At last! David Cronenberg’s classic 1979 body horror picture (his third after having made Shivers and Rabid) receives the treatment it deserves on UK blu-ray and DVD. It’s been a long time coming but hopefully, as this review will reveal, it’s been worth the wait.
Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) is becoming increasingly concerned about the treatment of his ex-wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) at the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics. As if being a patient at a David Cronenberg Hospital for Body Horror isn’t bad enough, the place also happens to be run by Oliver Reed, who plays institute head Dr Hal Raglan. Raglan’s experiments have centred on psychiatric patients making their symptoms, and especially their rage, physical. As Nola’s increasingly psychotic anger is vented during her sessions, brutal murders begin to befall those at whom it’s directed. When Frank’s daughter is abducted he is led to Raglan’s institute and a final deliciously-gruesome confrontation that, if you are not familiar with it, is not going to be spoiled for you by this review.
The Brood represented an important milestone in David Cronenberg’s career. It was his first film to be made with Canada’s Filmplan International, with whom he went on to make Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983); it was his first film to have a reasonable budget, allowing him to employ two major movie stars; and it was the first of his films to feature the creative team he would work with on his next few projects (including art director Carol Spier, whose book cover design for Raglan’s The Shape of Rage was used to illustrate pretty much everything written about the director at the time, and director of photography Mark Irwin) and in the case of Howard Shore it would result in a composer-director relationship that exists to this day.
It also garnered Cronenberg some excellent critical notices. This is hardly surprising as it was a film written and made from the heart. At the time of its release Cronenberg referred to it as his version of Kramer vs Kramer, the storyline arising from his own experiences with his recent divorce and attempts to gain child custody. The script for what would end up as his next film, Scanners, had already been written (under the title The Sensitives) but The Brood was the film Cronenberg admitted to himself he needed to make next, and the integrity of his intentions permeates the film.
The Brood has been treated rather badly on UK home video over the years. VHS transfers have always used the slightly trimmed UK print. The two-disc Anchor Bay DVD set released in 2005 tried to redress the problem, providing the UK cut on one disc and the uncut US print on a second. Unfortunately the US print was taken from an NTSC master which meant there was a loss of picture quality.
Second Sight’s new blu-ray transfer is, therefore, exactly what UK fans of this movie have been waiting for. The print is uncut and the transfer is clean and bright, making it without a doubt the best version of The Brood available. The DVD Second Sight are also releasing utilises the same source print. The previous Anchor Bay release had as its only significant extra a documentary on David Cronenberg from the ‘Directors Series’. This has not been ported over to the Second Sight release, but instead they’ve gone the extra mile and provided us with some Brood-specific goodies instead. First up is Producing the Brood – an interview with Pierre David, who explains how he ended up involved in the production of the movie and how easy it was to deal with everyone involved – except Oliver Reed. Depending on how you view the antics of dear old Olly will determine whether you’ll be chuckling with affection or shaking your head in despair at David’s tale of Mr Reed’s nude bet that caused him to end up in police custody. Fangoria editor Chris Alexander talks to stars Art Hindle and Cindy Hinds and takes them back to the school location used for the film. Mark Irwin talks about his involvement with the project and about Oliver Reed, and there’s an interview with Robert Silverman (The Brood, Scanners, Existenz) which reveals him to be the unique personality many have probably always suspected him to be. Finally, David Cronenberg himself is interviewed in Cronenberg – The Early Years and it’s a delight to see that he is still as enthusiastic about his first few projects after all this time.
The Brood is a classic film from a director who has seldom put a foot wrong during a long, complex, varied, and never less than interesting career. Second Sight have finally done this film the justice it deserves and their release of this film deserves to be on the shelf of every discerning Cronenberg fan.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
Preceding Scanners, but far more consistent on all levels, The Brood is arguably Cronenberg’s first truly great film.
Hindle plays Frank Carveth, whose estranged wife Nola (Eggar) is undergoing therapy with Dr Hal Raglan (Reed) for the psychological damage she sustained as a child. Raglan’s speciality is the field of ‘psychoplasmics’ – although somewhat murkily expressed, it seems to revolve around the idea of repressed anger and emotion becoming physically manifested – presumably to become, eventually, a separate entity to the patient. Raglan stimulates the growth through repeated role-play, taking on the persona of the various relevant figures in the patient’s life. Nola is his star patient, but when Frank collects their daughter Candice following a stay with her mother, he finds signs of physical violence. Warned by his lawyer that he cannot deny Nola contact with their child without the kind of legal battle that could cost him all access, he begins to investigate Raglan’s Somafree Clinic (a nod to Aldous Huxley there, Mr Cronenberg?) He’s aided by Jan Hartog, a disgruntled – and entertainingly bonkers – ex-patient of Raglan’s, while sharing his worries with Candice’s schoolteacher Ruth Mayer (Susan Hogan). Meanwhile, as Nola’s therapy progresses, her anger gains expression – against her mother Juliana (Nuala Fitzgerald) who physically abused her as a child, then against her father Barton (Harry Beckman) who did nothing to prevent it. And the people who’ve incurred her wrath start dying. Violently. The killers are a pack of creatures, childlike in build but with hideous, wizened faces. The ‘Brood’ are the reason why Nola is Raglan’s star patient – they are psychoplasmics’ ultimate success story, the children of her rage. And when Nola becomes angry, they become murderous…
Cronenberg handles the material with a fine restraint, showing just enough of the Brood to ensure they’re unsettling rather than unintentionally comic (although it’s worth noting that they all wear onesies; final proof that those things are evil) and preferring atmosphere over gross-out. Composer Howard Shore provides an effective but unobtrusive score, adding to the atmosphere. The performances are at worst adequate and at best superb. Reed is, as always, magnificent, exuding ruthless determination and a virile gravitas that makes him believable both as a father figure to Nola and a sexual threat to Frank. At one point Raglan’s damaged and discarded patient Michael (McKeehan) taunts Frank ‘Dr Raglan wants to be alone with your wife!’ As Nola, Eggar is alternately sympathetic and terrifying, and her scenes with Reed, with her rapid changes from one to the other, and his corresponding shifts in and out of role, have a particular power. Special mention should also go to Silverman and McKeehan in their supporting roles: as Jan Hartog, Silverman delivers a slice of truly glorious ham, while McKeehan, as Michael, is both pitiable and a haunting index of Raglan’s underlying ruthlessness.
The Brood is also a fine articulation of themes that Cronenberg would truly make his own in later work. It anticipates more searching explorations of the ‘destroying demons within us in films’ such as Dead Ringers, and its climactic vision of Eggar’s physical transformation into a ‘monstrous mother’ refines earlier, cruder explorations of the body as source of horror, looking forward to still more disturbing expressions of the theme in Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch and Existenz. It’s easy, however, to see why some critics have detected misogyny in The Brood. There are only three adult female characters of any substance in the film, one of them Nola herself, the source of the murderous Brood, and another her abusive alcoholic mother Julianna. Ruth, initially presented as an apparent love interest for Frank and surrogate mother for Candice, is given far less depth. Susan Hogan brings great warmth to the role, and her character remains a symbol of a ‘good woman’, as Candice, the film’s only other female character, remains one of childhood innocence.
As Ramsey Campbell reminds us, though, all art is essentially about what the artist was going through at the time, and apparently Cronenberg originated the film while going through a painful and messy divorce during which he was denied access to his daughter. In that sense, perhaps, The Brood is best seen as a child of his own rage.
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle
Running time: 92 minutes
Blu-ray release date: 8 July 2013
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