The Brood: Separation Trials

On Film / Essays — Oct 13, 2015
The Brood

If you are reading this, then odds are that you are a movie geek, and that there has been a time when you rewatched a beloved film and found it so different as to be a stranger. The film, of course, remains the same. It’s you and/or the times that have changed, and that makes the movie seem altered.

This occurred to me when I revisited David Cronenberg’s The Brood for the first time since 1979. Back when I initially saw it in my single­ton, childless twenties, I was certain that it was a black-comic satire of the role experimental psychotherapy played in a take-no-­prisoners custody war. Roger Ebert dismissed it as an “el sleazo exploitation film,” but I took it as a sign that the filmmaker was something more sophisticated than a horrormeister. I remember the squirm-to-laughter ratio as roughly one to one. Revisiting it now, as a wife and mother, I saw an emotionally realistic horror movie about the collateral damage of divorce. And I found it infinitely more squirm-­inducing than laugh-provoking.

That said, there are moments of exquisite comic relief. Let Frank (Art Hindle), estranged husband of Nola (Samantha Eggar), explain it to you. Speaking about himself in the second person, Frank observes, “You got involved with a woman who fell in love with you for your sanity and hoped it would rub off.” The implication is that Frank, an architect whose single expression is a deeply furrowed brow and gaping guppy mouth, signed on for the wild and crazy and it got too crazy.

Preceded by Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), The Brood is the third film in the bioterror trilogy that established writer-director Cronenberg as a singular talent. Each of these movies features a male scientist who tests his new therapy on a female, resulting in unintended, and horrific, consequences. In Shivers, a parasite meant to enhance sexual encounters (and cure diseased organs) spreads nymphomania via the plumbing in a high-rise building. In Rabid, the human cells cultured by plastic surgeons for skin grafts cosmetically heal the victim of a motorcycle crash but leave her with an unanticipated, not to mention predatory, organ.

In The Brood, the “psychoplasmic” therapy of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) likewise demonstrates that the cure can be more dangerous than the malady. In one-on-one onstage confrontations with his patients, the doctor of psychology plays the role of an abusive parent. He shames his charges, whose rage then surfaces, taking the form of boils presumably lanced by the talking cure.

In theory, these sessions permit Raglan’s patients to manifest their anger so it does not eat them up inside. But as Yogi Berra liked to say (and as Cronenberg loves nothing better than to show), “In ­theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

In practice, some of Raglan’s patients develop cancer. In practice, Nola Carveth’s boils don’t get lanced. They gestate on her torso until—via parthenogenesis—she literally gives birth to anger, delivering a brood of babies that express her conscious rage and carry out her unconscious desires by killing those at whom she is angry.

Nola’s unorthodox therapy is an issue in the deteriorating relations and custody negotiations between Frank and her. Their daughter, Candy (Cindy Hinds), an affectless towhead age five, has mysterious scratches and bruises on her back. Frank suspects that these are the result of physical attacks on the child by Nola during her weekends with Mom at Raglan’s Somafree Institute near Toronto. In order to win sole custody, Frank takes Polaroids of the injuries and consults his attorney about using them as evidence of Nola’s child abuse.

When Frank grumbles that Raglan is an emotional opportunist preying on Nola (which he is, both psychologically and sexually), the lawyer sighs, reminding his client, “The law believes in mother­hood.” But will the law side with a mother whose three-foot-high rage babies attack the objects of her anger with mallets, knives, and varied other instruments, blunt and sharp?

The Brood was released the same year as another film about a custody dispute, Kramer vs. Kramer, which subsequently took the Oscar for best picture. In 1979, Cronenberg, himself recovering from a difficult divorce and custody contest, noted of his most personal film, “The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic.” Originally, I thought he was joking.

I thought that because, as with his earlier movies, I had watched The Brood through the Oppenheimer frame. As in J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist behind the A-bomb, who was enthralled by the process and success of his creation until he recognized that its destructive capabilities made any benefits irrelevant. Threaded through the narratives of Cronenberg movies are such cautionary tales of scientists—not unlike those behind Agent Orange (originally intended to accelerate soybean production), the chain reaction, and Thalidomide—similarly horrified by what they have wrought.

Ever since Cronenberg began making movies, his critics have accused him of first-degree (i.e., premeditated) misogyny. In the judgment of film historian Robin Wood, his most outspoken critic, Cronenberg consistently exhibited his dread of women by creating monstrous, voracious, and repellent female characters.

