It’s a testament to the heady complexity of the later works of Canada’s proudest son David Cronenberg that a film as fully realized as 1979’s The Brood would be considered one of the basics of his deep filmography. He’s moved through so many phases as a stylist of film and prodder of the discomforting that The Brood is clearly identifiable as a starting point, a trial period when the man was figuring out what worked, what didn’t, and just how far he could distend human flesh before it’d tear. The past decade or so has seen Cronenberg slickly pulling off high-wire literary adaptations, which were preceded by some thematically dense explorations of selfhood and the permeable divide between user and technology, as well as some densely rendered psychological finger-traps. The Brood, for all its lucid allegorical subtext, is a horror movie.
Though that’s a baldly reductive way of describing a film so engrossingly shot through with Cronenberg’s singular penchant for the viscerally (that is to say, literally pertaining to the viscera) revolting and his mounting anxiety over the human body’s inescapable shortcomings. The Brood hits all the traditional beats of a horror movie, picking off characters one by one with the tensely suspended killer’s POV shots endemic to slasher flicks. The film slowly ratchets up dread until a marvelously bloody catharsis, with creative killing strokes that confirmed Cronenberg as a real-deal talent after the lurid thrills of his Rabid two years earlier and Shivers two before that. But just beneath the competently executed horror show roils a hotbed of primal fears and mature insecurities.
Cronenberg said of The Brood in a 1979 interview that it’s “my Kramer Vs. Kramer, but more realistic.” It’s true that the director was going through a nasty divorce and custody battle around the time of the film’s production, though presumably his wife wasn’t remanded to the custody of a theatrical quack (Oliver Reed, cannily cast) swearing by the efficacy of a pseudoscientific discipline called “Psychoplasmics” to resolve mental distress. This would become Cronenbeg’s modus operandi over the following decades, beginning with a the stomach-churningly real peril of adult life and then dragging it around the fringes of disreputable cinematic traditions until it resembles something else entirely. Samantha Eggar’s Nola goes from unstable to stark raving mad as she becomes surer and surer that her husband’s plotting to take away her privileges to see her daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds), which he is, and that her doctor may not have her best interests at heart, which he doesn’t. The psyche’s id busts free from Nola’s subconscious and wreaks tangible havoc by externalizing her impulses of malevolent intent through pint-sized trollish monsters that do her homicidal bidding. The metaphorical significance ain’t subtle, but is it ever potent.
Just a few features into what would be a long and fruitful career, Cronenberg was already so skillful with the stingy meting-out of information that sets up lastingly scary reveals. He allows suggestion to do so much of his ambient work during the careful kill scenes, with the sights that remain unseen — and then, very, very seen, no matter how much we may wish we could unsee them — obscuring the stalkers’ visage, the one thing the audience really clamors to see. At 36, Cronenberg was no spring chicken during The Brood’s production process, and yet the film has the demented energy of a young director electrified as he realizes he’s coming into his own. With the film’s guarded intellect, and winning combo of its cheapo exterior with the director’s deadly competency as a manipulator of the film medium, The Brood ushers Cronenberg into the golden era of his career. An era, by the way, that could be fairly argued to have continued into the present day.
For their Blu-ray restoration, Criterion spared no expense to refresh and clean up the print. The picture is magnificent, of course — this 36-year-old doesn’t look a day over 25. And that’s the problem; the well-buffed image fights the grungy, grimy vibe that Cronenberg was going for with his low-rent horror project. He’d make his affection for the VHS tape’s video-nasty texturing explicit with Videodrome in 1983, but at this juncture, the look of The Brood was sufficient homage. Criterion’s audio tinkering does breathe new life into Howard Shore’s unsettling, tone-perfect score, though.
For Cronenberg completists, the extras are essential. A documentary takes a critical look at Cronenberg’s early work with a handful of his career-long collaborators, and the disc also includes a full restoration of Cronenberg’s no-longer-rare second feature Crimes of the Future. The booklet includes a sharp essay from critic Carrie Rickey about the film’s engagement with the frightening realities of divorce and its unintended wreckage, though the real treat is on the flip side. Unfold the booklet and behold a sublimely creepy poster of mama’s deformed little helpers.