Putting a post on David Cronenberg was never going to be an easy task. This is a movie maker who means different things to different generations, to the “Twitter-Facebook” Gen X, it is Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, it is another thing that most of those self proclaimed Cronenberg “movie buffs” would know nothing about Spider, one of his more under rated movies, in the last decade. Or maybe that movie was too “slow” and lacking “entertainment” values, sorry for the rant, it is just that interacting with some of these “hyper active” movie buffs, just makes me feel mighty pissed off, with their “outlook”. Anyway that is a different topic, altogether, don’t want to go there now. But if one actually takes a look at Cronenberg’s career, it is something that could be divided into various phases, the early body horror phase ( Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly) to his more psychological horror ones( The Dead Zone, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, eXistenz) to his recent gangster dramas( A History of Violence, Eastern Promises).
While Cronenberg is quite often credited for introducing the body horror genre, into movies, the first movie that actually was a precusor of this genre was a 1977 B-grade sci fi horror movie, The Incredible Melting Man, directed by William Sachs. The movie is about an astronaut, exposed to radiation, who begins to find his flesh peeling off, and now has to consume other people’s flesh to stay alive. Pretty much a B Movie in all aspects, nevertheless it did lay down the basic framework for most movies in this genre, close ups of mutilated flesh, graphic depiction of gore and blood, skin peeling off, and a twisted up storyline.
It was however two diametrically opposite movies in 1979, that would eventually give a major boost to the body horror genre. Ridley Scott’s Alien, and David Cronenberg’s The Brood, the former of course had that by now famous scene, of the alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest, and has by now become a cult classic in the sci fi-horror genre. Again while both Alien and Brood were offshoots of the body horror genre, they were as similiar as chalk and cheese. Alien was more claustrophobic, punctuated with long silences and pauses, the tagline “In Space no one can hear you scream” became something of a metaphor for the movie, where silence was the biggest fear. People trapped far out in an old decaying spaceship, stalked by an unknown entity, and adding to the fear, the endless drone of the machines, it was maddening.
While it is tempting to look at The Brood as a gore fest, body horror movie, in reality it is one of the more cerebral movies in the genre. And which is the case with most of Cronenberg’s movies, beyond the obvious dollops of gore and sex that populate his movies, is a layer of deep pyschological subtext. In The Brood, the pyschological subtext runs in two ways, one is Nola Carveth( Samantha Eggar), the pyschologically disturbed lead character and the most crucial, Dr.Hal Raglan( Oliver Reed), the pyschiatrist treating her. Ralgan runs a Soma free clinic, where he has perfected a technique called Pyschoplasmics, where patients express their inner anger in the form of physical marks on the body( bruises, welts, boils). In effect the patient’s inner pain and anger, at a mental level, transforms into their own physical pain.
The filmmaking process is a very personal one to me, I mean it really is a personal kind of communication. It’s not as though its a study of fear or any of that stuff.
Nola’s husband Frank ( Art Hindle), fully recognizes the implications of the experiments being carried out on his wife, refusing to let his daughter Candice(Cindy Hinds) see her mother. The Brood is one of Cronenberg’s most personal movie to date, dating back to one of the more painful periods in his life, when he was going through a painful battle for the custody of his daughter, after a rather messy divorce. As he later stated in an interview, Frank’s possesive character, not wanting his daughter to meet her mother, was based on himself. In effect The Brood could be taken as a mix of various genres, the dysfunctional family, the murder mystery and a strong social statement on the dangers of new pyschiatric fads, prevalent during the time. Or in a more simpler manner, what Cronenberg does in The Brood is to take a standard family drama and set it against a backdrop of horror and sci fi. As he put it, it was his own version of “Kramer vs Kramer”.
Now that generally has been the common thread in most of Cronenberg’s works, pick up an ordinary story, and then set it amidst a backdrop of horror and fantasy. Which also explains The Fly, where he takes the age old theme of a person suffering from a terminal sickness, and adds a more macabre touch to it, with the hero mutating into the insect. Cronenberg’s horror movies, go beyond mere gore, or skin peeling off or macabre special effects, they actually go deep into the person’s psychology, or as they say the “devil in the inner person, manifesting itself in the outer form”. Something he establishes straight away in the movie’s beginning when Raglan is interacting with a patient Michael, who had been abused by his father as a kid. Raglan goes into an interplay with Michael, assuming the role of the abusive father, and bringing out Micheal’s repressed inner anger and guilt, as a physical symptom, in this case the welts on his body.
Nola at stages in the movie is revealed to be some one battling her own inner demons, her parents divorced, product of a broken home, alcoholic, and as Cronenberg hints a victim of “abuse”. Cronenberg here hinting at the fact, that Nola’s own unhappy background, could have molded her neurotic personality. Raglan like any other misguided scientist, trying to cure Nola’s angst, ends up creating a more terrifying problem. Where his earlier patients had channeled their internal anger and pain, in the form of physical bruises on the body, Nola’s inner angst channels itself to something more sinister. A series of weird looking “little” monsters, “The Brood” of the series, who carry out Nola’s plans to wreck vengeance on those whom she believed hurt her. The first victims are obviously her estranged parents, and both the murder scenes are shot in a chilling fashion. Her mother, is beaten to death with a potato masher, while her father is done away with a glass ball. The scenes are graphic, uneasy, and Cronenberg’s use of rapid editing shots, to drive home the horror, gives it an even more dizzying feel.
The ending of The Brood, has been rated among the 100 Scariest Movie Moments ever, and while it is scary, it does become repulsive and shocking. I don’t want to give out the ending directly, but when you begin to understand the dynamics behind Nola and Raglan’s characters, it adds an extra chill to the entire proceedings. The Brood is where Cronenberg perfected most of his techniques, usage of body horror, adding the psychological dimension, the exploration of the inner demons, the bizarre , outlandish backdrop( though i must say that Videodrome, Naked Lunch, Scanners, Existenz were even more bizarre). The style of the movie is reminiscent of many 70′s horror movies, down beat, dull looking, raw, with some fabulous shots of the misty Canadian landscape.
If you are a Cronenberg fan, go for this movie, it is the one which shows you where he has come from. Add to it excellent performances from Samantha Eggar as Nola, Oliver Reed as Raglan and Art Hindle as Frank. Also a special mention of Cindy Hinds as Candice, who does a wonderful job as the young daughter. Throw in the mix some great camera work and an eerie score by Howard Shore, you have a horror classic, that needs to be watched and re examined.