Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
Carveth vs. Carveth
A region 1 DVD review of THE BROOD by Slarek
 
'The mother is ultimately destroyed in the process. "I can't tell you how
satisfying that scene is," said Cronenberg. "I wanted to strangle my ex-wife."'
David Cronenberg in Cinefantastique, Vol. 10 No. 4

 

David Cronenberg is now established as one of the most individualistic, imaginative and accomplished directors in modern cinema, but in his early days as a quirky genre director he was not so widely celebrated. There were plenty of us championing him as a potential Horror God after Shivers and Rabid, but there were even more who were outraged by his low-budget body horror works, many of them angrily dismissive of his talent. On the release of his third genre feature, The Brood, the then voice of the TV film criticism, Barry Norman, admitted that this Cronenberg fellow appeared to have a cult following, but that as far as he was concerned it must be a cult of demented sickos. Or words to that effect – it was a long time ago and I don't have a transcript of the programme. But I remember that put-down nonetheless, especially as I was a fully paid-up member of that very same cult. For me, The Brood was not just another fine work from an increasingly impressive new genre director, but marked something of a watershed in his filmography – after two films featuring serviceable lead players, Cronenberg had two experienced and supremely talented performers at his disposal, both of whom on impressive form. And there was something else going on, something beneath the surface beyond the director's usual concerns of disease and bodily corruption. It was to be a while before I realised that there was a deeply autobiographical element running through the film. But more of that later.

Nothing about The Brood can be considered straightforward, and that includes the plot. Get your head around this. At the institute of Psychoplasmics, Dr. Hal Raglan encourages his patients to externalise their psychoses, which appear on their skin in the form of welts and small growths. His star patient is Nola Carveth, whom he keeps in isolation, separated from her husband Frank but allowed regular visits from her young daughter Candy. After one of the visits, Frank notices that Candy's back is covered in bruises. Suspecting that Nola may be beating her daughter, he heads off to the clinic to confront Raglan about it, leaving Candy in the care of Frank's mother-in-law, who is attacked and killed by a vicious, midget-like creature in an brightly coloured anorak. As the attacks continue, specifically targeting those close to Frank, he becomes increasingly convinced of a link between the creatures and Raglan's institute.

One of the real advantages of horror and fantasy is that you are free to bend reality to suit your narrative. Thus if psychoplasmics does not exist, then Cronenberg is free to invent it, and once he has sold you the concept (which he does in the opening scene) he is free to run with it. And run with it he does, building to a climactic confrontation that is as outrageous as it is thematically logical, and is delivered with considerable and visceral aplomb.

Cronenberg never had trouble selling concepts that others would shy away from – the sexually invasive creatures of Shivers, the under-armpit parasites of Rabid – and has never let budget restrictions get in the way. The concept here is strong but the make-up effects don't always fully convince, so it's left to Cronenberg the scriptwriter and director and two powerhouse performances to sell it as real. This was far and away Cronenberg's most thoughtful script so far, underscored with a strong subtext about the breakup of the family and the fight for trust and custody that is handled in a manner that, as John Brosnan observed in Starburst on the film's initial release, has more depth and bite than that year's big Oscar winner on a similar theme, Kramer vs. Kramer. But of course, The Brood was a genre movie, and in 1980 what serious critic would admit to even liking a low budget horror film, let alone recognising the sort of subtextual complexity on display here?

If Art Hindle proves to be a (then) typical Cronenberg lead – serviceable without making a particular impact – then the casting of the two other key roles is genuinely inspired. Oliver Reed brings an intensity and gravitas to Dr. Raglan that completely convinces in his sincerity purpose, delivering lines in a hoarse and concerned whisper, then cranking up the intensity in the blink of an eye to provoke or confront. As Nola, Samantha Eggar is superb throughout, her wide-eyed confrontations with Raglan and Frank displaying a barely controlled, fire-spitting anger that occasionally erupts, notably during the electrifying scenes of psychoanalysis between her and Raglan. These were, without question, some of the finest dramatic sequences in any Cronenberg film to that date, and even today they still really deliver. Adding a lovely finishing touch in a memorable small role is Cronenberg irregular Robert Silverman, whose completely out-there performance as an ex-psychoplasmics patient with a particularly nasty throat problem almost steals the film (equally attention-grabbing were Silverman's turns as the isolationist, telekinetic artist in Scanners and the shopkeeper stuck in a game loop in eXistenZ).

