Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Cronenberg Blogathon: The Brood (1979), or David Cronenberg Presents: MurderBabies

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cronenberg Blogathon: The Brood (1979), or David Cronenberg Presents: MurderBabies

by John Eno

[Delimited Liminality's John Eno finds reason to think Cronenberg's ideas sometimes outpace his execution, especially in The Brood.]

David Cronenberg was pegged early on as a horror director, albeit a director of horror films that didn't fit well in the genre as it had been established up to that point. A lot of this was due to his interest in particularly visceral horror, especially that which affects the body from within rather than from without. Even before I'd seen anything he'd directed, I knew him by reputation as a director of horror in which the monsters aren't any kind of external force but rather come from within, in the most literal way. (That the title of his first feature film is, well, They Came From Within is telling.)

This unorthodox approach to the genre is buttressed by Cronenberg's total lack of interest in traditional monsters, which gives him quite a lot of freedom from audience expectation. He uses this elbow room effectively, not so much to build tension or work towards scares as to keep us just as in the dark as his characters regarding where their mutations and physical reconfigurations will take them. Though we can be sure that it'll be somewhere revoltingly squishy and biological, we're never quite sure where a given story will end up, since we've got no map of previous similar experiences to compare it to. This liberty is one of his most powerful tools, a good narrative trick to involve his audience in the story, since he's not adept at creating characters who are nuanced enough for us to identify with.

That his monsters are just as human as their victims suits this inversion of the normal horror structure of an external threat challenging a community or individuals. Cronenberg's insistence on portraying his characters as well-rounded, if not deep, also means that there aren't any faultless protagonists or entirely diabolical antagonists. The conflicts here aren't those of entropy versus order as per the horror standard, but rather evolution versus stasis, which makes for a much more ambiguous arena for his ideas to do battle in.

The Brood, then, is a bit of an outlier in his body of work. The protagonist experiences only external threats and doesn't experience any kind of transfiguration as a result of encountering those threats. The primary antagonist isn't show going through much of a transformation, either, though the way that the movie gradually reveals what she's been all along acts as a kind of narrative surrogate for such a transformation. Mostly, though, Samantha Eggar's portrayal as Nola leaves quite a bit to be desired, as she's an antagonist who can only be empathized with on the most abstract of levels, and not through the fault of being rendered inhuman due to her transformation. Though her primary motivation of reuniting her family and convincing them to love her unconditionally is easy to relate to, Eggar chews through the role with so much vehemence that it's hard to imagine her as anything other than a murderous shrew.

Cronenberg is certainly a director whose main strength is his ideas, but his execution often isn't up to the task of making those ideas come to life. Here, that's most evident in the brood themselves, which should be a terrifying personification of blind rage but instead end up being nothing more than attack-midgets armed with a variety of improvised weapons. Though they act as a fine visual metaphor for the way that domestic violence is often passed down through a generational cycle, particularly in the way that their dress mimics that of Frank and Nola's daughter, there's nothing particularly frightening about them in a more immediate fashion.

The presence of the brood is also made problematic by the way in which the thematic conflict of evolution versus stasis is presented as so unequivocally in favor of stasis as a favorable force. Though Dr. Raglan's other patients don't commit murder by proxy or lapse into messianic delusions, they also aren't shown to be able to produce anything other than self-defilement through the application of Raglan's psychoplasmic techniques, and there isn't a single case in the film of those techniques producing any results in the realm of psychiatric therapy. All of his patients are demonstrably just as crazy as they were before they began treatment, with frequent Cronenberg collaborator Robert Silverman portraying an especially zany/fun version of the demented character he's often called upon to play.

A shift toward more immediate altruism near the end of the film sheds more light onto Dr. Raglan's character, which had seemed pretty one-dimensionally Evil Scientist up until that point, but the arc of the story finds itself in a strange cul-de-sac after revealing just how strongly it presents evolution as a threatening force. Though the pattern of familial abuse is shown to have originated prior to the advent of psychoplasmics, use of that radical superscience is shown to be no cure for that traditional social ill. In fact, the very nuclear family unit that's shown to be the source of Nola's rage in the first place is only reinforced by the ending of the film, with the final shot serving as a reminder that this is a conflict which seemingly has no resolution. That lack of easy answers, or perhaps any answers, is also emblematic of Cronenberg's work, in which conflicts which may initially appear to be resolved are shown to be fractal in nature, whose resolutions are elusive at best.

