The Brood (1979)

The Brood first published by Movie Gazette, July 25, 2005

When Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) picks up his five-year-old daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds) from a weekend visit at the Somafree Institute where her mother, his mentally unstable ex-wife Nola (Samantha Eggar), is receiving an experimental therapeutic treatment known as ‘psychoplasmics’, he notices bruises and welts on the little girl’s body. Refused access to Nola by Somafree’s guru-like leader Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), Frank begins investigating the organisation, and meets freakish former patients like Jan Hartog (Robert Silverman) who have now fallen out with Raglan and his unorthodox methods. As Nola’s sessions, guided by Raglan, reveal more about her troubled past and violent emotions, her own mother (Nuala Fitzgerald) is bludgeoned to death by a strange, snarling child – and with more vicious murders taking place around him, Frank realises that the dangers to his daughter and himself are much closer to home than he could possibly have imagined.

Was Nola abused by her mother as a child, as she claims? And if not, what caused the “big ugly bumps” that saw her spend so much of her youth in hospital? Is Dr Raglan a pioneering genius, or merely a Svengali-like showman (Reed’s performance is certainly mesmerizing)? Is the wonderfully weird Hartog onto, or just on, something? And is it more than mere coincidence that the killer so closely resembles Candice? The ambiguities and red herrings woven intricately into the plotting of The Brood are enough to keep most viewers from guessing its bizarre conclusion – but in any case the film is less a mystery thriller than a horrific tragedy, where all the family psychodramas that usually remain deeply buried take on alarmingly tangible form – and even those who can see the end coming will be unprepared for the triumphant grotesquery of its spectacle, in what is one mother of a climax.

From its wintry Canadian setting to its prominent ‘mad scientist’ figure, from its darkly imaginative plot to its chilling Howard Shore soundtrack, and from its psychosexual transformations to its unflinchingly repellent body horror, The Brood is unmistakably a film by David Cronenberg – but what makes it unique amongst the visionary auteur’s œœuvre is its close connection to his personal biography. For at the time he wrote the script, Cronenberg himself had just been through a difficult divorce and bitter custody battle for his own daughter – and if The Brood is concerned with transgressively extreme ways of finding release for inner feelings of rage and recrimination, then it is also clear that the film itself allowed the director to give ‘psychoplasmic’ expression to his own sense of anger and frustration. Cronenberg has even joked that The Brood was his peculiar version of Kramer Vs Kramer, Robert Benton’s divorce drama released in the same year – although Benton’s film, perhaps to its discredit, never featured dwarfish homicidal psychopaths amongst its methods for bridging irreconcilable differences.

strap: In David Cronenberg’s compellingly grotesque psychothriller The Brood, rage gets a shape and divorce gets a cathartic working over.

© Anton Bitel