“I would look you in the eye if I wanted to, Daddy. I just don’t want to look you in the eye,” says Mike (Gary McKeehan) in the opening moments of The Brood. He’s speaking in character—as an experimental, more expressive version of himself—to Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a radical psychiatrist who goads the patients at his woodsy Somafree Institute to work through their domestic damage until it literally surfaces on their bodies in some mutant form of emotional apoptosis. Mike’s tremulous defense triggers Raglan’s gender-normative taunting while assuming the role of the tormented man’s father: “Maybe it would’ve been better for you to have been called Michelle. Then you could’ve been Daddy’s little girl.”
As summary opening statements go, you could scarcely find one riper than this. At their best, David Cronenberg’s early-period body-horror films tease out the tension between abstract psychological traumas and their matter-of-fact physical manifestations. Initially, owing to Cronenberg’s willingness to push the flesh-and-vein envelope, it’s the latter that resonates most strongly. But eventually one realizes that, in these early films, Cronenberg just doesn’t want to look you in the eye.
In the case of the transitional The Brood, undoubtedly his best from this period and also the most troubling, it’s not incredibly difficult to see what Cronenberg was sublimating within metaphor, and why. The 1979 film was notably birthed amid the writer-director’s own ugly divorce and custody battle, and he justified his repellant creation immortally by comparing it to that year’s zeitgeist-tapping, future Oscar-winning blockbuster: “The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, only more realistic.” After seeing the film, you can practically taste the blood in his mouth reading that quote.
At the center of the film is the power struggle between Nola (a fearlessly feline Samantha Eggar) and Frank (Art Hindle), and the effects of their severance upon their shell-shocked little girl, Candy (Cindy Hinds). Nola herself comes from a broken home, and claims in private sessions with Raglan that she was abused by her father while her mother stood by and did nothing. Her only reason for marrying Frank, he surmises, was in vain hopes that some of his sanity would rub off on her.
At the same time, Frank finds bruises and scratches on her daughter’s back and is convinced that Nola is thrashing the poor girl during her weekend visitations at Somafree. (Critics who’ve been swift to accuse Cronenberg of misogyny ought to take a second look at Frank’s reaction. Though palpably concerned for his daughter’s well-being, he’s more focused on using Candy’s lesions as more ammo in his mission to take down Nola.) Remarkably, their acrimony reaches a fever pitch without the two ever sharing screen space together until the gloves-off climax. Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder.
Set in deepest Canadian winter, juxtaposing harsh brutalist exteriors against scarcely less inviting cinder-block and wood-panel interiors, The Brood gives off the impression—as most Cronenberg films do—of a neat, clinically surgical procedure, that despite the mealy horror set pieces, its auteur is in supreme command of his communiqué. Nothing could be further from the case, and the results are vital. As diminutive killer homunculi begin targeting everyone close to him, Frank, the director’s bland stand-in, launches a one-man investigation into Raglan’s methods, seeking out unsatisfied customers, all of them men, all of them scarred.
The implication that to confront one’s emotions—as Nola, and implicitly women en toto, very much can—is tantamount to playing with fire clashes spectacularly with the kind of white-rage mindset that could stage a scene as shockingly bonkers as the murder of a preschool teacher in full view of her weeping students. (Frank belatedly covering her mashed visage with a child’s drawing is the bloody cherry on top.) Even Cronenberg himself closes his twisted excoriation of marriage as a polluted procreative transaction despairingly unsure of how the cycle can ever be unbroken.
If there’s a viable couples counselor working to synthesize David Cronenberg’s fragmented argument, it’s composer Howard Shore, who turned in some of his toniest work here. His string-dominant score has shades of Lutosławski’s "Musique Funèbre," and almost seems to prefigure Stanley Kubrick’s reliance on Ligeti and Penderecki in 1980’s The Shining. Criterion’s uncompressed mono audio track sometimes seems a little hot, but the atmospherics are a good match for the heated domestic atmosphere, and in any case keep Shore’s exemplary work front and center throughout. The image is even finer, with sharp contrast and prominent film grain. Outdoor scenes look hopelessly desolate, and the indoor ones just depressing. The purples really pop in the autopsy sequence midway through. Overall, it’s a fine A/V showing for a not terribly high-gloss film.
Typically, a full second feature-length film would be a headlining bonus feature, but Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, from 1970, is only interesting conceptually as a dry run of many of the elements that would later become refined not just in The Brood, but also the two or three films on either side of it. (There’s even a nod to the externalized pseudo-childbirth.) Watch it once, file it away. Otherwise, the disc isn’t incredibly stacked, but features about as much as you’d want short of a commentary track by Cronenberg. The 30-minute documentary "Birth Pains" could have gone on longer; in fact, I’d almost have rather had a single unbroken featurette with Samantha Eggar going on about her experience, as her sense of humor is radiant. But it covers a lot of ground in that time, and touches base with the all-important makeup effects artists who helped make Cronenberg a name brand in the genre. Cronenberg himself gets the spotlight in a 15-minute chat from 2011 with Fangoria’s then editor in chief, Chris Alexander, though it’s a little more general than specific to the personal connection he had with The Brood (he talks more about his early aspirations to working in porn films). Alexander also interviews, in tandem, Cindy Hinds and a popcorn-munching Art Hindle. The late Oliver Reed is represented via a vintage and compulsively watchable 1980 interview on The Merv Griffin Show. Rounding out the set is a foldout poster with an essay on the reverse side by critic Carrie Rickey, who explores the way the film seems to change meaning entirely once you’ve gone through a major separation yourself.
The Brood marked the first major moment of transition between David Cronenberg’s exploitative body-horror movies and his probing psychological masterworks, and offers the best of both worlds.