David Cronenberg’s The Brood is complex and grotesque. It is not a stretch to see it as a twisted companion piece to Kramer vs. Kramer, another 1979 film about divorce. Both outings feature a family turned asunder. Both feature bloody custody battles. But one, depending on perspective, is more realistic.
Cronenberg’s picture is a deeply personal project that stands as a congealing of his efforts to date, with the body horrors of Rabid and Shivers fusing to the roaring but indirect personal theatrics of Fast Company to produce a family drama that comes to an unforeseen head. A caveat: there are killer dwarves.
Frank (Art Hindle) is going through a messy custody battle with his wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) and their five-year-old daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds) is caught in the middle. Nola has been off receiving experimental psychotherapy at the hands of Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed).
Frank discovers bruises on Candy following a visitation and turns up the pressure, but Dr. Raglan also intensifies the treatment and discovers some repressed memories within his client’s consciousness. Frank remains put off by Dr. Raglan’s therapy. Meanwhile, bizarre children in snowsuits kill people.
The Brood builds tension and mystery well, with Cronenberg gradually releasing information. In a lot of ways, the movie’s relational wrangling is conventional – kind of like how Fast Company felt like a conventional racing flick. And in a lot of ways, Cronenberg’s orthodoxy is basic.
That’s not to say that The Brood confines itself to courtrooms and law offices. But it does contend with the archetypal elements of a divorce, like the possible entry of new love interests, the thriving beasts of jealousy and guilt, the interrogative eyes of the child in the middle, the gory malleted death of a mother-in-law (Susan Hogan), the winter coats.
Dr. Raglan’s therapy is the linchpin. He and his Somafree Institute remind of other Cronenbergian facilities, like Rabid’s Keloid Clinic, and there’s some captivating stuff going on behind those closed doors – stuff that threads the needle between science and psychology.
Dr. Raglan practices a technique he calls “psychoplasmics,” which has to do with the releasing of supressed emotions via physiological change. Nola is his star client, to so speak, but there are others. One unfortunate soul (Robert A. Silverman) gives himself lymphoma. Imagine what the divorce is doing to Nola.
The notion that one’s inner workings can manifest materially is evocative of Cronenberg’s general package of fascinations. Consider the role of suppression in Shivers, at least contextually. And consider the madness that ensues once the beast is loose.
The Brood reads like bloody terror because Cronenberg top-loads his repression obsession into a conventional divorce drama. It also exists because he was fighting for custody of his own daughter, an experience he cited as being instrumental to having to go “full blast” on making it.
And “full blast” it is, even for all its delicate construction. Cronenberg drills his audience with Howard Shore’s score. He toys with his audience with responsive disclosures. And he cudgels his audience with little dwarves in snowsuits. But he always reveals something about himself in the process. That is true horror.