The Brood: Midnight Movie Monograph

September 14, 2020
We review the nearly 700 page book devoted to one of David Cronenberg’s most misunderstood early movies.

Released in June of 1979, The Brood signalled a significant change in the career and fortunes of its writer and director, David Cronenberg. While the Toronto-born filmmaker was building a reputation and an appreciative cult audience through his early works like Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), The Brood showed that Cronenberg could also deliver a commercially-successful and genuinely scary movie without having to sacrifice his unique personal vision (though the latter would not always be the case).

Of course, The Brood wasn’t the massive break-out success that Cronenberg’s next film, Scanners (1981) would turn out to be, but it certainly provided the pathway that took the filmmaker to the next level of his career.

A gripping psychological horror film, The Brood centres on mentally disturbed young woman Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar), who is placed under the care of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a controversial and charismatic therapist who practices a radical technique dubbed “psychoplasmics”, in which the patients are encouraged to deal with their psychological issues by allowing them to manifest physically.

This can result in things like skin welts and cancers developing in many patients. In the case of Nola Carveth, her rage over the abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents was so intense that, without the aid of a physical partner, she has bore a brood of asexual children who act out her vengeful thoughts.

Caught up in all the horror, both psychologically and physically, is Nola’s five-year-old daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds), the centre of a bitter custody dispute with her separated husband Frank (Art Hindle).

The latest release in the excellent Midnight Movie Monographs series published by Electric Dreamhouse in the UK, The Brood by Stephen R. Bissette is a mammoth (nearly 700 pages!) study of virtually all aspects of the film, with nary a stone left unturned.

Bissette, a noted American comic book artist, teacher and writer whose works have a strong focus on the horror genre, in both the visual and literary forms, takes to the movie with an almost surgical precision, following every offshoot thread he encounters, no matter how seemingly tenebrous, until it has been thoroughly examined and exhausted.

In this monolithic monograph, Bissette delves into all of the areas of The Brood that you would expect it to – Cronenberg’s earlier works, the films and literary works which influenced The Brood, the film’s production and release, along with the initial negative reviews and the influence and critical reappraisal which it has enjoyed in the ensuing years – are all examined in a fashion that will satiate those with a hunger for production and historical info.

Bissette also delves into a more personal association with the film. Cronenberg has always said he created The Brood as a reaction to his own divorce and child custody dispute, as well as a response to the popular 1979 drama Kramer Vs. Kramer starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, which Cronenberg thought presented a much too optimistic view of divorce and family breakdown. So does Bissette delve into personal territory, revealing some dark moments happening in his life in 1979, in order for us to fully understand how The Brood impacted him as it did: “My own unique circumstances within my first marriage – specifically, my first wife’s memories of having been sexually abused, and how the recovery of those memories impacted us and our own families – lent The Brood an uncanny import and value, for me, personally, at a time when little else offered any means of support. Genre functions in oh so many different ways – and for me, The Brood was a lifeline. A horror tale itself need not provide solutions; sometimes, just having a mirror, a pool, somewhere to swim in treacherous waters via a vicarious fictional narrative, can be in and of itself useful, necessary, and, yes, a tool in and of itself.”

Rounding out Bissette’s intense study and analysis of the film are a number of appendices which contain an overview of The Brood’s North American box-office performance, the history of its UK distribution, and interviews with several key people associated with the film, including cinematographer Mark Irwin and actors Cindy Hinds and Art Hindle. There are also interviews with novelist Graham Masterson (whose 1976 novel The Manitou, adapted into a film by William Girdler two years later, contained a number of thematic similarities to The Brood), George W. Myers (General Manager of the Amherst cinema in Massachusetts, who discusses The Brood’s ongoing cinema life via late-night cult screenings), and filmmaker/writer Lance Weiler, who collaborated with Cronenberg on the 2013 immersive play Body/Mind/Change.

Exhaustive, authoritative, and compelling, The Brood will likely challenge some readers, who may scratch their heads and wonder where the author is going with some of his detours and tangents. But they are all relevant and all circle back to the subject at hand, making this tome even more of an accomplishment, and clearly an indispensable work for those who love the film and Cronenberg’s unique, often unrelenting and frequently disturbing, approach to the horror genre and the many complex branches it has grown over the past fifty years.

The Brood: Midnight Movie Monographs is available direct from the publisher at: https://www.pspublishing.co.uk/

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