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The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Fifteen: The Brood (1979)

As I’ve been doing ever since launching this Chronicle some 15 months ago, I’ve given the monthly Cronenberg feature a fresh watch. But I don’t believe I’ve ever struggled so much with how to approach writing an entry until pondering “The Brood”. For instance, how plausible is it to cover the main gist of the story without throwing out some spoilers—or at the very least warnings? I’m not sure it can be done…not be me, anyway. If anything, I believe it’s important to know(especially for people acutely sensitive to this sort of thing)that about an hour into the film, a young, pretty, kindergarten teacher is bludgeoned to death by a pair of bizarre-looking, child-sized, snow-suited, sort-of humans—right in front of her terrified students. Now, the unfortunate thing is—I probably just lost half my audience. There’s no way a good portion are tuning into David’s fourth official feature now. I mean, middlebrow film critic Leonard Maltin seems to despise the film for this very reason alone, and he consistently has it tagged with the lowest possible rating of “BOMB” in his annual movie guide. The problem is—he so obviously doesn’t get it. There is the necessity of being observant enough to dig just a little bit beneath the surface of “The Brood” to uncover its vast rewards. I’ve heard more than once that Cronenberg refers to “The Brood” as his only outright horror film. Maybe so. But more importantly it’s considered a scathing answer to 1979’s eventual Best Picture winner, “Kramer vs. “Kramer”. It’s certainly not a chronological response—“K vs. K” opened months after “The Brood” did in North America. But the side-by-side comparison of the two is palpable. “The Brood” ranks as one of the most searingly honest depictions of divorce ever committed to celluloid. And if you’re in that camp, like me, it’s difficult to look back on “Kramer vs. Kramer” as anything other than utter bullshit. Case in point? When Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep fight for custody of their five-year old son, it wraps up all mushy and syrupy and teary—not a dry eye in the house when Streep gives up her little boy after WINNING in court! Because that happens every day, right? Cronenberg, on the other hand, gives you a body-horror powered domestic drama of a marriage break-up with all its messiness, struggle, rage and pain intact, as the main characters battle for their five-year old daughter. Now, who’s being more honest: DC or “Kramer” writer/director Robert Benton? If you’ve lived long enough, answering that question should be easy. “The Brood” is quite likely Cronenberg’s most personal feature. His seven-year marriage ended in 1979, and the union produced one child—a daughter.

Psychotherapist Hal Raglan(a fantastic Oliver Reed)has written a book called “The Shape of Rage”, and he’s also opened an institute dedicated to his technique of “psychoplasmics” for his patients. Basically, it encourages his emotionally disturbed clients to manifest their anger on the outside of their bodies(some of the ickiest Cronenbergian body-horror you’ll ever see—a controversial scene towards the finale is close to unwatchable). A film-opening demonstration is watched by Frank Carveth(an adequate Art Hindle), during which Raglan seems to hypnotize a male patient into a child-like regression. As the patient rages against his father in this state, large hive-like bumps begin to appear all over his face and body. Dr. Raglan’s star patient is Nola Carveth(a dynamite Samantha Eggar), Frank’s wife—a woman who appears to have suffered some sort of breakdown after entering into a custody battle for their daughter, Candice(blond moppet Cindy Hinds and her glass-shattering scream). Frank is at the institute to pick up Candice after a visitation with her mother, but he’s later furious when he discovers large bruises on his daughter when he gets her home. Frank confronts Raglan, and threatens to discontinue Nola’s visitation rights. Raglan argues that it is a crucial time in Nola’s therapy, as she’s about to free herself from the abuse she suffered at the hands of her dysfunctional, alcoholic parents. Frank tries to investigate Raglan’s methods a bit, in case he needs to invalidate them to support his custody proceedings, so he interviews a former Raglan patient(a superb, honorary ‘S’-team member, Robert A. Silverman)who is dying from a lymphoma brought on by Raglan’s psychoplasmics treatments. During this, Frank briefly leaves his daughter with Candice’s grandmother, Juliana—Nola’s mom. After looking at some old photos with the little girl, a “few-cocktails in” Juliana excuses herself and heads to the kitchen after hearing a noise. Finding the room in complete disarray, Juliana is soon attacked and murdered by an unseen assailant. When Frank learns of the tragedy, and thankfully finds Candice unharmed, he contacts Juliana’s ex-husband(and Nola’s dad)Barton, so he can fly in for the funeral. Barton drunkenly confronts Raglan at the institute as he tries to remove Nola for her mother’s services—but again Raglan won’t hear of it due to his patient’s fragile state. Later that night, an inebriated Barton, is also attacked and killed, after drinking alone at the murder scene—his former home with his ex-wife. Frank discovers the body, after being prompted by a drunken phone call from Barton earlier in the evening. And it soon becomes apparent, shockingly so, that Barton—and most likely Juliana—has been murdered by some sort of strange, deformed, dwarf-like child. That discovery very nearly gets Frank killed too.

