Interesting to chart the course of David Cronenberg's career as if it were a pathology, the coursing progress of a disease through the body--from early infection (disease invades and incubates inside body) to prodormal (initial signs something's wrong) to full manifestation (symptoms run rampant) to response (body attempts to subdue the disease) to recovery/reintegration.
Wouldn't call The Brood (out in Blu Ray October 13) an early work--Cronenberg seems already aware of infection (Shivers, Rabid)--but with this feature you might say he's past prodormal stage, and the symptoms have become fully apparent. Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) is being treated at the Somafree Institute, under care of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). The institute encourages the manifestation of one's repressed anger as a means of therapy; meantime Nola's husband Frank (Art Hindle) has to deal with the mysterious killings that follow their daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds).
Is Candy in danger? Do the murders have anything to do with Nola's radical new therapy? Does Dr. Raglan have a role in all this? As Roger Ebert pointed out in his pan of the film the answers are obvious going in, as are the flaws: the film is awkwardly staged and acted, the pacing glacially slow, the dialogue clunky, the narrative oddly structured.
The reviewer's correct on all points and yet his complaints feel somehow weightless--this is not a film of conventional coherence or regularly scheduled shock moments but of fragile moods, of slow-dripping dread developing into deadpan depictions of horror.
You see it from the opening sequence, an unexplained exchange between two men: one angry, the other anguished. At one point anguished rips his robe off to expose the red welts on his body--but the exchange was disturbing long before with its hints of parental abuse (and a whiff of incestuous regard). Turns out Dr. Raglan was staging a psychodrama with his patient Mike (Gary McKeehan) before a large audience, but 1) you already had doubts about Raglan (with Reed in the role you don't expect a tender compassionate physician) and 2) a tone of uneasy undercurrents has been established, including the significant gesture of violently pulling off one's clothes in a moment of high drama.
The killings are obliquely staged--the first full-on shot of the killer has the victim's body blocking our view (Howard Shore's use of a Bernard Hermann pastiche, however, is an unfortunate choice); later Cronenberg makes the witty observation that in wintertime--zipped up and thoroughly gloved--children are hard to distinguish from one another, much less a child from another only pretending to be a child. The latter killing is more disturbing, partly for the speed of what happens, the supposed innocuousness of the setting (Candy's school), partly for the sight of children forced to submit to watching violence happen in front of them.
The premise is quickly, thuddingly, conspicuously established: every time Nola is displeased the offender is violently killed. There's the unpleasant suggestion of misogyny--Cronenberg was struggling for custody of his daughter from his first marriage when he was developing the film, and you can see where the anger is being directed.
Yet I submit there are other forces at work. Nola isn't a pure villainess; she's angry because she was abused as a child--as much a victim, Cronenberg implies, as any of the people killed--and she desperately wants her family back together. If she's unstable, if she has hurt Candy before that makes her dangerous but not necessarily evil--Cronenberg seems cautious about applying the label, if at all. Even Raglan isn't the standard-issue mad scientist: he's visibly struck when Nola first fully reveals her childhood trauma, and risks his life when everything goes wrong.
Cronenberg gives everything away at the climactic moment (Warning: skip the rest of the article if you intend to see the film!) when Nola (echoing Mike's gesture) yanks her robe apart to reveal herself the mother of a monstrous brood, the psychosomatic incarnations of her anger. When she shows us the bag of pulsating flesh feeding off of her belly the image seems ghastly yes but also--thanks to how Cronenberg frames and lights her--glamorous, powerful, sensuously charged. The film is a cautionary tale about scientific overreach but also the story of a woman's struggle to accept and express herself; on that latter score Nola succeeds far beyond Dr. Raglan's (and Cronenberg's) wildest dreams.
One detail in the scene--suggested by Eggar and eagerly seized upon by Cronenberg, that a mother would lick her newborn clean of blood--is the single most memorable in the picture, but also the single purest expression of love. We're repulsed, but Cronenberg suggests we should also be ashamed: that if we can't accept the beauty of the moment as well as the horror then there's something monstrous about us as well.
How does Frank stop Nola? By strangling her, which seems...wrong. He has to save his daughter, yes, but in doing so kills Nola in all her power and beauty, and her brood with her (Do her progeny have souls? Are they capable of independent thought? Cronenberg establishes that they operate as an extension of her consciousness which suggests otherwise, but doesn't definitively answer the question (maybe they would develop independence if allowed to mature?). You wonder if the question were an exercise left for the audience to work out on their way out the theater). Frank (and implicitly Cronenberg--yes I think both men represent the director, both killer and enabler of his wife's jealous fury) does get his comeuppance: when driving away with Candy the camera quietly pans down to the tiny blisters growing on her right hand.
Cronenberg's pathology in films like Scanners and Videodrome would bloom further; in films like The Fly and Dead Ringers would suggest Cronenberg's mind responded to the disease with narrative strategies attempting subjugation/integration. Later the more bizarre symptoms would subside, suggesting (in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method) not so much a cure as integration of disease into the body.
Yet there's something to this early stilted work, something honest and hideously alive under all the heavy prosthetics. You might say Cronenberg incubated his vision through earlier titles, and this was the point when he decided to pull the curtains back to fully reveal his creation to the world.
First published in Businessworld, 9.18.15