Wednesday, October 7, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: A Little Therapy Never Hurt Anyone... Except in David Cronenberg's The Brood

Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg once said that his 1979 horror film, The Brood, was his version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), the story of a couple (played by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep) going through a bitter divorce and custody battle over their young son. This may be the easiest way to digest Cronenberg's landmark movie. Think of it as a drama: Frank is estranged from his wife, Nola, and their daughter, Candice, is caught in the middle. Oh, and there are these dwarf-like creatures bludgeoning people to death.

A very unhappy Nola (Samantha Eggar)
checks herself into the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics for "intensive therapy." Sharing custody of young Candice, Frank (Art Hindle) agrees to allow his daughter to stay at the institute while Nola is being treated by Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed). The doctor's methods include pushing patients to fight through their emotions -- typically anger (his book is entitled The Shape of Rage). Raglan's experimental therapy is so extreme and intense that it will sometimes bring about changes in his patients, not just emotionally but physically as well. As far as Frank is concerned, Nola can submit herself to as much therapy as she wishes, but when Candice comes home covered in bruises, he is determined to keep his daughter away from Nola and anything to do with psychoplasmics.

The father soon begins searching for hard evidence so that he can openly accuse Dr. Raglan of fraud. He finds a former patient of the institute and sees firsthand what exactly can result from the doctor's therapeutic means. While Candice is staying with Frank's mother-in-law, the young girl's grandmother is murdered, and Candice catches a glimpse of th
e killer, leaving her in shock. More murders occur, Candice is kidnapped, and Frank learns that Dr. Raglan has made his other patients leave the institute so that he can focus solely on Nola.

Not much more can be said about the film's plot without disclosing the details of the ending. A word of warning: the scene in which Frank uncovers the reason that Nola is Dr. Raglan's most successful patient may be a bit hard to stomach for some viewers. It is fitting and quite brilliant on a thematic level, but it is also a truly horrific sequence.

As my uncle once told me, many of Cronenberg's films deal with some sort of metamorphosis. Marilyn Chambers develops an odd lesion near her armpit following an unconventional operation in Rabid (1977), James Woods becomes a human VCR in Videodrome (1983), and, of course, Jeff Goldblum becomes... well, you know, in the director's 1986 remake of The Fly. Even in his later films, which don't involve bodily mutations, there is almost a psychological metamorphosis. In A History of Violence (2005), for example, Viggo Mortensen's character begins as a small-town diner owner and seems to turn into a cold, deadly gangster (it's perhaps closer to a regression but in the viewers' eyes -- and the eyes of his family -- it can be considered a metamorphosis). There are metamorphoses throughout The Brood: the physical changes in Dr. Raglan's patients, Frank and Nola's relationship, Ralgan and Nola's sessions, little Candice witnessing things beyond her years, etc. It's the essence of the film. As the director suggested, we begin with Kramer vs. Kramer, but we end with purebred Cronenberg.

The controversial ending was edited by a mere few seconds in the U.K.
But those small cuts, intended to make the scene less intense, made Nola's actions appear much more sinister. The Brood and many of Cronenberg's films seem to be an acquired taste. But they are unquestionably the products of an intelligent, thoughtful filmmaker who can tell a great story. And if nothing else, viewers can learn this from The Brood: If ever you hear a noise in the kitchen, don't investigate. You probably don't want to know what's rooting around in the cupboards.


  1. Sark, next to The Fly, The Brood is my favorite Cronenburg, and it scared the hell out of me. I don't know which was worse, seeing those child-like creatures out of focus, or in chilling focus. It was hard to stomach in some scenes, but it was worth it! Great blog.

  2. Thanks, Becky! I love Cronenberg's movies. My favorite of his movies is VIDEODROME, but I love this film, THE FLY, etc. Most of the time, after watching THE BROOD, I crawl into fetal position and hide under the covers. That means it's a great horror film!

  3. I have been a horror film fan since I was a kid (my sister and I watched “Shock Theatre” every Saturday). So, I have a high tolerance for horror pic frights. Indeed, I can list the only three films that made me jump (literally): CARRIE, HALLOWEEN, and THE BROOD. I saw THE BROOD in a dollar movie house when it was first released and I had no idea who David Cronenberg was. But I left the theatre that night a Cronenberg fan. As you so insightfully point out, Sark, THE BROOD is one of Cronenberg’s metamorphosis films—in fact, I’d say it’s his best film on that theme. The premise is ingenious and the presentation both gripping and spine-chilling. I’ve always found Samantha Eggar to be a little off-putting and Cronenberg capitalizes on that aspect of her personality. As a result, I think this is her best performance. You’re right about THE BROOD not being a film for the squeamish, but for those with a tolerance for horrific intensity, it’s a scary, original film. Oh, and if you’ve seen THE BROOD already, do you remember the scene in the kitchen? That’s the one that made me jump! Thanks, Sark, for reminding me with your terrific post.

  4. Sark, This movie maybe a little much for me.. i have jumped out of the chair and now hiding under it.. ;-O but, i enjoyed reading your terrific review.

  5. Sark, I wrote something several hours ago and then it mysteriously disappeared into that great vanishing spot where things sometimes go online. So I will try again now. I really enjoyed this insightful post about a film that is profoundly intense. I was shocked by the kitchen scene and didn't even want to go into my own kitchen after seeing "The Brood." Your analysis about the metamorphoses that permeate this work is excellent. I think you paid a wonderful homage to Cronenberg in this blog. On a much lighter note, "Unconditional Love" spoofed "The Brood" in a humorous way and even snuck in Barry Manilow.

  6. Again, thanks to all for your wonderful comments. Rick, THE BROOD made me jump as well (same scene), but I jump at a lot of things. I agree about Samantha Eggar; she's weird in everything she does, but it works in this. And I also thought Oliver Reed was terrific in this movie. Dawn, I've been told I'm a bad writer but never so bad that I made someone hide under a chair! :) Thanks for your comment! Toto, I'm lucky that my house is so small, and I've got a good view of the kitchen from most places. So no worries about someone... or something sneaking in!

  7. Sark,I remember there was some "buzz "about this film when I was in Grad school, but being in Grad school (Human Services ,Psychology) I never got around to seeing it. I'm a big Samantha Egger fan so when the kid's are alsleep I might have to check this out