As so often happens with genre movies, David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) got a negative reception on its first release, only to be hailed as a classic by later commentators. When it came out in the UK in March 1980, even Derek Malcolm was prudishly shocked: “Goodness knows how I got through the movie without being sick,” he wrote in his review.
Tom Hutchinson contributed another scathing review in the News of the World: “The Brood has nothing at all to say,” he asserted, “it is yet another exploitative essay in heaping on the nastiness. The filmmaker cannot live by dread alone. He needs a moral viewpoint as well.”
Hutchinson’s views were particularly wide of the mark, for, not only is The Brood now regarded as a great work of genre cinema – Cronenberg’s best according to some – but it has given academics the chance to write reams and reams of pages on topics from the film’s treatment of the monstrous female to psychoanalysis on film. In fact, any book on psychoanalysis and the cinema that fails to mention The Brood is probably not worth reading.
But is the film more properly considered horror or science fiction? In terms of its structure, Cronenberg himself has described it as “the most classic horror film I’ve done”. Yet the Aurum Encyclopedia, a pretty rigorous genre guide, resolutely categorises Cronenberg’s films of this period as sci-fi rather than horror.
The film’s trailer certainly sold the film in a style more typical of sci-fi, its portentous voiceover reminiscent of the openings of US TV series like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, which promised to transport the viewer to the far reaches of reality. It also made some rather extreme claims for the film, announcing: “Now comes a major motion picture event that will take you far beyond anything ever filmed before. You are about to journey beyond fear, beyond terror, beyond the boundaries of your mind, in a film so terrifying it will devastate you totally.”
While the film contains some horrific scenes, the horror certainly springs from a science fictional source. Like Cronenberg’s first two films, Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), the starting point is medical science gone wrong yet here moves from parasites and rabies to the power of the mind. The Brood is also a much darker film, without any of the more humorous moments of the first two, a fact the director attributes to the fact The Brood was “his most personal film”.
Cronenberg had just been through a very acrimonious divorce during which he had had to fight for custody of his daughter and he was disgusted by the schmaltzy Hollywood version of a marriage breakdown shown in the film Kramer vs. Kramer, released earlier in 1979. He declared The Brood his version of Kramer vs. Kramer – a family melodrama as only Cronenberg could make. He deliberately cast the couple – played by Art Hindle and Samantha Eggar – as vague physical facsimiles of himself and his wife and the climax of their scene together led him to regard it as his “most cathartically satisfying film”.
The Brood was made immediately after his third feature, a drag racing movie called Fast Company (1978), which was a diversion from his trajectory. He was supposed to be writing a script called The Sensitives – which eventually became Scanners (1980) – but, he claims, The Brood “insisted on being written”.
Luckily, film production in Canada was booming at this time and Cronenberg was in demand as one of the few Canadian directors at work with a proven track record. So producers were happy to accept any project he wanted to make. The Canadian government had put in place tax incentives that allowed investors to claim tax relief on sums larger than those actually invested, simply by issuing promissory notes. With the end of the Canadian financial year in sight, there was a flurry of investment in October, resulting in a large number of units filming in the bleak Canadian winter, a setting which suited a horror subject very well.
With a budget of $1.5m, Cronenberg was able to afford ‘names’ and cast Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar as his stars. The funding rules stipulated that films could only have two non-Canadian actors and one of them had to be paid less than the main Canadian actor.
For the role of Nola Carveth, Eggar was only on set for three days, which presumably kept her fee down. Although her scenes are brief and contained, her performance is key to the film’s success and she apparently felt in tune with the role, seeing beyond the horror to the psychological aspects of it.
Oliver Reed already had solid genre credentials, having appeared in The Curse of the Werewolf and The Damned (both 1961), but had since made the move into more ‘respectable’ productions. By the late 1970s however, as David Quinlan observed, he had become “rather too heavy for romantic roles”. The critic in Films and Filming was baffled as to why an actor of distinction should get involved in such a disreputable film, but Reed no doubt could see the appeal of the role of Dr Raglan; Cronenberg for his part was doubtless aware that he needed a skilled actor to make the character convincing.
The casting of ‘the Brood’ itself posed problems for Cronenberg as he could only find two Canadian actors of the right stature. He ended up using 10 seven-year-old girl gymnasts from a school in Ontario, who were apparently very disappointed that the film was rated R, preventing them from seeing it.
Beyond its wholly original take on psychoanalysis and the family, The Brood still fascinates on many levels. Right from the start, as the sub-Bernard Herrmann strings reverberate over the opening credits, Cronenberg creates a tangible sense of strangeness. The first scene raises questions as the audience tries to work out if the intense exchange taking place is a touching scene between father and son, a theatrical production or something weirder still. The soothing tones of Dr Raglan gradually become menacing as he demonstrates his revolutionary and horrifying psychoanalytic technique.
As the film develops, the sense that this is not Hollywood is very apparent. There’s an alien feel to Cronenberg’s Canada c. 1979; at least for this viewer, it seems like a time and place beyond the comfort zone where anything can happen. The veneer of ordinary domesticity hides something unfamiliar and deeply unsettling. No one and nothing is reliable or normal. Even the names of his characters are somehow troubling – the surname Carveth sounds like a medieval verb.
The décor, particularly of Nola’s mother’s house, is also disconcerting. The strident wallpaper with bamboo and yellow flowers makes a striking impression in the way that such things made on us as kids, when objects and patterns from childhood places become imprinted on our subconscious and take on a significance later in life. Cronenberg seems to be encouraging us to experience events and surroundings as a child does; the camera follows Candy, Frank and Nola’s daughter, as she walks round her grandma’s house, shooting from her head height so we see events through her eyes.
Cronenberg cast unusual actors in smaller roles, eliciting off-beat, quirky performances from them which add to oddness of the film’s effect. Jan Hartog (Robert A. Silverman), Dr Raglan’s ex-patient, delivers his lines in a bizarre sing-song voice while the police pathologist revels in the incredible postmortem results with chilling glee.
While Cronenberg claimed “My films were never parasitic. They had their own life,” The Brood does contain references to other films and filmmakers, whether conscious or unconscious. Most obviously, the image of a blonde child in a red coat evokes Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” (1973) and Alfred Sole’s 1976 film Communion. The director also acknowledged a tribute to one of his favourite science fiction films, Forbidden Planet (1956), in the naming of Candy’s school: Krell Street. The Krells are the alien race in the classic film and the thematic connection with The Brood is clear with the earlier film’s terrifying manifestation of the id.
If you’re tempted to catch up with the film on BFI Player, this quote from the trailer might help you prepare: “Never before have you come this close to the edge of terror. Never before have you faced anything so strange and sinister, so bizarre and unnerving. Never until now.”