While jokingly describing it as a “more realistic version” of Kramer Vs. Kramer, David Cronenberg has confessed on several occasions that his 1979 gyno-nightmare The Brood was drawn from his own experiences in a bitter custody battle, during which his ex-wife kidnapped their daughter to go live on a commune and he had to fly to California and bring her back. But since this is Cronenberg and not Noah Baumbach, the true-life traumas are filtered through a heady mix of icky physiological anomalies and occasional eruptions of entrails. It’s a rare peek at the private life of this intimidatingly intellectual filmmaker, whose work is always personal but seldom autobiographical.
That might be why one can feel an angry, unfiltered edge in the film’s final reels, which are a bit less clinically removed and more emotionally unhinged than Cronenberg’s other output. Heartbreak’s a hell of a thing, and when it’s really cooking The Brood traffics in the kind of primal fears and inchoate rage seen in other great breakup movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a genuinely deranged picture that could only be the result of the most powerful man in Hollywood being cuckolded by Willie Nelson.
Following 1975’s Shivers and 1977’s Rabid as the third chapter of a loose trilogy about mad scientist men experimenting on women with disastrous results, The Brood is headlined by Oliver Reed as a New Age therapist working with a method of his own invention called psychoplasmics, which supposedly enables patients to physically manifest their buried emotional traumas. Most folks consider him a quack — another television guru with a cult following, which Reed’s pitch-perfect preening during the public therapy sessions makes entirely plausible. But the problem is that pyschoplasmics actually works all too well, and in her secluded treatment cabin hidden away in the doctor’s remote compound, Samantha Eggar’s Nola Carveth is breaking out into hives whenever she gets angry. These hives balloon into sacs containing killer fetuses that grow up quite quickly into terrifying toddlers. In other words, she’s literally giving birth to her rage.
The story is told from the point of view of Nola’s incredibly uninteresting, estranged husband Frank (Art Hindle) who works as an architect – for many years the go-to profession in movies for when screenwriters had no idea what someone should do for a living. Frank tries to take care of their young daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds) during the week while she goes to visit her mother on weekends, but one Monday morning he discovers some scary bruises and bites on Candy’s back. His fury is more than understandable – and besides, would you want your wife sequestered in the mountains with Oliver Reed? – but in my opinion the milquetoast, uber-Canadian Hindle often doesn’t appear to be entirely alarmed enough, given everything that’s going on.
The titular spawn are revealed gradually and the stuff of nightmare fuel. Cronenberg’s camera approaches them obliquely, these little kids all wrapped up in snowsuits who don’t quite move like children. (The individual antagonists were played by dwarves while the mob of them were a grade school girls’ gymnastics team in masks.) Taking a cue from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, he allows us only glimpses of their malevolent movements during the grisly murder scenes and quick flashes of their crinkled, sinister faces. To secure an R rating, the MPAA made Cronenberg cut a closeup of Eggar licking the bloody amniotic fluid off a newborn’s skull during the movie’s instantly infamous birthing sequence. The cut ironically made the scene even more upsetting, as with the tongue shot missing it instead looks like she’s biting into the baby’s head. (It’s since been restored for video versions.)
Cobbled together from Canadian tax shelter money, the production was a step above the budgets Cronenberg had previously worked with, though nobody’s idea of an expensive picture. Eggar shot her entire role during four days off from playing Ricardo Montalban’s wife on TV’s Fantasy Island, and the only noted mishap during a characteristically smooth shoot was when Oliver Reed had to be bailed out of jail after making a bet that the cold Ontario winter could not deter him from walking from the pub back to his hotel nude. The Brood marks Cronenberg’s first collaboration with then-Saturday Night Live bandleader Howard Shore, whose score here relies a little too much on shrieking Psycho strings for my tastes, but the two would refine their work together to a wonderful, doomy grandeur over 17 more films.
Cronenberg had not yet become the critical darling he is today. Roger Ebert’s one-star review was one of the writer’s more entertaining hissy fits, calling The Brood “an el sleazo exploitation film… Are there really people who want to see reprehensible trash like this? I guess so. It’s in its second week.” But the director did already have some ardent fans, including critic Carrie Rickey and Martin Scorsese, who went on to develop a habit of spending talk show appearances in which he was supposed to be promoting his own films instead raving about whatever Cronenberg movie he’d just seen.
Rickey’s read on The Brood is by far my favorite, dashing the charges of misogyny that had dogged the director during his early career. She reminds us that Nola herself is a product of a broken home, and that the film ends with these mysterious manifestations being passed down to her and Frank’s daughter as well. Retroactively, one sees that the real horror of the movie isn’t in the hell unleashed by a woman scorned, but rather the childhood abandonment that made it inevitable.
“The Brood” is currently streaming on HBO Max and the Criterion Channel.