beat you at arm-wrestling, and have you thank him afterwards (and yes, for the record, those are all recorded feats of his, except she wasn’t my wife.).

Not my wife. Sigh.

Oliver Reed, in this movie, is like a one man opera.  His natural intensity is almost overwhelming, and when a man like that decides to chew some scenery, you can only sit back in awe.  For our purposes, all you need to know about Oliver Reed is that he’s intense, he can act, and when he died, this is how he did it: “Racking up an $866 alcohol bill, Reed had reportedly drunk two bottles of Captain Morgan’s rum, eleven bottles of beers and numerous doubles of Talisker whiskey and Hennessey cognac.  He also beat five much younger Royal Navy sailors at arm wrestling at a bar called “The Pub.”  He was 61.”

"Ollie's Last Pub"

The sign reads "Ollie's Last Pub."

Reed dropped dead of a heart attack moments after whupping those Brit pups, thus causing one final headache for the director (Ridley Scott) and editors of Gladiator, which he was roughly halfway through filming when he passed.

Back to the movie.

As Nola progresses through her plasmatic treatments, the people who she pinpoints as her antagonists start to be murdered by unknown assailants.  Beginning with her Mother (a drunken yet seemingly-friendly Nuala Fitzgerald), her Father, and anyone else she’s decided stands in her way to recovery.  Now, there are horror movie murders an audience can savor.  There are deaths where you might even want to cheer.  These aren’t those kinds of murders. In true Cronenberg fasion, we are, instead, presented with something much, much weirder.

Jesus christ get out of my nightmares.

Yes, these are the titular Brood.  You may have noticed them referenced in the title of the movie.  Little blonde things that show up, make horrible gutteral noises, then bludgeon the victim to death while shrieking in a rage-filled, high-pitched “voice.” God, these things are awful.  They are also dressed like normal children, and appear, from first glance or to a retard, like regular kids.  This allows them to, say, wander into a kindergarten class and….

Not helping with the nightmare thing...

Well, who’s to say what happens then?  Which leads me to another point:  Filmmakers could NEVER get away with staging some of these scenes today.  In this movie, you can watch a man take polaroids of a naked eight-year-old girl, or, watch a couple of mutant freak rage-babies bludgeon a teacher to death in front of a roomful of fellow children.  And I’m talking about the real deal, here – no cutaway bullshit. Wide shots packed with children watching as a woman gets beaten to death, slowly, by a couple of weird-looking kids in matching ski suits.  Or how about that scene of children leaping on a man and biting him to death as he screams and fights all the way down?

Official no-sleep territory.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve either seen the movie, or you need to ASAP. I’m going to try to move away from the plot now – out of respect for the soon-to-see-it folks – because believe it or not, I still haven’t given away any of the really shocking stuff.

Let’s talk about the non-Oliver Reed actors for a second.

Do not be fooled by her hotness.

Samantha Eggar is a successful career actress, starting in the early 1960s and continuing today.  While she has worked steadily, she never broke into mainstream movies, and The Brood can certainly be called her best performance. As Nola, Samantha absolutely scares the shit out of me, while making me feel an enormous amount of sympathy for her mental state and her (genuine) attempts to better her condition.  This is one of those performances where I want to curse the Oscars for ignoring genre films like these.  Eggar inhabits her character so fully that the viewer never even questions the insanity of what we’re actually seeing, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

Now THAT is a jerkface.

Art Hindle plays Frank, Nola’s husband.  Hindle is another semi-obscure actor who’s career stretches back some four decades, thanks to television.  Frank is sort of a regular guy, and sort of just a jerk. Hindle does solid work in the most unglamorous of the roles, and his increasing desperation to get himself and his child away from their situation seems to be a direct reflection of the circumstances around Cronenberg’s own divorce.

Interestingly, Cronenberg makes both parent characters (as well as the grandparents) pretty lousy people.  They ignore the child, use her as a pawn over issues between each other, they leave her with alcoholic (and possibly abusive) relatives, and so on.  While Frank seems concerned about the mysterious bruises appearing on daughter Candace’s (Cindy Hines, excellent) back, his focus is on using the bruises to claim full custody on the child.  The effect of these manipulations are what provide the movie with its emotional impact – In the final images, it becomes clear that there will be a terrible price to pay for the ordeal Candace has been put through.

Earlier, I mentioned the recurring thread of biological horror, in addition to manipulation.  True to form, Cronenberg does not skimp on the bio-ho (Like that? No?).  As much as I want to show you an image that may be one of the greatest (disturbing) money shots in all of film history, I won’t. Suffice to say that when you have multiple rage-babies with no belly buttons running around, they have to come from somewhere, and Cronenberg is ABSOLUTELY going to show you where.

