Contrary to popular (mis)conception, great horror doesn’t often come from trying to evoke fear from viewers. The audience is a vague, nebulous concept, and trying to pin down their fears is like trying to capture smoke. It’s an effort that leads down the same lowest common denominator path as blockbuster horror cinema, full to the brim with the few things that can elicit a physical response from pretty much anyone — jump scares and loud noises. Technically speaking, it’s not an entirely ineffective strategy, but it’s not one that is likely to stay in viewers’ minds for long after the credits roll. What David Cronenberg understands is that horror’s greatest successes can be found in the specific, not the universal. Great horror finds a person or a group, extrapolates their worst fears, and confronts that character with those fears, and with the entire dissolution of everything they consider to be safe and right. Fear doesn’t often come from seeing characters afraid, but from seeing them angry, desperate, driven to madness by grief, at the mercy of their own circumstances. Cronenberg pulls this off with style in The Fly and Dead Ringers, but it’s in The Brood that we see this approach to horror at its most intimate. Cronenberg chooses for his study Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), a man facing similar agonies to the director himself circa 1979 — separated from his wife, negotiating the details of what a permanent separation might mean, and staring down the barrel of a potentially agonizing custody arrangement — and tunneling directly to the heart of his insecurities.
The way Cronenberg unravels Frank is as gruesome and beholden to science fictional storytelling as any fan of the auteur might expect. Frank’s wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is sequestered away in intense psychotherapy with a mysterious doctor, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), with only the murky term “psychoplasmics” offering any explanation of what they are doing. When the pair’s daughter, Candice, shows signs of being beaten, Frank believes that Nola has abused their child and calls his mother-in-law for support, only for her to be murdered under bizarre circumstances by a parka-clad child. As these odd, murderous children begin appearing more frequently, stalking those who upset Nola, Frank investigates, and uncovers something truly horrifying in Raglan’s “psychoplasmics” research, culminating in a horror sequence that is perhaps one of the most iconic of Cronenberg’s career.
Never one to rely on something so indefinite as subtext, The Brood is not exactly a subtle film. The majority of the film takes place in bright, suburban sets and locales, serving as a constant reminder of not only the stakes of the narrative, but also of the specific circumstances that have brought Frank and Nola to their current predicament. Petty jealousies, intergenerational traumas, and uncanny children haunt these domestic settings and create a neurotic emotional and visual landscape. Cronenberg may have faced criticism over his depictions of women in the past, but here it is a man who is confined to this domestic sphere when faced with an absent wife, relegated to the role of a caretaker while another, more alpha presence usurps his role in the marriage. The masculine fear of being coerced by femininity is on full display here, but The Brood doesn’t settle for such a surface-level examination of gender. Frank Carveth is a man who fears many things — losing his child, losing his wife, losing control of his own life. Cronenberg even gives over to widely unspoken, far more complex fears, like the fear of loved ones re-contextualizing our actions to a third party in a dynamic that leaves no room for the talked-about. These fears play out one by one, individual parts coalescing into something far less sympathetic: a fear of emasculation. Cronenberg relishes in a specificity that he seems to know intimately, and in his unraveling of Frank, The Brood thunders toward the conclusion that there is only one thing a heterosexual man might fear more than women and their potential for monstrosity: that in the face of that power, he might be made impotent, stunned into submission, and entirely dependent on the mercy and compassion of a woman.
In the end, The Brood is a film that shows you its innards from its very first scene. Two men sit facing each other on the floor, uncomfortably close. One pours his heart out; the other responds with coldness and even cruelty, baiting the other man’s masculinity until it falls apart, leaving him weeping and fragile. The pretext for this abuse is therapy, a roleplay exercise that quickly falls into a heteronormative pattern, casting the more submissive, emotional man as a woman and the domineering therapist as not just a man, but a patriarch. As the scene is contextualized, and it is revealed that this therapeutic breakthrough is actually taking place on a stage, the scene becomes even more unsettling, as though this were a performance of Raglan’s power for his audience, sacrificing the patient’s privacy for the sake of ego. The feelings on display are very real, but the scene itself is artificial, a performance of gender roles for the benefit of a man’s ego. When that scene is mirrored at the film’s climax, the performance has stakes — the audience observing Frank as he tries to convince Nola that he still loves her is now her brood of psychically connected children, all waiting for her emotional cue to attack — but the dynamic is inverted. By the end of The Brood, the masculine authority of the therapist has been all but torn apart by the feminine patient, but even with the power dynamic inverted, the performance remains. Even under such bizarre circumstances, with a trail of dead bodies in their wake, Frank and Nola struggle to contort themselves into a nightmarish nuclear family, begging each other for love, acceptance, and mercy.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.