No one can get under a person’s skin quite like family. Certainly, no one knows how to piss me off quite like my mother, even when she’s teasing me. Whenever anybody else, be they a friend or co-worker, makes a crack at my expense, I can come back with some witticism or self-effacing comeback to diffuse their dig. By all accounts, I can handle myself around someone who didn’t give birth to me. Something about my mom trying to get my goat–maybe because of how she does this, or maybe because her jabs are rooted in knowing too much about me–catches me off guard every single time. I suspect this is true for most people, and for similar reasons.
To anyone who has ever had a parent, or a spouse, or a child of their own, The Brood–David Cronenberg’s first in a string of cult and critical hits–will hit incredibly close to home. Never one to shy away from emotional or interpersonal parallels to tell a story–contrasting his more politically-minded contemporaries–The Brood is an affecting dissection of what love and pain we endure for those closest to us, and the what an unbreakable cycle that duality is.
The Brood is a bit slow-going at the onset, and deliberately so. Patiently layering moments of bloody wonder, Cronenberg builds from the inside out. The first images are that of two people in robes, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) and Mike Trellan (Gary McKeehan). They’re on a Brechtian stage, where Dr. Raglan is playing the role of Mike’s actual father, as Mike responds as himself. In no time, we cut to an entire audience watching as Mike undergoes a deeply personal and (literally) revealing method of therapy, known as “psychoplasmics.”
Though Mike is the kind of patient Dr. Raglan wants to show the world, he’s harboring a far more intensive case tucked away on facility’s estate. Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) is treated in near-isolation, and for good reason. After visiting with her daughter Candace (Cindy Hicks), Nola’s husband Frank (Art Hindle, turning in a muted feature with a lot less intentionality than the previous year’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) notices a series of scars and bruises down Candace’s back. Frank is sure that Nola is responsible. Nola denies that she touched Candace. Instead, she divulges her mother’s abuse during Nola’s upbringing, and her father’s enabling of her mother. Not long after, corpses begin mounting, as child-sized creatures begin fatally bludgeoning whomever Nola is grouchy at on a given day.
The body count is relatively low, but Cronenberg gets the most out of every death, each shocking enough to make up for less-than-imaginative, well, execution. Cherry corn syrup is used liberally, and each corpse is reduced to a crimson mound of mush. All of this leads to a gross-out ending that exemplifies why Cronenberg has long been crowned the king of body horror. And sure, this is delightfully macabre as is, but each death is more threatening than the next. Each becomes less and less justified, as Nola begins with those who deserve her wrath, to those who Nola deems as threatening. First her mother, and even her father, but then the teacher who seems to be muscling in on her marriage. Anger proves especially addictive for Nola, which falls on Frank to clean up.
Through the use of psychoplasmics, Dr. Raglan uses performance as a means of letting his patients complete their own stories. What Cronenberg understands–and what Nola, by extension, misunderstands–is that one’s own narrative, emotional catharsis is not necessarily what is best for everyone else. Then again, how is someone like Nola, who is filled with such righteous fury, that they don’t deserve their vengeance? What Cronenberg also understands is that families are stories that can always go backwards, and whose problems generate trauma and conflict for everyone going forward. The consequences that begat Nola only fall on others, if she’s only concerned with her own pain. Everyone’s parents mess up; but, at a certain point, that can’t be everyone’s problem.
As much as can be said about Nola, she’s barely in the film. Samantha Eggar takes on every scene with enough commitment and grace to carry a film. One can imagine Anthony Hopkins studying Eggar as a proto-Hannibal-Lecter, as she nimbly inhabits Nola, fleshing out a crazed villain into so much more. That the ostensible lead Art Hindle is so docile and dispassionate–which may be purposeful, but mutes the film’s pace quite noticeably–only fuels the hunger for more of Eggar, not to mention Oliver Reed’s also-subdued turn–whose reserved nature only suggests that Dr. Raglan is deep in thought, searching for the next point of action. Candace is also a noticeably unresponsive character, which at least aids the notion that she’s definitely Frank’s daughter.
The Brood is not totally mind-blowing–I mean, it’s no Scanners; am I right, people??–but straddles the line of cerebral and heartfelt in fair measures. To put soul into art isn’t terribly difficult; to craft cold analytics around human nature is even easier; to frame the former with the latter, channeling such raw feeling into a cracking good science fiction/horror story takes a clear vision, and a capable orator to see that vision through. While The Brood may not have every kink ironed out–again, if almost anyone was driving the film other than Art Hingle, not to mention a dead weight subplot with a former patient of Dr. Raglan–Cronenberg accomplishes what few horror filmmakers even attempt: We get a troubling film with a bruised heart, one that can’t help being felt.