Here's a brief review of the one other feature I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:
The Brood (1979)Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar and Art Hindle
Fast Company is the odd man out in that list, but The Brood fits very much into the body horror themes that Cronenberg was developing throughout his twentieth century features. Here, as with most of those early films, it revolves around fear of biological change, pairing the internal (mental torment) with the external (physical transformation), along with more conventional horrors such as child abuse, rejection and grief fuelled by loss. Another contemporary horror obvious here is the custody battle for a child, a horror Cronenberg was going through in real life at the time, fighting for custody of his daughter.
What leaps out quickly though is how 1979 was a different era. The first scene has Oliver Reed verbally abusing a man by casting aspersions on his masculinity. He’s doing this in front of an audience because he’s a psychiatrist, Dr Hal Raglan, demonstrating his mastery of the field of psychoplasmics. He pushes his patients to channel their inner rage outwards to manifest physically on their bodies as blisters and welts, hardly a politically correct approach but apparently a successful one. The second has a five year old girl taking a bath, a jarring sight today because she’s topless. Again, there is reason for this, to allow her father, Frank, to see the wounds on her back and assume that her mother, Nola, is abusing her, not an unfair assumption given that she’s a patient of Raglan’s.
The girl is Candice Carveth and she looks eerily like Heather O’Rourke from Poltergeist, which unnerves us from the outset. We’re privy to scenes that Frank isn’t, so we know that there’s something else going on, something that initially revolves around her rather than her mother. For instance, we might assume that someone breaks into her grandmother’s house and bludgeons the old lady to death in the kitchen while she’s babysitting Candy, but once we see the child’s reaction we know that it’s not quite that simple. During the second murder, we even see the killer and, while that answers some of our questions, it also prompts more. This is a David Cronenberg film, after all.
The story builds, of course, the therapy sessions between Raglan and Nola shifting subtly into creepier and creepier territory, especially after the scene when a medical examiner provides his insight into the bizarre body of the dead killer. While it could be argued that this is an imaginative precursor to the soon to be popular but notably unimaginative slasher genre, it’s a quintessentially Cronenberg picture, fitting far better within his own filmography’s progression than in any other trend apparent at the time. Going back to his films of the era highlights just how unique and out there he was.
There are a variety of freaky scenes on offer, but they’re freaky as much for their staging as for what they are. It isn’t just what we see, such as the murder of Candy’s teacher or the wild ‘childbirth’ scene, but for where and when we see it and for what else is in the scene. There are also some great reveals, both visual and in dialogue, to keep the story moving forward. The weakest link to me was the string-centric score by Howard Shore, who became Cronenberg’s regular composer at this point, which is perfectly fine but owes far too much to Bernard Herrmann to really fit in an original picture like this.
The cast is quintessentially seventies. Raglan is played by Oliver Reed, towards the end of a magnificent decade that took him from The Devils through The Three Musketeers to Tommy, Burnt Offerings and this. That’s on top of the the roles that he turned down, like the ones that Robert Shaw took in Jaws and The Sting because Reed didn’t want to relocate to Hollywood. He’s a remarkably stable psychiatrist, who has achieved much but apparently let himself become drawn far too deeply into his achievements to be able to do anything about them when they get seriously out of hand. His objectivity is completely shot, which could have been handled a little better at the end, when it all comes down. He’s as good as he ever was when he was sober, but this isn’t the great performance that he’s capable of giving.
Nola is Samantha Eggar, who gets rather less screen time than I’d have expected, given that she’s the key to the film and she’s second billed after Reed before the title credit. She hit the seventies running, after some great work in the sixties, and continued through The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The Uncanny and this to get to The Exterminator, from which I know her best. To be honest, I may remember her best for this, from now on, because the scene in which she improvises spectacularly is not one to be unseen. As the story became clear and we waited for the denouement, I wondered if the film would have been enhanced or lessened by more Nola and, while I’d enjoyed seeing Eggar get her teeth into more of the stagy dialogue scenes, I decided that the film as a whole was better for keeping them sparse.
Relegated to a ‘starring’ credit after the title screen is the actor with the most screen time, Art Hindle as Frank, looking oddly like a full sized Peter Dinklage with a hint of Canadian Hugh Grant. He was mostly known for TV movies at this point in time, because Porky’s was still a couple of years in the future, but Black Christmas and the remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers surely helped land him this job. He’s a decent lead and he does what he’s asked to do well enough, but he’s almost inconsequential in this story. He’s merely our avatar as Candy and those around her traverse through nightmare. Raglan is the cause, Nola the conduit and Candy the distraction, while Frank is just the face of the reality being affected.
I had a blast with this. The production feels seventies through and through, from the acting to the pace, the editing to the texture. However it looks forward as Cronenberg’s films so often did, so that it doesn’t seem dated today, even without the gore and shock moments that we might be conditioned to expect, except for the jarring moments I mentioned earlier. Now I want to revisit all the early Cronenberg’s that I haven’t seen in far too long.
This was film #80 in my runthrough of the debased.com 100 Greatest Cult Films. You can find the full list here.