Before he went Hollywood with The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg made some extremely cold and cerebral low-budget horror films in his home country of Canada. The Brood isn’t his best earlier film, but it’s the movie where he steps up with the theme that he took to extremes throughout the 80’s and early 90’s: the horror of what’s inside our bodies and what our bodies are capable of when pushed to their limits. Cronenberg’s movies are full of angry, seething, destructive, and destroyed bodies–this is nothing new. The Brood is different because it’s about the female body and the horrors of birth, both metaphorical and literal.
The Brood centers around a troubled family. The mother, Nola (Samantha Eggers), has suffered from a breakdown and is institutionalized by a charismatic psychiatrist, Dr. Hal Ragland (Oliver Reed), who promotes an experimental therapy called psychoplasmics, which makes patients physically manifest their psychological problems. It’s not clear exactly what this means, but it’s clearly a kind of parody of 70’s therapies (scream therapy, birth therapy, etc.) and the sometimes self-absorbed people who fell for them. Nola’s estranged husband, Frank (Art Hindle), doesn’t trust the doctor, who insists that Nola be kept isolated from her family as she finishes the therapy.
When Frank and Nola’s daughter, Candice, comes back from her visits with Nola with mysterious cuts and bruises, Frank starts to investigate exactly what is happening during therapy with Dr. Ragland. As Frank investigates Ragland, mysterious, deformed children begin to show up and kill anyone who helps Frank. They seem to leave Candace alone, though, which is the first clue to exactly where these children are coming from. Candace is the classic creepy kid–white-blonde pigtails, blue eyes, and the spacey, otherworldly look of a pod person. When the “brood” of deformed children show up, with their pale skin, blond hair, and lack of speech, it’s hard to tell the difference between them and her.
Cronenberg uses the family structure itself as a source of horror. Candice is bound to Nola, though Nola seems to have replaced her with the new “brood”, who can act out her anger in the world. When Frank discovers that Nola, due to her therapy, is manifesting her anger by birthing these malformed, evil, and mute creatures, Cronenburg gives one of the most daring and frightening scenes I’ve ever experienced in a movie. I’ve seen bloodier things than Nola licking clean her new anger-baby, but the mix of an instinctual, animal act into a scene between two adult human beings in a modern setting is shocking. We forget the sheer strangeness and bloodiness of birth in modern life, where women are whisked away into operating rooms and their babies are wiped clean by nurses with antiseptic towels. Cronenberg is here to remind us of exactly how strange our bodies are and how close we are to instinct.
Like many of Cronenberg’s earlier films, the lead actor is the least skilled of the bunch, which hurts the film, though at least Hindle doesn’t give the wooden-board performance of Stephen Lack, who almost ruins Scanners single-handedly. We can forget about Frank, a dull everyman, and instead focus on the wonderfully over-the-top performance of Oliver Reed, who plays Dr. Ragland as the classic psychiatrist with a god complex, and Samantha Eggers as Nola.
For a modern viewer, the idea that a gaggle of blond kids in parkas could kill anyone might seem a bit farfetched, and sometimes the death scenes involving the brood are less than frightening. Although this certainly isn’t Cronenberg’s best, it’s well worth watching if you’ve found his style and themes compelling in more recent films.