Sunday, August 19, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.6: David Cronenberg's The Brood

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 93 (A)

Most great directors have at least one film where they put their own personal traumas on screen. Paul Thomas Anderson had Magnolia. David Lynch had Eraserhead. Francois Truffaut had The 400 Blows. Even if it’s a case like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist where the film in question isn’t necessarily one of the director’s best, it’s almost always one of their most interesting. David Cronenberg’s The Brood is both one of his finest and most fascinating films. Inspired by Cronenberg’s bitter divorce from his first wife (he’s called the film his own horror version of Kramer vs. Kramer), it’s easily his nastiest film, as well as one of the most lacerating portraits of an ex-spouse ever put on celluloid. But that’s part of what makes the film so potent.

Frank Carveth (Ard Hindle) is deeply concerned. His disturbed wife Nola Carveth (Samatha Eggar) has taken up at the Somafree Institute, where psychotherapist Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) forces patients to express their suppressed emotions, which he believes can cause physiological changes to the body. Nola has taken their daughter Candice with her, and when Frank visits and finds scratches and bruises on Candice, he takes her with him and accuses Raglan of making Nola’s condition worse. But something strange is following them- a group of sexless, deformed children who violently attack friends and family members.

The Brood sees a number of changes in Cronenberg’s approach. It’s the first film of his to features big-name actors (Reed, Eggar). It’s the first personal film of his (not including Fast Company) to feature a budget over $1 million. It’s his first collaboration with composer Howard Shore, who would go on to score every Cronenberg film other than The Dead Zone (it’s also, incidentally, Shore’s first film score). And it’s Cronenberg’s first film that fully develops all of the central characters.

It all makes a difference. Cronenberg is a better director of actors than some give him credit, and The Brood is exhibit A (well, maybe exhibit B, considering his work with Marilyn Chambers in Rabid), with Reed and Eggar giving some of the best work of their careers as the cold, creepy Dr. Raglan and the disturbed Nola. That’s not to say the rest of the cast doesn’t do fantastic work as well, from Hindle as a concerned, protective father to Robert A. Silverman as Nola’s distraught father to Susan Hogan as a schoolteacher who gets in between Frank and Nola. But Reed and Eggar are the real acting draw here.

The opening of the film focuses on a therapy session between Reed and another patient played by Gary McKeehan. Reed role plays as McKeehan’s unaccepting, emotionally abusive father so as to draw out McKeehan’s pain, and it all seems creepy and emotionally abusive in its own way, as if Raglan were the center of a cult, which is the point. Cronenberg reportedly believed (wrongfully, it turned out) that his own wife was involved with a cult, and he channels that fear into the film. Reed’s natural chilliness only makes the situation more uneasy, which is a clever bait-and-switch considering how much more complicated Reed’s character is than a standard bad guy. He’s a character who genuinely believes he is doing the right thing. He isn’t the first Cronenberg scientist whose work ultimately proves catastrophic (see: Shivers), but he’s the first truly well-rounded character in a series of men doomed by their own inquisitiveness.

Eggar commits to a deeply unhinged performance that calls for her to be one of the most disturbing things imaginable: a parent who lashes out at her child. Eggar comes off as sympathetic early on- she’s a deeply disturbed person with deep emotional wounds from her childhood as her drunk mother took out her own pain on her daughter and her father turned his head and looked away. But that doesn’t change that she’s a frightening individual whose actions and thoughts do harm to her family. Cronenberg has said that he didn’t initially write The Brood intending to reflect his divorce from his own wife, but that it did end up reflecting her. As such, he isn’t without compassion towards the film’s villain, but she’s someone to be feared nonetheless, a venomous monster who spews uncontrollable rage towards anyone she feels has slighted her, from her parents to her child.

The director shows greater concern for the characters than he had before (likely because of how clearly Frank and Candice are based off of himself and his daughter), but it’s not a warm film by any means. If anything, it’s the most despairing and grim horror film of the 70s outside of The Exorcist, with a Cronenberg-surrogate desperately trying and failing to protect his daughter from her mother’s uncontrollable anger. Cronenberg has said that his ex-wife put him and his daughter through great emotional turmoil, and it shows. Even before the horror elements truly take charge, Frank’s journey to protect his daughter is wracked with tension. He’s told that the law favors motherhood, and that he could likely lose her. It’s bad enough that he essentially had to kidnap his own daughter in order to take her away from her mother, or that she has to go through this in the first place. It’s also very telling that Candice is too traumatized to talk throughout most of the movie.

The big budget means that Cronenberg can go all-out on the body horror effects, and boy, does he ever. Filmmaker Edgar Wright said once in an interview with The A.V. Club that The Brood was “where [Cronenberg’s] visuals start to match his ideas”. While Cronenberg had certainly shown progression as a filmmaker as a filmmaker with Rabid, Wright isn’t wrong (ha, his name sounds like “right”). The director shows greater mastery of how to craft a thriller, with early signs of things going wrong (milk and orange juice getting knocked over in the kitchen, mixing together in an oddly unsettling way)  and building tension before we see the creatures, which look like deformed versions of Candice. Cronenberg’s use of blood as a visual texture (particularly in a nightmarish scene at Candice’s school) is viscerally upsetting in a way his earlier films only hinted at. And it’s nothing compared to what happens in the outlandish final scene.

 Cronenberg’s earlier films Shivers and Rabid had effective, moody music to them without any credited composers (producer Ivan Reitman- yes, Ghostbusters Ivan Reitman- is credited as “music supervisor”). It’s telling how vital Shore’s collaboration with Cronenberg is that I believed for the longest time that he provided the music for the earlier films. But attentive listeners might be able to tell the difference between Shore’s work here and the music in earlier Cronenberg films. Where the first films mostly limited themselves to moody rumblings, Shore’s work here is all-out assaultive, like Bernard Herrmann at his most horrifying.

Cronenberg more or less defined what Body Horror was in Shivers, but The Brood is his strongest expression of what it could do yet. Where earlier Cronenberg films saw change in the body as an invasion, The Brood sees it as a manifestation of psychological harm. It’s a film filled with deep personal chaos and psychological confusion, where the victims develop welts not, as one might believe at first viewing, from physical abuse, but as a manifestation of their own psychological trauma.
“Mommies don’t hurt their own children”, as Eggar says, but her experiences say otherwise- she considers her parents to be tormentors, and her rage cannot stay pent up forever. The creatures, it turns out, are not Reed’s doing, but children borne out of mental rage.

The final scene shows a horrifying embryonic sac attached to Eggar’s body, a sort of external womb. The shape of rage (the title of Raglan’s book) is now that of a bizarre, organic human tissue, which gives way to the film’s most disturbing scene as Eggar gives birth to one of the creatures…and proceeds to lick it clean like an animal might do to its young. Frank is ultimately forced to kill his own wife to stop the brood of deformed creatures from killing Candice (Raglan isn’t so lucky). But his actions come too late. Those welts start boiling up on Candice, a product of her own trauma. She’s forever scarred in a cycle of never-ending hurt. It’s one of Cronenberg’s most pessimistic films, where his normally chilly tone (still somewhat present) gives way to overwhelming passion, anger, and pain. But an artist’s pain often makes for their most powerful art.

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