I started including a David Cronenberg-directed film into my Halloween watching last year and overall it’s been less than a good decision. I chalk it up to the films I’m picking because Cronenberg in the late 70s-early 80s isn’t working for me. I mean I love David Cronenberg and place The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Eastern Promises into my top 100, I just can’t seem to connect to his early work. Last year’s Cronenberg offering was Scanners, a film that I faulted for its bad acting (Michael Ironside excepted as always) and poor pacing. The film he made before that, The Brood, is on par with Scanners. It’s apparent that Cronenberg is dealing with similar themes he delved into in Scanners and the aforementioned The Fly and Dead Ringers, that of the power of science and how it ultimately can cause the worst in us to come out. Here he rails against divorce, psychotherapy, and I’d say women in general (Cronenberg was inspired to write The Brood after going through a divorce and custody battle). The scares are present but the poor pacing makes the wait interminably long leaving long stretches of talking. The preponderance of psychotherapy probably won’t connect with audiences who didn’t live through the 70s or don’t know about the wave of alternative psychotherapies that sprung up in the 70s such as SOMA.
Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) discovers that his five-year-old daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds) has signs of physical abuse. He blames her mother Nola (Samantha Eggar) who is a patient at a bizarre psychological clinic run by the mysterious Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). When a series of bizarre murders centers around Nola’s family Frank feels his daughter is in danger and decides to investigate Dr. Raglan and his patients.
David Cronenberg’s film generally abhor science and the medical community and The Brood is no different. In the 1970s there was a rise in alternative therapy and medicine, I can think of the aforementioned SOMA treatment as well as rebirthing being big in the 1970s. All of these therapies sought to take the patient through their experiences and manifest them physically. The Brood discusses the idea of psychoplasmics where a person, in discussing their feelings with Dr. Raglan, can experience the psychosomatic illnesses that afflict them on the inside. The opening scene sets this up well with a patient detailing his feelings to the doctor while mysterious pustules spread on his body. Of course there was fervent disagreement in the 70s as to the validity of these therapies and an undercurrent of The Brood is Frank trying to prove that Dr. Raglan is a con-man. I don’t know why Cronenberg hates doctors/scientists so much but he does!
As with Cronenberg’s next film, Scanners, this film is just too slow to keep audience’s interests. The first twenty minutes do well to set-up the characters of Dr. Raglan, Frank and Candice and the first death scene of Nola’s mother is nothing short of brutal. I will say that regardless of the plot, Cronenberg never let’s me down in the gore department. If your queasy or don’t like gross movies that you’ll do well to avoid The Brood. The small children that are the killers love blunt instruments so suffice to say there’s a lot of head trauma throughout. Cronenberg also loves creating medical maladies so we get a bizarre goiter on a patient and the final “birthing” scene with Nola ripping open an amniotic sac and licking the fetus is nothing short of disgusting (for me though that’s what I’ve come to expect from the director). Sadly I wish the plot was interesting or that the murder mystery kept things moving. The murders seem to be hastily shoved in between scenes so there will be a two-minute death scene and then 25 minutes of talking and story. The actors talents aren’t up to snuff to keep you engaged (except for Reed) and the confusion as the plot unfolds can easily knock you out of watching the film.
In this film compared to Cronenberg’s others there’s an obvious air of hostility towards women that leads to a heavy-handed message about the sins of the parents manifesting onto the offspring. I understand Cronenberg going through a messy divorce but we never learn enough about Nola short of she’s crazy! It’s obvious she’s suffered physical and mental abuse from her drunken parents and there is a tender scene of her re-enacting a moment with her daughter, but we only see Nola a few minutes at a time throughout the entire movie. She pops in throughout to say a few words then disappears. I couldn’t feel anything, good or bad, because I didn’t know her. From all we see she has two modes: crazy and selfish. At one point she calls her house and discovers that Candice’s teacher Ruth (Susan Hogan) is there. Nola starts screaming at Ruth over the phone about how Ruth is ruining her family! I didn’t understand that, is she simply crazy and believes that any woman Frank sees is a potential homewrecker? Or did Frank and Ruth have a relationship in the past? It’s never explained so again, you just think Nola has booked passage on the Crazy Express.
