Corporeal Punishment: David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD


A version of this article originally appeared in issue 22 of Diabolique Magazine, Aug/Sept 2014.

In spite of the most widely accepted connotation, the first definition of the term pregnant given in the Oxford English Dictionary is, “Full of meaning, highly significant; suggestive, implying more than is obvious or stated.”  In this regard, every film by the Canadian auteur David Cronenberg can be considered pregnant.  Pigeonholed for the first stretch of his career as a strictly genre filmmaker, Cronenberg is almost single-handedly responsible for what has come to be known as “body horror”, a sub-genre that deals explicitly with aberrations of the flesh.  Indeed, a cursory glance at some of his most acclaimed films — The Fly, Videodrome, eXistenZ — yields a torrent of physiological perversion.  Even his most recent strain of critically acclaimed films, which is largely considered a break from the grotesquerie of his earlier work, is rife with morphological peculiarities such as Ed Harris’s facial scars in A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen’s tattoos in Eastern Promises, and Keira Knightley’s violent convulsions in A Dangerous Method.  For Cronenberg, however, an erudite intellectual who graduated from Toronto’s University College at the top of his class, these phenomena are not mere superficial signifiers of empty terror; rather, they serve as external manifestations of inner turmoil, representations of psychological and philosophical conceits which recur throughout his four decade long career.

Amidst all of the tumors, mutations, and malformations in Cronenberg’s films, it is no surprise that pregnancy — as in the OED’s third definition, “Of a woman or other female mammal: having offspring developing in the uterus,” the most common generative mutation of the human body — should crop up from time to time as well.  As early as his second film, the 1970 experimental short feature Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg was obliquely addressing pregnancy, via a disease which kills all of the world’s sexually developed females and a character who is able to grow and remove new organs from his body.  In Dead Ringers, from 1988, Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists who specialize in the treatment of infertility.  In fact, the only performance Cronenberg has given in one of his own films, beyond the stray voice over or background cameo, is in The Fly, in which he plays the gynecologist in Geena Davis’s nightmare who, while performing an abortion, delivers a monstrously large larva, the result of being impregnated by Jeff Goldblum’s somewhat eponymous character. For a director who has urged his audiences to “see [his] movies from the disease’s point of view,” it’s an illuminating bit of casting.

Nonetheless, the film which most directly addresses pregnancy is perhaps also Cronenberg’s most personal and autobiographical.  Released in 1979 following a bitter divorce and custody battle, The Brood is widely recognized as Cronenberg’s first masterpiece — in retrospect, at least.  At the time, the film had its fair share of detractors.  Roger Ebert, who would go on to champion many of Cronenberg’s films, called The Brood “reprehensible trash” in a one star review.  Variety, though they did concede that it was “well made,” called it “essentially unpleasant.”  Leonard Maltin couldn’t even muster more than two sentences for his zero star review.  Much of this may have been due to expectations.  On one hand, few had seen Cronenberg’s three previous features: the schlocky Rabid and Shivers, which bordered on sexploitation, and the racing-themed B-picture Fast Company.  Those who had seen them most likely overlooked the psychosexual subtext of Cronenberg’s nascent brand of bioterror and were presumably dismayed by The Brood’s careful pace and restrained use of gore. For those who were wholly unfamiliar with Cronenberg, it was likely something of a shock to see the established and respected British actors Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar (an Oscar nominee for 1965’s The Collector) in a film about deformed, homicidal midgets.  Too stately for the grindhouse, and too perverse for the mainstream, The Brood wasn’t an easy sell.

Thirty-five years later, however, the film is no longer an anomaly.  Instead, it is a harbinger of things to come from the singular filmmaker, who has shown an uncanny knack for creating works which are both austere and ribald.  Posited by Cronenberg himself as a corrective to what he called the “fake, false, candy” of Kramer vs. Kramer (that year’s other child custody drama which won five Oscars for its stars, writer, director, and producer), The Brood follows Frank Carveth (Art Hindle, of Black Christmas and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as he attempts to protect his daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds) from her mother Nola (Eggar), from whom he is recently separated.  Nola has since entered a controversial therapy program called Psychoplasmics under the direction of Dr. Hal Raglan (Reed), an intense and intimidating man who prods his patients to the point of breakdown in order to unlock and overcome suppressed trauma.  This pent up rage manifests itself physically as welts on the body or, in the case of former patient Jan Hartog (the always welcome Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman, sporting a glorious comb-over), as cancer.  “Raglan encouraged my body to revolt against me, and it did,” he says at one point, showing off the massive lymphosarcoma on his neck.

