SPOILER WARNING: In this article, I’m going to be discussing a number of key plot points for my Criterion Blogathon film of choice, THE BROOD. If you haven’t seen the film (and you should), or care about spoilers, perhaps you shouldn’t read the essay below. I realize this is a great way to maintain regular viewership for my new blog and promise to be less spoilery (even for 36 year old films) in the future (unless otherwise noted). Anyways, without further adieu, let the blogathoning begin.
Monsters have always fascinated movie goers. From Nosferatu in the early twenties, to Frankenstein in the 30s, to Godzilla in the 50s and 60s, to the zombies of today, audiences love a good monster. They are a foreign force, something wicked that taps into our instinctual fear of predators that go bump in the night. But, what happens when the real monster isn’t some mythical creature? What about when the real monster is us?
So, what better film to discuss on the topic of human monsters than David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD? What, did you expect a compelling human drama, or period piece that highlights the darkest aspects of the human soul? No, I’m going to talk about a film with actual, albeit unconventional monsters.
If you haven’t seen it, and my warning up top told you you probably should, the film centers on a father, Frank Carveth, played by Art Hindle, trying to raise his daughter, Candice, played by Cindy Hines. His estranged wife, Nola, played by Samantha Eggar, has been sent off to an experimental clinic to deal with her own mental psychosis. Things take a bit of a horrific turn, however, when mysterious mutant children begin appearing and murdering the people around Frank in brutal and violent ways. Awesome, right?
Anyways (and this is getting really spoilery here. Like really really spoilery), it is revealed that these mutant children are actually created through Nola’s therapy, creatures born from her own emotions, sent to wreck havoc on those who have traumatized her in her past and her present.
Now that we have the whole ragebaby thing out of the way, let’s dig in. This film, which contains a therapy called psychoplasmics, was described by the director Cronenberg as, “like Kramer Vs Kramer, but more realistic”. This comparison sort of makes sense once you learn about the circumstances surrounding the film. At the time, he was going through a rather messy divorce with his first wife. Things reached a bit of a climax after she had joined a cult and planned to take their young daughter with her. Supposedly, Cronenberg had to pull his daughter out of school early, essentially kidnapping her, to save her from being taken away by her mother. Perhaps in a moment of inspiration, or perhaps as cathartic release, THE BROOD is the story Cronenberg created in response to this life event. Write what you know, right?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Dave, what does this have to do with monsters? You’ve jumped the shark and this is only your second blog entry!” Well, trust me, I’m getting there, and you also CAN’T jump the shark this early. I haven’t even set a tone yet.
If you’ll allow me, I’m going to go on a bit of a tangent here and discuss a more recent monster movie, THE BABADOOK. This is a film about a single mother, Amelia, attempting to raise her troubled son, Samuel, who is afraid of monsters. One night, he selects a strange book for her to read to him before bed, a book called THE BABADOOK. A book about a monster that invades your life, that you can’t get rid of, that will change you. Now, THE BABADOOK and THE BROOD have a lot of things in common.
They are both essentially about single parents trying to raise a child. They are also about trauma. See, the Babadook is filled with undertones of grief. Samuel’s father died in a car accident when driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth. This event underscores the entire film and is the catalyst for all that happens. The titular Babadook is the monster that grief can turn us into. It makes us someone we’re not. It makes us hurt the ones we love. It makes us hurt ourselves. It turns us into a monsters.
The Brood is also a film underscored by trauma. Through the treatment of patients of psychoplasmics, we are given glimpses into the events that have hurt them. See, Dr Raglan (in a terrific performance by Oliver Reed that I can’t believe I waited this long to even bring up), the creator of the program, takes his patients back through their trauma through hypnotic roleplays. We don’t get to see many of his patients, but we do get to spend ample time with him as he treats Nola.
