The Brood Review

The following is a reprint of the film review I posted for the US MGM release

The Brood is David Cronenberg's first great film and something of a masterpiece. Although Rabid has been underrated by critics who found it incredibly offensive but couldn’t quite pin down why, The Brood is the film in which Cronenberg emerges as a truly important film artist, marrying for the first time his own particular brand of "body horror" with a serious examination of broader personal and emotional issues. Gone is the bizarrely jolly apocalypse of Shivers – surely the only film about VD and social breakdown to end with a party atmosphere - and the (relatively) traditional monster movie context of Rabid. In their place we have a new emotional intensity that would become the dominant mode of Cronenberg's work in next twenty five years, ultimately leading to devastating accounts of the fragility of the human psyche in Crash and Spider

None of this exploration of new emotional territory would be effective, however, if the film wasn’t hugely effective as a good old no-shit horror movie. The Brood contains some scenes of nail-eroding tension which Cronenberg has never topped and one moment, a classic use of the fear of monsters under the bed, is quite simply one of the best shock moments of the 1970s. If the film is sometimes a little too explicit for its own good, and too concerned with explanations towards the end, then the vivid sense of a nightmare encroaching on the everyday world is more than adequate compensation. Consequently, I think that The Brood is a good place for newcomers to start with Cronenberg as it’s both very typical of his style – far more so than the highly effective but somewhat atypical The Dead Zone - and also very approachable as a genre film. If you like The Brood then chances are that you’ll appreciate most of Cronenberg’s work.

As with most of Cronenberg's films before The Dead Zone, it's hard to describe the plot without sounding like you're making it all up. Anyway, the setting is snow-bound Canada, where a popular TV pundit and psychologist Dr Hal Raglan (Reed, on fine form) has set up the "Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics". Taking its cue from his successful book "The Shape Of Rage", Raglan believes that he has found a way to cure mental problems by giving them physical manifestation. He literally gives a shape to rage, neurosis and paranoia, amongst other things. One of the patients at the hospital is Nola Carveth (Eggar), who has recently separated, acrimoniously, from her husband Frank (Hindle). After Frank picks up their daughter, Candice, from her weekend visit, he notices some bruises and scratch marks on her back. Convinced that his wife has abused her, he packs the child off to stay with her alcoholic grandmother and storms up to the institute to demand some explanation. However, Dr Raglan refuses to let him see Nola, saying that she is in isolation and must not be disturbed. Meanwhile, when grandma leaves Candice and goes into the kitchen to freshen up her drink, a very unpleasant small figure in a red anorak is waiting to bludgeon her to death with a mallett.

The explanation for all these events is one of Cronenberg's most ingenious concepts, effective both emotionally and as part of a structured narrative. It has often been said that this is Cronenberg's Kramer Vs Kramer, which is quite true, except that it is considerably superior to that dishonest piece of moonshine. As this is a low budget horror film, and therefore immediately disreputable, it cuts away all the cliches and gloss, focusing in very closely on the emotions felt by a couple drifting apart and fighting over a child; anger, bitterness, loneliness, self-pity and irrational hatred. The film is also full of a virulent hatred of the mistreatment and disregard of children by adults, which is clearly coming from right inside the writer/director. Cronenberg was going through a very difficult custody case while making the film, and this probably accounts for the confrontational nature of the emotions in the film. Some critics call Cronenberg's films "cold" and distant, but I think they are actually the opposite; the emotion is uncomfortably direct and hard to get into perspective. In a later film like Crash, Cronenberg gets so deeply inside the heart of human sexuality and, more significantly and uncomfortably, human emotional need that he’s touching us in places we don’t necessarily want to acknowledge we have. After watching one of his best films – and I’d add Videodrome, Dead Ringers and Spider to the list – it’s easy to feel that you’ve learnt something about yourself that you didn’t really want to know. Along with this suspicion is a sense of complete emotional wipeout, as if the depths of human sadness and horrible mess and compromise have been made so vivid that you simply can’t cope with any more. Yet other people can watch these films and come out yawning. Cronenberg may be one of the few genuinely great directors who really divides the audience and it’s very difficult to feel uncommitted - one way or another – about his films.

