The Brood

The Brood
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Stars: Oliver Reed (Dr. Hal Raglan), Samantha Eggar (Nola Carveth), Art Hindle (Frank Carveth), Henry Beckman (Barton Kelly), Nuala Fitzgerald (Juliana Kelly), Cindy Hinds (Candice Carveth), Susan Hogan (Ruth Mayer), Gary McKeehan (Mike Trellan), Michael Magee (Inspector), Robert A. Silverman (Jan Hartog), Joseph Shaw (Coroner), Larry Solway (Lawyer), Reiner Schwarz (Dr. Birkin)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1979
Country: Canada
The Brood Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The BroodNote: This review contains some spoilers, so if you have not seen the film already, proceed with caution.

In his Movie Guide capsule review of David Cronenberg’s The Brood, critic Leonard Maltin used less than 30 words to perfectly summarize the film’s most sensationalistic elements while completely missing the point of the film: “[Samantha] Eggar eats her own afterbirth while midget clones beat grandparents and lovely young schoolteachers to death with mallets. It’s a big, wide, wonderful world we live in!” Maltin labeled the film a “bomb,” his lowest rating, which is only appropriate given that his takeaway from the film was little more than its viscera and violence, which, to be fair, are intense and unsettling. However, what Maltin didn’t recognize is that, like many of Cronenberg’s films, the horrors of The Brood are simultaneously literal and allegorical, springing from a deep emotional well that transcends the bounds of conventional drama.

At its heart, The Brood is about the distress, rage, and pain of divorce, and anyone who has been through that particular wringer will recognize the centrality of those emotional currents to the film’s effectiveness. Cronenberg has frequently referred to it as his version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), the much celebrated, Oscar-winning tearjerker about the battle between two parents (Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep) over custody of their child. Cronenberg, who at the time had already been dubbed “The Baron of Blood” in his native Canada for his visceral low-budget horror films Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1976), went one further, though, insisting that his film “was more realistic, even more naturalistic than Kramer,” despite the fact that its plot centers on a fantastical psychological process that causes people to physically manifest their rage as tumor-like growths on their bodies, yet another of the filmmaker’s memorable challenges to the Cartesian mind-body split. The film’s fantastical-horrific nature was Cronenberg’s vehicle to explore the emotions that he felt were unrealistically portrayed in Kramer: “The Brood got to the real nightmare, horrific, unbelievable inner life of that situation [divorce and custody battle].”

For Cronenberg, this wasn’t just academic. The Brood remains his most expressly autobiographical film, as he made it as a cathartic response to a situation he had endured several years earlier when his ex-wife tried to take their young daughter with her to join a religious cult in California. He was supposed to be writing a script that would later become Scanners (1981), but he kept coming back to his experience with his ex-wife. Describing the process in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, he said, “I couldn’t write the script I was supposed to because The Brood kept coming. It was a compelling script; it insisted on getting written. It pushed its way right up through the typewriter…. I really don’t think I had any choice. It was like automatic writing.”

The finished film reflects the intensity of Cronenberg’s experience writing it, and even without knowing the autobiographical background, it would be difficult not to sense the catharsis. The protagonist (and Cronenberg surrogate) is Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), a mild-mannered architect who is caught in the middle of a protracted custody battle with his estranged wife, Nola (Samantha Eggar), who has become the star subject of “psychoplasmics,” a controversial Gestalt-like psychological technique pioneered by Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), who runs the Somafree Institute in the woods outside of Toronto. Frank is trying to protect their 5-year-old daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds) from Nola, who he thinks is unhinged and physically dangerous, and Raglan, who he thinks is a scam artist peddling a modern psychiatric version of snake oil.

However, what Frank doesn’t realize is that psychoplasmics is very real and that Nola’s immersion in it has resulted in the birth of the brood of the title: child-sized humanoids that are the physical embodiment of her rage and act out on her emotions, primarily by killing people with whom she is angry (the grandparents and schoolteacher mentioned in Maltin’s capsule review). The narrative functions primarily as a well-paced mystery that gradually reveals the presence of the growling, cleft-pallet rage children before confirming that they are the direct product of Nola’s rage, physical embodiments of her status as the “bad mother.” The film climaxes in one of Cronenberg’s most memorable sequences, which finds Dr. Raglan retrieving Candy from the attic where she has been kidnapped by the rage children while Frank tries to keep Nola calm downstairs, a plan that goes south when Nola dramatically reveals one of the children growing as a fetus in a womb outside her body. Frank’s revulsion is certainly understandable, even as it gives away the game and incites Nola to new levels of rage: “Noooooo,” she seethes as she senses his distress, “I disgust you.” It’s a fantastically unnerving moment that embodies everything that is great about Cronenberg’s visceral brand of psychological horror, where minds and bodies merge and collapse.

