Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cronenberg in Context: The Brood (1979)

While not perfect, The Brood is Cronenberg's finest pre-Videodrome work, and can probably be thought of as his most generally 'Cronenbergian.' It has the human body being altered through the power of the mind, creepy reproductive/sexual undertones, and Robert Silverman. Partially inspired by the director's own brutal custody battle, the film tells the story of a family torn asunder by its emotionally unstable matriarch, who has been whisked away by a radical psychotherapist who is more interested in using her to advance his research than actually curing her.

That research is in Psychoplasmics, the study of effects on the body caused by emotional states. In typical Cronenberg fashion, a minor character (a police psychologist in this case) inadvertently explains the film's premise long before the audience has enough information to realize it. Referring to the protagonist's young daughter, who has just been traumatized by the brutal slaying of her grandmother, he proclaims "These things tend to express themselves one way or another. I've seen five year olds ... with ulcers as bad as any middle aged business man." By itself the sentence is fairly innocuous, but the film surrounding it expands that premise to the point of having a woman asexually produce creepy mutant babies via her severe rage problems. Like Videodrome and the motif of harmful sensation, The Brood takes a common sense idea, that emotional stress can cause a physical reaction, and stretches it deep into speculative fiction territory.Since I've previously rambled about the film, here are some bullet point reasons for you to add it to your Netflix queue:

The late, great Oliver Reed: England's heaviest drinking thespian plays the ethically challenged super-psychiatrist responsible for Psychoplasmics. For the most part it's a soft spoken role couched in rationality and passive-aggressive therapist talk, but he really takes off during the roll playing sessions involved in his radical treatments. The film begins with him and a simpering patient demonstrating Psychoplasmics for an audience in a manner strongly reminiscent of Kabuki theater. (A style Cronenberg would later explore in his adaptation of M. Butterfly.) With accelerating anger, Reed plays the role of the patient's father, emasculating and humiliating him until the rage manifests as gross boils all over the man's body.Plus, we get to see exactly how many children it would take to down the famously pugnacious actor:The Kindergarten Beatdown: In the second most shocking scene in the film, a kindergarten teacher with the absolute worst haircut late '70s Canada has to offer gets singled out by a pair of snowsuit clad broodlings when their "mother" begins to see the woman as a rival for her ex-husband's affections. Passing for kids at a distance they easily sneak into the classroom and arm themselves with little wooden hammers. They then proceed to beat the teacher to death (not an easy task, considering their size and weapon choice) in front of all her students. Some of the kids' "traumatized" faces are absolutely priceless. (Imagine the therapy bills. Yikes)The Laid Back Canadian Police: Not only does the sudden appearance of brutal midget murderers get no reaction from the cops other than "We weren't looking for anything that small," but the coroner explains the inner workings of a dead broodling with the calm demeanor of someone who autopsies previously unknown species of mutant children all the time. They even let the civilian protagonist sit in on the affair."Oh look, some sort of grotesque midget monster with no belly button and a life sustaining nutrient pouch to make up for the lack of a digestive system. That's probably the scientific discovery of the decade, if not century. I'd better calmly explain it to the son in law of the people it murdered instead of frantically calling National Geographic or the Weekly World News. Man, I'm hungry. I wonder what's on TV right now?"

The Terrible Day-for-Night: The Psychoplasmics research center is a fascinating slice of Canadian modernist architecture and is an easily readable location in the film. However, many scenes there take place at night, and without a massive budget for lighting, the film needed a way to show the building's distinctive silhouette for nighttime establishing shots. This is the result:The dusk photography and gradated blue filter makes for a nice try, but nothing can hide the fact that the shot breaks a cardinal day-for-night rule: never show the sky. It's a dead giveaway that you're using photographic trickery. (For some truly excellent, albeit CG assisted day-for-night see 28 Weeks Later.)
Note to Minnesota folk: don't forget to check out the last Cronenberg screening at the Trylon Microcinema this weekend. It's The Fly!


  1. Dearest Knarf Black,

    Just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for throwing up that kindergarten screen cap so I didn't have to spend a million hours grabbing it from my VHS copy. I think we can all see why I quit acting.

    The Piggy-tailed kid.
    (By the way, there was no therapy bills - I loved that set and the little people actors were super cool! It was maple syrup blood, by the way. I mean, how Canadian can you get?)

  2. That's awesome! If you want a better quality/higher resolution copy of the image, just send a message to knarfblack(at)