The Brood December 13, 2016
David Cronenberg is a different sort of horror maven. In a category all his own, he’s better equipped to disconcert than to traditionally scare; his movies more or less dependably bear content that definitively crawl under the skin and refuse to leave. His Videodrome (1983), a grotesque media satire, is something of a nightmare never to be easily forgotten; his Dead Ringers (1986), a twisted tale of romantic obsession, is so expertly uncomfortable that perhaps watching a snuff film would cause us to have a similar reaction due to its dripping gore and its unrelenting misanthropy.
Because Cronenberg’s films lack humor and sometimes human decency, I’ve continuously been impressed by his technical mastery and his efficiency in generating shock value but have never been able to much enjoy his work — I’ve habitually sat in disgust when confronted by his features (except when in the presence of his mostly conventional but nevertheless near seamless 2007 mafia thriller Eastern Promises).
The Brood (1979) is no different — its bloodshed is still copious and its every frame still, without fail, ensures we feel momentous unsettlement — but in contrast to the vast majority of Cronenberg’s most divisive works are the allegories hiding beneath the bloodletting cerebral enough to make our discomfort actually seem worth it. In The Brood do we have a thoughtful divorce movie that takes the pains of a breakup and heightens them so melodramatically — to supernatural extents — that the film feels something like (maybe even exactly like) a night terror had by the party losing the custody battle.
The film stars Art Hindle as Frank Carveth, a man interlocked in divorce proceedings with his severely disturbed wife, Nola (Samantha Eggar). Locked up in Somafree, a cult imitating institute run by ethic ignoring psychotherapist Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), Nola is delusional and oftentimes violent, characteristics that exceptionally frighten Frank in the face of the custody battle for their five-year-old daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds). Unlikely it is that Nola will have the girl all to herself, but after Candice comes back home after a visit with her mother covered with strange bruises and scratches, Frank figures it best if his estranged wife had no part in their daughter’s life, which, by many standards, is a difficult decision to make a reality.
The plot thickens when it’s revealed that Nola is much more than merely unstable and that her relationship with Raglan is far more perturbing than it at first appears to be. But because The Brood is such a bizarre (though masterfully bizarre) slow burn of the body horror subgenre, better to let Cronenberg’s careful unveilings of the truth and unthinkable plot twists work their erratic magic than unfairly reveal them prematurely. Part of film’s effectiveness has to do with the screenplay’s deliberation, and Cronenberg, fortunately, is a puppet master incapable of making a tonal error.
Same goes for his ensemble, who pull off roles equipped for a supernatural soap opera and yet somehow prove themselves to be enormously convincing. Particularly valuable is Eggar, whose faux madness is so wonderfully calculated that the big reveal that overcomes her character at the film’s finale practically leaks through the confines of the frame. But that’s how The Brood snakes about in general — it’s so consistently foreboding we find ourselves virtually waiting for an explosion of catharsis at the end of every scene. When that catharsis does come, though, we feel unprepared, caught off guard. That’s Cronenberg for you. A-