Monday, April 06, 2015

THE BROOD (1979)

David Cronenberg's films are probably an acquired taste. I know this because so many people speak about his movies with puzzled looks on their faces, often saying things like "That's disgusting" or "That's weird". The one Cronenberg film that a general audience will surely know is his brilliant 1986 remake of The Fly and 'disgusting' and 'weird' are words that certainly fit. But few remember the subtle, restrained film he'd made right before, called The Dead Zone. While the Stephen King-penned story of a man able to see the future might still be labeled weird, it's definitely not disgusting or grotesque, and is listed as one of the best horror films of the 1980s by most genre experts. Personally, I feel Cronenberg is one of the best adapters of prose to the big screen working today, able to keep from forcing his own quirks into a film by virtue of always choosing stories that are well aligned to his sensibilities in the first place. That being said, I still prefer Cronenberg's original screenplays to his adaptations. The movies that spring from his twisted mind always have a sense of existing on an altered or parallel world very close to our own but with enough differences to make it seem odd, alien and unnerving. (Maybe Canada?) His ability to find the beauty in horror and the horror in beauty is unique in English language genre movies, with only Frenchman Jean Rollin evoking a similar sense of unreal 'otherness'.

While Cronenberg has become a better filmmaker over the years he had all the elements of his cinematic style in place from the beginning. A filmmaker's early works are often a testing ground for their later, more accomplished achievements but Cronenberg's first movies show a talent in full flower, making strides toward bigger things from the beginning. The Brood was his third full-length film; his recurring themes of 'body horror' and veiled alienation are central to the story. It's a disturbing movie that, once seen, stays with you for years. Few will deem Cronenberg's first few movies his best, but they're still good films that bear repeat viewing.

Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) is going through a tough time with his family. His wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) recently had a nervous breakdown and is in deep therapy at an experimental private clinic. Frank isn't allowed to see Nola during her therapy but their young daughter Cindy is encouraged to visit on weekends. The clinic she's staying in, the Somafree Institute, is run by brilliant but controversial psychotherapist Dr. Hal Ragland (Oliver Reed). The doctor's breakthrough therapy is a form of psychodrama in which Ragland acts out the parts of various people in the patient's life, so that they may be confronted and dealt with. Ragland calls his unorthodox therapy technique "Psychoplasmics"; it seems to make emotional problems manifest themselves physically on the patient's body. In a staged demonstration we see Ragland help a man through a horrible childhood memory that results in the subject's flesh breaking out in red welts. Frank has his doubts about Somafree's methods but goes along with Nora's wishes until he finds scratches and bruises on Cindy's back after one of her weekend visits. He's on the verge of taking legal action to keep Cindy from her mother when an odd dwarf-like creature appears in Nora's mother's house and kills her. An attack on Nora's father by the same type of creature then follows this horrible incident. Trying to discover if his wife is hurting their daughter, Frank starts talking to ex-patients of Ragland and the information he gleans makes him begin to fear that something has gone very wrong with his wife's therapy. After getting nowhere questioning the doctor, he decides to take matters into his own hands.

I'll never forget reading the misleading description of The Brood in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide years ago. That book gave the film its lowest rating, summing it up with a sentence that intimated that this was one of the most despicable movies ever made. I, of course, had to see it. The Brood remains a fascinating movie decades later. It demonstrates very well what I love about Cronenberg's work. He is very good at setting mood and allowing the viewers to slowly immerse themselves in the story. The otherworldliness in his films filters through everything, so that the more carefully you slide into the tone the better the third act feels when it kicks into high gear. It's this type of ramping up that so many filmmakers today have abandoned in the drive to grab audiences attention in the first 30 seconds so they won't move on to something else. Sadly, it's Cronenberg's very strengths as a storyteller that will keep him from being a huge success. His films require patience. Their very depth of emotion works against their wide acceptance because there is never a clearly defined way to feel about his characters. Most viewers of this film will expect Reed's Dr. Ragland to be the villain but by the end he is a sympathetic character trying as hard as possible to set things right. Also, with Frank there comes a moment of flirtation with his daughter's teacher that makes him a bit less sympathetic in view of his wife's situation. Cronenberg always carefully layers his characters to make them more than just plot devices, and that's becoming fairly rare these days. Or maybe it was always rare and I just never noticed.


Nick Rentz said...

You hit the nail right on the head with Cronenberg! I haven't been able to introduce my wife to him yet because; how do you show someone a movie in which a porn star (Chambers) has a penis growing on her arm and not feel awkward!? The Dead Zone is probably my favorite Cronenberg film. That was back when Walken wasn't yet a caricature of himself. I also prefer his earlier films except for Videodrome. I may need to revisit it. Fast Company is the odd film in his roster. What are some of your favorite films and least favorite?

Rod Barnett said...

Actually I like almost all of Cronenberg's work- I need to revisit CRASH one day as it didn't work for me and I still have not seen M BUTTERFLY. I rate VIDEODROME very high as well as THE DEAD ZONE, THE FLY, SCANNERS, NAKED LUNCH, EXISTENZ, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, etc. His style is something I find appealing in most every way.

Nick Rentz said...

I was young when I saw Videodrome and probably misinterpreted it. Dead Ringers is another good one.