Sunday, January 24, 2016

Film Review: THE BROOD (1979, David Cronenberg)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Tag-line: "The Ultimate Experience Of Inner Terror."
Notable Cast or Crew: Oliver Reed (THE DEVILS, WOMEN IN LOVE, SITTING TARGET), Samantha Eggar (DOCTOR DOLITTLE, THE COLLECTOR, THE EXTERMINATOR), Art Hindle (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS '78, PORKY'S), Cindy Hinds (THE LITTLEST HOBO, THE DEAD ZONE), Susan Hogan (DISTURBING BEHAVIOR, THE LITTLE VAMPIRE), Robert A. Silverman (SCANNERS, NAKED LUNCH), Henry Beckman (MARNIE, DEATH HUNT).  Produced by Pierre David (VISITING HOURS, SCANNERS, VIDEODROME).  Cinematography by Mark Irwin (SCREAM, ROBOCOP 2, VIDEODROME).  Music by Howard Shore (AFTER HOURS, THE LORD OF THE RINGS).
Best One-liner:  "Thirty seconds after you're born you have a past and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it."

"THE BROOD is my version of KRAMER VS. KRAMER, but more realistic."   –David Cronenberg

"You got involved with a woman who fell in love with your sanity and hoped it would rub off."  –"Frank Carveth," a character in THE BROOD

What better time than a blizzard for this icy Canadian horror psychodrama?  It's David Cronenberg's THE BROOD!

In this, his fourth theatrical feature (though it's actually his twenty-first film, if we include his shorts and television work), Cronenberg gets personal––really personal.  Specifically, he delves into the intimate and troubling emotional landscape of his divorce and the subsequent custody battle.  My impression is that the artistic process must have been so draining and generally unnerving that he would require years to recover––in fact, SCANNERS, his 1981 follow-up, unfolds at such a passive, Kubrickian remove, that I would go so far as to call it his most impersonal film.  Perhaps using cinema as a tool for psychological self-analysis in THE BROOD felt a little too much like toying with the "new flesh," like something out of the Philip K. Dick novels Cronenberg idolized as a young man and would later deconstruct and reassemble as frightening, post-modern, sterile techno-hellscapes (SCANNERS, VIDEODROME).

Did he fear becoming one of the half-benevolent, half-mad techno-sages that pepper his films (like Oliver Reed's "Hal Raglan" in THE BROOD, Patrick McGoohan's "Paul Ruth" in SCANNERS, or Jack Creley's "Brian O'Blivion" in VIDEODROME)?  I've always thought the greatest horror writers are the ones fully capable of scaring themselves––and so we enter the world of THE BROOD.

Oliver Reed plays the aforementioned Dr. Hal Raglan, a techno-guru whose new methodology, "Psychoplasmics," attempts to physically manifest emotions like resentment, melancholy, and rage within his patients.

The film imagines the following scenario: what if discontent could be grown externally, like a sore or a lesion? Would people perceive mental illness differently? Could it be treated simply and painlessly? Perhaps the fallout from a bad job, bad marriage, bad childhood, or bad life could be frozen, disintegrated, and forgotten as easily as a wart or a blister.

The opening scene involves a public presentation of Psychoplasmics, and it is well on par with the infamous demonstration from SCANNERS (if not as Grand Guignol). It's a simple interaction between doctor and patient (Oliver Reed and Gary McKeehan), but Cronenberg's execution is fresh and hypnotic.  There is a distinct performative, theatrical aspect, but also an uncomfortably intimate one.  In the context of the film and behind the camera, the layers of staging and representation are as poignant as they are disquieting.




You might occasionally chuckle at the intensity of the performances, but only in the way you might whistle, wide-eyed and skittish, through a graveyard at night.

I don't want to tell you too much about THE BROOD.  I think it's a sci-fi horror film that's sadder than it is scary (quite an achievement, because it is incredibly unnerving), and it really toes the line between Body Horror and Melancholy Horror.  It is a film about cycles of abuse, the reverberations of divorce, and the repression of emotional scars. It is a film about how psychological damage inevitably resurfaces, no matter how deeply it is buried.  And yet it is also a film about damage extracted from the soul––scrutinized, treated, and compartmentalized––and how it, despite our best efforts, may very well resurface, too.

On a slightly lighter note, I'll close out the review with a few stray observations (without spoiling THE BROOD).


