Wednesday, February 19, 2014

THE BROOD (1979) - A Review

We've been on a little bit of a David Cronenberg kick lately, with the most recent entry being The Brood (1979), which we watched last night. It's one of my favorite Cronenberg films, for a variety of reasons.
The story of The Brood is as follows: Frank (Art Hindle) and Nola Carveth (Samantha Egger) are a married couple who have been having major problems as a couple. Just short of splitting up, Nola has gone away to be under the personal care of controversial psychologist Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). Raglan has created his own approach to therapy: Psychoplasmics, which involves his patients literally manifesting their mental ills as physical realities (stigmata, tumors) in order to ultimately purge them from their lives. As Frank and Nola fight for control of their daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds), it turns out that Raglan has given Nola a decisive weapon in this struggle. (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) Taking psychoplasmics to a new level, Nola gives birth to partially formed children, all of whom resemble Candice, who are under her control and respond to her emotional state. When she is calm, the brood is too. But if Nola is angry with someone, they will track them down and express that anger in violent, murderous ways. The situation comes to a climax when the brood kidnap Candice and take her back to Nola at Raglan's institute.
I have to say that, in general, I find David Cronenberg to be a fascinating, brilliant writer and director. The recurrent theme that runs through so many of his films - the body turning against itself in one way or another - is unique among filmmakers. It's the cinema of cancer, and it made perfect sense to me when I found out that Cronenberg originally majored in biochemistry at the University of Toronto, before making the switch to English. His work shows a perfect union of those two worlds. Even when he has worked with material that isn't his own, such as in The Dead Zone (1983) or his version of The Fly (1986), this theme still holds true.
I also appreciate that Cronenberg applied his brilliance, at least initially, to genre films - horror and science fiction - that all too often suffered very much from a seeming lack of any intelligence. Yes, films like The Brood, They Came from Within (1975) and Videodrome (1983) are, in the simplest sense, bloody, gory horror shows. But they are much more than that as well. Cronenberg's films function on more than one level, and his body of work is filled with social and political commentary, as well as numerous instances of nearly psychic prognostication. Cronenberg is the Jules Verne or H.G. Wells of filmmakers. His films often feature medical, technological or other devices or ideas that seem fantastic at the time, but quickly turn up in the real world.
But, broader strokes aside, The Brood was, apparently, a very personal film for Cronenberg - who had just gone through a divorce and custody battle of his own. Though this film absolutely strikes that patented Cronenberg cinema as cancer tone, in other ways The Brood plays against expectations. For one thing, Nola Carveth is a mother, the archetype of life and regeneration - yet she produces murderous monsters. She is aided in this by her doctor, who, rather than healing, facilitates the horror that Nola produces. And this doctor is played by Oliver Reed, an actor and personality not necessarily known for his gentility - yet he plays Raglan as a soft-spoken, restrained man.

Further, a grade school classroom becomes the scene of one of the brood's deadly assaults. And, of course, those assaults are carried out by children. Nothing is quite as it should be in The Brood, either in the world Cronenberg has created or in the audience's expectations, and this disconnect, this otherness, serves the film well. Art Hindle does a good job as Frank, our guide at navigating this somewhat familiar but very dangerous territory.

With all this intentional dissonance and the effectively creepy use of the children of the brood, The Brood more than makes the grade as a superior horror thriller. As usual, Cronenberg has attracted some talented and interesting performers, and the acting here is very strong across the board. Some have carped about Egger being over the top, but I disagree. Her character is supposed to be, at best, on the bleeding edge of madness, and I don't think that Egger overplays her.
Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, Cronenberg was one of the key genre directors working and turning out classic films. This group included John Carpenter, George Romero and Wes Craven. (Of this group, Carpenter has commented that "Cronenberg is better than the rest of us combined.") In this era of cookie-cutter nostalgia and remake mania, all of these filmmakers have had some of their films remade - except for Cronenberg. Though he has made just as many iconic, name brand films - They Came from Within, Rabid (1977), The Brood, Scanners (1981), Videodrome - no one has actually come through with a Cronenberg remake. (A Scanners remake has been talked about for years, but...) I think this is because, when the rubber hits the road, it runs out that David Cronenberg has laid out a very weird, very involved road indeed - one that resists an easy or glossy redo. You can almost hear a modern producer saying something like, "Can't we make it a little, you know, less dark?"
In a word, no. David Cronenberg makes films that may light up the dark, but that light does not eliminate the dark. It just draws us in deeper. But as his films show us time and time again, getting in deeper usually means getting in over your head.
Or put another way, as pertains to The Brood...Soft-spoken or not, if you're in a movie and Oliver Reed is playing your doctor, you're in trouble.

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