David Cronenberg’s angry divorce movie follows Frank (Art Hindle) as he tries to save his ex-wife (Samantha Eggar, brilliant) and daughter (Cindy Hinds, creepy) from an unorthodox psychotherapist (Oliver Reed, mad).
If Shivers was ground zero for Cronenbergian body horror, The Brood reads like a mini manifesto, marrying the filmmaker’s twin preoccupations: a deep suspicion of institutions and the fraught relationship between mind and flesh (technology would complete the trifecta in 1983’s Videodrome). The missing link between Don’t Look Now and Xtro, this 1979 classic swaddles its shock horror in an intellectual cocoon, combining cancerous lesions with legions of snowsuited murder-babies.
Cronenberg rejects the religious themes that drove the 1970s scary-kid cycle for psychological explanations, looking inwards instead of upwards and finding just as much to fear within ourselves. The Brood breaks down the terror of motherhood, intergenerational cycles of rage and child abuse, and the ways trauma manifests itself, be that violently or physiologically. Its horror lurks in Cronenberg’s icy detachment, coolly observing like the deadpan tour guide at an abandoned psych ward.
While the film can easily be read as Cronenberg working out some anger towards his ex-wife (“The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic”), Eggar’s character is being controlled by Reed’s doctor, who singles her out for imprisonment. Here the “psychoplasmics” clinic mirrors the rise of experimental movements from that time, whether Scientology or Synanon, institutions that maybe once practised therapy but quickly became fronts for violence and abuse.
The director’s style is uncompromisingly discursive, rewarding the horror crowd’s patience with an indelible climax that more than justifies the talkier stretches. We know Reed is hiding something and the suspense is superbly mounted through the snowy Canadian ambience and Howard Shore’s swarming score. It results in that lovely combination of genuinely scary and gleefully odd, featuring snow globes as weapons and the newspaper headline: “Police seek dwarf killers.”
Though Cronenberg’s best was still to come, The Brood is literally irrepressible, a horrifying insight into what it looks like when the pain inside us finds a way out.