Operatic is actually a pretty accurate word to describe the emotional state of these characters. Reed and Eggar, particularly, seem to be operating on a level of theatricality and heightened emotion that would be very much at home on an opera stage (fittingly, Cronenberg has recently begun directing opera productions in Europe). The ability of these actors to maintain that sense of the dramatic, while never allowing the audience to question the reality of it, is remarkable, and speaks to the talent level of everyone involved.  The Brood also marked the first time Howard Shore composed for Cronenberg.  The music is fantastic, and, befitting an opera, it is not subtle.  Shore has since scored every single movie Cronenberg has directed (not to mention those LOTR movies, and lots of other good stuff).

The Brood marked David Cronenberg’s first real commercial success.  After The Brood, he moved further into the realm of science fiction-horror, before eventually heading into more mainstream (and increasingly critically acclaimed) movies like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.   Not one of these films, though, has achieved the feeling of personal (and parental) horror that The Brood evokes.  This is almost certainly due the fact that The Brood is the closest Cronenberg has ever come to making a true autobiographical film.  It’s also the closest thing to a pure horror film he’s ever made.  While he doesn’t ignore the inherent (and pitch black) humor in a couple of deformed rage-babies in ski suits mixing in with a crowd of kindergarters, he never, ever lets you enjoy that humor for long.

With The Brood, David Cronenberg came to scare you, and holy shit, he succeeds.  On a personal note, The Brood is absolutely one of my top 5 horror films.  Cannot. Recommend. Enough.   Grade = A++.

11 Responses to “David Cronenberg Retrospective: The Brood”

  1. Thank you, Jerry, for kicking off our David Cronenberg Retrospective with a bang! If I may review your review: A++, absolutely brilliant and captures every fucked up iota of this outstanding film. I loved the historical/personal context, too!

    lolz: But to the surprise of many, the marriage proved a success, although in 1986 Reed was forced to dig up nine acres of his back garden after forgetting where he had buried his wife’s jewellery when drunk.

  2. When we watched it, I found myself yelling “Look out! The Anger Babies have hammers!”. I never particularly thought that’d be a sentence I’d say. Scary little snowsuit creeps!

  3. I can honestly say that I will NOT ever watch this film. I already dislike children enough, thank you very much. But I DID enjoy the alcoholic pursuits of Reed, thanks for the digression!

  4. Mr. Know-it-all Says:

    Like the lovely & talented Jill, I too have a certain, how shall we say, disdain, for children. At best, they should be like a good necktie; seen and not heard. But I too, digress. My marriage to not only a horror movie freak, but also an aspiring horror movie actor/victim/axe murderer forces me to seek out new and undiscovered tales of terror. Cronenberg’s “The Brood” has been added to my Netflix cue based soley on this review from the trusted Mr. Ochoa. I’m sensing a resurgence in bloody snowsuit fashion this winter.

  5. jerryochoa Says:

    Glad yall like the review! Since we’re quoting from the links, let me highlight this Oliver Reed-related gem:

    “In one celebrated incident in 1974, Reed invited 36 rugby players to a party at his home. Between Saturday night and Sunday lunchtime, they managed to consume between them 60 gallons of beer, 32 bottles of Scotch, 17 bottles of gin, four crates of wine and a lone bottle of Babycham. The entertainment concluded with Reed leading the players on a nude dawn run through the Surrey countryside.”

  6. Sometimes I want to direct 2003-era Colin Farrell to Oliver Reed’s bio, and be like, “this is how it’s done, bitch. Come back to me when you’ve vomited on a sailor.”

    MY GOD THIS MOVIE IS TERRIFYING. You may think that, cause it’s 70s-schtick, and has a bit of cheese, that you can make it through okay. Trust me. Trust Jerry. YOU CAN NOT.

    Fucking snow-suit murdering little rage babies.

  7. Well done, Mr. Ochoa. It’s nice to see Oliver Reed eulogized so well, I had forgotten that he was in this movie. It’s been a few years, I should rewatch, even though the images are all BURNED INTO MY BRAIN.

  8. My favorite of many Oliver Reed quotes from the obit.

    “Look, I’ll put my plonker on the table if you don’t give me a plate of mushy peas.”

  9. I also thank you for introducing me to this movie. I had heard about it for a while but I never got around to seeing it. I am very glad that I did because it is awesome. It’s been a few weeks since I last saw it and I really want to watch it again. It’s just so cool and creepy. For a movie made 30 years ago, that’s hard to do. I highly recommend.

    Cronenberg is so badass. I really love everything I’ve seen of his. I can’t wait to see what’s next on the retrospective. Keep ’em coming.

  10. in spite of some of the pictures you included, which will most definitely give me nightmares (THANKS), this review was really fantastic, jerry.

    even though i will never, ever, ever see this movie.

    the oliver reed stuff alone is incredible. thanks for introducing me to the tragic (?) badassery of his life. although i really hope henri doesn’t read this, because oliver reed could easily be his new role model.

  11. […] “In true Cronenberg fasion [sic], we are, instead, presented with something much, much weirder… […]

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