I’ll let your imagination run wild at this point, as to how Dr. Raglan’s psychoplasmics and the dwarf-killers are connected. It all leads to a denouement that is so disturbing, that it was partially edited for years before the uncut version was finally restored for the most recent DVD release. Really, just a few seconds of film makes all the difference in the world. “The Brood” is sometimes unbearably intense, and Samantha Eggar is incredibly creepy throughout. Oliver Reed brings just the right mixture of slime and honor as the controversial Dr. Raglan—in his fourth film, Cronenberg attained his best-to-that-point cast. If only poor Art Hindle as Frank could match up to the Reed/Eggar combination. Hindle’s not awful, a la “Scanners” Stephen Lack, but there’s still something missing from his performance. Maybe it’s because he never seems to crack so much as a smile—although I’m not quite sure that can be said to be his fault. It’s almost a completely humorless film. I say almost because the wry performance of Robert A. Silverman, as Raglan’s ex-patient Jan Hartog, is liable to induce a couple of uncomfortable chuckles. “The Brood” holds the distinction of being the first David Cronenberg film I ever saw. It was on late-night cable, probably HBO, most likely during the summer of 1980 when I was fourteen years old. I remember this because I watched it at my friend Leon’s(I wonder whatever happened to him?)house after midnight one evening—and I was terrified to walk the barely two blocks home after it was over. “Don’t let those little broods get you” I recall Leon taunting from the safety of his front door—chances are I ran those two blocks. Yes, Cronenberg images have been haunting me for 33 years. In a way, those broods kind of did get me, didn’t they Leon? A key member of the ‘S’ team got on board for this fourth DC feature. “The Brood” was Howard Shore’s first film score ever…and he’s been the composer for every Cronenberg feature since, except for 1983’s “The Dead Zone”. Art director Carol Spier supplies a dark, foreboding wintry look for the piece and Ronald Sanders gives it his typically tight edit. “The Brood” was a giant leap for Cronenberg’s maturation—both personally and professionally. He was finally delivering on the promise of his first trio of films. It’s a bravely uncompromising work. It’s disturbing, as it should be, because divorce is almost never pretty. If not quite a masterpiece, it was probably the release that proved he would one day deliver one. Of course, to us fans, he’s now done that in spades. With this fourth film David C really took off running. And then there were three…         Grade:  B+

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8 comments on “The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Fifteen: The Brood (1979)

  1. […] problems; as Cronenberg uses genre conventions to comment on the emotional damage dealt by divorce. Mark Leonard describes the film as “a scathing answer to Kramer vs. Kramer” and I don’t […]

    • Speaking for Cronenberg(not to mention friends of mine that have been through divorces), it’s kind of hard to be evenhanded when you are in the middle of that tumult. Interesting observations anyway. Glad to see someone working their way through David’s canon. ML

  2. Excellent review, I’ve been meaning to watch more Cronenberg.

    • Thanks so much, Vinnie! “The Brood” can be quite brutal, but many consider it Cronenberg’s first GREAT film. I like it very much, but I think that David’s “greatness” period really took hold in the 1980’s, with the amazing string that includes “Videodrome”, “The Dead Zone”, “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers”. Coverage of all of those, and the rest of Cronenberg’s roster, can be found right here on this blog. We await “Maps to the Stars” in the fall! ML

  3. Very good, Vinnie…thanks for the support! ML

  4. Yes, Julianne Moore is the star, and she won this year’s Cannes Best Actress award for her performance. ML

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