A special note needs to be made about the trailer for the film, which is amazingly hyperbolic. As noted previously, there wasn't really anything scary so much as thought-provoking about The Brood, but the trailer takes a different tack entirely. I'm fine with this kind of misleading approach, as "The movie that will make you consider whether or not domestic abuse is unavoidably hereditary" doesn't make for much of a dramatic voiceover. But, still, the wannabe-ominous narration intoning how the film will send my brain reeling from the most terrifying images of terrible terror ever recorded, while onscreen we see nothing more than a box of Shreddies being knocked onto the kitchen floor, was just too rich to believe. I'm glad I didn't watch the trailer before the movie itself, but I highly recommend checking it out after you watch the feature as a quick but marvelously potent shot of unintentional humor.


Tony Dayoub said...

John, I feel you're of two minds in your argument, not completely willing to go out on a limb with a contrarian opinion. For example, you start off with the premise that "Cronenberg's total lack of interest in traditional monsters... gives him quite a lot of freedom from audience expectation. He uses this elbow room effectively, not so much to build tension or work towards scares as to keep us just as in the dark as his characters regarding where their mutations and physical reconfigurations will take them." But then you call him to task because the film's murderous brood "act as a fine visual metaphor for the way that domestic violence is often passed down through a generational cycle... [but] there's nothing particularly frightening about them in a more immediate fashion."

So on the one hand you applaud him for taking a cerebral approach (which implies distance), but on the other hand you criticize him for not being scary enough. I can't tell whether you like his aesthetic or not.

Adam Zanzie said...

As with Rooster's piece, I admire the attempt to look at Cronenberg's work a little more objectively--but like Tony I had bit of a difficult time understanding this.

Cronenberg is certainly getting metaphorical with The Brood over issues like parental custory and the aggressions of single parents, but I don't know if charging that the movie isn't scary enough can help a critic, exactly, when examining the film... even with the fantastical elements I think The Brood is more a thriller than a horror movie. Some will differ with me here but I've never regarded Cronenberg as much of a "scary" director, anyway; it's the shocking energy of some of his more violent works, and the stirring North American social commentaries that come with them, that's so visceral.

John Eno said...

Sorry for the late replies - I was away all weekend.

Tony: I'm not worried about people disagreeing with me. Any lack of clarity in my writing is due to these reviews tending toward rambling, rather than being
attempts at the precision required of a formal essay.
I wasn't so much applauding Cronenberg for his cerebral approach, which has as many faults as it does benefits, as I was pointing out that I think he's an interestingly fringe part of the horror genre, due to the way that he doesn't care too much about the genre's standard tropes. That said, The Brood succeeds on an intellectual level but not an emotional one, which is generally true of Cronenberg's work. Your comment seems based on an assumption of an unbridgeable dichotomy between emotion and intellect, but it's my experience that great art stimulates both.
Put another way, the brood-babies would have been just as successful at embodying the theme of familial abuse had they also been a threatening presence onscreen, and they would have added another layer of interest to the movie had it also succeeded as a straightforward horror film.
I'm get the sense that Cronenberg doesn't care about his films being scary, and I don't fault him for that, but I think he'd be a better artist if he did.

Adam: I agree that Cronenberg doesn't make frigtening films, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I'd much rather have him out there stretching the boundaries of what the genre can encompass, and lately, make films that use the skills he learned earlier in his career and apply them to stories that match his sensibilities more closely.
Like I mentioned above, this was more a reaction piece than a close reading, so mentioning the fact that it's a horror film which isn't frightening is more review-work than crit. (This is billed as a "review" on my blog, and while I think that my reviews don't generally work very well as such, they at least try to maintain appearances somewhat.)
I do have to say that I don't agree that it's not useful to evaluate a film's merits based on something like whether or not it's frightening. If evoking fear is a key element of a larger scheme (like in films such as House of the Devil or Session 9, in which that fear plays directly into the themes of the film overall), then yeah, it's worth examining. That said, I don't think that The Brood was really hurt by its lack of tension, but I think it would have made for a much more compelling experience if it had had that tension.

