in Shocktober

The Brood (1979)

David Cronenberg is a director whom I’m not sure if I’ve decided whether I like or not. For one, that’s because other than today’s entry, the only film’s of his I’ve seen are Videodrome and The Fly, both of which were a while ago. But also, I think this is kind of the way Mr. Cronenberg would like to keep his audiences. He seems to always be keeping you at a distance, due to the often grotesque nature of his films, but also the way they can veer from somber human drama to gory freak-out, often within the same scene.

The Brood centers on a charismatic psychotherapist named Hal Raglan (played by Oliver Reed), who runs an institute that lets its patience confront physical trauma by undergoing physical transformations, which he dubs “psychoplasmics”. One of his patients is Nola (Samantha Eggar), who’s also going through a custody battle with her husband Frank (Art Hingle) over their five-year-old daughter, who oddly enough, like in the last film I watched is often seen wearing a distinct red jacket. Meanwhile, little dwarf-type creatures try to attack members of Frank’s family while he becomes ever curious of Raglan’s intents.

To be honest, I’m not 100% sure if I just explained the plot this movie correctly. Not because it’s necessarily that confusing of a narrative, but maybe because it doesn’t quite feel like all the elements in the movie add up. It definitely sets up some interesting themes, since the idea of suburban whitebread adults in the 70s trying to sort out their shit reminded me a bit of The Ice Storm, but more Canadian. And Canadian actor Art Hingle’s regular guy-ness as the film’s protagonist maybe explains why he never did much after this, but it works well here.

What doesn’t work so much is the dwarf stuff. I get it that they’re supposed to be stand-ins for Candice, Frank’s young daughter, like some sort of more hideous version of what she could be without proper parenting. But they’re just not that scary. And the scenes where they’re seen attacking people, are kinda staged in a goofy way, considering the rest of the film has this more buttoned-down family drama feel to it. Not that I don’t think there was a possible way of melding these two aesthetics, it’s just Cronenberg hadn’t quite figured out how to do it yet.

That said, the film’s finale undoubtedly has that signature Cronenberg feel, with a positively disgusting (and kind of mesmerizing) display of body horror. We finally get to see what Nola has been doing to her body under the guide of Dr. Haglan’s psychoplasmics technique, as she reveals herself to be birthing these dwarve people outside of her womb, and we get to see her give bloody birth to him. The film doesn’t really go too far out of its way to explain how this works, but it’s an image that sticks with you, whether you like it or not.

Also, I should say Oliver Reed is really good in this. The only other films I can ever recall seeing him in is Gladiator and Ken Russell’s batshit adaptation of The Who’s Tommy. And I almost wish he was in more of the film, as the first scene of the movie is maybe its best – in which we get to see him confront one of his patients in front of an audience. But from there he’s only used sparsely, though every time he’s on screen you can totally believe he’d be the leader of this cult-like form of therapy. Though maybe it’s appropriate, since the film has plenty of interesting things going for it, its just that they just never quite add up to a perfect specimen.