Considering that he continues to reign as one of the most highly respected names working in world cinema today, it is easy to forget David Cronenberg's early films were low-budget genre projects that were more likely to play as part of a double bill at the local grindhouse than as special presentations at top-tier film festivals. Of course, Cronenberg was neither the first filmmaker to get their start working in horror films before going on to the proverbial bigger and better things, nor was he the last. The difference is that for Cronenberg, these early works were not merely stepping stones designed to get him out of the sleazefests and into more respectable and personally felt projects. Instead, his efforts back then were as deeply felt, dramatically sound and ambitious as anything that he would go on to create over the ensuing decades—they just also happened to include enough sex, violence and bizarre imagery to play for exploitation fans as well. Never was this more apparent than in his 1979 effort "The Brood," a psychological drama/monster movie that startled audiences back in the day with its unique blend of physical and emotional brutality and which even today, as a spin of the new special edition Blu-ray now available from Criterion, packs a mighty wallop for anyone who dares to give it a spin.
At the time of its making, the Canadian-born Cronenberg was in a interesting position as a filmmaker. Following two early experimental features, "Stereo" (1969) and "Crimes of the Future" (1970), he came up with "Shivers" (1975), a grisly little number in which the residents of a futuristic high-rise building become infected by a newly-designed form of parasite—essentially a supercharged venereal disease—that transforms them into sex-crazed psychopaths hell-bent on destroying the world. The film caused an enormous stir in its home country, especially when it was determined that it was partly financed through a taxpayer-funded organization, but it was also a big hit throughout the world (with the exception of the US, where it was tossed onto the drive-in circuit with the cheesy retitling "They Came from Within.") His follow-up film, "Rabid" (1977), told a somewhat similar story—a woman undergoes an experimental form of plastic surgery that transforms her into a modern-day Typhoid Mary whose victims develop a craving for blood—and attracted additional attention by casting adult film icon Marilyn Chambers in the lead role (at the suggestion of co-producer Ivan Reitman, who turned down Cronenberg's choice of a pre-"Carrie" Sissy Spacek as being insufficiently famous and sexy for the part). Once again, the result was a box-office hit that inspired no small amount of controversy as well, and with this one-two punch, Cronenberg found himself in the odd position of being Canada's most successful filmmaker—someone who made financiers nervous because of the extreme nature of his work.
After a couple of years, Cronenberg returned with "Fast Company" (1979), a drag-racing film that allowed him to indulge in his passion for racing cars but which otherwise remains the most atypical film of his entire career. At this time, the Canadian film industry was bustling with activity as people began investing in films as tax shelters, and even Cronenberg's odd visions could attract financing if they could be brought in at the right price. Originally, his next project was going to be in the vein of "Stereo," and center upon violence and madness amongst a group of telepathics. Around this time, he was going through an especially nasty divorce and custody battle; a narrative inspired by that real-life horror, mixed in with a caustic look at the self-help movement that was exploding at the same time, began to take precedence in his mind. Eventually, he would table that original project (which would more or less mutate into the cult favorite "Scanners" in 1981) and write up the new one instead. This may have come as a surprise to his producers when they received a screenplay for a project that they'd never heard of before. Nonetheless, they were sufficiently excited enough to get him both his biggest budget to date (around $1.5 million), as well as his first legitimate movie stars in Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar.
"The Brood" centers around the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics, a controversial retreat outside of Toronto created by famed psychologist Hal Raglan (Reed), where patients learn to give physical manifestation to their emotional distresses towards others as sores, welts and other skin abrasions. One of Raglan's most disturbed patients (and one that he has genuine feelings for as well) is Nola Carveth (Eggar), a woman who was beaten by her mother, abandoned by a father who failed to protect her, and is currently separated from her estranged husband, Frank (Art Hindle), and their five-year-old daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds). Allegedly as part of her therapy, Raglan keeps Nola in isolation and refuses to let Frank see her, though he insists that Candy be allowed to visit her on weekends. After one such visit, Candy comes home with scratches and bruises on her back—Frank suspects that Nola is doing the same thing to her daughter that was done to her when she was a child. Believing that the only way the law will allow him to keep Candy away from Nola is to discredit Raglan and Somafree, Frank begins to investigate, and comes across a former patient who informs him that many of the others at Somafree have also suffered from strange physical deformities as a result.