#8.  Let's talk a little more about Oliver Reed.  The man was known to phone in (from the bar, to be specific) many of his performances (usually in genre fare) from the late 1970s and beyond.  That's not the case here.  I'm not sure I've seen him this committed and connected outside of a Ken Russell film.

Out of all of Cronenberg's techno-sages, Reed's is the only one who truly lays claim to a full story arc, and the bulk of that rests in his performance.  For instance, I can't think of many actors who can project "blind arrogance" and "reflective self-doubt" simultaneously, or with such panache.


#7.  Samantha Eggar.

I'm not so familiar with Samantha Eggar's catalog, but when I see that her most-viewed credits involve films like DOCTOR DOLITTLE and Walt Disney's HERCULES, I'd say that her talents have been under- or mis-used.  In THE BROOD, she is magnificently intense and eerily authentic.  She's only in a handful of scenes, but, ohhhh boy, does she make her mark.  At once she is the storm and the storm's eye; a dormant volcano, biding her time.  


#6.  And, by virtue of their intensity, this brings us to "Oliver Reed vs. Samantha Eggar,"


who in a number of scenes engage in one-on-one "scary eye" combat.

This is, in essence, why I go to the movies.


#5.  Art Hindle.

He's servicable, but not particularly colorful. In early Cronenberg films, the heroes tend to be blanker slates (see: Hindle here, or Stephen Lack in SCANNERS), and I'm not sure if this changes due to maturations in Cronenberg's writing or in his casting.  After SCANNERS, his heroes become far more memorable––James Woods' wondrous sleaze in VIDEODROME, Christopher Walken's spooky quirkiness in THE DEAD ZONE, Jeff Goldlum's lovable verbosity in THE FLY, Jeremy Irons' glum freakiness in DEAD RINGERS...


#5. This is peculiar: at one point, a policeman's (incorrect) theory about what's actually going on describes the plot twist of Dario Argento's PHENOMENA. Maybe Dario saw this at the movies and figured it was a red herring too good to pass up!


#4.  Mark Irwin's crisp, sterile, and foreboding cinematography.  You could chalk it up to the natural visuals of 1970s Canadian architecture or the way the overcast Ontarian light strikes the lens, but Cronenberg and DP Mark Irwin (VIDEODROME, THE FLY, SCANNERS, THE DEAD ZONE) are clearly a match made in heaven.  Or perhaps hell.  Or more accurately, perhaps the waiting room to a body-horror clinic at the icy inner circle of hell.


And naturally, it has the requisite "little girl in a horror film wearing red" (á la DON'T LOOK NOW, et al.).


 #3.  With his second film score, Howard Shore has not quite yet come into his own––here, he's channeling Bernard Herrmann, and is more melodramatic than usual.  (It is solid work, though derivative.)  In the six years following THE BROOD, he will go on to compose SCANNERS, VIDEODROME, and AFTER HOURS––three of the finest and most original soundtracks of the 1980s.


#2.  Hey, it's Robert A. Silverman!  One of the key "Cronenberg Cronies," he's lent his oddball, off-kilter presence to classics like RABID, SCANNERS, NAKED LUNCH, eXistenZ, and even Cronenberg's episode of FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES.

Here, he has a, um––shall we say, "neck condition?"


#1.  Cindy Hinds, a child actor with serious chops.

A bad performance here would have wreaked serious consequence on the rest of the film, but Ms. Hinds (who also appears in THE DEAD ZONE) is capable of adapting to very subtle changes in tone, at times displaying a frightening detachment or a traumatized vulnerability.

She is perhaps the true center of this film, an open-ended enigma whose fate, depending on your own emotional state, can be unwritten or preordained.

Five stars.


––Sean Gill

2 comments:

J.D. Lafrance said...

So glad you finally tackled this one.

This is one of the creepier killer kids movies out there and I think it is because the subject matter was so personal for Cronenberg at the time and you can almost feel his anger and frustration in every frame and pore of this film.

This is actually my wife's fave Cronenberg film while I prefer VIDEODROME but I do love the ominous tone that seems to pervade every frame of this film and it's one that really gets under your skin... even if you don't have kids!

Sean Gill said...

J.D.,

Agreed on the personal tone; there's a dark emotional force in this film fighting to break free.

VIDEODROME is also my favorite (with THE FLY a close second), though I love most Cronenbergs for very divergent reasons.