For me, Cronenberg’s gynophobia is a nonissue. It’s blaming the victim. After all, aren’t we talking about movies where male scientists use women as guinea pigs and then are shocked, shocked when the test subjects become monstrous, voracious, etc.? Let me invoke the Jessica Rabbit defense: The women are not bad, they’re just drawn that way. It’s the male scientists who have inadvertently transformed them into men’s worst nightmares.

Though I was thinking of such things as The Brood began, revisit­ing the film was truly as if seeing it for the first time. Composer Howard Shore’s agitated strings, highly strung, as it were, triggered a Pavlovian response of anxiety in me. There was another kind of foreboding this time, probably linked to the mommy gene.

How was it that I had not previously noticed that The Brood is about two failed marriages? There’s the one between Nola and Frank, of course, but also the one between Nola’s hard-drinking parents, Barton (Henry Beckman) and Juliana (Nuala Fitzgerald). Given that this is a Cronenberg film, the implication is that divorce is somehow communicable or heritable. More explicit is the suggestion that, just as Nola was physically and emotionally scarred by her parents, Candy will be indelibly damaged by Nola and Frank. This is a movie about how parents, and divorce, deform multiple generations. And perhaps, too, a parable about how the more men try to control women, the more it has the opposite outcome.

Cronenberg opens with an intimate psychodrama between Raglan and a patient named Michael. In order to provoke him into manifesting rage, Raglan plays the disapproving dad. “Guess you’re just a weak person,” goads the doctor. “Better you were born a girl and called Michelle . . . Weakness is more acceptable in a girl.” From here, the movie proceeds to question Raglan’s assumptions about the masculine equaling strength and the feminine weakness. Compared to Raglan, he of the mellifluous baritone and sexual swagger that ooze confidence and power, the other male characters in the film (particularly the one-note Frank) are ineffectual. How much of this is a product of Reed’s insolent superiority as an actor and how much that of his character as written is debatable. Just as Frank and Nola wrangle over custody of Candy, so both Frank and his father-in-law, Barton (the latter, it is implied, abused his daughter as a child), challenge Raglan’s “custody” of Nola. The tonal differences between the males, clad in greige clothing, and the females, signified by red, are striking. Frank and Barton are recessive, dun-colored men in a world where red represents vitality, vibrancy, and dominance.

In this film color-coded for gender, red is for girls. Nola has bright red hair. Her daughter, Candy, wears a scarlet snowsuit. This creates a near-unbearable tension, given the fact that Nola’s rage babies are also often seen in brightly colored outerwear and, for much of the film, the first-time viewer suspects that Candy is one of the “killer dwarfs,” as Toronto tabloids dub the murderers. Nola is a woman with obvious strength—of which she is not fully aware. Because Raglan isolates her from everyone but Candy, she has no idea that her anger is so potent that her thoughts can kill.

One of Cronenberg’s compelling ideas, which he would expand on in Scanners (1981), is the assumption that there is no mind-body split. Nola’s emotions trigger physical manifestations. Her mind and body are not separate and independent of each other but work in concert, endowing her with powers unimagined by either her doctor or her estranged husband.

Watching the film again, I was struck by how its divorce imagery is more deeply disturbing even than the penultimate reveal of Nola showing Frank the fetuses growing on her abdomen. Anyone who knows a kid of divorce recognizes the catatonic expression on the face of Candy, the child torn in two by the parental tug-of-war.

For me, the film’s most terrifying sequence is the one in which two killer dwarfs escort Candy down a lonely wintry road outside Toronto; the kid of divorce is inevitably always between two places. The image of this child flanked by creatures that represent not only her mother’s rage but also the two unstable forces that are her parents foreshadows the movie’s finale, where Frank and Nola’s fight to the death over Candy takes precedence over Candy herself.

For Candy, divorce means there is no safe place. When Frank parks her with Nola’s mother, she witnesses her grandmother’s murder. When she goes to kindergarten, where her beloved teacher is the one reliable person in her life, she witnesses said teacher being beaten to death. She sees the brood of killer dwarfs kill Raglan. Does she overhear her parents in the preliminaries of their death match?

What kind of mother says to her ex that she’d rather kill her daughter than let him have custody? What kind of father strangles the mother of his child? Many parents of divorce think such things, they just don’t act on them.

Cronenberg closes the film with one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever experienced at the movies. Frank carries Candy through the icy woods, puts her in the front seat of his car, and reassures her, “We’re going home.” It is dark. He does not appear to make eye contact with the girl. Is it because he can’t tell her he has killed her mother? Because he’s afraid to see Nola’s eyes in his daughter’s face? But the audience sees the tears streaming down Candy’s left cheek and sees the tiny boils surfacing on her right hand. And knows that Frank will recoil when he realizes he’s killed Nola but not her DNA.

Like the man said: Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic.