The Brood (1979)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 26, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Universal (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). Engllish DD 2.0. 87 minutes
The Movie
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle, Henry Beckman
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Country: Canada
Oliver Reed was a really good actor. All you would need to do would be to watch this or Ken Russell's heretical masterpiece The Devils to see that. Too many people write Reed off as a drunken bum, but like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, he really did prove that being a drinker didn't make you a societal waste of space. He was one hard-done by bastard in that respect.

And this version of this film is hard-done by – with cut footage not re-inserted (lazy – very lazy, Universal), and no – count 'em – extras, The Brood is an early Cronenberg masterpiece – and to me it is one of his best films – that deserves better treatment than it's received here. Thank whatever deity you believe in that it's still a brilliantly written, and pretty un-nerving, story, receiving a reasonable transfer.

Dr Hal Raglan (why can Cronenberg never name his characters well, or believably? I mean, cop these ones on for size from a number of movies: Hal Raglan, Seth Brundle, Barry Convex, Brian O'Blivion – these are not good names for your characters, Dave – they lack credibility, despite their occasionally symbolic relevance) is the director of the Somafree Institute (and now he's beating us over the head with references to Huxley's Brave New World – indicating that mental heath can be achieved without medication – Soma being a mental/emotional painkiller in Huxley's text – so "Soma-free", would equal "no-drugs"), a mental hospital where he indulges in experimenting with his new form of psychiatric therapy, "Psychoplasmics" – the idea being to release built-up repressed emotions in his patients. This seems to be achieved mainly by semi-hypnotising them and shouting a lot, but who am I to judge? Call me crazy, but I personally fail to see the therapeutic value of questioning your patient's gender orientation and telling them you're "God-damned fucking ashamed of them" in a public forum, as in the opening scene here.

As always with Cronenberg, this story deals with some pretty weighty ideas: parental abuse of children, dysfunctional family relationships, cultish brainwashing, medical ethics – Cronenberg always includes the heavy psychological elements; he makes horror for the thinking man, and I have nothing but total respect for that. Cronenberg is a director who has never spoken down to his audience, he pitches high level concepts through a medium, and often genre, that is criticised for being low-brow, and pulls it off, even when the film itself might not be too hot (Existenz and The Naked Lunch being two examples of such, in my opinion). Even though I'll be the first to sit down with a box of pop-corn to watch a Herschell Gordon Lewis or Jess Franco sleaze-grinder, and watch them for the exploitative fare that they are and enjoy them immensely for that very reason, this is the kind of film-making that pushes all my buttons – intelligent, bold and daring; you have to work to keep up with a Cronenberg film. Like John Carpenter or George Romero, the anti-authoritarian stripe down Cronenberg's back is a mile wide in bright flashing neon – he's a subversive genius.

The Carveth family are having problems. Frank, Lola and little Candy just aren't getting along, so Lola has been sent to the Somafree Institute, where she becomes one of Dr Raglan's star patients. But the question is raised pretty early on – is she viciously abusing her 5 year old daughter? Candy is allowed to visit her mother – but Frank isn't allowed to see his wife, for fear of upsetting her treatment; already we can see Cronenberg questioning the wisdom of the medical fraternity overstepping its bounds and creating family discord, despite claiming the contrary, and being responsible for child abuse.

However, Raglan is no one-dimensional bad guy (matter of fact, he's no bad guy at all, despite Reed's cold, clinical, yet subtly menacing portrayal of him), and he wants to get to the bottom of things, and begins more intensive therapy with Nola. The only real problem with this is that while he's trying to do good, he unwittingly unleashes Nola's untrammelled rage against a range of victims – and that rage takes a physical form, and one that is psychotically violent. Nola quite literally gives birth, although not in the conventional sense, to "rage babies", homicidal children of her anger and frustration, and they exact lethal retribution for all of the slights she thinks she has, or actually has, endured.

Now, you're possibly thinking, "Rage babies, how naff is that?" Well, you just watch this film and see how vicious, brutal and above all homicidal these deformed little munchkins are, literally physically twisted by fury into something sub-human (Cronenberg keeps them wisely off-camera for as long as he can, thus keeping them more frightening, a la Alien) – and then you think of any time when you've been inarticulate with anger, when your primeval self rises to the surface and you want to kill – that's what they're meant to represent. It's done effectively, too – we're not talking Belial from Basket Case or the evil children of the It's Alive trilogy here, these implacable killers are positively ferocious and frightening.

Worst of all, you have to bear in mind that it's Nola committing these murders, via her hate children – when you see Nola's mother viciously beaten to death with a meat tenderiser at the beginning of the film, that's Nola savaging her own mother, albeit in revenge for the abuse foisted upon her as a child.

My only gripe with this film is that Samantha Eggar as Nola is so utterly repellent that the audience lose all potential sympathy for her, and to my mind, she should be sympathetic, given that she is also a victim.

This film presents us with a pretty damaged crew of characters – the dysfunctional, the abused, the mentally ill, the alcoholic – and pretty much states that medical science can't fix 'em. If anything, it's making them worse.

The tension in the final scene is unbeatable, Oliver Reed showing his true mettle. It rapidly becomes an extremely difficult situation to watch, violence against children being a big no-no. But Cronenberg, above all other directors, doesn't flinch from the evil and the nasty.

I must say, I did find it ironic when at one point, when Nola's father accosts Raglan and Raglan's crony Chris asks to intervene, Oliver Reed excuses someone on the basis that they're drunk – I had to suppress a laugh. I'm not one to be making fun of the dead, nor to have a laugh at the hard-drinkin' type of person (I'm one myself, and cop a lot of flak for it on a daily basis), but if you're of my age and remember Olly's superbly exaggerated (playing to the camera based on his reputation, I've heard) wasted performance on I think it was either the Parkinson or Aspel chat show, when he shambled on-stage with a jug of vodka and orange and tried to sing, "I'm a Wild One" – that line of defence just seems a little ironically amusing. Cheers, Mr Reed, I'm raising a glass to you right now, and in honest and sincere tribute from the bottom of my drunken soul – I hope I go out the same way you did.
The 16:9 enhanced 1.78:1 transfer is not terribly sharp, although not excessively blunt, this is a film that deserved better. A decent digital re-mastering job from an original negative might just cover it.
The English DD 2.0 track is clear and easy to understand, but nothing better.
Extra Features
Absolutely bugger all. That's the reason I knocked a point off this disc – well, that and the reason that it's (even if only by a little bit) cut. Why the fuck couldn't Universal go back to the original negative, rather than simply port a transfer off the VHS release? And was a director commentary too much to fuckin' ask? There must be one out there, surely?
The Verdict
A superior film with an inferior release, basically. This needs to be re-released uncut and with some reasonable features on it. Putting out a bare-bones cut version of a Cronenberg film like this is a disgrace. What the companies don't seem to realise is that films like The Brood are watched by fans – people like you and me who are willing to pay up for the good stuff. Given the age of this film and its absence of contemporary A-list actors, it's not like some 16 year old who likes the Scream films is likely to be walking the horror aisle of their local Blockbuster or Video Ezy and pick this up – look at your loyal target audience and cater to them, fellas; you'll be surprised how quickly you'll get their support, and thence make your filthy lucre. They just don't seem to realise that we are willing to pay for quality releases. With discs like this, they're shooting themselves in the foot. It's all too reminiscent of the Media Blasters Lizard in a Woman's Skin fiasco – what? I need to pay twice to get a proper cut? – what these companies need to understand is that you don't fuck the fans – it drives people towards downloading, and nobody wants that. I'll get off my soapbox and reiterate that The Brood is a dark, unsettling and nasty piece of work from the Golden Age of horror, and from the Golden Age of Cronenberg. This disc might be flawed, but the film certainly isn't.
Movie Score
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