If the make-up effects are a bit short of the mark – Cronenberg has subsequently expressed disappointment with the creatures themselves – then the direction ensures that we are left in no doubt about the threat these child-like monsters pose. The second attack in particular, in which a character is viciously beaten around the face with glass paperweights, is a most effectively nasty slice of suggested violence, and the simple act of hurling one of them clean through a plasterboard wall leaves us in absolutely no doubt about the creature's strength. The cumulative effect of these early assaults makes for a genuinely frightening climax – if one creature can beat a man to death in less than a minute, what could twenty do if angered? It's been a long time, but when I first saw this scene back in 1980, the final ten minutes had me really chewing my fingernails.

Which brings us to the film's key underlying theme, in which issues surrounding the break-up of the family unit and battles over custody are tackled with startling directness. Horror is a famously effective genre for exploring social issues on a subtextual level, but there is a particular passion to Cronenberg's approach here and he has never tried to hide why. Cronenberg went in to The Brood on the back of a messy divorce and a long legal battle for the custody of his young daughter, and the film clearly reflects his experience and the emotional impact it had on him. Frank here is very much the innocent party, while his wife is portrayed as a dangerous and manipulative woman who would rather see her child dead than let Frank take her away. On any level this is powerful and deeply disturbing stuff, and gives the film the sort of bite you would normally expect from hard-edged political or social dramas.

David Cronenberg is a true auteur, an artist with an instantly recognisable style who refuses to compromise his vision and has created over the years a striking and distinctive body of work. The Brood may lack the sophistication of later films such as Dead Ringers, Crash or Spider, or the visceral wallop of the likes of The Fly or Videodrome, but it still delivers on atmospheric menace and tension, the boldness of its premise, and Cronenberg's fascination with body mutation and destruction. And as a powerful, troubling treatise on the suffering that can result from failed relationships, both to the participants and children caught in the middle, it stil packs a serious punch.

sound and vision

After years of seeing the film on poor quality VHS, this transfer from MGM is rather impressive. Framed at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the picture quality at worst is a tad soft, but at best is sharp and vibrant and way better than it has looked since its (UK) cinema screening back in 1980. On the whole I was most pleasantly surprised by this image quality here, though Cronenberg's use of shadow and low light sometimes means detail is lost in order to get those solid blacks. How about doing Shivers and Rabid now?

The sound is not so exciting, being very much the definition of mono, with every sound arriving front and centre. Although this doesn't affect the enjoyment of the film itself, Howard Shore's wonderfully mournful score would have benefited from a stereo remix. The level is also a bit low, though for most this will just mean cranking the amp up a bit to compensate.

extra features

One only here, unfortunately, a Theatrical Trailer (2:43), which is 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, but in a bit of a state, the exaggerated grain making it look almost as if it has been hauled off an old 8mm copy, cleaned up and slapped on the disk. On top of that, the sound is out of synchronisation with the picture. It's interesting to see how the film was promoted though, with scrolling text informing us that the film will "take you far beyond anything ever filmed before" and "devastate you totally," while a deep, dramatically serious voice warns that "never before have you come so close to the edge...of terror!"

summary

The Brood is a moody, deliberately paced and subtextually rewarding early work from a true horror auteur. Many of Cronenberg's signature elements are on display here, and the crew includes several of the people he would work regularly with over the next few films – producer Claude Héroux, production designer Carol Spier, cinematographer Mark Irwin, composer Howard Shore – and with whom he would collaborate to perfect a visual and thematic style (Shore and Spier are still part of Team Cronenberg today) that remains one of the most distinctive in modern cinema. For discerning horror fans and admirers of the director who know little of his early work, this is definitely worth hunting out, and for those who have been waiting to revisit the film but been disappointed by previous tape and DVD prints, then – lack of extras and a sound remix aside – this should certainly do the job for now.

The Brood

Canada 1979
92 mins
director
David Cronenberg
starring
Oliver Reed
Samantha Eggar
Art Hindle
Nuala Fitzgerald
Henry Beckman
Susan Hogan
Cindy Hinds

DVD details
region 1
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English
French
Spanish
extras
Trailer
distributor
MGM
review posted
27 January 2004

Related reviews
The Brood [Blu-ray]
David Cronenberg shorts
Stereo / Crimes of the Future
Rabid
Scanners [DVD]
Scanners [Blu-ray]
Naked Lunch
Spider
A History of Violence

See all of Slarek's reviews