VHS Revival examines one of Cronenberg’s maligned early works and his continued struggles to break into Hollywood
It’s hard to imagine how audiences would have received The Brood back in 1979. Fascinated with the metaphysical, filmmaker David Cronenberg was some way ahead of his time conceptually, and his interest in what would become known as ‘body horror’ was something moviegoers were distinctly unprepared for. Body horror was nothing new. In fact, as a narrative concept it can be traced back all the way to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but lesser degrees of censorship and a generation desensitised by the high-profile horrors of the Vietnam War allowed the concept a new platform, and boy did Cronenberg indulge us! Even now, almost four decades after it’s release, The Brood is a deeply nasty experience, a bleak oddity that sucks you in and spits you out like a black hole, one that inevitably displeased audiences and critics alike. The movie would also mark the debut of three-time Academy Award winning composer Howard Shore, his wretched, nerve-jangling score helping to establish an almost ceaseless aura of dread with its Psycho-esque strings and ominous foreboding. What we get is a truly ugly picture that transforms the maternal bond, humanity’s purest facet, into a savage and inhuman outlet for death and destruction.
The Brood was Cronenberg’s sixth film in 10 years as a feature-length director. By then he had already garnered something of a reputation as a unique filmmaker, but he would struggle to break into the mainstream, despite producing low-budget productions that would prove relatively profitable (his first memorable feature Shivers (1975) would gross CAD 5,000,000 from a meagre CAD 180,000). But even the low-key Canadian scene would prove problematic for the precocious filmmaker since critics, repulsed by his ‘pornographic’ ventures, held great influence over a relatively small, close-knit industry. In a two-part retrospective in 1992, Cronenberg would air his grievances to Global TV Toronto: “In Canada, the idea of doing a horror film was considered an aberration. I mean, this is something you certainly would not do for the National Film Board. Something that was fantastic and perverse and dark was perhaps not Canadian, or they didn’t know what to do with it.”
The success of Shivers would result in yet another cult classic. Rabid (1976) was a similarly startling exploration of the human body that would cast American porn star Marilyn Chambers in the lead role, a move that would only add to the controversy surrounding Cronenberg. Chambers was also something of a familiar face, and a real coup for a novice director looking to expand his viewership. She was hardly a mainstream celebrity but had achieved a certain level of risqué fame in one of the biggest porno flicks of the decade, 1972’s Behind the Green Door, which would likely prove a real draw for exploitation hounds with a taste for the weird and wonderful.
Dr. Hal Raglan: They’re her children. More exactly, the children of her rage.
The director had originally rallied for Sissy Spacek, an idea that was nixed by the studio due to her accent. Ironically, Spacek would go on to star in Stephen King adaptation Carrie that same year, a decision that would thrust both she and Brian De Palma into a spotlight that had so far evaded Cronenberg, the latter another legendary director who had been in the business for a similar time period. Another low-key production made at a considerable profit, Rabid would further display Cronenberg’s unique qualities and potential to turn heads, but his mainstream break was still some years ahead, a fact that would become rather bothersome for the director. “What I wanted to do was to go to a place where it was a completely normal, understood thing to want to make this [kind of] movie,” he would explain, “where it was just business as usual and the only questions were: How much? Who would direct? Who would produce? And the existence of the project was not an issue.”
Cronenberg would continue his protracted ascent throughout the 1980s. His first effort to possess genuine star appeal was 1983’s Videodrome, a surreal descent into practical effects grotesquery starring James Woods and global icon Debbie Harry. Rather than toning down his style, the filmmaker would use Videodrome to push the boundaries even further, producing an anti-mainstream slice of body horror which played as a commentary on home video censorship and technology as a tool for indoctrination, speculations that would see flesh and hardware meld catastrophically.
Videodrome would represent the director’s first financial flop, but that didn’t quell Hollywood’s interest, and after turning down an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Cronenberg finally took the commercial bait. As De Palma had done almost a decade earlier, the filmmaker would end 1983 by taking on another Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone. With Christopher Walken in the lead role, the King seal of quality would result in a return to financial form, though creatively the movie would once again fail to connect with the movie-going public.
Regarding the project, Cronenberg would tell Global TV Toronto, “With The Dead Zone it was a bit of a trauma because I didn’t write that screenplay, although once again I was involved in it. There were five screenplays that existed at the time and when I came to the project I read them all and wouldn’t have directed any of them; I threw them out, even though technically every one of them could have been called The Dead Zone.”
Despite Cronenberg’s largely unappealing vision, producers would not give up on him; they sensed there was money to be made, even if they didn’t necessarily understand him. Before his long-awaited critical breakthrough he was approached to direct a plethora of dubious projects that were completely at odds with his style. During the next few years he would turn down future MTV-styled popcorn hits Top Gun and Flashdance, before finally landing a gig that had the potential to suit his inimitable personality.
That gig was Phillip K. Dick adaptation and blockbuster Arnie vehicle Total Recall, a movie that had been doing the rounds since the mid-1980s. Cronenberg would spend an entire year on the project before walking away due to creative differences. Eventual successor Paul Verhoeven, a former arthouse director who had made huge commercial waves with 1987’s Robocop, would offer us an altogether different movie stylistically, but it was Cronenberg who had expanded on Dick’s original text We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, helping to craft the world and characters that would appear in the eventual theatrical release. Total Recall was the first real missed opportunity for the filmmaker. It also raised further doubts about whether there was a place for him in the problematic realms of Hollywood. Speaking of his time attached to the project, the director would lament, “I worked on it for a year and did about 12 drafts. Eventually we got to a point where [writer] Ron Shusett said, ‘You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?’ He said, ‘No, no, we want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.'”