By the end she’s just the crazy chick willing to kill her daughter to prevent her from living with Frank.. The 1970s saw the rise of feminism and several films throughout the decade took stances on women, either positive or negative. I’d lump The Brood into the negative as it shows the pratfalls of females in power and specifically the manipulation and damage they can do from raising children. The “brood” themselves of deformed children are birthed out of Nola’s rage-fueled thoughts in a possible allusion to feminism rising from the rage of women? Either way you don’t have any solid foundation leaving you to cling to Frank who is fairly bland. I will say Samantha Eggar does crazy well. I wish I could commend her performance more but she doesn’t do anything but be crazy.
Art Hindle as Frank isn’t much better. He’s the star of the film and yet he adds no flavor to the story. Hindle’s main flaw is his inability to react to things. He elicits no emotion in his facial expressions and wavers between concern and total indifference. Candice disappears and he’s a father gung-ho on saving her. Contrast this to an earlier scene where he’s told by a police psychologist he needs to stay and listen to the results of the psychologists thoughts on Candice (who has just witnessed her grandmother’s murder) and he couldn’t be bothered. It’s a script problem in part but Hindle just isn’t a leading man, similar to the star of Scanners who was also incredibly boring.
Oliver Reed is the only one who inhabits his role completely and does well. It’s obvious that Raglan is a master manipulator and it’s a testament to Reed’s acting that he can morph from being a doctor to being someone’s mother during therapy. I enjoyed Reed taking on different parts but at certain moments when he’s talking to Nola I didn’t know if he was talking to her as a doctor, removed from therapy, or acting out the part of someone she knew. Thankfully, this only happened once.
Next to Frank you have little Candice as the only one to root for in this film. Cindy Hinds doesn’t talk a lot which is probably good because the opening scene where she’s supposed to register some type of emotion is fairly painful to watch because of how poor she is. The rest of Hinds’ acting is watching her facial expressions (yes Art Hindle is upstaged by a five-year-old in that department) as she reacts to the horrors around her. If she wasn’t messed up before her parents got divorced, I’m pretty sure seeing your grandmother’s battered corpse and some crazy dwarf child will do the trick! The climax has her being taken by the brood and I was again confused on time passing. It appears to be a day or so since Candice was taken and yet her picture’s in the paper. Did weeks pass or is the newspaper just a lot quicker to report that considering one had to be missing 24 hours still. The final image is of little Candice manifesting the same physical abnormalities of her mother and this really irked me. Again, the audience is meant to see that the physical scars and psychological trauma of divorce affects children (as a child of divorce I know this to be true) but the message is so one-sided! Cronenberg isn’t saying this about children of divorce but children of poor mothers (keep in mind Nola is messed up by her abusive mother).
Let’s round out this review by discussing the eponymous brood. Their tiny dwarf-children that look and dress like Candice and commit murder. Their creepy to be sure with their rapid movements and cat-like appearance and the fact they look like kids on first glance. The murder of Nola’s mother is terrifying as you believe that a grown-up intruder is kicking in the window and terrorizing the place. When the creature jumps down onto Nola’s mom its shocking considering your initial thoughts. Of course the 1970s did the little person murderer to death (pun intended) in the 1970s. I always refer to Don’t Look Now as the start of it. It works here because their not human at all but you can’t help but think of that previous film if you’ve seen it. My favorite line has to be after the detective discovers one of the creatures and chalks it up to a woman who hid a deformed child, “Wouldn’t be the first time.” Really detective, I didn’t know about the rampant serial killings done by deformed children? And I haven’t heard about the string of crazy women hiding their deformed babies all over the house.
The film laconically passes from one surreal scene to another making you wait for the murder sequences to breathe life into the film. When there’s something to be scared of The Brood shows glimpses of the horror that would make Cronenberg into the go-to horror director. He’s great with the blood and gore effects but The Brood continues his inability to find dynamic and charismatic leading actors. The hostility towards women and the heavy-handed message don’t help. It’s far better than Scanners in my opinion but far from anything he’d make in the 80s and 90s.
Type of Horror: Gory, Psychological
Fright Meter: 5.5
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.