Friday, October 30, 2015

Watch This: The Brood

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Brood (1979)
Written and directed by David Cronenberg

When I was a child, maybe even as young as elementary school age, I saw part of a movie on television that gave me recurring nightmares.  I don't recall the circumstances in which I watched it, but I'm certain that I should not have been watching it at such a young age, even in a tamer edited-for-television version.  Even as an adult, there were images from the film that remained vividly etched into my memory.  There was the depiction of two child-sized monsters with deformed faces, clad in brightly-colored hooded snowsuits, brutally attacking a schoolteacher in her classroom.  There was the shot of a young blonde girl riding in the passenger seat of a car at night, her cheeks stained with tears, with a gradual move into a foreboding close-up of two small bumps that had formed on her forearm.  The film's nightmare-inducing effect was so powerful that, even to this day, I can't see a child in a monochrome hooded snowsuit without thinking of the film's deformed monsters.  It was only years later that I realized the film was The Brood, an unsettling work of psychological terror from the great Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg.

As the film begins, Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) has come to the remote Somafree Institute to pick up his young daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds), who has spent the weekend there with her mother, Nola (Samantha Eggar), who is a patient at the institute.  Frank and Nola are divorced, and Nola is being treated for rage issues by Somafree's director, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), who uses an unorthodox and controversial method known as "psychoplasmics" to help his patients expel their anger.  Raglan's techniques cause his patients' intense emotions to manifest themselves physically in the form of welts and boils on their bodies, with the implication that these physical manifestations will then be removed.  Frank has always been skeptical of Raglan's methods, but he becomes especially concerned after he discovers bruises and cuts on Candy's back after her weekend visit with her mother, who he assumes caused the wounds.  He confronts Raglan, who insists that Candy's visits are vital to Nola's treatment, and threatens legal action if Candy's visits cease.  We later find out that Raglan is himself the target of a lawsuit by a former patient, a man named Jan Hartog (Robert Silverman), who has an enormous cancerous growth on his neck that he claims is the result of Raglan's methods.

The situation becomes even more dire one evening when Candy is staying with Nola's mother, who is brutally murdered in her kitchen by what appears to be a child in a red hooded snowsuit.  Later, when Nola's father has come to town for his ex-wife's funeral, and is spending the night at her house, he too is bludgeoned to death by the child-like creature, who had been hiding under the bed.  Frank arrives just minutes later, only to be attacked by the creature before it dies suddenly and inexplicably.  A police autopsy reveals that the creature has no navel, meaning it was never really born, "at least not the way human beings are born."  What the viewer knows, but Frank does not, is that these slayings have coincided with therapy sessions between Nola and Dr. Raglan, in which Raglan was acting out the parts of Nola's parents.  There is seemingly a link between Nola's anger and the targets of these attacks, but what is it?  When Candy's teacher is murdered by two more of the snowsuit-clad monsters and Candy disappears from the school, Frank becomes desperate.  A clue from another former patient leads him back to the Somafree Institute, where he confronts Raglan and discovers the truth about the terrifying connection between Nola and the titular "brood" of childlike creatures.

Writer-director David Cronenberg is perhaps the best-known practitioner in the sub-genre known as "body horror," in which a fear of the mutation, transformation, and infection of the human body is the major thematic preoccupation.  This motif is especially apparent in the first part of Cronenberg's career, when films like Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986) featured gruesome depictions of biological transformation, often the result of scientific and medical experimentation.  However, even more prominent in Cronenberg's filmography is a preoccupation with human psychology, and The Brood marked the first time that his interests in the psychological and the physical, and in the link between the two, were explored in such depth in a single film.  The film's climactic sequence, in which the psycho-phyiscal connection between Nola and the monsters is finally revealed, includes one of the most squirm-inducing moments in all of Cronenberg's filmography (high marks should be given to actress Samantha Eggar for her commitment in filming the scene).

In addition to its grotesquerie and implicit criticism of the pseudoscience behind techniques like the fictional "psychoplasmics," The Brood offers a bleak portrait of failed marriages and their detrimental effects on children.  Nola's parents were divorced, and it is clear that their poor relations contributed to Nola's psychological problems.  The viewer cannot help but feel sad for little Candy, whose traumatic experiences with both her parents' marital strife and the horrific acts of the monstrous brood have caused immense psychological damage by the end of the film.  Cronenberg has stated that The Brood was inspired by his experiences during the break-up of his first marriage, and has called the film his own version of Kramer vs. Kramer, the Oscar-winning divorce drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep that was coincidentally released the same year.  I can't say which of the two films offers the more accurate depiction of divorce, but it's clear that Cronenberg's is decidedly less optimistic.

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