From the Archives: The Terror Test: Test Prep #15

Carveth vs. Carveth

Originally written for Episode 60 on The ABCs of Death (2012) and The Brood (1979).

“I think the reason why Mommy left… was because for a long time… I kept trying to make her be a certain kind of person. A certain kind of wife that I thought she was supposed to be. And she just wasn’t like that. She was… She just wasn’t like that.”

                                                                                             ~ Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Watching The Brood in the early ‘80s, I knew it was different from other horror movies, even if I couldn’t articulate how. Unlike the Vincent Price movies that always lurked out of the past, half-velvet, half-malice, or Tourist Trap (1979), which may be the first slasher I saw and seemed like a deviant fairy tale for teens, The Brood felt familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.  

Years later I discovered Freud’s notion of the uncanny encapsulated that familiar strangeness of early Cronenberg. The architecture, the clothes, and the family dynamics were like the world I lived in, but slightly off. The settings looked like my Michigan neighborhoods, but also didn’t. Like me, the characters bundled up in thick, winter clothing, a component to the overall uncomfortableness of the characters. The literal cold may have affected the metaphorical coldness that some critics see in Cronenberg. Howard Shore’s music echoes this tension with the way he builds phrases with little to no resolution: it provides an atmosphere that is slightly unsettling until it is moreso, like when the brood attacks, and then it echoes the classic Psycho strings of Bernard Herrmann. 

Cronenberg’s fourth feature is about the Carveths, Frank (Art Hindle), Nola (Samantha Eggar), and their daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds). More specifically, it is about the divorce and custody battle that ensues between Frank and Nola, a patient at Dr. Hal Raglan’s (Oliver Reed) Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics. Dr. Raglan’s psychological therapy forces patients to heal themselves through a combination of the talking cure and by manifesting their mental or emotional turmoil as physical change in and on their bodies. Frank fears that Candy is being abused by Nola while she is under Dr. Raglan’s care, and wants to end her visitations at the institute. Raglan will not allow anyone to see Nola, even after family and acquaintances are murdered or beaten by the broodlings, who attack in snowsuited packs.

A few critics, including Stephen King in Danse Macabre, discuss how horror and monsters frequently play to our childhood fears. King writes, “Cronenberg pushes us down the slide; we are four again, and all of our worst surmises about what might be lurking under the bed have turned out to be true.” In a scene from the film, the monster is under the bed, but it is a broodling child that attacks an adult. And, odder still, it is a grandchild (of sorts) attacking its own grandparent, a reversal of the generational violence that King and others see in the film. It’s like the sins of the fathers visiting the fathers, not the offspring. It’s a simple example of how Cronenberg uses horror tropes like the monster-under-the-bed, ones in which we are familiar, yet still infuses something unexpected and frightening into them. When I first saw the film, I dressed in a scarf and one-piece snowsuit just like the brood. The uncanniness of those monsters interested me: a monster to fear, yet one I could be. Where I couldn’t be King Kong, I could be one of them. This was at least one of the features of the film that set it apart from regular monster fare. 

Cronenberg’s use of pseudo-scientific research corporations also felt strangely real at a time when you could see commercials for Dianetics on television. In The Brood, we get the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics. Other therapies, like recovered memories and self-help psychotherapies, which bear a resemblance to Dr. Raglan’s approach, were mirrored on popular talk shows in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In a way, Oprah became the country’s Raglan. Because there are often notions of psychic power, especially in Scanners (1981), there is also a whiff of the occult to these Cronenbergian institutes reminiscent of other talk show topics of the time like the Satanic Panic.

Though these corporate research institutes are frequent entities in Cronenberg’s oeuvre, he is most famous for what has been termed body horror, a type of horror that focuses on the transformation or  decay of the body. I’ve always loved the visceral gross-outs that one expects from these films, but there are a lot of engaging ideas that lend the movies several layers that many genre films just don’t have. 

Studying Zen Buddhism led me to one of those layers. Buddhists tend not to differentiate the mind and the body. This idea made me rethink body horror. In Cronenberg’s films, the mind and body are one, which often informs the terror onscreen. The Brood is obvious, though effective. The title can refer to a brood, the offspring, or to brooding, thinking or meditating about something unpleasant. Psychoplasmics, the term itself, hints at this dynamic of thought and body. Dr. Raglan has written a book called The Shape of Rage, and what we find out is that the shape of rage, of brooding, is either sores on the body or broodlings, the killer children who enact the violent thoughts of Nola.

I was an adult before I realized the element of social criticism in the film, though I felt the fear of broken families and divorce in my gut upon first viewing. Also in 1979, one of the most famous films about divorce, Kramer vs. Kramer, came out. Both films are about cruel custody battles. The father calls his son, who’s trying to come to terms with his parents, a “little shit.” There’s an iconic scene in The Brood of the broodlings grabbing Candy through a door, after Nola has said she’s willing to kill her. Even Cronenberg has joked about how similar the films are, only he says his is “more realistic.” How much he’s joking, I don’t know, but the movie is based on his own experience of divorce and a custody battle. 

