The following contains spoilers for The Brood (1979)
Rejoice with me! Canada’s finest purveyor of grotesque cinema returns! While the recently revealed Cannes lineup is stacked with some of the world’s greatest filmmaking heavyweights (Claire Denis, Park Chan-wook, Kelly Reichardt, etc.) no name on the list excited me more than David Cronenberg’s. This year, at seventy-nine-years old, Cronenberg returns to the director’s chair for the new film, Crimes of the Future, his first feature since 2014’s Maps to the Stars. It also marks his return to body horror since—what? The 1980s? It depends on who you ask.
Body horror, as a genre, is pretty niche, but even still, it’s had a bit of resurgence as of late thanks to a few festival-circuit darlings. Most notably, or at least the most recently discussed of these revivals is Julia Ducournau’s film, Titane. While of course Titane has a vibe entirely its own, and deserves its own praise, you’d be hard-pressed to find a review or article on Ducournau’s film that didn’t bring up Cronenberg’s name, too.
Personally, I feel like Cronenberg’s films, and body horror in general, are films about the inside spilling out. Whether it’s physical insides like guts and blood or abstract insides like repressed desires and secrets, these movies have a habit of dissecting their characters. If you wanted to follow this thought further, you might say the act of creating art is an act of spillage.You spill your thoughts onto the page, the canvas, the photograph, the screen. You may use art to grapple with the frustrations in your life. To deal with hardships. To release. Every story, painting, film, and picture was once sealed up inside you, perhaps scraping and clawing to get out.
One of my favorite works by David Cronenberg, and the one I think exemplifies this idea the best, is The Brood (1979). This was the third in a trilogy of biological horror films preceded by Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). Each movie in this series centered around science experiments gone wrong, with results like sex-crazed cannibalism, bloodthirsty organs, and other gnarly terrors. The Brood focuses on the “psychoplasmic” therapy of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) which is apparently an experimental form of anger encouragement. Raglan permits his patients to manifest their rage, which results in various physiological changes to the body—boils and tumorsto be snipped off and removed. One of the patients at the institute is Nola Carveth, a disturbed woman currently embattled with her husband Frank over custody of their young daughter. Nola undergoes “psychoplasmic” therapy to slightly different effect, and everyone is shocked when her anger manifests as something far more dangerous…
And thus begins a series of brutal attacks that ravage the town. The killers? Tiny, child-sized, not-quite-human creatures wielding knives and mallets.
It’s no secret that The Brood was created during a turbulent time in Cronenberg’s life, in which he was recovering from his own difficult divorce and custody contest. That year, The Brood released alongside best picture winner Kramer vs. Kramer. On this fact, Cronenberg had to say, “The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic.”
More realistic? With a horde of monster children wielding hammers? It’s easy to think that Cronenberg was joking here, but upon repeat viewings, it’s clear that he meant it. What The Brood does so well, like many contemporary horror films do, is elevate the guts and blood to something more emotionally resonant. Yes, there are creatures with blades, sci-fi psychic therapy that produces bodily changes, but it’s also an artist desperately trying to convey a terrible feeling to an audience. In a way, I guess Cronenberg is saying: this is what it felt like for me. It’s effective in a way a standard legal drama can never be because it appeals to a different sensation.
Take another example, a scene from the 1977 David Lynch film Eraserhead. That painful, awkward, and nightmarish dinner sequence. The oozing, twitching chickens. The surreal dialogue and odd behavior of the parents. The pain and embarrassment in Charlotte Stewart’s face. Yes, it’s scary and bizarre and not at all typical of what meeting a partner’s parents is really like, but on some subconscious level, it can and often does feel like that. If The Brood is anger and frustration manifested, then Eraserhead is anxiety.
In the end, The Brood leaves the viewer with a surprisingly melancholy thought of legacy, genetics, and how this ordeal has affected Nola’s daughter. Frank carries his daughter out to the car, having effectively resolved the custody battle, but at what cost? Yes, it’s a messy, dated film but one with much to offer. Through the violence, ferocity, a deeply personal film emerges, reminding me that sometimes the best way to convey your thoughts and feelings, is to just let it out. Go ahead. Spill your guts.
Recommended Cocktail: Since it’s also a delightfully chilly film, taking place in deep winter, I’d suggest something warm and something red. Perhaps fire up your favorite mulled winerecipe?
Alex Tronson is a writer living in New Orleans. His work has been published in Barstow & Grand, Misery Tourism, Expat Press and Hobart.