In all its fully formed body-horror glory, David Cronenberg’s The Brood was spawned from the messiest of breakups. Released in 1979, the same year that the similarly themed – but drastically different in tone – custody battle in Kramer vs. Kramer would court Oscar gold, Cronenberg’s film served as cathartic outlet for his own recent divorce angst involving the ugly legal wrangling over a child. Appropriately for a director who would spend much of the coming decade telling stories that would impose psychic phenomena onto the physical world, the product of Cronenberg’s anger takes the shape of a film in which powerful negative emotions manifest into their own biological entities.

The Brood opens starkly with a charismatic psychotherapist, Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed), sitting pretzel-legged on stage under a spotlight across from a patient (Gary McKeehan). They are engaging in an academic presentation of the process of “psychoplasmics,” a therapeutic technique that compels the release of repressed trauma and emotion through physiological changes, typically in the rapid manifestation of nasty skin lesions. Raglan intensely embodies paternal or other authority figures in this therapy, in this case frighteningly berating and emasculating his patient, who meekly calls him “daddy” until Raglan finally coaxes him to “push all the way through” his anger until he comes out the other side. This uncomfortable scene sets the stage for a structurally straightforward but narratively twisted film that’s among the best (both on a technical and storytelling level) of the Canadian director’s early works.

The meat of the film involves husband Frank (Art Hindle) and wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) fighting each other from afar for custody of the couple’s young child, Candice (Cindy Hinds). Suffering from a severe mental disorder that has prompted her intensive residential treatment at Dr. Raglan’s isolated facility, Nola expresses profound trauma from her alcoholic mother and aloof father, and soon these figures wind up dead, savagely beaten by malformed child assassins with hair the same color as Candice’s. You see, with Nola, psychoplasmics is so effective, her rage results in asexual reproduction through the budding of an external womb, revealed to Frank in a climactic scene so grotesque that it still shocks four decades later. That image, along with three murder-by-bludgeoning scenes that don’t hold up nearly as well, prompted some critical pearl-clutching, with Roger Ebert going so far as to call the film “reprehensible trash.”

Nevertheless, this is one of Cronenberg’s earliest treasures. There has been no shortage of monstrous mothers in cinema, but The Brood takes the conceit a step further by making motherhood, and in fact the womb itself, into an abomination. Eggar plays Nola with wild-eyed flair, portraying mental illness as fearsome and reproduction as something from which to recoil. Eggar even concocted the idea to lick the fetus clean after tearing it from the exo-womb sac, a prolonged, graphic sequence that ultimately wouldn’t pass censorship muster. But while The Brood exploits our cultural squeamishness toward the biology of reproduction, it stops short of demonizing maternity or womanhood at large. After all, Nola’s disturbing transformation results from actions of the men in her life, most directly through the negligent audacity of Dr. Raglan and his frenzied pursuit of genius, but also through a neglectful father who enabled her alcoholic mother’s abuse and from Frank’s inability to offer her the domestic stability she needs.

Much of the film’s success hinges on Reed’s intense performance as Dr. Raglan, a man so driven to pioneer his controversial technique that he is unmoved by the fact his treatments create addiction and even cancerous tumors. In literally embodying father figures during these sessions, he’s an imposing paternalistic presence, and Reed’s steely gravitas is crucial to making the character work. When Reed is coupled with Eggar’s chilling turn as Nola, Cronenberg gets perhaps the first two acting performances that are pivotal to heightening the impact of one of his pictures. He’s also aided by a striking score from Howard Shore, with whom the director would go on to collaborate in each of his subsequent films save one. That alone makes The Brood a watershed moment – Shore’s score is one of the most effective aspects of Cronenberg’s uneven next project, Scanners – but thematically, this film shifts the director’s focus from body horror as exploitation to the physical manifestation of psychological and technological forces, opening up a rich vein of sociocultural commentary that was lacking in his earliest output. Conceived from personal turmoil, The Brood infused a new kind of humanity into Cronenbergian grotesquery.

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