3.5 out of 5 stars

Two men sit on stage: the troubled, disturbed Mike (Gary McKeehan) and Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). They’re engaged in roleplay as an audience watches. Raglan is acting as Mike’s abusive father, hoping to help Mike overcome the debilitating traumas he experienced as a child. Psychoplasmics, an innovative new form of therapy, offers Mike a chance to confront his past. “Show me your anger!” Dr Raglan commands. Mike obeys, removing his shirt to reveal a body marked by sores, lesions, and infected skin.

It’s a classic David Cronenberg opening. The Brood remains a chilling exploration of divorce, trauma, parenthood, mental illness, and repressed desires, 45 years after its initial release. Our story follows an audience member at the demonstration, a man named Frank Carveth (Art Hindle). His wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is a patient of Dr Raglan’s and he doesn’t trust him or his methods for a second. As we’ll soon find out, he has good reason not to…

Anyone who relishes his later works will find Cronenberg’s The Brood to be a skin-crawling horror-sci-fi combo that’s a must-watch. It boasts an inventive premise that’s viscerally explored, with themes being excavated in the most original ways. In short, it’s pure Cronenberg. While it might not necessarily be his masterpiece—after all, the director has set a high bar over the decades—even his lesser efforts prove to be worthy entries in the ever-expanding catalogue of must-see movies that every cinephile carries.

The plot in The Brood has been described by the director himself as “the most classic horror film” he’s ever made, which is quite a statement; there’s not much that’s typical about the film. Of course, the filmmaker was referring to structure and how the narrative follows the usual beats of a horror movie. However, Cronenberg brings his own distorted vision to any story, meaning the plot can seem bizarre, random, and confusing at times.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this is only the case the first time around. On rewatching this film, you can see how all the answers are laid out right in front of us, how everything’s connected—but you’d have to have Cronenberg’s mind to see all those unifying strands on the first viewing. The sheer unpredictability of his narrative is deeply refreshing, particularly for any horror movie fan who’s become tired of mundane, trite plots. The Brood is essentially a slasher film with an interest in psychoanalysis, with the action being catalysed by the personifications of Nola’s repressed rage.

With this in mind, it’s worth noting how much Freud’s theory of the uncanny relates to Cronenberg’s The Brood, as well as its connection to the Canadian filmmaker’s oeuvre overall. While I won’t delve into a thorough examination of the topic, the Austrian psychoanalyst believed the uncanny “undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror.” However, more specifically, uncanny acts as a direct translation from the German word unheimlich, meaning ‘far from home’. In this respect, the uncanny in horror is the unsettlingly unfamiliar.

Is there a better way to describe Cronenberg’s style? A style that is both immediately comprehensible and distinctly alien? His films often feel as though the plot is merely written around psychological ailments and the deep-seated fears buried in his characters’ subconscious. As a result, their perception of reality is very often skewed in contorted ways, leading their understanding of their world to be deformed; not quite fantastical, but certainly not normal. In other words: uncanny.

Barbara Creed drew upon some of Freud’s theories in her writings on the uncanny in horror films. She even wrote about The Brood, specifically to elaborate on her groundbreaking theory of the monstrous feminine. This theoretical framework examines how, when women are positioned as the terrifying villains in horror films, it’s often achieved by depicting their maternal instincts and reproductive bodily capacity in a disturbing, grotesque light. The loving archetype of the mother is flipped on its head and shown in the most hideously malevolent forms. “Mummies don’t hurt their own children,” Nola assures. Then her face darkens. “Well… sometimes they do…”

Cronenberg has said he wrote the film while going through the throes of a bitter divorce, which may offer some insight into his scathing depiction of a mentally deranged and dangerous mother. In fact, so vicious were his divorce proceedings, that when he heard of Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) depicting a separation in a positive light, he quipped: “The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic.”

Perhaps this is how Cronenberg truly sees reality. Indeed, he crafts disturbing worlds so vividly that one begins to wonder if such genetic aberrations are possible. Cronenberg is capable of creating atmospheres so palpable that they seep through the screen with their stark originality. These atmospheres are mysterious and remote, yet feel deeply personal and close-up. As a result, his films are constantly disquieting, even when there is nothing horrifying on screen.