Nola and Raglan’s first roleplay focuses on the relationship between mothers and daughters. At first, Raglan plays the part of of Nola’s daughter, Candice. “Mommy, you hurt me”, he insists. “You hit me with your fists… and you scratched me with your nails.” But Nola insists that mommies don’t hurt children. Well, sometimes they do. When they are “bad, fucked up Mommies. Like mine was. Fucked up and bad.” From here, Raglan switches personas, now playing the part of Nola’s mother, insisting that she had never hurt her. “Show me what I did. Show me”, he pleads.
It is here that many monsters emerge. We learn of the abuse that Nola’s mother had subjected her to as a child, we see the pressure that Raglan places on his fragile and unstable patients, and finally, we see a manifestation of all that pent up trauma. Nola’s mother, Juliana (Nuala Fitzgerald) is watching Candice . A sudden noise in the kitchen sends her to investigate. A small creature, shrouded in a brightly colored snow suit jumps out and beats her to death with a meat tenderizer, the first of the titular Brood we meet. A product of Nola’s trauma, of her emotions, of her psychosis.
These manifestations of trauma we call the Brood appear at several points during the film. They dispatch of Nola’s father, who abandoned her, as he mourns the death of his ex-wife. They bludgeon Candice’s teacher to death after her husband shows an interest in her. They even kill Raglan as he tries to rescue Candice, who the Brood have kidnapped. They nearly even tear Candice apart, rather than let her be separated from Nola herself. These monsters are all the product of an individual, mistreated by other individuals, unable to cope with the abuse dealt over the years.
Before being killed (but shortly after we learn of how abusive she was), Juliana speaks with Candice about her mother while looking through old pictures. Candice is drawn to one particular photograph of her mother in the hospital. Juliana explains that as a child, Nola was covered in strange ugly bumps. The doctors could never explain it, or cure it. They simply seemed to come and go. In the final scene, as Frank drives away with Candice, in what seems to be a victory, strange ugly bumps begin to bubble in Candice’s skin, the trauma of the event leaving it’s mark. The horror of future Brood bubbling just under the surface. A mother abusing a daughter. A cycle repeating itself.
All monsters have their root somewhere, and almost always, that root is something human. While the Brood may be a product of the trauma we inflict on each other, what about other monsters? Let’s look at Godzilla, the giant lizard that is known to terrorize Tokyo from time to time. Surely, something that ridiculous can’t origins in reality.
Well, actually, he does. Godzilla is a metaphor for the atomic bomb and the impact it has had on Japan as a whole. The official inspiration, however, comes from an event that occurred on March 1, 1954. A tuna fishing vessel known as the Lucky Dragon, crewed by 23 men, was exposed to radioactive fallout from US atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll. In this example, a trauma inflicted by man upon others, albeit it unintentional, awakens a sleeping beast from the ocean floor, who then terrorizes the population at large.
How about another example? Let’s look at Nosferatu. Yes, the character and the film is the product of stolen ideas from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the sentiments echo the feelings of the German people of the early twenties. The country was plagued by horrible economic conditions and inflation. Yellow fever ran rampant. The story of a foreign presence that moves in and brings disease and misfortune with it spoke directly with the people at the time. These same attitudes would later grow ever more paranoid and nationalistic within Germany, and we all know the evil and monsters that grew out of that.
So, what of the Brood then? What monster truly created them? Well, if you recall earlier, I mentioned the inspiration for the film, the messy divorce of writer/director David Cronenberg. This event must have bubbled under his skin as well, and the Brood that was created of his flesh wasn’t a monster… but a monster movie. His trauma was channeled into something that doesn’t bludgeon or beat or hiss or scratch, merely one the graces our screens. A cycle broken through art and the magic of cinema.
We all live in a world of monsters. The monsters we face may not lurk in shadows, they may not seek to tear at our flesh, they may not even wear snowsuits and whack our faces with blunt objects. They are unfortunately people like you and I. Some of them are those closest to us. Others are people we will never meet. The trauma they can inflict on us is just as potent, and it’s up to us to make sure that trauma doesn’t create monsters under our own skin. Once we become the monster, who knows who we’ll hurt next.