Monday, July 28, 2008

Some 'Brood' Brooding

David Cronenberg's The Brood is a concept so thoroughly Cronenberg that you can almost imagine the idea forming in his head. Since Cronenberg's films often deal with the complex and painful idea of physical transformation/mutation, it's only natural that he could create such a wretchedly provocative image of pregnancy and birth. As a concept, it's my favorite Cronenberg movie behind The Fly, but purely as a film it has too many narrative flaws for it to be in the director's elite company. Seeing it for the first time recently, I enjoyed it immensely but still had to agree with Roger Ebert's 1979 review. Ebert's review notes that up until the last 15 minutes, The Brood is mostly made up of Art Hindle's rants and raves, and "... just a lot of coming and going and musing, as the music on the sound track hints darkly at the terrible things to come." But boy howdy do those terrible things in the last 15 minutes deliver! Goddamn.

And that's what ultimately hurts The Brood the most -- it's heavily back-loaded, and as a result Cronenberg's novel premise is never really expanded upon. Once it's finally revealed just what the movie is about, the credits roll. Cronenberg put all his chips on the fact that suddenly revealing Samantha Eggars' "strange adventure" at the end would provide a shock like other big twists from the likes of Psycho or Les Diaboliques, but those movies both held your interest up until that point.

The Brood focuses on the goings-on at the Institute for Pyscho-Plasmics, a most unconventional treatment center headed by Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed). At Psycho-Plasmics, patients are encouraged to give physical expression to their pain, with results ranging from harmless welts to ... much more extreme manifestations. Frank Carveth (Hindle) becomes very concerned about his wife Nola's (Eggar) extended stay at the Institute, and spends most of the movie hollering about when he gets to see her again. There's also the matter of a terrifying gang of snow-suited adolescents who are terrorizing family and acquaintances of Nola, and upon closer inspection they appear to be just barely human. Frank suspects the Institute is to blame for the evil tykes and the kidnapping of his daughter -- in the end he will come face to face with the source.

Cronenberg directed The Brood under the premise that you don't know the origin of the titular creatures, but it's never really a secret. If you've never read anything about the movie, then the title itself will give you quite a big clue: the tiny menaces are born from Nola, fueled by her hateful emotions, and do her subconscious bidding. The big reveal to Frank is fantastic disgusting, in a way only Cronenberg can do, with Nola lovingly embracing her newest bloody brood. These final 15 minutes are by far the film's strongest point, but there's still part of it that leaves me wanting more. Frank decides to rid the world of the murderous children by killing his wife, on the premise that her emotions give them life. This is a logical ending to a mostly illogical movie, but it's emotionally hollow: Nola's revelation to Frank is horrifying, but would it really cause him to viciously strangle his wife to death? I think there's one way he could have cured his wife, killed the brood, and kept his family intact. How? Why, some Marvin Gay brand Sexual Healing, of course.

I'm not quite sure how Frank could have accomplished it given the circumstances, but by transforming Nola's thoughts from malicious to carnal, wouldn't it have the same effect on the brood? The visuals would be more powerful as well, with inter cuts of Nola's throes of sexual passion and the destruction of her hateful manifestations. This would not only provide a happy ending by keeping the Carveth family intact, but it would wreck the Institute's radical treatment ideals, showing that modern problems can still be solved in the home.

And yes, I'm aware that the previous paragraphs represent something more disgusting than Cronenberg put together (given Nola's physical state at that point). These are the kinds of things I think about. And yes, I need help.


Unknown said...

Nice review! I really dig this film as well. In fact, most of Cronenberg's early stuff is great (actually, a lot of his later stuff is pretty damn good too) but it is interesting to note that this film came out of Cronenberg's feelings from a messy divorce he was going through at the time. Wow, judging from the final product, it must've been quite a doozy!

I always wondered if Cronenberg was influenced by PHANTASM which has brood-like creatures that vicious attack the film's protagonist or vice versa? Was PHANTASM inspired by THE BROOD? Or is it just a coincidence?

Anonymous said...

Though it is one of the weaker Cronenberg films, I still find it to be quite enjoyable for fans. I watched it after getting really interested in Cronenberg from Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Scanners, M. Butterfly, etc. I think it works well in the context of those films as regards pacing, building of dramatic tension, etc. This is the same context and juxtaposing that allows me to enjoy, for example, Mahler's Sixth Symphony, within the context of his others, though it is my least favorite of his. Thanks for doing the site and review!

Benjamin Wright said...

Growing up in Toronto (where The Brood was shot), it's pretty apparent that Cronenberg really captured the (sometimes) desolate landscape of a Canadian winter. Just revisit that empty, concrete schoolyard scene and that's Toronto in mid-January.

Adam Ross said...

J.D. -- Thanks. I've heard that about Cronenberg's inspiration, and it makes the final actions all that more gruesome. Good note about the Phantasm baddies, but I'm guessing they developed independently since both came out in 1979. I find "The Brood's" version scarier, as they're able to blend in so well.

Jeff -- Thanks, it definitely is enjoyable, as it's Cronenberg at his most unapologetic. "Dead Ringers" is next on my list.

Benjamin -- Good to know, I also like the Toronto location work in "Videodrome," all the cold, dreary buildings and alleys.

PIPER said...

I have more thoughts on this which I will post later, but let me say what a sick puppy you are Adam.

You want her husband to hit it with her while she's got those big larvae sacks hanging from her? And I thought Cronenberg was twisted.

Adam Ross said...

I said I needed help!

I see it as a set-up with too much potential to be solved with a simple strangling. Frank is really the only one who can "cure" Nola, since she had no problems that extreme before going to the Institute (problems, I'm certain, but obviously not like this). As her husband, doesn't he have the ability to bring her back to her natural state?

Anonymous said...
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PIPER said...

Okay I'm back,

You make good points, but I've never thought about it like you've stated. Cronenberg is best with his creep and this movie creeps and isolates and does everything a Cronenberg movie should.

And while Mr. Sham gets all the credit for shocking and twisty endings, I would say that Cronenberg is the master of this. His endings may not always be twisty, but they are apocalyptic in nature. From Rabid's ending of the trash trucks, to Scanners' final showdown to The Fly's complete transformation. What I love about Cronenberg's movie is that they don't wrap up. That something still lingers. That it's unsolved. And that's why they stick with you like a piece of bubble gum that's too sugary.

So because of this, I'm okay that it isn't revealed until the end. I can't imagine a movie where they revealed that the Brood were connected with Nora. I don't think it would have the impact that it should. Or did.

But like you stated, this movie does suffer from endless rants from Hindle. In the hands of a better actor, this may not be the case.

Adam Ross said...

Piper -- thanks for the additional comments. Good point about Cronenberg's endings, which are always great and definitely center on the same ambiguously apocalyptic theme ("Videodrome" is another example).

The reveal ending of "The Brood" is great, I think it would have worked better for me if there was more attention payed to the Institute during the movie. How were Nola's results achieved, and was her case considered a success? I'm sure the production's budget factored into this, and of course we learned later what Cronenberg was capable of with more resources to play with.