Nola has entered Dr. Raglan’s Somafree Institute to come to terms with physical abuse she believes she received from her mother Juliana (Nuala Fitzgerald) when she was a child.  The film is relatively coy about whether the alleged abuse actually occurred; Juliana explains to Candice that Nola was frequently in the hospital when she was young for bumps which would appear on her body.  She pointedly asserts to Frank, however, that “thirty seconds after you’re born, you have a past, and sixty seconds after that, you start to lie to yourself about it.”  Juliana is a steady drinker, though; whether it is the root of her supposed violence towards Nola or a response to the accusations of it is unclear.  And as Frank rhetorically says to himself at one point, Nola “married you for your sanity hoping it would rub off.”  Despite her somewhat tenuous grasp on empirical fact, what matters is that Juliana’s culpability is an immovable truth in the unstable Nola’s mind.

Nola’s treatment keeps her in complete isolation, save for Raglan and weekend visits from Candice.  When Frank notices lacerations on Candice’s back after one of those visits, he confronts Raglan, accusing Nola of reenacting the trauma of her youth upon her own daughter.  Raglan refuses to allow Frank access to his wife, but addresses the issue with Nola later that evening.  She denies any such incident, saying, “Mommies don’t do that, mommies don’t hurt their own children.”  But Raglan questions this generalization, and Nola, dredging up memories of her own mother, offers that, “Sometimes.  Sometimes they do.  But they’re bad mommies, They’re fucked up mommies.”  Thus begins Nola’s unconscious assault upon those by whom she feels threatened or antagonized.  After being forced by Raglan to recall the horrors inflicted upon her by her mother, what appears to be a deformed and preternaturally strong child in a bright red snowsuit breaks into Juliana’s home and beats her to death with a meat tenderizer.  Nola’s father Barton (Harry Beckman), divorced from Juliana for a decade, comes back into town for his ex-wife’s funeral and is incensed to learn that Raglan will neither let him see his daughter nor tell Nola that her mother has been killed.  Later, Raglan goads Nola into expressing the pent up rage she harbors for her father.  Though she loves him deeply, Nola blames Barton for turning a blind eye to the physical and verbal abuses she believes she endured — in effect, she hates him for taking her mother’s side instead of hers.  Shortly thereafter, the same creature murders Barton.

Though a relatively straightforward historical drama like 2011’s A Dangerous Method, about the rivalry between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, may seem to some like an outlier in his filmography, Cronenberg has been making Freudian films throughout his entire career; it is perhaps inevitable, then, that he would eventually make a film about the man himself.  References to Freudian theories of psychosexuality go all the way back to Cronenberg’s first experimental feature, 1969’s Stereo, and one can briefly glimpse a portrait of the founder of psychoanalysis on the wall of Nola’s apartment, right beside one of Dr. Raglan.  Nola’s antagonistic relationship with her mother and her possessive anger over her father’s split allegiances plays out like a particularly demented Electra complex as her repressed id manifests itself as the eponymous brood.  In the film’s grand guignol conclusion, the mysterious homicidal lilliputians are revealed to be, literally, “the children of her rage,” creatures birthed in a bizarre external womb protruding from Nola’s abdomen, the result of Raglan’s Psychoplasmics treatment.

