What happens after Karen Black & Oliver Reed get stuck living in a haunted house?
The Brood. 1979. Directed & Written by David Cronenberg.
Starring Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle, Henry Beckman, Nuala Fitzgerald, Cindy Hinds, Susan Hogan, Gary McKeehan, Michael Magee, Robert A. Silverman, Joseph Shaw, Larry Solway, Reiner Schwarz, Felix Sillas, & John Ferguson. Canadian Film Development Corporation/Elgin International Films Ltd./Mutual Productions Ltd./Victor Solnicki Productions.
Rated R. 92 minutes.
As one of the crowned jewels of the Canadian film industry, David Cronenberg continually fascinates me as a filmmaker and storyteller. So much of his work deals in body horror, particularly his early films up until the post-2000s. The Brood may be one of his most impressive works of body horror. It tackles several aspects of psychology, as well as the idea that psychological symptoms manifest themselves physically, which they do. However, Cronenberg turns this idea into something gruesome, personal, something macabre and beyond reality. Yet all the while this film treats everything so clinically. Even with the wild sci-fi elements, Cronenberg’s 1979 classic is so painfully honest about its real life aims. Everything he has ever done with body horror is a metaphor; to how we live in this world, how we relate to it, to others, and everything in between. Although taking swipes at the field of psychology in certain respects, The Brood is also about the rift between people that not only causes damage in their relationship but to everyone surrounding them, too. Above all, the rage of this movie stands in for that which two people sometimes experience when their relationship is at odds – an all-encompassing rage that gives birth to nasty things we’d rather believe never existed in us.
At the Somafree Institute, psychotherapist Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) uses a modern, edgy technique as therapy for his patients: psychoplasmics. He acts out scenarios with his patients, as well as encourages them to let their suppressed emotions express themselves physically. Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) is an emotionally troubled woman whose divorce battle with husband Frank (Art Hindle) over the custody of their five-year-old Candice (Cindy Hinds) has become incredibly ugly. Under care of Dr. Raglan, Nola undergoes psychoplasmics treatment. Meanwhile, strange and dangerous things start to happen around the Carveth family. First, Nola’s mother dies. Then her father.
And slowly, Dr. Raglan finally realizes his treatments are the danger giving spark to the fire of Nola’s disturbed mind. As Frank struggles to keep his daughter safe, Nola’s physically embodied rage and repression gives birth to pure terror, which puts everyone close to her in peril.
I know Cronenberg admittedly wrote this during a fiery divorce. That’s evident. All the same, like literature to truly experience and interpret a work it is not necessary to worry about the author’s own personal life. No matter close and parallel to the work it may seem. While on the surface this is simply a personal drama blown up into the larger, nastier proportions of a horror film, The Brood is a great analogy for the dangers of repression, as well as the danger of improper psychiatry all at once. First of all, considering the Nola Carveth character, she is a damaged woman. Through the plot she is revealed to have suffered physical and mental abuse from her mother, effectively ignored by her father. So part of this whole story is the repression of her womanhood, the silencing of her voice as a woman by her mother, her father denying her of identity through his silence. All this turns to rage and she expresses is to devastating effect via psychoplasmics with Raglan, turning it into an unstoppable force. On one hand, a warning about how repressed feelings and buried emotion can unearth itself in horrific, devastating ways. On the other, there’s Raglan and his cowboy psychotherapy. He plays with peoples lives. Not all psychologists/psychiatrists are like that, obviously. But there are some, like in any profession, whose concern is only for themselves. Raglan pushes and pushes until Nola becomes this completely monstrous thing oozing hate. Similar to how some psychotherapists play fast and loose with the mental health of their patients prescribing too much medication, not the right stuff, using therapy which doesn’t work, and so on. Using the concept of the literal birthing of rage, Cronenberg expresses this dangerous psychotherapy quite well. And from this springs all the terrific horror he imagines onscreen.
In addition, the rage and the creatures represent the bad blood between a married couple going through an ugly divorce. A situation like that creates a poisonous cloud that can infect many others, not just the two directly concerned parties – it moves to the children, the family, the close friends, the next lovers. So look at it how you will, the premise of this movie works in many different lights. The rage of Nola is symbolic of a host of issues, disturbingly perfect in later shots of the film.
The performances are solid, particularly from Samantha Eggar and Art Hindle. Oliver Reed is pretty good, too. Hindle plays the concerned, confused husband and father well. He also doesn’t play it over-the-top, which many actors might have done. Instead he’s a calculated and thoughtful character, whose actions come as very natural. I always love him, anyways. But his Frank is solid here. Then there’s Eggar. She plays Nola perfectly. There’s a manic look in her eyes sometimes that’s downright shocking. It still creeps me out now when I think of it. And her delivery is so wonderful. Her performance is a treat all around. She plays well off both Hindle, and especially Reed. Not sure if anybody else could’ve played this role. Something I’ve said before, but here that sentiment is beyond true. Her presence is full of disturbing power, a real classic.
A totally bonkers 5-star film that uses all its force to drive home a metaphorical point about repression, rage, the density of emotion, the dangers of psychology. So many things. Perhaps Cronenberg’s best film, as it works on that level of metaphor, as well as simply on an excellently gruesome level as just a solid horror.
This infamous 1971 Ken Russell picture will forever live on in wonderful heresy.