David Cronenberg’s horror movies are filled with indelibly unpleasant images, but it’s hard to top the surreal variation on childbirth that occurs near the climax of The Brood. Without spoiling the sickening spectacle, suffice to say there’s a lot of licking involved. And, as in the best of Cronenberg’s fright flicks, the image is about so much more than simply provoking revulsion and shock—it speaks to deep and disturbing themes that the Canadian provocateur has explored throughout his many bio-horror phantasmagorias. In this special pocket of Cronenberg’s filmography, the only thing worse than the terrors lurking inside our own bodies is the nettlesome human tendency to alter physiology, risks be damned.
In this case, the individual playing God is one Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a therapist who has invented a field called “psychoplasmics.” He teaches patients to push negative emotions out through their skin, resulting in lesions and sores. From Hal’s Machiavellian perspective, this is a messy but necessary path to catharsis. Although Hal has a full complement of acolytes at his handsomely appointed institute just outside Toronto, not everyone is a believer. Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) is upset because his estranged wife, Nora (Samantha Eggar), is under a sort of lockdown for intensive therapy, and because Hal has begun working with the Carveths’ young daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds). Frank employs various means (some legal, some not) in order to reclaim his daughter, somewhat like a concerned relative trying to free a loved one from a cult compound. Complicating matters is a series of gruesome murders committed by childlike mutants. Eventually, Frank helps authorities connect the murders to Hal’s research, though the task of confronting the good doctor—and whatever sort of weird creatures are hidden at his institute—falls to Frank.
Although The Brood is a slow burn, with long stretches of screen time elapsing in between violent scenes, the combination of Cronenberg’s artistry and the immersive mood generated by his collaborators helps sustain interest. A serious student of metaphysical, psychological, and scientific subjects, Cronenberg puts across science-fiction stories exceptionally well by creating utterly believable environments and terminology, and by building characters who seem like genuine academics. The Hal Raglan character, for instance, is plainly a maniac because of his willingness to endanger the lives of others in the name of research, but Cronenberg ensures that the therapist never seems like a monster. Similarly, the people (and creatures) who do terrible things in The Brood are victims as much as they are victimizers. Cinematographer Mark Irwin’s naturalistic lighting energizes Cronenberg’s meticulously crafted frames, while composer Howard Shore—providing his first-ever movie score—conjures incredible levels of dread. More than anything, The Brood is a testament to Cronenberg’s unique storytelling style, which blends classical structure and methodical pacing with a natural affinity for the macabre and the perverse.
The Brood: GROOVY