Of course, the body horror for which he would become known punctuates these moments. Wisely, our director doesn’t make it the narrative’s focus, instead using it as the pivotal reveal in a climactic sequence. While Creed’s conceptualization of the monstrous feminine is certainly apt, one can also see how Cronenberg’s body horror allegorises other themes, such as repressed trauma and the sublimation of rage.

The Canadian auteur has often utilised the body to represent something larger. He uses the human form as a canvas on which to paint his fears, anxieties, and fascinating themes. In this film, the body horror becomes emblematic of the many forms abuse can take when it’s buried for too long, and of how corrosive it is when it finally surfaces. In The Brood, the grotesque ailments the characters suffer are merely psychosomatic responses of deeply disturbed psyches. In this respect, Cronenberg even makes the otherworldly feel possible, however repulsive it may be.

The deformed, mutated killers that serve as the story’s main villains are merely the manifestation of Nola’s fury. Her anger has transmogrified into living, breathing, violent creatures. They are the children of her rage, motivated purely by her conscious or subconscious mind. Intriguingly, the film’s primary monsters are not the small, hammer-wielding devils, but rather their origin: the form the trauma takes, while frightening, is far less horrifying than its source.

Cronenberg creates a deviously clever spin on the therapeutic model. Nola exorcises her inner demons by creating literal demons, externalising them and giving birth to them into the world. Perhaps the little murderers don’t frighten quite as well anymore—the absurd headline in a newspaper reading ‘Police Seek Dwarf Killers’ garners more of a chuckle than a gasp—but they still cause shocking moments.

Cronenberg’s earlier work was occasionally hampered by weak, uninspired performances—as was the case in Shivers (1975)—but the performances here are superb. Samantha Eggar is very much the star of the show. Her intense therapy sessions will disconcert you if her manic eyes don’t. Her portrayal of gnawing, internal anguish is surprisingly moving at times; for a horror film, her rendition of trauma being painfully unearthed is often quite upsetting.

Oliver Reed is compelling but delivers every line as though he were a classically trained thespian. Art Hindle is also convincing, although his character is underdeveloped overall, making some scenes slightly less dramatic than they should be. Ultimately, it’s clear that Cronenberg’s film is less concerned with the characters than it is with exploring themes close to him—namely, parenthood and the intrinsic role it plays in the creation of trauma: how can one avoid damaging a child when they are damaged themselves?

Nola’s giving birth to psychotic, murderous offspring is precisely a dramatisation of this concept: that a psychologically disturbed person, a broken mother, or a traumatised individual can only bring evil into the world, no matter how hard they try. Frank’s fears that he is ruining his child, Candice (Cindy Hinds), may well mirror Cronenberg’s fears at the time as he battled for custody of his child with his ex-wife.

The result of Cronenberg’s existential fears is a wonderfully disturbing, immensely visceral film. It may not boast stellar character development, but the examination of parental angst is compelling, and the horror story serves as a striking allegory. Despite the mountains of praise one can heap upon the director, I still wouldn’t recommend showing Cronenberg’s early work to the squeamish. I showed Shivers to my girlfriend, who subsequently refused to watch any more of his films. Then again, the same could be said for most of Canada when they saw it.

Cronenberg possesses a cinematic power that is undeniable. It’s important to note that his filmmaking techniques aren’t mere shock tactics, but rather a deeply insightful way of disturbing his audience. There’s something about his films that makes you recoil, look away, or simply gape in disgust. Yet, achieving this effect is no easy feat—if it were, every filmmaker would be able to do it. Instead, few can match Cronenberg’s innovative ability to unnerve viewers, with The Brood serving as a prime early example of his cinematic talent and warped imagination.

CANADA | 1979 | 92 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

writer & director: David Cronenberg.
starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle, Henry Beckman, Nuala Fitzgerald, Susan Hogan, Cindy Hinds & Gary McKeehan.