The brood claim two more victims throughout the film; the first of which is Ruth Mayer (Susan Hogan), Candice’s teacher.  Ruth has noticed a change in Candice’s behavior since Frank and Nola’s separation, and has made a point to spend extra time and care with her.  When Frank arrives to pick up Candice from school, Ruth suggests that they meet to discuss his daughter’s behavior.  Candice, who has been asking Ruth lately to “play mother” with her after school, asks her father if Ruth can join them for dinner.  Later, after they have eaten and she has gone to bed, Frank and Ruth discuss Candice’s home life and her gestures for a maternal proxy.  Barton, drunk and spending the night at the home he used to share with Juliana, calls Frank shortly before he meets his own demise and Frank leaves to pick him up, leaving Ruth to watch over Candice until he returns.  Nola, meanwhile, has broken the rules of her treatment, sneaking into Raglan’s office to use the phone.  When she calls her home and Ruth answers, she assumes an affair between her husband and Candice’s teacher and flies into a rage.  Two of the brood, acting upon Nola’s indignant yet unfounded fear of losing both her husband and her child, arrive at Candice’s school the next day, murder Ruth, and abduct Candice.

Frank eventually tracks down his daughter at Raglan’s cabin, where even Raglan is growing frightened of Nola and her psychoplasmic abilities.  Protruding from her midsection, Nola’s externalized womb is reminiscent of a giant phallus, the image and virility of which, copiously producing offspring without the aid of a male counterpart, is figuratively emasculating.  In a sense, however, the brood are in fact Raglan’s children, sired by Psychoplasmics; just like Hartog’s lymphosarcoma, they are the progeny of patient and doctor, of cause and cure.  Thus, when the sexless brood attack Raglan, their fourth and final murder in the film, it is an act of patricide, rife with undertones of Oedipal aggression.  Even the geography of the cabin itself echoes this Freudian subtext, with the brood relegated to the attic.  Like the id, hiding within the darkest recesses of the mind, they are kept out of sight, locked upstairs, until summoned to action by Nola’s subconscious.  It is significant that Nola has no conscious knowledge of the brood’s actions, let alone any control over them beyond her own disposition.  After they murder Ruth, Nola is unaware that she has died, and yet expresses a sense of calm, a feeling that Ruth is no longer a threat.  “I must be getting better,” she says to Raglan, assuming that her placidity is due to the psychoanalytic and psychosomatic elements of his treatment.  This horror is purely the work of the subconscious.

It’s also worth considering the name of Dr. Raglan’s institute: Somafree.  Psychologically, the term soma refers to the body as it is distinct from the mind.  Cronenberg himself perfectly summarized the greatest thematic conceit of his oeuvre as, “The first fact of human existence is the body — that is the human drama.”  Cronenberg — who is also an atheist — is one of many intellectuals to take umbrage with the idea of Cartesian dualism, a philosophic belief that the mind and the body are two distinct entities.  Instead, his films strongly suggest a physicalist strain of monism, which denies anything beyond mankind’s physical, or corporeal being.  All of existence is comprised of the same matter, physicalists believe, making consciousness a product of our bodies and thus something that lives and dies with them.  There is no incorporeal or immaterial soul or self which precedes one’s birth or continues after one’s death.  Biologically, however, soma denotes the entirety of an organism excluding, alternately, its reproductive cells or germ cells.  Somafree, then, operates at the intersection of these two definitions, as it offers a physical release for the psychic ailments of its patients via their reproductive and/or germ cells.  And considering Cronenberg’s aforementioned empathy for the diseases in his films, it may not even be necessary to distinguish between reproductive and germ cells.  “Most diseases would be very shocked to be considered diseases at all,” he has elaborated, “for them, it’s very positive when they take over your body.”  Indeed, a disease doesn’t necessarily have malicious intent; that’s something we project upon it.  Most diseases are merely following the biological imperative to be fruitful and multiply.

Hartog, as previously mentioned, tells Frank that “Raglan encouraged my body to revolt against me,” and likens his cancer to “a small revolution.”  For Cronenberg, this idea that “me” and “my body” are two separate things is deeply problematic and ultimately informs the entire film.  After all, what are the brood if not a direct refutation of the belief that the mind is some kind of incorporeal essence divorced from our physical reality?  Following Juliana’s murder, a police psychologist urges Frank to talk to Candice about what she saw, to make her open up and come to terms with it, telling him that he’s seen “five year olds with ulcers as bad as any middle-aged businessman.”  The physical ramifications of psychological strain and repression need not be as extraordinary as Nola’s brood or Hartog’s cancer, Cronenberg seems to be stressing; on the contrary, they are a commonplace facet of everyday life.