The Brood is not perfect, by any means, and Cronenberg’s own emotional involvement may have blinded him to some potential weaknesses. Art Hindle, who had worked primarily in television, is a bit bland as Frank, an issue that would plague Cronenberg’s next film, Scanners (1981), as well (he seemed to have learned his lesson though, casting James Woods, Jeff Goldblum, and Jeremy Irons as the leads in his next three films). Frank is a bit of a blank slate, as he exists primarily to embody “normality” by playing the good father against Nola’s bad mother and reacting with horror to everything happening around him. The same cannot be said of the venerable Oliver Reed, who is perfectly cast as the imposing, egotistical, apparently neckless Dr. Raglan, although he does manage to evoke some sympathy near the end where he realizes that he is clearly over his head and wants to try to fix the situation.

Samantha Eggar provides the film’s best performance, as her searing eyes inflect her wrath with a Shakespearean intensity. Cronenberg may not have recognized it at the time, but Nola is as much a victim as she is the film’s chief villain; her wraith-like sneer is a mask, emboldened by Dr. Raglan’s techniques, and her children are bastardizations of natural motherhood produced out of hate rather than love. It is no surprise, then, that the film ends with a disquieting coda suggesting that Candy, a perpetual child victim whose endurance of her parents’ struggle leaves her practically catatonic, carries with her her mother’s special gift for embodying rage, thus ensuring that the cycle of familial violence will carry on.

The Brood Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Birth Pains retrospective documentary
  • Cronenberg’s 1970 feature Crimes of the Future
  • Interview from 2011 with David Cronenberg
  • Interview from 2013 with actors Art Hindle and Cindy Hinds
  • Appearance by actor Oliver Reed on The Merv Griffin Show from 1980
  • Radio spot
  • Essay by critic Carrie Rickey
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 13, 2015

    Criterion’s new, restored 2K digital transfer, which was supervised by director David Cronenberg, is a welcome replacement for the old MGM DVD, which featured a dark, muddy transfer that did little justice to the film’s imagery. The new transfer, taken from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored, looks absolutely fantastic by comparison. The image is brighter, cleaner, and infinitely more detailed and crisp. It is almost like watching the film again for the first time. The film has a generally subdued color palette, with the wintry outdoors dominated by grays and browns and the late-’70s interiors and clothing dominated by browns and beige, although there are splashes of bright, vivid hues, particularly the snowsuits worn by the rage children and Candy. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic tracks and also sounds excellent. The musical score by regular Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore has depth and muscle, and the various visceral sound effects, including the animalistic snarling of the rage children and the sound of blunt objects crushing bones, definitely leave their mark.

    As with Criterion’s previous editions of Cronenberg films, including Dead Ringers, Videodrome, and Scanners, The Brood is equipped with an impressive array of supplementary material. First up is Birth Pains, a new half-hour documentary about the making of the film and Cronenberg’s early work that includes new interviews with actor Samantha Eggar, executive producer Pierre David, cinematographer Mark Irwin, assistant director John Board, and special makeup effects artists Rick Baker (who worked with Cronenberg on Videodrome) and Joe Blasco (who worked on Shivers and Rabid). Cronenberg appears in a 13-minute interview from 2011, which focuses entirely on his early career. There is also a 20-minute interview from 2013 conducted by Fangoria editor-in-chief Chris Alexander with actors Art Hindle and Cindy Hinds, the latter of whom has been pretty much out of the limelight since she left acting as a teenager. From the archives we have footage of Oliver Reed appearing on a 1980 episode of The Merv Griffin Show and a radio spot for the film. Cronenberg fans will be particularly excited about the inclusion of a new, restored 4K digital transfer of his 1970 feature Crimes of the Future. This film has been widely available for years, having been included on Blue Underground’s 2004 two-disc DVD set of Cronenberg’s anomalous race-car movie Fast Company, but the new transfer is, like the transfer of The Brood, quite revelatory.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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