Directed by David Cronenberg
I think Cronenberg’s message can get lost in the style of his films. Well, I shouldn’t say style as much as the visual gore in works like this one, Scanners and The Fly. His films leave you with a much more visceral feeling. You know his film works when it makes your skin crawl.
Even in his later films A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, the most striking story elements are violent. In the latter film, there is an impressive and hard to watch fight in a bath house between naked men wielding knives. In the former, the film is marked by the contrast between serene, small town life and sudden acts of violence, each sensation quite different but both heightened all the same.
With The Brood, Cronenberg delivers some of his most disgusting images yet, and this is the earliest film of the works I’ve mentioned, showing perhaps that this is where he gets his reputation as a horror director, though that may have come before, with films I have not yet seen. Here, though, we get a story about murderous children and a single father, Frank, struggling to raise his daughter while figuring out how to keep the girl’s mother, Nola, in her life, even as she undergoes radical psychotherapy with a doctor who seems more like a Jim Jones figure than a therapist.
The murderous children, all slightly deformed and genuinely terrifying to look at, turn out to be a manifestation of Nola’s (Samantha Eggar) inner turmoil. It’s not much of a surprising reveal when we learn this because we know there must be some reason these two stories are connected, and the children first murder Nola’s two parents, clearly drawn to them as Nola, in moments of exposure therapy (?), talks to Dr. Hal (Oliver Reed) as if he is each of them, finally addressing her anger and fear.
When Nola’s emotions are heightened, the children attack. These attacks are hidden with an abundance of cuts, and the victims smothered in bright red blood which, while not as gruesome as the dark red stuff we see in modern movies, is almost just as squeamish when you consider the likely stench of the plastic gunk on set. Seriously, whenever I see these movies with characters drenched in bright red, I imagine the set to smell like it’s covered in silly puddy that’s been left in the sun too long, the plastic smell wafting through the room. It must be awful to deal with from a practical standpoint.
And jeeze there is a lot of blood. But what’s almost hilarious today is that the blood is drenched around an actor playing dead, no discernible wounds on his or her person. In a modern take of this story, we’d see the wounds, the gashes, the caved in skulls. But considering the small budget Cronenberg was likely working with, his actors just lie as still as possible, covered in blood from wounds he can’t afford to show in any detail.
And it’s clear Cronenberg would love to show that detail if given the chance (which he later is). Like the dragons in Game of Thrones, the astounding gore of a Cronenberg movie costs money, and he saved it all for the final sequence, when Frank finally confronts Nola and finds her covered with multiple, growing placenta, one of which she ‘births,’ by biting it open and licking the blood from the fetus.
Everything that comes before this moment is child’s play, I suppose almost literally considering the murderous children. This final ‘set piece,’ if you want to call it that, is by far the image most likely to be seared into your brain. It’s horrifying, not just to us but to Frank as well. And maybe that’s the common element between the gore in a Cronenberg film, that the audience’s own disgust and horror is felt by a character within the film.
To put it this way, a Cronenberg film feels otherworldly when you consider the lasting impact or image of such a film, but really they all occur in our own world. The visual aesthetic (I’m trying to avoid typing ‘gore’ over and over again) has more of an impact because it seems to bubble up to the surface. We don’t start with something hard to stomach, but we do end with something like that.
A David Lynch film, perhaps, gives you all the famous Lynchian qualities at the start, so you can prepare yourself and figure out what you’re in for. But a Cronenberg movie, it starts out like any other, almost hilariously so. In fact, maybe the first 15 minutes of any Cronenberg film could be indistinguishable from something like a Lifetime movie.
So let’s play a quick game with the Cronenberg pictures I’ve seen. The first 15 minutes of The Brood are about a father struggling with being a single father. The first 15 or so minutes of The Dead Zone are about a high school English teacher falling in love with the woman he plans to someday marry. In Scanners we, okay Scanners breaks the mold, but that whole film is more like a Matrix-style call to action adventure movie, so it fits a different but equally accessible genre, at least until the climax when our hero’s face melts.
The point is that Cronenberg pulls you in and then twists your neck. But you know it’s going to be weird by how intensely normal the first sequence of his films are, like when a character in a horror movie gets nervous because suddenly it’s too quiet.
And I think David Cronenberg is as interesting a director to study as any other, but I don’t particularly enjoy his films. The Fly might be my favorite, but it felt like a funnier, more enjoyable film than his other works. The good and bad moments in his films are so over the top, that you can really only enjoy them by taking none of it seriously. But his characters, his situations, his stories do seem to take themselves seriously. And I think that asking that audience to have any emotional engagement with a character like Frank or Nola is a little absurd. The same goes for Christopher Walken’s character in The Dead Zone.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe audiences did feel for Frank in his most trying moments. To me, though, Cronenberg wants you to almost laugh from hysteria during the violence but also identify with the protagonist during the good moments. I just don’t think it’s possible to do both.
In The Fly, while Goldblum’s transformation is grotesque, it’s enjoyable to watch, like a train slowly going off the rails, partially because of his character’s own ego. He’s someone you consciously watch from the outside, a character you might admire, but his own sense of self-righteousness prevents us from really feeling for him. And watching a character we genuinely like go through such a horrifying transformation might be too much to watch.
So to bring it back to The Brood, the violence is so extreme that Cronenberg tries to balance out the film with moments of joy that are just as extreme, but moments of extreme joy tend to come off as overly sentimental. Each form of audience relationship to the characters, in my mind, limit how much we can really feel empathy for them. We watch them the same way we might listen to a story about a friend of a friend. We delight in certain story developments, laugh when we need to laugh and gasp when we need to gasp, but we never really care what happens with the characters. We just want to see how far the story will go.