I get that it seems redundant to review old movies, but then again, “movie reviews” is a catch all term, right? I probably won’t make a habit of this, but who knows! Right now, it’s more of a thought exercise for me, having not seen this particular movie in about 20 years. I felt that had put enough distance between myself and it so that even if it wasn’t exactly “new to me”, watching David Cronenberg’s 1979 move The Brood in 2016 might allow me to see it with a different set of sensibilities. I know back then I didn’t so much absorb movies as I try to these days, I was more of a casual watcher.
But there’s another reason for watching The Brood right now – I needed to find out for myself if my memories of classic Cronenberg work were overinflated through the lens of time while watching The Mind’s Eye last week, a movie I tried not to be too harsh with, but in the end couldn’t help but critique it unfavourably. I’m not going to say that the main reason I gave Joe Begos’s movie the thumbs down was because I was comparing it to the work of David Cronenberg, a moviemaker I admired for a long time, but now find little interest in his contemporary work. That would have been grossly unfair to do so, and I’m pretty confident I didn’t do that. The Mind’s Eye is a critically flawed movie in many ways, and at no time does it ever reach the heights of Scanners, the Cronenberg movie that it’s overinfluenced by, way past the point of homage. But the movie is still so closely intertwined with the work of Cronenberg it’s difficult to see it as its own animal – by invoking the name of Cronenberg so often in that review, I thought it was a good idea to not only watch a Cronenberg movie in short order, I also needed to review it for the blog to see if I felt anything different about it.
The movie I chose was The Brood – it happens to be my second favourite movie of his after The Fly, and is wholly representative of his writing and directorial style in that period of 1976 – 1983 that ended with The Dead Zone. If you haven’t seen it, the plot is this: Art Hindle plays Frank, the estranged husband of Nola (Samantha Eggar), who is undergoing an intense, but mysterious form of therapy called “psychoplasmics”, created by psychotherapist Hal Raglan, played by Oliver Reed. While Nola is secluded from everyone, Frank is left to raise their young daughter Candice, played by Cindy Hinds. When both Nola’s parents are murdered by dwarflike creatures, Frank must get to the bottom of it before his daughter becomes a target, and he suspects Raglan is involved.
In its present form is The Brood scary? No, not to me. I don’t recall it being scary even when I last watched it in my 20s, then again I’ve been a fan of horror since I was very young – maybe I’m just desensitized to it, so it not being scary for me doesn’t rule out the possibility that it would be scary for a contemporary audience – although I don’t think it would be. There’s not enough blood, not enough realistic violence, not enough darkness, but I tend to see these as being indicative of Cronenberg’s style. He’s never been a flashy director, never prone to the jump scare or overt gore effects. What Cronenberg did during that period was to unsettle, to provide stories that turned the inner psyche outward so the audience could view the workings of someone else, and maybe at times to look at themselves in the darkness of a movie theater. In The Brood, Frank fears his child is being abused, and later, fears she could be in very real danger. Nola, even as far gone as she is, fears the possibility that her child could be taken from her. Parental fear in the face of the dissolution of the nuclear family is what The Brood is about, real concerns that many people face daily. The mechanism Cronenberg uses to express these themes is that of horror, of Nola’s outward externalization of the volatile emotions within her that have put her, Frank, and Candice in the position the family finds themselves. Psychoplasmics is a typical construct of Cronenberg, the “body horror” trope he will be forever associated with. Here, the body horror is that Nola’s externalized rage allows her to create deformed genderless, featureless, animalistic, monozygotic offspring that do her bidding and attack those who have wronged her, past and present. They kill her cold mother, her inattentive father, the woman she feels may be trying to seduce Frank, and thus destroy any hope of reconciliation for the family unit, and climactically, when she believes that nothing can save it, Frank becomes the focus of her anger, but not in a direct way. By attacking Candice, Nola’s offspring threaten Frank with something more; if Nola can’t have their daughter, Frank will never have her either.
The horror of The Brood is primal and deeply personal. Not supernatural, not overly physically imposing or threatening, Cronenberg’s movie is similar to the fiction of Ramsey Campbell; the demons do not come from Hell, they come from within us. They come by daylight as often as they appear in the shadows. In fact, most of the scenes in The Brood are daylight scenes, or rooms with adequate lighting. The truth of this is that when we’re hurt or threatened, we often see it coming, and are powerless to avoid it.
So yeah, I’m a fan of The Brood. It’s a perfect representation of what horror means to me as a way to tell stories about people like you and me, who have the same fears and dreams and hopes that we all have. Could it have been better, even at the time? I think so, sure. The killings in the movie are not authentically staged, and would have been much more effective if Cronenberg had filmed them to have much more impact both in the literal and metaphoric sense. On the opposite side of the scale, Howard Shore’s score is replete with strings turned up to 11. Undeniably, the score creates a sense of mood, but in certain scenes less could be more.
The movie has a lot going for it, though. The photography and camera movement is very nice indeed. I don’t know how much of an equipment budget Cronenberg would have had for The Brood, but it strikes me that he could squeeze every drop of utility from the cheapest of cameras. The performances by Hindle, Eggar, Reed, and young Cindy Hinds are terrific. While singling out Cronenberg for his “body horror” subject matter, it’s easy to overlook the fact that he is a terrific actor’s director. I can’t really think of any of his movies where the acting was not of a high standard. Character work in horror movies is the true separator of directors. You either understand the art of performance and steer actors in the direction you need them to go, or you simply let them read lines and chew the scenery as they will. Cronenberg’s subject matter is always deeply personal, always deals first and foremost with people, and how they react to the weird events that unfold around them, and it’s one lesson that could be learned by many in the indie horror scene, to either gain new skills, or sharpen talents already there.