John Eno said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony Dayoub said...

Great art does not need to stimulate both intellect and emotion. It just needs to stimulate, period. That is why one can list Kubrick masterpiece like the cold, cerebral 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, right next to the rousing dumb RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in a comprehensive list of the best films of all time. Each works under a different category of stimulation but still succeed at what they aim for.

That's why I can't relate to you when you say THE BROOD fails because it doesn't scare you even though you admit you don't think this is what Cronenberg is going for. Shouldn't we be judging a film for achieving its aims not for satisfying your expectations?

Troy Olson said...

I'm in agreement with Tony on the intellect/emotion argument, though I definitely feel Cronenberg hits both quite well here.

Perhaps it just comes down to the whether one thinks the whole idea/execution of the brood children are "scary" or not. I for one, do think they affect that type of response.

I actually think that the detached way Cronenberg films the scenes with them in it actually give them a truly horrific tenor -- I'm thinking specifically of the school scene and how he tries to disguise the creatures, but still let us know they are there (on the tire swing) and are sure to be doing something horrific soon enough. Then, when he films the murder of the teacher, he does it mostly with long shots and reaction shots of the children. Perhaps that's not shocking or off-putting enough for some, but it always manages to get a rise out of me.

John Eno said...

Tony: Pretty sure we're not going to reconcile our visions of what constitutes great art, as yours strikes me as rather soft. I do think it's odd to use 2001 as an example of a film that doesn't evoke emotion, given how starkly terrifying many of its sequences are, but horses and courses.
I don't think that The Brood fails in its aims, but I do think that the brood fails in their function. (That capitalization here and elsewhere isn't accidental.) The brood are clearly meant to be frightening to their victims, but their onscreen attacks aren't convincing enough for us to feel the fear that their victims are feeling. That's why I say that Cronenberg doesn't seem to care about making his horror movie scary, because though he knows that they're supposed to be frightening, he doesn't seem to try very hard to fulfill the emotional content of the film so much as to pay it lip service. That element of the film does fail to achieve its aim, to answer your question, though it's needlessly reductive to assume that I think that one or two missteps ruin the entire affair rather than meaning that it was good but didn't entirely live up to its potential.

Troy: I think that you're absolutely right about how the audience reaction to how the brood were implemented in the film will dictate whether or not they resonate for that audience. In theory, they could have been terrifying, but they didn't work for me except as a component of a metaphor, which threw me out of the story-for-story's-sake.
I think your commentary on how he deploys them in the frame is right, too, though I think that the problem was that he didn't do enough to conceal them. Had we seen the brood rarely or not at all until a final reveal of their nest, they would have worked much more effectively as a horror element. As it is, they're possessed of little more than informed attributes - we're told that they're dangerous, but it's impossible to believe that when we actually see them in action on the screen.

Tony Dayoub said...

Your last comment is designed to end discussion rather than promote it. I guess I'm having trouble buying your arguments on any number of levels because they are framed in generalities not specifics. When you say my vision of what constitutes art strikes you as "rather soft" you don't really explain specifically how or why. When you explain that you find many of 2001's sequences "starkly terrifying" I'm forced to ask myself, Which ones and why? because you certainly don't provide any examples. And when you state the brood "...are clearly meant to be frightening to their victims, but their onscreen attacks aren't convincing enough..." I can't argue with you since you fail to provide instances where this might be so.

Troy is specific referring to a scen which scares him, "...when he films the murder of the teacher, he does it mostly with long shots and reaction shots of the children." I will be as well. The scene where Oliver Reed enters the dormitory to save Candace is as tense a knuckelbiter as I've ever seen in cinema.

I understand if you aren't into discussion, but it's better to state that than keep responding with these conversation-killers.

John Eno said...

Honestly, I can't think of a non-redundant way to write "the brood are unconvincing onscreen when they murder [character X]" for each character whom they murder, rather than simply writing "the brood are unconvincing onscreen when they commit their murders." I'll just chalk this up to a failure on my part and head out the door. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.