Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Brood (1979)

The Movie: Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) does not have a happy family life. His estranged and very emotionally disturbed wife, Nola (Samantha Eggar) has been viciously fighting him for custody of their five year-old daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds). However, Frank hasn’t actually seen Nola for a while because she is currently a patient at the Soma Free Clinic, under the care of Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed of Royal Flash).

Raglan, bestselling author of the Shape of Rage, has pioneered a new psychiatric technique he calls ‘Psychoplasmics.’ In the opening scene, Raglan and his prize patient, Mike (Gary McKeehan), demonstrate it in action. Psychoplasmics is basically a combination of role-playing and mind over matter. Raglan acts the part of an individual the patient has reasons to have hostile feelings toward, and encourages the patient to channel those hostile feelings into psychosomatic effects. In Mike’s case, when Raglan plays the role of his abusive and domineering father, Mike manifests his emotions as burns and blisters all over his body.

Frank’s real problems begin when he finds scratches and bruises on Candice after she comes home from one of her weekend visits with her mother; something Raglan has instated as part of Nola’s treatment. He confronts Raglan about it, threatening to end Candice’s visits unless Raglan can ensure her safety. Raglan counters by maintaining that Candice is a necessary part of Nola’s treatment; and that he can use his position as a respected psychiatrist to take custody away from Frank. Frank’s lawyer confirms that Raglan can do this; and his only real option is to find a way to prove that Raglan is a dangerous charlatan.

Seeking to do just that, Frank comes into contact with Jan Hartog (Robert Silverman), a former patient of Raglan who is also preparing a lawsuit against the doctor. In Jan’s case, he blames Raglan and Psychoplasmics for the lymphatic sarcoma that is slowly killing him. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing on the home front. Frank leaves Candice with his mother in law (Nuala Fitzgerald), who, ironically, he’s much closer to than Nola is; and Candice gets a front row seat when a small figure breaks into the house and brutally beats her grandmother to death.

When Frank’s father in law (Henry Beckman) comes for the funeral, and stops by the house; he, too, gets killed by the small figure, who was still hiding inside. Frank gets attacked when he goes looking for the man, but the creature inexplicably dies halfway through. And ‘creature’ is the best way to describe the attacker. It looks something like a mutated dwarf, but the police surgeon who performs the autopsy find traits that indicate it’s not even human. In fact, in many ways the thing seems only halfway formed. Most disturbing, though; even with all its deformities the creature bears a strong resemblance to Candice.

Soon after the second murder, Jan informs Frank that Raglan has inexplicably closed his clinic and dismissed all the patients; all except Nola. Raglan, meanwhile, knows far more than he’s telling and is having second thoughts about Psychoplasmics. Mind over matter is probably not the best thing to teach clinically unstable individuals. It’s bad enough with someone like Mike; who internalizes all his anger and hatred and manifests it as personal injuries. Nola, however, externalizes her negative emotions. Considering how spiteful, vindictive and unstable Nola is, who knows what she is capable of?

The Review: It’s another double feature today. This time around I’m reviewing an offering from each of the two “Demented Davids” of Hollywood; Messers Cronenberg and Lynch, respectively. First off, Cronenberg’s film.

A while back I met with a friend to eat dinner and watch some movies; I was in charge of bringing the movies. My choice wound up being a double feature of the Brood with the Last American Virgin. For the full details of why that was a very bad idea, read my May, 2010, review of the latter film after you’re finished with this one. However, the short of it is that despite the two movies coming from very different genres, they share a basic theme.

While David Cronenberg has branched out some as a director, he’s probably most well known for his horror movies. Cronenberg approaches horror in a way that I haven’t seen fully duplicated from any other director. Especially in his early movies, Cronenberg presents horrors that are biological, psychological, medical and physiological all rolled into one; a screwed up mind mixed with an equally screwed up body, usually due at least in part to some kind of medical experiment or treatment. On top of all that, there’s always a very icky sexual vibe as well. The end result is visceral horror on multiple levels that is nearly always cringe-inducing. My father maintains that it was Croenenberg’s version of the Fly that permanently turned him off the horror genre; and I have no trouble seeing why.

I would describe the Brood as a very male horror movie. Now, I know what you probably think I mean by that; and you would be very wrong. This is no crude, exploitative jiggle-fest. I describe the Brood as ‘male’ because it is entirely from a male point of view. The horror of this film is based entirely around those traits that men find terrifying about women.

Nola Carveth is every man’s ultimate female nightmare written large. Psychologically she is fickle, petty, insecure, vindictive, irrational and prone to mood swings. Physically; the climactic scene where we are finally given a clear look at the changes Psychoplasmics has made to her evokes pretty much all the elements of reproduction and female anatomy that make men uncomfortable, and then amplifies them to nearly unbearable levels.