One day, while Nola is in therapy with Raglan recounting a particularly painful memory involving her abuse as a child, her mother, who is looking after Candy, hears strange noises coming from her kitchen. When she goes to investigate, she is gruesomely murdered by what appears to be a dwarf in a red coat. This killer is seen by Candy but she is too terrified to tell anyone, even her father, what she witnessed. Later, Nola's father arrives for the funeral, staying in his ex's house, and the same thing happens—Nola bitterly denounces him during therapy and the thing emerges to kill him. This time, Frank finds the body and fights off the dwarf until it suddenly keels over and dies—during an autopsy, the doctor notes that it seems unformed in many ways and, more curiously, was apparently born without a navel. Later, two more of the things show up at Candy's school to murder her teacher (whom Nola mistakenly thinks is having an affair with Frank) and take Candy with them back to Somafree. Frank, who has learned from another Somafree patient that Nola apparently cares for a group of children up there, rushes to the clinic to rescue his daughter, only to make some shocking discoveries about the exact nature of those "children."
In the majority of the straight-up horror films from the bulk of the early career, Cronenberg offered up stories that took real-life concerns that weighed heavy upon the collective psyche (the pleasures and perils of sexual freedom and man's uneasy relationship with medical and technological breakthroughs chief among them) and then endeavored, much like the patients at Somafree, to give them physical expression in the ickiest manner imaginable. Although it was the grotesque nature of the visual effects that wound up dominating discussions about Cronenberg (exploding heads and people turing into walking VCR's have a tendency to do that), it was the easily recognizable underpinnings to Cronenberg's storylines that caused them to resonate so strongly and disturbingly with viewers. That was especially true in the case of "The Brood," the first of his films that made a conscious effort to present something in a completely serious manner, without relying on the lurid excesses of something like "Shivers" to make an impact on viewers.
In interviews, Cronenberg has claimed that "The Brood" was his version of "Kramer vs. Kramer," 1979's other divorce drama of note and while that sounds like a glib one-liner, the simple fact of the matter is that not only is that statement true, I would argue that it is the far-more-effective of the two films. Although it was considered ground-breaking enough in its day to become one of the year's top hits and a big winner at the Oscars, "Kramer vs Kramer" is one of those self-consciously "topical" films that feels dated the moment it comes out and which does not age particularly well in subsequent year—the whole thing came off as oddly antiseptic at best, borderline sexist at worst, and consumed with telling a story that would jerk tears at appropriate intervals without ever daring to delve into the raw emotions involved. "The Brood," on the other hand, captures the pain of divorce and its corrosive effect on everyone involved in such wounding and unsparing detail that most moviegoers—even those who have never experienced such a thing firsthand—will be reeling long before the literal monsters show up to do their damage. Even if one goes into the film without knowing anything about the situation that inspired its creation, "The Brood" feels unnervingly personal in ways that most films, regardless of genre, never even dare to attempt.
The strange thing is that "The Brood" is also the first Cronenberg film in which he demonstrates a certain amount of sympathy for his key characters, all of whom are developed to a much further extent than his earlier archetypes who were waiting to get gooped upon. Obviously, we are in total sympathy with Frank as he tries to get to the bottom of Raglan and his peculiar brand of therapy, and we feel Frank's anger at the ordeal that he and his daughter are being put through as the result of the seeming whims of his ex-wife and her doctor. That goes double for our feelings for Candy as she is forced to see and hear things that no one—especially someone her age—should have to endure as her family unit is gruesomely ripped asunder, both literally and metaphorically. At the same time, while it would have been easy enough to depict Nola as a one-dimensional monster, Cronenberg takes care to remind us that she too is a victim of childhood traumas that she now seems to be reenacting herself—he even shows her parents in a light that suggests that they too are burdened with the guilt of the seemingly never-ending damage that they brought upon their child. Even Raglan is painted in terms that make him seem like something other than the mad scientist that he might have been depicted as in the hands of another director—there is a certain arrogance to him at first that is perhaps understandable but once he realizes that things have spiraled far beyond his control, he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to make things right. This aspect is aided immeasurably by the uniformly strong performances from the cast, all of whom manage to create realistic characters amidst their increasingly weird surroundings—even Oliver Reed, not exactly the shrinking violet of the cinema, turns in a nicely modulated and largely ham-free turn here.
