Before “The Fly,” there was “The Brood.” In the grand scheme these two films really aren’t that different. “The Fly” deals with the ways disease can ravage and deform the human body, while “The Brood” shows how the emotional trauma of divorce affects everyone involved — much the same way a terminal or life-threatening disease would. In “The Brood,” however, director David Cronenberg pushes the concept into the realm of nightmares. He creates a world where the adage “better out than in” does not apply. And when all the dark demons stuffed way down surface, they come out with an axe to grind.
The thought of “giving birth” to our most private hurts is enough to curl a few toes, but it’s what Cronenberg does with the idea that transforms “The Brood” from weird to thoroughly disturbing. The film — which Cronenberg wrote in the midst of his own custody battle — is standard-issue horror on the surface level, and it’s pretty effective. The bitter divorce and difficult custody battle between Frank (Art Hindle) and Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) has taken a toll on the whole family, including Frank and Nola’s daughter Candice (Cindy Hines). No one is more damaged than Nola, who seeks the help of psychotherapist Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). Dr. Raglan has invented an off-the-wall theory called “psychoplasmics,” which requires his patients to deal with their negative feelings and accept the bodily manifestations of their pain. Nobody’s prepared for the fallout from Nola’s catharsis. Damaged by the divorce and by her unhappy and abusive childhood, she produces deformed child-like beings ready to enact Nola’s rage on human targets.
Cronenberg keeps things simple in “The Brood” in terms of visuals and effects, since he intends to elicit a visceral reaction. (For example, the climactic scene — censored in the U.K. upon the film’s release — involves a highly disturbing yet somehow touching display of Nola’s love for her newly-emerged fetuses.) Nola’s brood consists of short, compact creatures with warped facial features, palates too ill-developed to produce anything more than shrieks or grunts and — this is the telling detail — no belly buttons. They look enough like children that they seem to be of this world, and yet there is a blankness, an essential lack of humanity that makes them particularly chilling. The children of the brood are fully capable of adult-sized violence and murder, which is a combination that in film history (“The Bad Seed,” “The Omen,” “The Good Son”) rarely fails to frazzle the nerves. (The mix of small, innocent faces and dastardly deeds frightens because it is illogical. Indeed, when Frank encounters one of these anomalies, he’s as perplexed as he is scared.) These murder scenes are all the more freaky for the brood’s ability to hide out in cramped spaces, like (eek) underneath beds or inside dumbwaiters, or to blend in easily with a throng of kindergarten students in raincoats. It’s a nice reminder that murder need not be extravagantly gory or inventive to work well.
For all the creepy kid-monsters, it takes some time for the second level of “The Brood” — the subtext — to sink in. Cronenberg, as he would do later with “The Fly,” isn’t content to make us grimace and cower; he has a story to tell and a point to make. He prefers to use these images as metaphors for the very real damage that divorce and emotional trauma can do the parents involved and most of all the children. Frank is sensitive to his daughter’s anxieties and wants to protect her, but he doesn’t know how to fix what’s broken. Nola’s pain consumes her life to the point where she loses touch with reality, or maybe she chooses to reject it. (Eggar, it’s worth mentioning, did her civic duty as an actress and took The Unvain Part, the one that requires her to yelp and crawl the floor.) Still, it is Candice’s face we see at the end, and she is the most mysterious (and tragic) character. She rarely speaks or shows emotion. What has all this violence done to her? Is she doomed to the same psychiatric meltdown her mother had? We don’t know, which is the scariest thing of all.