31 Days Of Hell: The Brood

31 Days Of Hell continues with Andrew's review of The Brood.

"No. I refuse to join your church!!!"
David Cronenberg’s 1979 gut-cruncher The Brood, newly released on an uncut Criterion Collection blu-ray, is simultaneously one of the Canadian provocateur’s most shocking and startlingly autobiographical features in his illustrious oeuvre.  

Born out of a bitter divorce and custody battle, Cronenberg found himself entrenched in, it’s the science fiction horror story of a revolutionary new form of psychotherapy known as “psychoplasmics” in which buried emotional traumas manifest themselves in physical transformations upon the human body.  Among psychoplasmics practitioner Hal Raglan’s (Oliver Reed) patients is Nola Caverth (Samantha Eggar), a deeply damaged and spiteful woman locked in a custody battle with her husband Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) over their five year old daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds).  Unbeknownst to the three, a series of bizarre murders stemming from dwarf-like creatures begins to sweep the town.  Little do they know just how deep their own complicity in the crimes run, paving the way for inarguably the most grotesque and appalling body horror sequence in Cronenberg’s entire career!

As much a form of catharsis for its director as Possession was for writer-director Andrzej Zulawski, it’s an autobiographical tale captured in the moment of the artist’s personal anguish.  While Cronenberg’s films present a cool air of detachment, the director’s blood runs through every vein of The Brood, reflecting his own anger and despair over his divorce.  While the Criterion cover and recently released Mondo vinyl soundtrack undoubtedly spoil the coup de grace, it remains unparalleled in its ability to disgust and unnerve.  So strong was the sequence that it prompted heavy cuts from the MPAA to avoid the X rating and it wasn’t until the US DVD premiere that fans finally got to see it in all its inglorious infamy.  Among the more traditional horror offerings in Cronenberg’s filmography, it marked the first collaboration with film composer Howard Shore, forming a lifelong working relationship through every picture Cronenberg has made since.  It was also the second film of his to be shot by Mark Irwin, who filmed every Cronenberg picture up to The Fly.  Performances here are solid overall with the masterful Oliver Reed imbuing Dr. Hal Raglan with empathy and patience, but the real standout is Samantha Eggar as the embittered mother.  So snarling with gnashing teeth is this woman with eyes full of hate and rage, this is one of the scariest female characters in the history of horror films!  Not unlike Diane Ladd’s contributions to David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, the most controversial scene in The Brood turned out to be Samantha Eggar’s idea and begs the question just how close to herself the character of Nola really was.

"I just love the taste of baby."
Upon initial release, the film proved to be commercially successful but was savaged by the same critics who years later would champion the director’s work.  It would take decades before The Brood would earn the respect and admiration it so deserves.  While debatable as to which Cronenberg film is the strongest, there’s no doubt the finale to The Brood is among his greatest and most daring accomplishments, a sequence which goes straight to the gut and begins to churn.  It’s also one of the director’s most symbolic works to date, utilizing the science fiction concept as a platform to describe the transference of abusive behavior to our children while simultaneously investigating the phenomenon of acting out one’s deeply buried anger.  

Much like Zulawski’s Possession and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, it’s a harrowing and revolting work representative of a time in the director’s life where his marital status wasn’t all wine and roses.  For pure horror fans of the vile and bizarre, The Brood serves up the appallingly brutal shocks without compromise and marks the one time yours truly actually got physically ill watching a David Cronenberg film.  No it’s not anywhere near as good as his remake of The Fly, but as a spotlight on the great director in the process of finding his niche and venting out his obsessions onto a blood and entrails soaked canvas, The Brood is a real jolt that will sting and burn well after the end credits have wrapped.  Not for the squeamish but not to be missed!


-Andrew Kotwicki

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