The Brood is about one of its director's favourite themes - the mutation, or more provocatively, revolution, of the human body. Typically, the meddling of a naive scientist with the body has led to disastrous consequences, with patients suffering anything from an outbreak of cysts to cancer of the lymphatic system. As Cronenberg has pointed out, what is cancer if not the cells revolting against the body ? As Cluve Barker once memorably pointed out, doesn’t this give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘the body politic’ ? If psychoplasmics is, as Raglan believes, the ultimate therapeutic device, what might that mean for human evolution ? Is there a Cartesian division between mind and body, or does changing one inevitably result in changing the other ? Can human psychology cope with such immense physiological change ? What makes these questions disturbing is that Cronenberg frequently concentrates upon a world where the scientists and doctors who are meant to control these things are either blatantly incompetent, corrupt or simply unaware of the moral and physical repercussions of the decisions they are taking. In The Brood, Raglan’s eagerness to help his clients – and it does seem to be a genuinely humanitarian desire – has led him to unleash a monster that he simply can’t control, because by its very nature it is self-sustaining and uncontrollable. The fallibility – and hubris - of the scientist was to become a key concern in Cronenberg’s work, leading to such memorably beleagured boffins as Dr Ruth in Scanners, Seth Brundle in The Fly and the desperately tragic Mantle twins in Dead Ringers. If we extend this to the fallibility of the creative mind then we can see a link to some of Cronenberg’s most daring works such as Videodrome and Naked Lunch.

Cronenberg’s pacing is very cunning. In his early shorts, he adopted a languorous tempo which can be, at best, lulling to watch and sometimes incredibly tedious. Indeed, Stereo may well be the longest short film ever made, if that makes sense. Shivers isn’t paced with a great deal more speed but makes up for this in dramatic invention. The Brood, on the other hand, makes great use of a deceptively slow pace until the revelations begin piling up and the tension is screwed ever tighter. Cronenberg displays a great talent, one that he later used to great effect, for unsettling the viewer in scenes which are superficially innocent until the abnormality is revealed. My favourite here is the scene where the primary school teacher is going about her business but suddenly realises that she has two new class members. His talent for revealing something wrong within a scene of pristine calm is displayed quite beautifully here, especially in the scene of the daughter being led down the road by two red-coated figures.

The area in which Cronenberg had most difficulty developing was in his casting. The triumphs of actors as varied as James Woods and Ralph Fiennes in his work only came after a period of heroes who were even duller than the figurative ditchwater. If you can find anything interesting to say about Paul Hampton or Stephen Lack then I salute your perspicacity, because the task is way beyond my abilities. In The Brood, we’re stuck with Art Hindle who isn’t a bad actor at all – indeed, as he displayed in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers he can be quite creepy in the right role. But somehow he just doesn’t engage our sympathies and this renders the film much less effective on a first viewing than one might reasonably expect, since his character carries much of the emotional weight of the film. Hindle seems to understand what emotions are required of him – and the desperation of a man who has extraordinary bitterness towards his wife is certainly extreme – but he doesn’t communicate them directly enough. As a result, our sympathies tend to go to the much more interesting Oliver Reed who is effectively ambivalent as Dr Raglan, especially in the marvellous opening scene where he has to remain strictly controlled in the midst of some poor bloke’s nervous breakdown. Cronenberg had more luck during this period with his female leads and Samantha Eggar is often remarkably good as the complex, conflicted Nola. She handles her vitally important membrane-biting scene – one which the actress regarded as unspeakably disgusting – with immense vitality which makes the concept (which is, in the cold light of day, pretty ludicrous) come to life. The next moment – in which she is required to evoke an animal tending its young – is equally well achieved. Samantha Eggar has bad-mouthed the film on occasion, which is a shame because it’s by far the best film role she was ever offered. The rest of the cast give performances which can best be described as functional, tending towards the lower end of TV drama. The worst offender is Grandma, whose early exit is richly deserved and immensely satisfying.

