The Brood Is a Fascinating Piece of Divorce Horror
David Cronenberg is a name synonymous with horror, and one of my favorites of them all is one I’ve just seen recently, The Brood, the psychological body horror divorce film from 1979. Spoilers ahead.
A deeply personal film, Cronenberg based The Brood on his own experience dealing with a divorce from his first wife, Margaret Hindson, who fell in with a cult-like fad psychotherapy group.
This parallels the film, where Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) is in a loaded custody battle with his ex-wife, Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar), over their daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds). Nola has gotten involved with Dr. Hal Raglan, who teaches a technique called “psychoplasmics.”
Raglan uses “psychoplasmics” to encourage patients with mental illnesses to let go of their suppressed emotions through physiological changes to their bodies. With Nola, this has taken … a turn, but we will get to that in a second.
Where the horror comes in
One day, after picking up Candice from custody with Nora and Raglan, Frank sees that his daughter has marks on her back from being beaten. This encourages Frank to work towards getting full custody of Candice. While that is going on, a series of murders begins to take place with people connected to Nora—first, her alcoholic mother, then her distant father, and then, eventually, a perceived romantic rival.
The killers are these tiny, childlike, genderless creatures, which, after one dies, are shown to have no belly button, meaning that they are not totally human. One of these creatures kidnaps Candice and brings her to the compound where Nola is staying under Raglan’s watch. When Frank confronts Raglan, the doctor reveals that the small children are Nola’s children. They are a her rage about her parental abuse brought to life through an external womb. The children psychically respond and attack on the targets of her rage, with Nola unaware of their actions.
When people think of The Brood, what comes to mind is the iconic scene of Nola revealing her womb and giving birth to one of these “children.” She then licks the blood off of the baby. This scene was so chilling that it was censored and, as a result, some people thought she was eating the baby.
Frank strangles Nola before the brood of children can kill Candice, but as they drive off, it is shown that this trauma may cause Candice to have some weird abilities of her own.
The unavoidable sexism
Watching The Brood and doing research about it, I found it very engrossing because, while it is deliciously well paced and frightening at times, it is high-key sexist. I’d seen a clip of the baby licking moment on Bravo’s Scariest Movies years ago and found it deeply chilling. It works even better in context.
That isn’t to say that it isn’t a great film, and that it isn’t legitimate to have that rage be a genuine feeling put into art. But the evil womb imagery is always something I can’t help but side-eye because it is rooted in sexism. Not to mention that Cronenberg tends to play with this, like in 1977’s Rabid, where his female lead develops a “phallic/clitoral stinger she uses to feed on people’s blood.”
Issa little messy. But at the same time, whole Nola isn’t “sympathetic,” she is someone who is being manipulated by an egomaniac doctor into allowing her rage to consume her. There is something to feel for her about in that. Also, Candice’s trauma at her parents being unable to handle the divorce gracefully does put both parents in some fault for that.
Broken and disillusioned from his own divorce, Cronenberg has called this his Kramer vs. Kramer, and I think that shows. All that being said, I found The Brood enchanting to watch. The care, the detail, the ferocity of it all really was compelling, and I think Cronenberg has only continued to web a deeply compelling line between sex, trauma, and gender. Sometimes, it’s messy, but man … so engaging to watch.
Don’t watch if you’re squeamish.
(image: New World Pictures)
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