At the time David Cronenberg was writing The Brood, he was living through his own personal nightmare. His wife wanted to leave – with their daughter – to take up residence in a religious community. Cronenberg was determined to do whatever was necessary to keep custody of his daughter (the word “kidnapping” is often thrown around in rumors of this period), and in the end his wife left alone. This conflict is seemingly reflected in The Brood, and makes it one of the most personal works in the filmography of a man who has always been fascinated with the inner mind and body – and the way that it revolts against itself.
With early movies like Rabid, Scanners and Shivers, Cronenberg examined how modern science and medicine could make the most intimate natures of our selves manifest as mutated horrors. In The Brood, it’s psychology that gets the Cronenberg treatment. Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed) has developed a type of therapy, “psychoplasmics”, in which he causes a patient’s emotional torment to manifest itself physically – as boils, tumors and the like – which can then be excised from the body. At his private facility, he cares for Samantha Eggar’s Nola, a woman estranged from her wife and son by her psychotic behavior.
Some, like Robert Silverman’s tumor-plagued patient, have not reaped the best results from this method. But Nola’s husband Frank (Art Hindle, of the original Black Christmas) is about to find out what’s really inside his wife’s head, and it’s no mere blemish or benign growth - it’s the very personification of jealous, paranoid rage.
Again and again, Cronenberg has externalized the inner breakdown of man with his films. The remake of The Fly suited his vision perfectly for this very reason, and I’d argue that he continues to explore similar themes with his Oscar-worthy works of today. The Brood looks not only at one person’s transformation, but at the family as a whole. Though Frank cares dearly for his daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds), and though he’s far from being as disturbed as Nola, he’s not a perfect man. It is his mildly flirtatious relationship with Candice’s kindergarten teacher that gets back to Nola, and brings about one of the attacks by her rage made manifest – by the brood.
The brood is a group of deformed children who seem to act out Nola’s fits of anger from her place at Dr. Raglan’s sanitarium. In no scene is this anger more raw and shocking than in the scene when the brood attacks the teacher. In this scene, without the swelling of music, without dramatic camera work, we watch the faces of a dozen shocked students as the brood take wooden play hammers and savagely beat the teacher to death right in the middle of her classroom. It’s a bloody, hideous scene, and it in this scene that we really see how the violent distress of a shattered family can impact the children who bear witness to it.
I first saw this movie as a feature on the USA Network’s Saturday Nightmares, a much-missed feature from my childhood. Every weekend USA would show classic gems of ‘70s or ‘80s horror – Tourist Trap and Devil Times Five are a couple of the others I remember sneaking downstairs to watch in the evening. But The Brood was my first taste of Cronenberg, and it scarred me deeply. Thank God! Thank God that I can now look at this film with an adult perspective, understanding the auteur’s message – but that I also remember the primal terror of seeing that classroom scene as a child. Of seeing through the eyes of the kids who played those kindergarten students.
As others fall victim to the brood, Frank begins to investigate just what is going on at Raglan’s sanitarium. As he draws ever closer to the truth, the brood draws ever closer to their most desired prey – Candice. At its heart, this is a battle of wills and a battle for a child. The demons that destroyed Frank & Nola’s marriage and that, indeed, make her an unfit parent, have been reborn in the flesh (and how! Wait until the final gruesome reveal of just how these killer kiddies came to be).
It’s important to note that this, like the rest of Cronenberg’s work, isn’t a shot at the industry involved. Unlike The Fly II, Cronenberg’s original tale didn’t feature a benevolent Brundle being manipulated by some evil corporation. And he’s not condemning psychology in The Brood, either. Dr. Raglan, in fact, is a well-meaning fellow sucked into a nightmare born from his patient’s psyche, and he tries to help out in the end. Of course, that doesn’t go over very well with Nola’s ever-growing army of mutant mites, and it’s finally up to Frank to free his daughter from the clutches of the brood.
This was the first Cronenberg work scored by Howard Shore, who has gone on to write the music for nearly all of Cronenberg’s films. This writer/director is loyal not only to many of his actors and crew, but to country. The Brood and most of Cronenberg’s other films were shot in and around Ontario, Canada. "Every country needs [government grants] in order to have a national cinema in the face of Hollywood,” he has said; most of his projects have been partially financed by Telefilm Canada.
This movie has been panned by some critics (especially upon its initial release), but to me it’s one of Cronenberg’s strongest works. It’s raw and real and personal and it hurts to watch, but that’s the point – the story itself is a catharsis, at least it was for its creator. While he has, in recent years, risen in status after being long overlooked by many of his peers, Cronenberg’s vision from the early days of The Brood remains true. To see a bit of where it began, add The Brood to your library. That’s right, I said Buy it!