31 Days of Fright

The Shape of Rage – Catharsis and the Cyclical Trauma of The Brood

“Go all the way through with it”, is a line repeated more than once throughout David Cronenberg’s The Brood, always by one Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). In the context of the film, it’s a sentence of encouragement for the doctor’s patients, who are all suffering from various psychological ailments and are desperately searching for help through psychoplasmics, a fictional form of guided psychiatric therapy wherein illnesses of the mind are literally forced to manifest on the body. The film’s opening scene demonstrates a session of the therapy to the audience with no introduction – Dr. Raglan impersonates a patient’s abusive father, berating and belittling him until the young man’s rage quietly explodes into pus-filled boils all over his body.

“Go all the way through with it”. It’s a line that holds a complicated meaning for a complicated film. The Brood was one of David Cronenberg’s breakout films, released in 1979, right before his string of iconic sci-fi horror fusions of the 80s, including Scanners, Videodrome, and The Fly. The Brood was also the film Cronenberg wrote while in a bitter divorce with his wife, allegedly something of an angry response to the optimistic portrait of divorce in Kramer vs. Kramer (also released in 1979), which Cronenberg apparently found totally nauseating in its disingenuous fiction of civility.

The Brood certainly retains no optimism about its characters nor their prospects for the future, a film that cathartically reimagines for Cronenberg his own divorce through the lens of his uniquely grotesque body horror. The film follows the violent separation of Frank (Art Hindle) and Nola (Samantha Eggar), the latter of whom is undergoing the aforementioned psychoplasmic therapy for the physical and emotional abuse she suffered as a child. The two share a young child named Candice (Cindy Hinds), who is often tragically trapped between her parents’ messy divorce in unexpectedly dangerous ways. As the film goes along, we learn that Nola’s psychoplasmic form of expelling her demons is realized by literally birthing them as child-sized creatures that murder anyone in the path of her rage.

Externalizing the mind’s neuroses through grotesque bodily transformation is Cronenberg’s bread and butter (see: Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and Crash, to name a few), but one gets the sense while watching The Brood that the very act of making this film was itself an externalization of Cronenberg’s own feelings of rage and disgust towards his ex-wife. This certainly isn’t a subconscious reading of the film either – Cronenberg apparently cast lead actors Art Hindle and Samantha Eggar as “vague facsimiles” of himself and his ex-wife. This subtext lends a fascinating lens in which to watch The Brood, an otherwise sturdy film but by no means the most imaginative or scary that Cronenberg would get in his career (the director himself has stated that he considers the work his “most classic horror film”).

Some have read the film under this subtext as misogynistic and overly hostile on the part of Cronenberg towards his ex-wife, and the argument certainly does not lack at least a little merit – at one point Frank bitterly remarks that he thinks his wife married him hoping his sanity would “rub off on her”; the film’s climax also displays Nola giving birth to one of her “brood” in full nauseating detail, as well as leveraging her violent fury against her husband in the form of sending the brood against their own daughter. The truth is that by using the brood as the main symbol of their divorce’s effects on their child (a cluster of literal birthed monsters of the mother that act violently upon her feelings), the film loses any good faith reading that Cronenberg believes both parties are equally at fault.

Although there is certainly a great deal of anger being vicariously expelled by Cronenberg through his on-screen avatar of Frank, there’s also an almost embarrassed self-consciousness to the The Brood’s rage that is particularly striking, especially on rewatches. While Nola is indeed off-screen for much of the film as the story unfolds from Frank’s perspective, it’s worth noting how subtly and carefully Cronenberg acknowledges the former’s psychological and emotional problems as a direct result of her own parents’ marital troubles, and in particular the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her alcoholic mother. It’s no coincidence that the first victim of Nola’s brood is her mother, who we learn pushed her down the stairs and left her with so many injuries that even Candice, her grandchild, is innocently aware of how often her mother spent time in the hospital when she was little.

The more we learn about Nola’s history of abuse, the more her psychology and actions become sympathetic despite their monstrosity. More importantly, however, the film invites us to see (in its own, unique, Cronenbergian manner) the tragic way in which her powerful feelings of anger towards her parents and Frank have a nasty habit of making their way home to her own child. Unlike Cronenberg’s detested Kramer vs. Kramer, which features a charismatic, talkative young boy as the film’s moral conscience, Candice is portrayed as a mostly mute, blank-faced vessel, merely soaking up the psychic fallout of her parents’ divorce, imbuing all the traditional horror trauma she’s subjected to throughout the film with an upsetting realism. After first witnessing the murder of her grandmother, we see her again in the police station, staring solemnly and silently at a television, a candy bar smeared across her face.

It’s for these reasons that I find The Brood a particularly rewarding film to watch again and again, and far from the inarticulate, misogynist outburst some of its detractors seem to paint it as. It’s a film that rejects the romantic, Hollywood idea of a civil divorce, presenting the messy separation instead as an expressionist nightmare of psychic pain and destructive rage. Both its characters and its director seem deeply intimate with the particular type of trauma they are inflicting upon each other, but are nevertheless powerless to stop it from consuming them, from passing it onto their children, from “going all the way through with it”. As the film ends, you’re left with little but the terrible impression that nothing could have stopped this, that Nola and Frank’s actions were doomed from the start, and worst of all that there’s a strong likelihood they have now doomed their daughter to a similar fate. And that’s a horrifying, tragic thought.

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