Friday, July 5, 2013

The Brood

The Brood (1979) is probably the first movie to demonstrate director David Cronenberg's affinity for the weird. Sure, he had directed They Came from Within and Rabid by this point, and those had showcased his early talent and some of his body horror fascination; the former featured a parasitic slug that turned its victims into murderous, sex-crazed maniacs, and the latter featured a woman spreading a virus by drinking the blood of men she seduced, but at their most basic, their stories resembled a zombie plot and vampire plot respectively (albeit with some modern updates). However, The Brood, I think, is the first time Cronenberg gave us something truly out-there and original.

Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) runs the Somafree Institute where he practices a form of psychiatric therapy known as psychoplasmics in which patient are encouraged to release their suppressed anger through physical manifestations on their bodies. This is demonstrated when we see one patient, during an on-stage treatment, lets out his anger against his father and reveals sores all over his body. When Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) picks up his daughter Candace (Cindy Hinds) from the clinic, where her mother and Frank's ex-wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is undergoing treatment, he discovers bruises and other injuries on her back. Frank suspects Nola has beaten their daughter, but he is blocked from seeing Nola by Raglan. Frank tries to investigate the Somafree Institute to build a case against Raglan, but at the same time, strange, deformed, dwarf-like children begin murdering the people in Nola's life who have caused her pain, including her mother and father.

Like much of Cronenberg's filmography, The Brood proceeds slowly, building only gradually to its genre elements (Mick Garris, on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments, compared the movie a "snowball of horror" that builds). Frank's desire to protect his daughter against any threat - whether her mother or her mother's other "children" - is relatable, and we see how battered emotionally and physically Candace is by her parents' conflict. Even the grandparents, who we learn abused and ignored the abuse of Nola, are presented as flawed, damaged, and complicated people; both feel guilt over what they did or didn't do for their daughter. The beginning doesn't feel like a horror movie and instead concentrates on the family dynamics and the relationships between the characters, but by the time we get to the end where Frank confronts Nola and the truth behind the brood is revealed in a shocking and grotesque revelation, we're deeply invested in what happens and what it means.  Cronenberg's movies often demonstrate the ability to go beyond surface shocks and to use the violence, gore, and scares to represent a deeper thematic meaning: the monsters are made flesh by the very real flaws of the humans.

Families and the bonds between parent and child are meant to be built on love and support, but in The Brood, Cronenberg paints the nuclear family as a harmful and even dangerous entity, one built on shame, guilt, abuse, neglect, and anger. In a form of cinematic psychoplasmics, Cronenberg physically manifests these negative traits of the family in the form of literal monsters. Those deformed children, we learn, are literally the children of Nola's rage, brought to life and driven by her anger at those around her; she has repressed all those emotions her whole life, and Raglan is now encouraging her to release them in the most horrifying and literal of manners. The Brood is the horror of allegory.

Because the drama of the characters feels real, the horror elements are that much more effective, and Cronenberg crafts some adroit, palpable images. Like many of the best monster movies, the creatures are mostly suggested and kept off-screen except quick flashes during attacks. After killing the grandmother, one of the creatures is shown obscured through the rails of a staircase leaving behind bloodied handprints. Sure, they're a bit hokey once we get good looks at them, but bunch them together in their colored winter coats, give them blunt objects, and the chance to gang up on the little girl or whoever else gets in their way, and their threat is felt.

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