That said, while "The Brood" does work surprisingly well as a domestic drama, it functions even better, if less surprisingly, as a horror film. While "They Came from Within" and "Rabid" were more concerned with grossing out viewers with bizarre imagery (not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that), this film found Cronenberg more interested in getting under their skin by creating a palpable sense of tension and then hitting them with brief but powerful moments of sudden brutality. Right from the start, he sets the tone by creating a chilly atmosphere—all the characters are bundled up throughout to fend off the bitter Canadian cold—that perfectly matches their emotional moods. (This is not the kind of film that one can easily imagine taking place in any other season other than the bleakness of winter after the holidays.) The first big scare scene, in which Nola's mother is attacked, is a little masterpiece of suspense that also inadvertently now plays as a deft parody of the big scene in "Kramer vs Kramer" where father and son get into it in the kitchen over the ice cream. The other great sequence comes when the two creatures arrive at Candy's school to kidnap her. At this point in the story, we have some knowledge of what they look like and what they are capable of doing—the question, of course, is how to get a rise out of the audience now that they have some kind of grasp of what is going on. Without giving it away for those who have not yet seen the film, I will note that Cronenberg ingeniously pulls it off by cleverly hiding the danger in plain sight until just the right moment. and setting it within the confines of the one place where viewers might reasonably think to relax on the basis that nothing could happen there.
As good as "The Brood" is, I must admit that the final scenes are a bit of a mess [spoilers for the rest of this paragraph]. For starters, throughout the film we are led to believe that Nola is somehow controlling the creatures through her emotional outbursts during her therapy sessions. But when Frank arrives at Somafree and confronts Raglan, the doctor admits to their existence, but claims that Nola has no idea that they have taken Candy and brought her back to the institute, suggesting that the brood are somehow working independently, and thereby adding a new wrinkle at the precise moment when the loose ends need to be tied up. I suppose "The Brood" could have overcome this question mark somehow, but then it gets even more baffling when it comes to the plan to rescue Candy: Frank will visit Nola to keep her calm and distracted, while Raglan sneaks into the room where Candy is being held by the creatures, in order to get her out while they are subdued. Needless to say, it all goes sideways. Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that if Raglan had gone in to distract Nola, instead of sending in Frank, the one guy left guaranteed to send her into a creature-stirring fury, the plan might have worked. But if it had played out that way, we wouldn't have gotten to Cronenberg's Grand Guignol finale, which finds Raglan gunning down a number of his child-sized assailants before succumbing, and Nola revealing in stomach-churning detail exactly how those things come into being.
Like Cronenberg's other films up until that time, "The Brood" did not make much of an impact in America during its initial release—it was dumped into theaters with an ad campaign that made it look like another cheapo horror film. And while there were some good reviews here and there, it received a number of hostile notices from key critics like Roger Ebert, (whose review was so overflowing with disgust over what he had seen that he failed to even mention Cronenberg's name once), and soon disappeared from view. However, it did develop a cult following from people who recognized that it was the work of a genuine artist, and not just a hack looking to spill some blood (John Carpenter and Martin Scorsese were among those early adopters). Interest in Cronenberg and his work grew exponentially following the surprise success of his next film, "Scanners" (1981), which became his first to top the U.S. box-office chart. Over the next few decades, his stature would grow even greater, and he would go on to make more than his fair share of undeniably great films—"Videodrome" (1983), "The Dead Zone" (1983), "The Fly" (1986), "Dead Ringers" (1988), "Naked Lunch" (1991), "Crash" (1996), "A History of Violence" (2005) and "A Dangerous Method" (2011) among them. "The Brood," however, was the first great one—the first time when Cronenberg's audacious vision and storytelling skills were in perfect sync—and even today, it is a hard one to shake after you have seen it.
Cronenberg is no stranger to the Criterion Collection—a number of his films have received their deluxe treatment over the years—and while the Blu-ray package put together for "The Brood" may not be as overwhelming as some of their higher-profile releases, the company has put together a nice set, even though a Cronenberg commentary is not included among the special features. The package does include a complete bonus film in the form of a restored version of Cronenberg's 1970 experimental feature "Crimes of the Future," which does include an ersatz Cronenberg commentary in the form of the audio of a 2011 interview focusing on his first films. There is also a new and informative documentary on the making of the film (as well as his other early works), that includes interviews from the likes of Eggar, cinematographer Mark Irwin and makeup effects experts Rick Baker and Joe Blasco. In addition, there are interviews from 2013 with Art Hindle and Cindy Hinds—after the wringer that Hinds is put through in the film, it is a weird sort of relief to see her in real life and realize that she is okay after all. And in a delightfully odd time capsule, there is a segment of a 1980 episode of "The Merv Griffin Show," in which Oliver Reed promotes the film alongside a panel that includes the likes of Orson Welles, Charo and the Elevator Killer himself.