And now for something Canadian.
Located somewhere in-between director David Cronenberg’s earlier, more manic hits like Shivers and his later mainstream success with The Fly, it’s easy to lose sight of 1979's The Brood, which has since become a cult favourite amongst his fans. But it remains one of Cronenberg’s most shocking and absorbing body horrors for all the right sick and twisted reasons.
Dr. Hal Raglan is a psychotherapist utilising a new therapeutic technique known as ‘psychoplasmics’. He urges his patients to “Go all the way through” with their emotions, leading to previously unseen physiological reactions. Meanwhile, architect Frank Carveth is engaged in a custody battle with his mentally disturbed wife, Nola, a patient of Raglan’s, over their daughter Candice. When Frank discovers that Candice has been bruised while spending time with her mother, he threatens to terminate their visitations, something that Raglan believes will only hinder Nola’s progress. Upon intensifying his sessions with Nola in an attempt to improve her condition, she reveals the unhappy truth about her childhood. At this point, almost as though on cue, misshapen child-like creatures appear and bring deadly terror to the Carveth family.
What are the creatures? Where do they come from? Why are they so clearly linked to Nola’s rage? Cronenberg, who both wrote and directed The Brood, is known for taking his time when telling a story, and this is no exception. Like with Scanners and Videodrome, it’s a methodically paced exercise in fear that builds supernatural horror off real, human drama; and revels in building suspense to almost unbearable heights.
But when the tension does burst, it does so nastily at the leathery hands of the broodlings. These snarling Morlock toddlers aren’t what you’d call fancy (despite their penchant for colourful rain jackets), and use anything at hand that’s practical enough to bludgeon their victim’s head into a bloodstained mess. Despite a relatively conservative kill count, The Brood still knows how to make a violent impact with its harrowing sequences of drawn out murder.
The Brood is at its most chilling when Cronenberg taps into those primordial fears we can all unfortunately relate to. In this case, they’re mostly of the childhood variety. Instantly recognisable, fright-inducing images are shown before us: obscured shapes watching you from behind banister railings, the sight of deformed hands clawing their way out from under a bed, and being all alone in a big, empty house when you know something just scuttled into the next room (and the light’s off). It’s interesting how, in many ways, this film could be the most traditional piece of horror that Cronenberg’s ever worked on.
Nope. No lighthearted caption here.
Only reinforcing this notion is the score, which marked the feature film soundtrack debut of Howard Shore (then a long way off from Lord of the Rings). Shore composes a dark and melodramatic string-heavy symphony that appropriately underscores the nightmarish turn Frank’s life has taken. On a lighter note (arf), it also finds a sentimental groove to suit the many father-and-daughter scenes which provide us with that relaxed downtime we so often need. As fate would have it, The Brood would be the first of Shore’s many collaborations with Cronenberg, resulting in a degree of aesthetic continuity throughout the duo’s filmography.
For whatever reason, I haven’t seen all that much of Art Hindle, but I love how sincere his portrayal of Frank Carveth is. It’s the classic case of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances; and Hindle sells this to us as the loving father who, come mad wife or killer midgets, will always be there for his daughter. We feel his (entirely justified) frustration over his family’s implosion, and by the end, we’re right there rooting for him. As horror protagonists go, Frank is about as endearing as they come.
And he has the most adorable hair!
There might be a saddening truth behind such a well-conceived character, however. The handy leaflet included with the DVD (thanks, awesome years Anchor Bay!) details how Cronenberg developed The Brood whilst going through an unpleasant first divorce, from which followed a battle for child custody... sound familiar?
It could certainly shed some light on why Cronenberg wrote Nola Carveth to be so gosh-darn freaky. I’m hesitant to call her a villain, because it’s not that simple, but Samantha Eggar throws herself into the tragic role and gets to personify ‘unhinged’ in a disturbing performance that showcases the darkest side of motherhood.
A veteran of Hammer Horror, the late Oliver Reed fits right into The Brood’s macabre setting. For his part as the sinister Dr. Raglan, Reed receives top billing, but his screen time is actually rather limited (I guess headlining your film with ART HINDLE wouldn’t have quite the same result). Rounding out a trio of great lead performances, Reed channels all his acting through that commanding voice of his, which I swear sounds exactly like the evil bastard at the back of my head (who tells me it’s FINE to stay in bed another ten minutes).
Whether confronting Frank’s accusations of Candice’s mistreatment, or engaged in one of Nola’s intense therapy sessions; and even when surrounded by vicious broodlings, Raglan always retains an unnaturally calm attitude (so... the perfect doctor?). But you can just make out the scary goings-on behind his virtually unblinking eyes. It’s too bad we'll never find out who'd win in a staring competition between him and Christopher Walken.
Above all, what keeps us watching The Brood, in a style that’s quite reminiscent of Don’t Look Now (which had its own fair share of pint-sized terror), is that we know next to nothing about what’s going on. We’re given small hints along the way, yes, and you may well be able to gather up enough clues to piece together the truth behind these mutant dwarves ahead of schedule, but there’s no preparation for what happens when Frank finally confronts his wife. I won’t spoil it here, but true to Cronenbergian form, it’s bloody, it’s gloopy and it is all kinds of plain old wrong.
Gross as the climax is (it was considered obscene and had to be censored at the time), this is one tale that doesn’t end with an exclamation mark. It’s really more of an elliptic pause, as we’re left reeling and still trying to fully absorb The Brood’s whole sordid state of affairs, but with one final grim realisation, we realise how there could be even more to come...
Given the pretty large gap between 1979 and now, a continuation does seem a little unlikely (but given what we ultimately learn, now might be the perfect time for a follow-up). In fact a remake was touted around three years ago – such is horror cinema’s current modus operandi – but its development appears to have grounded.
Perhaps it’s for the best. Just let The Brood stand alone as both a sterling example of late-70s horror, and an early gem in Cronenberg’s career. I’ve heard there’s now a UK Blu-ray in the works from the good people at Second Sight, so here’s hoping it’s able to severely disturb a whole new brood of viewers in high-definition.