by Tony Dayoub
Is there a more terrifying sequence in the last 40 years of cinema than the climax of David Cronenberg's chiller, The Brood? In it, Oliver Reed—that handsome rake who (according to Derek Armstrong) once received 36 stitches in the face after one of his numerous bar fights—walks into a dormitory full of sleeping, monstrous, children to help another traumatized innocent escape her captors. And as the evil little devils begin to wake up, and jump down from their bunk beds to surround Reed (Tommy), it is he who we are afraid for.
Well, I'm sure there might be a few scenes scarier than that one, but I can't think of any right now. One of the qualities that emerges when one becomes a parent is a natural protective instinct towards, not just your own child, but to other young kids who—though often wild and carefree—are not yet capable of properly applying morality and the concept of consequences to their actions. Cronenberg (A History of Violence) capitalizes on this ambivalence towards punishing children to create some of his most horrifying abominations, the tiny "rage" progeny that are born out of one woman's suppressed childhood memories of parental beatings.
Nola (Samantha Eggar) is holed up in a kind of detox center, where Reed's psychiatric guru, Dr. Hal Raglan, has developed a science known as Psychoplasmics. It all seems like quackery to Nola's ex-husband, Frank (Art Hindle), another reason he's reluctant to let their child, Candice, visit her mom for the weekend at a clinic that attracts desperate, repressed people who buy into the weird science. He becomes even more concerned when Candice returns home one night with bruises and bite marks all over her body. But it soon becomes evident that Raglan's Psychoplasmics is a real science, which allows patients to release their suppressed anger in ways that manifest themselves physically, such as pustules that break out throughout one man's body, or the lymphatic cancer that appears in another patient.
Nola's manifestations are particularly dangerous. So excellently has she pushed her anger out of her body, that her hostility is literally born in the form of a horrendous facsimile of a person, carried to short term in a gestation sack that resides outside of her body, which she must tear open with her teeth to allow the youngling out. These gremlin-like children target people that anger Nola, killing them for her while she, unaware, continues her treatment at Raglan's center. And Raglan, defensive of his reputation, his science, and Nola, tries to contain the problem by locking the children in a dormitory on the center's campus. It is only after the evil brood kidnap Candice that Frank and Raglan team up to resolve the problem of Nola's rage with some finality.
As usual, Cronenberg keeps things cool, never letting the terror translate into over-the-top histrionics. This could have been a particular problem with the high-strung Reed, a tempestuous actor who often goes off the rails if he is not restrained. But cast against type, Reed plays an intellectual whose passion for his science shines brightest in his wild eyes.
Reed's performance is a strong counterpoint to the more languid Hindle (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), who has the thankless role of reactor to the circumstances being thrown at him. Hindle is straight enough and Cronenberg's pace is measured enough in the early goings of the film, that as the violence escalates—and the preposterous story behind it starts to dawn on the viewer—the events of The Brood never seems as anything less than completely within the realm of possibility.
The Brood continues to be one of the high points in Cronenberg's long exploration of body-horror. And its satisfying climax is still tough to surpass.