Interestingly, there are echoes of Total Recall in 1979‘s The Brood, perhaps an indication of where Cronenberg would have taken the film tonally. The Brood is a movie that is often overlooked in Cronenberg’s vast and varied canon, but one that saw him begin to develop his skills as a serious director with what is essentially a quasi-slasher. It’s also the first of his movies to feature recognised acting talent in the form of Oliver Reed, though by that juncture a years-long battle with alcoholism had left him on the commercial fringes. Developing on earlier efforts Shivers and Rabid, The Brood would place a stronger emphasis on the kind of intellectualism he had already shown glimpses of, resulting in a movie that proved even more provocative as an exploration of the potential capacities of the human body.
There’s a Cronenberg character in Total Recall who bears an uncanny resemblance to The Brood‘s omnipotent quasi-matriarch, Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar). In Total Recall, Kuato (or Quato as he was referred to in Cronenberg’s screenplay) is another telepathic creature of an embryonic nature. Verhoeven’s Kuato would prove quite different aesthetically, but Cronenberg’s original concept art (featured above) would capture the essence of the Carveth character, draped in the same dark cloak with an almost motherly disposition and exhibiting a vague trace of something tiny and monstrous.
The Brood‘s most affecting moments come in the form of the brood itself, a batch of psychologically motivated quasi-children who fulfil their creator’s taboo desires. A year earlier, John Carpenter’s Halloween caught fire with audiences who were distinctly unprepared for Michael Myers’ suburban boogeyman, a fact that left folks fleeing theatres in their screaming droves, but the pint-sized balls of vicarious fury which constitute The Brood’s slasher elements are even more startling. Their increasingly savage attacks with a plethora of blunt objects leave nothing to the imagination, resulting in a series of gruelling set-pieces that leave something of a bad taste in the mouth. The fact that the agitators in question seem childlike at first glance only adds to that sense of disquiet.
The movie came at the end of a decade of physical liberation, and on some level Cronenberg’s films seem to explore the physical and emotional consequences, but The Brood is more an autobiographical endeavour, its central narrative reflecting the director’s personal woes as he battled his first wife for custody of their daughter, a joylessness that is apparent throughout. Here we’re exposed to abusive relationships and psychological damage, something Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) claims to have the emotional cure for thanks to an unconventional process known as pyschoplasmics.
Though potentially groundbreaking, the treatment is shrouded in mystery due to the doctor’s insistence that patients be isolated from the outside world. Those affected by Raglan’s peculiar methods are the family of Nola Carveth (Samantah Eggar), a deeply wounded mother going through a self-imposed separation who’s unaware that her parents have been brutally murdered in separate, yet seemingly related incidents. Eggar is the star of the show as the increasingly psychotic Nola, a woman whose pent-up fury seems to coincide with the community’s sudden spate of murders, and which continues to manifest in increasingly bizarre ways.
Inspector: My guess is some crazy woman didn’t want anyone to know she had a deformed child. She’s had this kid locked up in an attic for years, and never told anybody. Wouldn’t be the first time!
Unsurprisingly, The Brood received mixed reviews upon release, developing a cult following in later years. This can no doubt be attributed to the movie’s unique themes, but also to the kind of graphic imagery that would have alienated audiences in 1979, and the damning matriarchal element at a time when the atomic family was beginning to show signs of strain. The movie’s shock reveal, one which features Nola Carveth pulling a new-born from an exterior womb mutation, was further embellished by Eggar’s decision to lick the fetus like an animal, which goes some way to highlighting her wonderful contributions, though those scenes were understandably banished to the cutting floor. “I just thought that when cats have their kittens or dogs have puppies, they lick them as soon as they’re born,” said Eggar. “Lick, lick, lick, lick…”
Not one to be overshadowed, Oliver Reed is as engrossing as ever in the role of the darkly impassioned Dr. Raglan, a man who treads a precarious line between care and abandon, torn between ethical discourse and an urge to see his work pushed beyond all limits of decency. His stand-off with Nola’s temporarily dormant brood as her husband Frank (Art Hindle) attempts to calm her moody offspring is a masterclass of nerve-shredding horror, resulting in a brutal climax that hammers Cronenberg’s real-life frustrations home. It reminds me of the final scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds when Melanie, Mitch and Lydia slowly exit to a legion of watching birds, but while Hitch plays on our expectations, beautifully wrapping up the whole odyssey, Cronenberg unleashes the most savage attack yet, a claustrophobic assault worsened by Shore’s wretched score, which plays our nervous system like a rusty concerto. It’s breathless stuff.
Film critic Leonard Maltin was clearly offended by such scenes, writing, “Eggar eats her own afterbirth while midget clones beat grandparents and lovely young schoolteachers to death with mallets. It’s a big, wide, wonderful world we live in!” Roger Ebert was similarly disgusted, calling the movie “disgusting in ways that are not entertaining,” asking “Are there really people who want to see reprehensible trash like this?” The answer was yes, as the movie once again proved a financial success on a relatively minuscule budget.
The Brood may not be for everyone, but sometimes a filmmaker comes along with ideas that are offensive to a generation who are snug in their comfort zone, who unsettle in such an innovative way as to inspire anger and disgust. Sometimes those emotions are warranted, but this is far from the bleak and remorseless endeavour that some critics would have you believe. It is bleak, it is remorseless, but it’s also a deeply fascinating experience, and as an exercise in terror as unique and effective as you are likely to find in the realms of low-budget horror. You’ll feel it in your guts long after the credits roll.