The specter of divorce haunted many families, in elementary school it appeared like having both biological parents at home was becoming the exception, not the rule. I could identify with Candy, though there is a kind of cipherous quality to her performance, but trauma can do this. Many of us were as terrified of divorce as we were of anything lurking under our beds. Even if we hadn’t seen Kramer or Irreconcilable Differences (1984), we had at least heard about them, and knew that there was a child actor in them with whom we could identify.  

But this transitioning, of being able to watch Cronenberg’s films like The Brood over the years and discover new ideas has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life as a filmgoer. For example, rewatching the movie, I was surprised by how much of the psychotherapy, Raglan’s psychoplasmics, is bound up with the family drama. The opening features Raglan in a public conference, almost like a talk show, talks with a visibly disturbed patient. Raglan often role plays and here he becomes the patient’s “daddy” and he refers to the male patient as “Daddy’s little girl.” It’s unclear whether the patient is experiencing gender dysphoria (An aspect of the “Somafree” in the name of the institute? One is not defined by body?) or he just won’t “man up.” Getting to the heart, or body, of psychoplasmics, Raglan says, “Don’t speak. Show me your anger. I’m watching you. Go all the way through to the end. Come out the other end.” The patient disrobes showing the polyps growing on his skin, the way to purge difficult emotions with Raglan’s therapy.

This opening scene sets up several themes and energies of the film. Soon after Raglan’s show, the first time we see Frank and Candy together, she says “Oh, Daddy! Daddy!” and we’re set up to believe that this is a proper relationship in comparison to the previous episode of Raglan and his patient. However, Raglan’s episode also echoes the ending when we see Frank and Candy driving away from the institute after Raglan’s death, Frank’s strangulation of Nola, and the death of the brood. Frank and Candy sit together and he says, “We’re going home.” What could that even mean at this point? We also now see Candy’s tears and her own polyps, though Frank, unlike Raglan, either doesn’t want to see her pain and possible anger, or he’s oblivious as the heavy drinking parents of Nola who perished due to her rage. Frank’s notion of home is as spurious as his statement, “You’re the only one for me,” is, though meant to calm his ex and her brood. Those ideas belong in a different movie. Everyone, especially Nola, hears the false ring in it. 

Raglan’s language, of not speaking, but showing anger, of going “all the way through” and coming “out the other end,” also aligns with the psychoplasmic polyps, which for Nola, become a kind of pregnancy. Raglan’s language is of birthing. Nola, referred to as his “star student,” literally embodies her anger by giving birth to the brood in wombs hanging from the outside of her body.  Dr. Raglan could be seen as a bad stepfather, allowing them free reign until he figures out how to keep them all under control. He’s the one who provides them shelter and clothes. 

The patients are Raglan’s brood, but a kind of inverse of Nola’s. Their vision is “distorted;” they see only in black and white. Raglan’s patients appear to confuse categories, maybe they symbolically lack sexual organs, in the way that the broodlings lack them physically. They are like psychological zombies, slaves not to hunger, but to Raglan’s attention. Late in the film, when Frank talks to the patient from the opening scene, he is asked, “Will you be my daddy?” The patient says that his real daddy didn’t care and now Raglan doesn’t even though he knows this patient is “addicted to him.” Similar to how his patients, his children, are trapped in childhood dramas and traumas, we find out in an autopsy that the brood are unborn, unfinished. And though Nola’s can survive for a time without her, they die after their sac depletes, similar to how Raglan’s patients break down away from him.

In one sense, Raglan and Nola are the dysfunctional parents representing all of the generational trauma mentioned earlier. In another sense, they are classic monsters: the mad scientist and his creation: Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Creature. Nola is also the female creature, the fecund nightmare that Victor feels he has no choice but to destroy. One could read Frank as our Walton, the explorer of Frankenstein’s frame tale, though one not left untouched by the monstrous drama that plays out before him. This Walton gets his fingers dirty, and widens the circle of trauma and guilt, by strangling Nola, which also kills the brood. Walton, the Creature, and a promise of self-destruction are left at the end of the novel, similar to how Frank and Candy, the polyps, and a mention of “home” are at the end of the film. 

I’ll stop here, though there always seems to be more to think about with this movie.

One of my favorite comments about Cronenberg’s work that I’ve found comes from David Thomson’s 2004 edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (I first typed that as a “biological” dictionary–word is virus, as Burroughs says). Thomson writes:

Horror for Cronenberg is not a game or a meal ticket; it is, rather, the natural expression for one of the best directors working today. For Cronenberg’s subject is the intensity of human frailty and decay: in short, the body and its many accelerated mutations, whether out of disease, anger, dread, or hope. These are not easy films to take. But how can horror be easy? Anyone born and reckoning on dying needs to confront Cronenberg.

Thomson obviously loves film, but I didn’t expect a comment like this about Cronenberg because Thomson does not just heap praise on filmmakers or actors. He’s a critic, and sometimes a biting one who doesn’t mind tipping sacred cows, much less jabbing genremeisters in the soft and squishies.

I think Cronenberg’s films stay around because they do feel like natural expressions as Thomson notes. If Cronenberg’s subject is human frailty and decay, then it’s no wonder these films have had an eminent rewatchability. We take on different frailties as we continue to grow, to age, and let’s face it, to decay.

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