Now, I think the charges of misogyny that this movie has received over the years are unfair. To stave off any potential criticisms from readers, I will first point out a few things about myself. Pretty much my entire life, I have had far more close female friends and associates than I have had male ones. I tend to be attracted to intelligent, strong-willed women. Hell, considering the female relations I grew up with; if I hadn’t rejected at an early age all the sexist crap society teaches, I’d be missing far more than just my pointer finger and four wisdom teeth. In short, my defense of this movie and its points is not due to any kind of hatred or disrespect for the fairer sex.

Cronenberg wrote and made the Brood as a way to deal with an issue in his personal life; a particularly nasty divorce and custody battle. I don’t think he was trying to make any real conscious point; except possibly for one small thing which I will get to shortly. Watching the Brood, it’s very clear that this is the work of a man who is using his art to try and purge his personal demons. As an artist who uses the exact same tactic to contend with my own demons, let me tell you; said demons are never pretty when you drag them into the light.

What gives the Brood its visceral charge and makes it so effective is the authenticity of its subject matter. I’m sure all heterosexual males have had to deal with most, of not all, of the issues Cronenberg addresses in this movie on some level. Gods know I have. There are some major differences between the sexes; and when these relationship issues go south it can get really nasty. I’m aware that men aren’t entirely innocent on the matter; but the thing is that I was born male, it’s all I’ve ever known, so I only have a full understanding of the male side of the equation. I think it would be particularly interesting to see a horror movie directed by a woman that addresses all the things women find terrifying about men. If any of my readers knows of such a movie, please let me know.

Apart from his deft employment of the sex and gender issues involved and his great talent for creating multi-layered visceral horror; Cronenberg effectively uses one other element to make the Brood so effective, his characters. On the whole, his cast of characters is just human seeming and complex enough that there is no problem believing in and sympathizing with them. Frank is the movie’s stand-in for Cronenberg himself, so of course he’s going to be sympathetic. However, he’s not perfect. Frank is essentially an ordinary man caught in a very nasty situation. He’s desperately trying to do the right thing; but unfortunately for him, he’s in a situation where it’s extremely hard, if not downright impossible at times, to know what the right thing is. Therefore, fair or not; whether or not it’s even possible for Frank to truly get it right, he’s inevitably going to screw up.

Probably the best example of this would be Frank’s quickly curtailed interest in Candace’s school teacher, Ruth Mayer (Susan Hogan). Now, technically Frank’s still married to Nola; but it’s clear that this became a sham of a marriage long before she checked into Soma Free. It makes sense that Frank would be interested in someone else, particularly if there’s some potential for reciprocation. Unfortunately for Frank, this is swiftly ended as soon as Ruth realizes just how complicated Frank’s life truly is. Unfortunately for everyone involved, particularly Ruth; nobody is aware of just what Nola’s capable of until it’s too late.

Just as Frank isn’t exactly a hero in the traditional sense, Dr. Raglan isn’t exactly a villain. It’s true that he’s somewhat blind and arrogant; and it’s also true that he screws up and screws up catastrophically. However, Raglan isn’t irredeemable, and he eventually comes to realize just how much he’s screwed up. What’s more, he makes a major sacrifice to help Frank save Candace.

With our final two major characters, Nola and Candace, we come to that one potentially intentional issue I alluded to earlier. That issue is abuse; specifically the cyclical nature of abuse. I don’t know how much of its presence in the Brood is due to a conscious intention of making a point by Cronenberg and how much of it is just that it was on his mind due to recent events, but like everything else in this movie he handles it very well.

While Nola is obviously the villain of the movie, we are given definite reasons for why she is so angry, insecure and full of hate. In the scenes of her treatments with Doctor Raglan, we come to understand that that Nola was an abuse victim. She talks about being physically and emotionally abused by her mother, and about how her father just turned his back on it. In that tragic yet inevitable cycle, Nola the abuse victim has become an abuser. In fact, she brings it up at one point, telling Raglan that Frank’s “afraid that I’m turning into my mother. And he’s afraid that I’m trying to turn Candace into Baby Nola.”

And that brings us to the character of Candace. Now, Candace really doesn’t have much to do in this movie; which makes sense considering that she’s only five. However, she is a very obvious and blatant element in it. Candace is the innocent victim in this whole, horrible mess; a passive pawn to be fought viciously over and kidnapped. Much of the suspense of the Brood comes not just from whether Frank will be able to protect Candace from the danger or not; but also from what kind of effect the movie’s horrors will have on the little girl. The last shot, just before the credits, leaves us in no doubt that poor Candace has not come out of this unscathed.

So, in conclusion; the Brood is a very personal, very raw, and very effective little horror movie that audiences with a Y chromosome, in particular, will find extremely disturbing. If you have a serious interest in the horror genre, the Brood is a movie you have to see. However, unless you’re a serious masochist, I would not suggest watching this one for enjoyment.

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