The Brood (1979)

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*. I’ll begin by saying that this is probably my favourite David Cronenberg film. Not necessarily his best, but my favourite.
*. Why do I like it so much? I’d start with the screenplay. It seems to me to be the most mature statement of his theme of body horror: a brilliant, original, and disgusting concept grounded in a compelling, efficient, personal story involving real people that we care about.
*. I also like its visual imagination. Yes, the killer midgets in snowsuits may have been a borrowing from Don’t Look Now, but why not borrow the good stuff? And Cronenberg makes them his own.
*. But by visual imagination I also mean what I might call storyboard narrative. I don’t know how much Cronenberg uses storyboards, but there’s one passage in this film that is so perfect in its layout that I think it’s one of the very best episodes in any horror move I’ve ever seen.

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*. I’m thinking of the murder of the teacher Ruth Mayer and the abduction of Candice from the public school. From beginning to end this whole sequence comes in at under four minutes of screen time, which is amazing.
*. Here are just some random thoughts about it. First of all, there’s the great use of high and low-angle camerawork. We look down on the crowd of ankle-biters because we begin with Frank and Wendy at an elevation above the school doors as the kids enter the school, an elevation that is duplicated inside the school as there is a platform above the classroom area that we also look down from (and will again as we look down on Ruth’s body). This keeps the identity of the brood children concealed (though we know who they are as soon as they’re isolated playing on the tire swing). This concealment can be quite subtle. Note how the important shot of the brood kids entering the school plays out in the deep background of a shot of Frank talking to Wendy.
*. Then there is the horrible impropriety of it. A murder not only in broad daylight, but in a classroom filled with small children! Is no place sacred? Terrorized tots are a horror gimme, but still you’ve gotta love it. That crayon drawing Frank pulls over Ruth’s bloody face is perfect.
*. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out a couple of things about this sequence that don’t work, and that are representative of where the film falls down.

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*. In the first place, there is the weird imperturbability of Candice and her teacher when they come face to face with the brood children. Shouldn’t they seem more alarmed, or at least nervous? This blankness is something that I didn’t understand. Nola’s mother is also a little slow on showing any fear at the imp tearing apart her kitchen, and Frank doesn’t show much expression when Nola reveals her reproductive accessories to him. Was it intentional to keep things this low-key?
*. The other criticism I had was that the murder itself wasn’t very well staged. Again, this is a problem elsewhere in the film, particularly in the murder of Nola’s mother. It doesn’t look like either victim is being struck remotely hard enough to do any damage, and I’m not even sure those tiny wooden mallets the brood kids are using would be able to do much no matter how hard someone was swinging them (alas, plastic safety scissors would have made an even worse option). I would make the general observation that at this point in his career Cronenberg really wasn’t very good at filming action sequences. Even at the end it’s very clear Frank isn’t choking Nola.
*. I can’t leave Candice at school without mentioning that I had the very same Happy Days lunch pail when I went to school. I can smile about it now.

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*. The Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics. Well that sounds . . . different. Another Cronenbergian institute out in the hinterlands whose specialized cures are worse than the disease. But how far into the hinterlands are we? Those amniotic gas tanks the brood have on their backs must be pretty big if they’re walking all the damn way to Toronto, and back, on their murderous expeditions.
*. I love the police inspector’s lines as he leads Frank into the station and updates him on the case. It’s the sort of dry, absurd wit Cronenberg usually reserves for his scientists, but it plays just as well coming out of a cop’s mouth. “We were spending our time checking out an Estonian musician.” Gold. “My guess is it’s some crazy woman who 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.”
*. Hm. So you’re an old woman living alone and your kitchen is being smashed apart and you figure you should . . . go take a look. It’s probably just a very localized earthquake. Or a raccoon. Let’s open the door and find out.
*. Also very funny is Bob Silverman’s Jan Hartog. His gleeful revelation of his cancer (“It’s spreading!”) may be my favourite line in the entire Cronenberg oeuvre. He’s also very good in his brief role in Scanners as the isolated artist.
*. A father defending his messed-up family. There’s something essential to this, more even than it being Stephen King’s main theme in the 1980s. It’s a motif that you see developing more and more throughout twentieth-century fiction. I’m not sure what the full meaning of it is, but I’ve been wondering about it for a while.
*. As has been well reported, the idea for the plot came out of Cronenberg’s own messy divorce and custody battle. You really get a feel for this in Frank’s final confrontation with Nola, as he mouths a string of sensitive-man platitudes before she reveals herself to be a monster and he gets to strangle her. I love an angry filmmaker. It brings out the best in them.
*. I wonder if there was a nod to Cold Comfort Farm‘s “something nasty in the woodshed” in calling that building a woodshed. It looks like a pretty upscale woodshed to me.
*. I still think that Oliver Reed, with a gun, should have easily been able to handle a whole cabin full of those homicidal ankle-biters in their colourful jumpers. Yes, they’ve got lots of attitude. But they’re not very big, or strong. Though the one that kills Nola’s father has a hell of an arm throwing the glass globe through the wall.
*. Samantha Eggar’s accent works because it makes her seem even more alien. That her parents don’t have accents is par for the course. Perhaps she’s a brood baby herself. In any event, she also looks impressively bat-shit crazy, while Oliver Reed looks suitably repressed, like someone who is barely maintaining a reluctant sobriety.
*. The rest of the cast are pretty solid. Even Candy (Cindy Hinds) is effectively creepy, while Art Hindle is about as straight an everyman as you could ask for (though his hair is improbably glorious, looking like something out of a shampoo commercial).
*. Roger Ebert thought it “reprehensible trash.” He also thought it “a bore . . . because hardly anything of interest happens until the last 15 minutes or so.” This is not true. There are several excellent suspense sequences that come before the end. As with his negative response to Blue Velvet, one feels a bit of a knee-jerk attitude toward violence.
*. But then who doesn’t have such a reaction? Violence isn’t doing its job in a film if it doesn’t make your knee jerk. This one certainly has that, and even more, it’s a movie that gets inside you.

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