The Brood (1979)

1979/ Canada

Director: David Cronenberg

Starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle

Words: O. Innocent

Before mutating himself into a director of dark dramas and thrillers, David Cronenberg was quite possibly the ultimate horror auteur. Birthing a subgenre all his own and imbuing every project with his own unmistakable style, Cronenberg preoccupied himself with making confrontational films with controversial subject matters, the likes of which no other director has even come close to topping. Cronenberg’s early films focused on a very particular facet of horror, that of the body and what might happen if one’s own body started to revolt, mutate and become a monster in and of itself. He began to court controversy almost immediately, with his first feature, Shivers (1975), being likened to pornography with its concept of sexually transmitted parasites converting the repressed denizens of a high rise apartment building into liberated sex-crazed zombies. Rabid (1977) did nothing to abate these accusations, Cronenberg seeming to purposefully rile his detractors with his casting of porn star Marilyn Chambers in the role of a woman with a phallic blood-sucking dart grafted onto her armpit. As if to prove that his extreme form of cinema could be taken even further – had no limits even – along came what is arguably his most antagonistic, difficult-to-watch film to date, the rage-fuelled onslaught on the senses, The Brood (1979).

The culmination of Cronenberg’s preoccupations up to this point – obsessions with physical mutations, disgusting imagery, the juxtaposition of the cold Canadian landscape with the warm inner workings of the human body – The Brood also introduces an emotional intensity that only really came to the fore at the conclusion of Rabid. Picking up where Rabid left off, The Brood examines the lengths parents will go to protect their offspring, as well as the morally questionable repercussions of such a ferocious protective instinct and intense emotional bond. The film is essentially a family drama in the guise of a typical Cronenberg body horror, concerning a mother and father going through a divorce and the daughter stuck between them. Of course, this being a Cronenberg film, the divorce ends up being a lot messier than usual as the mother starts spawning mutant dwarf creatures after taking part in psychotherapist Doctor Raglan’s psychoplasmics programme where patients are encouraged to express their repressed emotions through physical changes to their bodies. The mother’s new children, the eponymous brood, proceed to kill those she perceives to be a threat. When she takes back her daughter, it’s up to the father to stop her reign of terror and rescue his daughter from the clutches of evil.

However, it’s not quite as simple as that. By forcing us to identify with the father, the film poses some rather difficult questions. For instance; who is really culpable for the brood – the mother, the father, or Doctor Raglan?; is the father justified in wanting to take his daughter away from a mother who is clearly emotionally distraught after their separation?; and is the father’s final act of killing the mother to prevent the brood from killing their child a heroic rescue or a simple act of hatred? The film offers no easy answers to these questions. What it does offer is an intelligent, visceral thrill ride, combined with a rare emotional ambiguity which ultimately suggests that our conception of good and evil is not so easily applicable in the face of a parent’s love for its child.