In his classic short story, Purity, the writer Thomas Ligotti presents three principles, or impurities, which serve as obstacles to our species’ evolution and must be done away with if we ever hope to enter the realm of pure conception. The first two—Countries and Deities—are easy enough to accept. The third, not so much.
The third principle, or impurity, is family.
This idea is at the heart of three of the most terrifying films ever made about the domestic experience: David Lynch’s Eraserhead, David Cronenberg’s The Brood, and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. Released within the span of four years (1977, 1979 and 1981), all three focus on the dissolution of a family unit amidst the birth of a mutant progeny. Here, family is more than an impurity—it’s a disease.
In Eraserhead, a Chaplinesque neurotic is thrown into the deep end of the gene pool when his estranged lover reveals she’s given birth to a hideously deformed baby. In The Brood, a father struggles to protect his young daughter from his ex-wife’s murderous offspring, asexual reproductions resulting from her experimental psychotherapy treatment. And in Possession, the violent collapse of a marriage between a couple in West Berlin ushers a tentacled demon (possibly the Antichrist, possibly God himself) into the world and triggers nuclear Armageddon.
While tonally very different from one another–Eraserhead operates on pure dream logic, The Brood maintains a clinical remove, and Possession comes on like a full body clonic seizure–they share a remarkable number of qualities with one another, both technical (each features outstanding creature and body horror effects) and stylistic (JG Ballard’s review of Lynch’s Blue Velvet–“The Wizard of Oz reshot with a script by Franz Kafka and decor by Francis Bacon”–applies equally to all three). But what most distinguishes Eraserhead/The Brood/Possession as a thematic triptych are the way the real-life traumas which inspired them would go on to find new hosts in the cinema of the directors’ own progeny.
Like the monsters at their center, each film was borne out of overriding domestic anxieties: during the five-year production of Eraserhead, Lynch and his wife gave birth to daughter Jennifer (who suffered from clubfoot) before splitting up. Cronenberg’s first wife, like Samantha Egger’s deranged matriarch in The Brood, left him to join a cult, taking their young daughter, Cassandra, with her (he had to hire private detectives to forcibly take her back). Zulawski’s marriage, similar to the one depicted in Possession, collapsed after his partner (the actress Małgorzata Braunek, who starred in his first two films) left him for a spiritual guru (presented in the film as a hilarious New Age charlatan). In the latter two cases, a grueling custody battle ensued, which explains why discussions of The Brood and Possession inevitably brook comparisons to Stanley Kramer’s 1980 divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer (Cronenberg has said his movie is “more realistic”.)
But although each film served as a dearly needed exorcism for the filmmakers, hereditary trauma, like hereditary disease, tends to get passed down the line, and eventually, these cases manifested in the work of the second generation filmmakers.
Although Jennifer Lynch’s notorious debut, Boxing Helena (1993)—an erotic thriller about a beautiful hit-and-run victim (Sherilyn Fenn, of Twin Peaks fame) who has her arms and legs amputated by obsessed surgeon–is rightly regarded as a failure, it continues to fascinate, if only for the ways it plays with the themes and ideas seen in her father’s first feature (as well as an earlier short film, The Amputee): Fenn’s helpless husk finds herself in much the same position as The Baby in Eraserhead, only with an overly devoted caretaker rather than a reluctant one. Lynch said she took inspiration from her own birth defect, much the same way her father did.
Years later, this time in a reverse case of life imitating art, Lynch was almost left paralyzed by a car accident. Upon recovery, she returned to filmmaking to direct the far superior Surveillance (2008). Centering around a different kind of roadside collision, the Rashamon-styled murder mystery served as a way for her to work through her physical and emotional trauma, as well as connect with her own young daughter.
Like Boxing Helena, it’s impossible not to think of her father’s work when watching Surveillance (comparisons to Lost Highway are particularly unavoidable since they both star Bill Pullman), but the film still manages to stand on its own as an effectively disturbing slice of horror-noir. As Lynch tells it, the finished film even managed to freak out her father: “He was completely horrified. He said ‘You’re the sickest bitch I know. You can’t have the forces of darkness triumph over the forces of light.’”
Over the last decade, Xawery Zulawski has established himself as a successful director in his native Poland. His latest film, 2019’s Bird Talk (Mowa Ptaków)–which, although not a horror movie, features the disintegration of a living body that’s as gruesome as anything found in these other films–was written by his late father, the last script he penned before succumbing to pancreatic cancer in 2015.
A frenzied ensemble drama about a group of friends struggling to maintain their sanity as their nation spirals into fascism, much of the story is directly autobiographical, with the central plot focusing on a would-be writer’s strained relationship with his controversial filmmaker father. Bird Talk is littered with clips, soundbites, and artwork from several of the elder Zulawski’s movies, foremost amongst them Possession (at one point, characters sit down to watch Isabelle Adjani’s notorious subway freakout scene.) The dissolution of Zulawski family that inspired it hangs over these scenes, and is even explicitly discussed a couple of times.
Although initially resistant to the idea of directing his father’s script, Xawery Zulawski eventually realized he had to do it in order to live up to and move out from under his father’s shadow. The experience “freed something” in him: “My spiritual connection to my father grew stronger, and we stood face to face like equal people and artists.” Working with several of Andrzej’s most trusted collaborators—cinematographer Andrzej J. Jaroszewicz, composer Andrzej Korzyński, actors Monika Niemczyk, Alicja Jackiewicz and Michał Grudziński—the finished film is an exhausting, disturbing, stupefying and ultimately incredibly moving homage and farewell to a brilliant and troubled artist and father.
Finally, we come to the family Cronenberg. While David’s daughter Cassandra, whose custody battle was the bloody embryo from which The Brood gestated, has dabbled in filmmaking (she directed the 2013 short Candy), it is his son from his second marriage, Brandon Cronenberg, who would follow closest in his footsteps.
Brandon Cronenberg made his debut in 2012 with the low-budget sci-fi/horror thriller Antiviral, a film which bears all the hallmarks of his dad’s movies: the clinician’s perspective, a lurid fascination with biomechanics and sexual pathology, anxiety over ever-expanding corporate control, a startling prescience (the film feels like a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, even though it was made eight years prior), lots of grey Canadian cityscapes and enough blood, viscera, mucus and membrane to drown someone in. Like his fellow director offspring, Cronenberg the younger also makes good use of his father’s collaborators (namely actors Nicolas Campbell, Sara Gadon and Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Now, with his brutal and beguiling new film Possessor (or, Possessor: Uncut, as it’s needlessly been retitled in some markets), he has truly lived up to his namesake. Centered on a high-tech assassin named Vos (Andrea Riseborough), who uses secret tech to insert her consciousness into the bodies of unsuspecting patsies, he reverses the pathology at work in The Brood. A wife and mother herself, Vos is the opposite of either of the parents in that film (or for that matter, Eraserhead or Possession). Rather than being driven insane by the anxieties of parenthood and partnership, she is constrained by them. Ultimately, she must take up the role of family annihilator in order to fully embrace her true calling and enter—in the words of Ligotti—the realm of pure conception.Possessor is a fitting coda not only to his father’s film, but those of both generations of Lynches and Zulawskis, a new nightmare of domesticity and disease not from the point of view of those possessed by them, but from the parasite that’s doing the possessing.