The Brood is certainly imperfect and some of the flaws are ones which have dogged Cronenberg ever since. Principally, the intellectual ambition of the concepts explored are not always matched by the execution. To some extent, this is a problem of budget and the low budget of The Brood shows largely in the sometimes obviously cost-cutting special effects. But it’s also a problem of mainstream narrative cinema in general and the inadequacy of a popular form to serve as a forum for complex ideas. Cronenberg’s best work tends to be that in which he has either limited himself to specifics and allowed his ideas and metaphors to work within a close, multi-faceted character study, or abandoned conventional narrative altogether and allowed first the mise-en-scene then the ideas to take over the film. The former can be seen in The Fly which is both a completely typical and uncompromising work of its creator and a successful Hollywood special effects blockbuster. The latter is epitomised by Videodrome, where narrative eventually breaks down, perhaps in sympathy with the tortured psyche of Max Renn. Films like Scanners and eXistenZ ultimately fail (by the exacting standards of their director’s best work) because the vaulting ambition of the ideas has been allowed to take second place to a rather clichéd notion of what a conventional action film looks like, or might look like if Cronenberg could possibly make anything that conventional after his breakthrough with The Brood. This 1979 film is certainly packed with more ideas than its creator knows what to do with. But the intense, claustrophobic account of a small community coming apart is rich and disturbing enough to make the deficiencies of the budget less significant. In this regard, Cronenberg’s long-time collaborators DP Mark Irwin, Art Director Carol Spier and composer Howard Shore make notable contributions, although Shore is a long way from escaping the shadow of Bernard Herrmann.

Ultimately, however, what makes this film work is the fierce intelligence and passionate intensity of Cronenberg’s own, only slightly distorted vision of the extraordinary psychological price of divorce and child custody, coming straight from the heart and not remotely reliant on Hollywood Endings or simplistic sentiment. In this regard, it’s a triumph and deserved all the awards which inevitably went to the other divorce movie of 1979, vastly inferior and hopelessly dishonest as it undoubtedly is.

The Disc

The more I watch The Brood, the more convinced I become that it’s one of the great horror films of the 20th Century. This new DVD from Anchor Bay is the second UK release of the film and an improvement on the Arrow disc which I reviewed way back in October 2000. In some respects, however, it’s rather baffling and represents some of the foibles to which Anchor Bay UK have become increasingly prone.

Two different cuts of the film are included in this two-disc release and are rather vaguely described as “the US” and “the UK” versions. The ‘UK version’ is on the first disc and contains all the extras. It’s rather shorter than the US version and noticeably less gory – this is the same as the ‘R’ rated cut. The ‘US version’ is uncut and considerably more intense – compare, for example, the scene where Grandma is attacked with a mallet. The most impressive addition is the longer edit of the sequence where Nola licks her newborn child of rage. In the UK version this is a quick, rather unpleasant moment. In the US version it’s a touching, complex sequence which is all about mother love.

Both cuts of the film are presented in its original 1.85:1 ratio and have been anamorphically enhanced. The following comments refer to the UK version. In some respects, it looks good. Colours are particularly striking throughout with the yellows and reds making a strong impression against the wintry backgrounds. There’s a reasonable level of detail but the overall effect is softer than I would have liked. The slightly grainy texturing is characteristic of the original film. The US version looks like an NTSC-PAL conversion and is disappointing compared to the R1 MGM release - and that wasn't wonderful in the first place.

The soundtracks are rather less satisfactory. We get a choice of three remixes – Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 Surround and Dolby 2.0 Stereo. Given that the original film was made in mono then I can’t see why we can’t get a choice of hearing it as the director intended. None of the remixes is particularly impressive but the 2.0 Stereo is the least distorted and there is little attempt at separation between the channels so effectively you end up with 2.0 Mono. The 5.1 remixes aren’t much to write home about, just the usual Anchor Bay mess; mono soundtrack pumped through the surround channels and very little for the .1 LFE to do. The US version contains only a 2.0 track which, again, sounds more like 2.0 Mono than Stereo to me.

The main extra feature is a 55 minute documentary about David Cronenberg from the series “The Directors”. It’s a solid piece which will act as a good introduction to Cronenberg’s work for beginners. However, anyone familiar with the director’s career will find this a bit of a slog and a couple of important films – including, ironically, The Brood - are barely covered. Also be warned that the clips frequently contain spoilers for the films discussed. Still, it’s always good to hear Cronenberg talking about his films and that’s enough to make this worth a look. We also get the original trailer, biographies for Samantha Eggar, Oliver Reed and Art Hindle, trailers for The Brood and the Scanners trilogy and some reasonably erudite film notes.

English subtitles are provided for disc one but not for the uncut version. The documentary is not subtitled.

Sadly, no commentary is included. Considering how personal this film was for Cronenberg, this is a major omission and suggests that anyone who already has the MGM R1 release should give this one a miss in the hope that this great movie might one day get the special edition DVD it deserves. If you haven't got the film and can play Region 1 discs then the MGM disc offers better picture quality.

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