Cronenberg’s films can sometimes be ideologically problematic in their treatment of female sexuality.  His first two narrative features Shivers and Rabid, in particular, can be read as expressions of Medusian castration anxiety.  The Brood offers no rebuttal to such claims, even though Nola is not presented as an overtly sexualized character.  In the film, her rampant fertility, which can easily be read as a proxy for her sexuality, is demonized in the most literal sense.  Cronenberg also peppers the film with little details which underscore the theme of fertility, such as the Egg Chart in Ruth’s classroom.  Furthermore, after Ruth is murdered, Frank covers her face with a piece of construction paper on which one of her students has written “We plant pumpkin seeds.”  The image of planting seeds alludes specifically to the male role in conception, that which has been figuratively usurped by Raglan and which has literally been rendered obsolete by Nola herself.  The sense of emasculation is driven home by the cultural identification of rage as a predominantly masculine trait.  That they are specifically pumpkin seeds is significant as well, given the squash’s folkloric associations with the supernatural and, in particular, witchcraft, which brings with it its own loaded set of gender politics.  The Brood is possessed of a decidedly negative view of womanhood, insofar as it connotes females as irrational, hysterical, selfish, and prone to outlandish fits of rage.  Much of this is undoubtedly a reaction to the personal turmoil in Cronenberg’s personal life at the time, an exorcism of his own simmering anger towards his ex-wife, on whom he based the character of Nola.  “I can’t tell you how satisfying the climax is,” he has confessed about the film’s penultimate sequence in which Frank kills Nola to stop the brood and save his daughter, “I wanted to strangle my ex-wife.”  Still, the specificity of the brood’s four victims — Nola’s parents Juliana and Barton; Ruth, Nola’s perceived romantic and maternal adversary; and Raglan, who functions as both a surrogate father (through his treatment) and lover (through his symbolic parentage of the brood) — suggest a more general and deep seated angst about the potentially destructive nature of female sexuality, turning even procreation into an act of carnage.

Despite the preponderance of Freudian subtext in The Brood, and throughout the rest of his filmography, Cronenberg himself is no friend to psychoanalysis, painting an equally unflattering portrait of the practice.  As an indictment of the pop-psychology movements of the 1970s, The Brood is merciless, portraying Raglan as selfish and insensitive, more concerned with celebrity than with helping his patients.  Psychoplasmics is not only emotionally regressive, but physically damaging, a fact that seems to titillate Raglan rather than concern him.  When Candice’s well being is at stake, Raglan does finally exhibit some moral turpitude, sacrificing his own life for hers, but that does nothing to wash away the image of the superstar psychoanalyst as brash opportunist and shameless manipulator.  Arriving a year after the infamous Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, there is a palpable distrust of cults and spiritual leaders which, along with Eggar’s fantastic and surprisingly sympathetic performance as Nola, helps to quell any potential charges of misogyny.

Ultimately, The Brood is, like most of Cronenberg’s films, an exploration and affirmation of the body human as our only window to reality.  “All the reality is virtual reality,” he has said, filtered as it must be through the sensory apparatuses of our fragile, fleshy vessels.  If Cronenberg’s films scare us, it is because they force us to reckon with the fragility and mutability of our bodies and, by extension, our selves.  There is no delineation between the host and the disease, and certainly no codification to distinguish good and evil.  The haunting final shot of Candice developing psychoplasmic welts of her own reminds us that this vulnerability to physical decay isn’t an isolated anomaly, it is the human condition.

3 responses to “Corporeal Punishment: David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD

  1. Hello, are you going to publish an article about the Terrence Malick Q&A? The Film Stage published one today but it would be nice to read another one too…
    (sorry to comment under an unrelated article)

    • I did take a couple pages of notes with the intention of doing so. I wasn’t sure, once the Film Stage recap went up, if there would still a need/audience for my take, but since there is, I’ll certainly finish drafting my piece.

  2. It’s great! Can’t wait to read it. And there’re a lot of people who will be interested in reading it too, that’s for sure!

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