The Collegian
Friday, August 12, 2022

Cinema in Retrospect: “The Brood”

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

The Brood” is a Canadian 1979 psychological body horror film directed by David Cronenberg. Made on the coattails of Cronenberg’s divorce, the film centers around the separated parents Frank (Art Hindle) and Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) and their young daughter, Candy (Cindy Hinds). Cronenberg jokingly describes the film as his “version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic.” However, beyond its depictions of the strife tied up in divorce and child custody complications, the film also examines the foundational role childhood plays in development, looking at both the physical and emotional scars it can leave behind.

At the beginning of the film, parents Frank and Nola are already separated, switching care of their child Candy over the weekends. At this time, Nola remains in near isolation, only permitted to see her daughter on weekends as she receives experimental “psychoplasmic” therapy -- which is a process invented for the movie -- under the care of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). After picking Candy up from the facility, Frank notices strange marks all over Candy’s body and photographs her back as though it were a crime scene. Suspecting Nola to be the cause of Candy’s blisters, he unsuccessfully tries to have the mother’s weekends visits reduced.

As Frank tries to juggle Candy’s safety and his own work and personal life, members of his inner circle fall victim, one-by-one, to mysterious, violent murders -- first, Nola’s mother Juliana Kelley (Nuala Fitzgerald), then Nola’s father Barton Kelley (Henry Beckman) and finally Candy’s teacher Ruth Mayer (Susan Hogan). When Candy disappears following Ruth Mayer’s murder, Frank becomes increasingly desperate in his investigation.

Eventually, Frank finds his way to the facility where Dr. Raglan tells him about Candy and Nola’s situation. Frank must confront Nola without enraging her, and Dr. Raglan will rescue his daughter. Unfortunately, Frank is unable to make amends and resorts to violence. After a spout of bloodshed, he retrieves Candy from another building and drives off to live another day.

Although the film is most explicitly framed around the conflicts between Nola and Frank, it is just as much about generational trauma and learned helplessness. While the main child in the film is Candy, Nola’s role as child of Juliana and Barton is crucial to parsing the text. Suffering abuse from her mother and neglect from her father -- and lacking safe spaces or outlets of expression -- Nola developed a justifiably unmitigated disdain and rage for her parents.

Dr. Raglan’s psychoplasmic therapy involves an abasing acting routine between the patient and the doctor. The film depicts three of Nola’s sessions with Dr. Raglan, first about her mother, then her father and then Candy’s school teacher. In each of these moments, Dr. Raglan assumes the role of Nola’s adversary and works with her to narrativize the inner thoughts of each. He works from an agreed factual basis but then spins an increasingly aggressive and assumptive dialogue. The “success” of his technique doesn’t come from seeing eye-to-eye so much as from feeding into a patient’s own insecurities. Since the boils literally contain the patient’s rage, developing as a byproduct of the dialogic process, the more hyperbolic the abasement becomes, the more it deforms the patient and, by proxy, relieves the patient of anger. Ideally, the externalized rage dissipates after the boils are lanced, physically excising anger from the patient.

While the boils are supposed to be lanced, Nola’s are inexplicably left alone, each eventually swelling into a birthing sac from which the eponymous “brood” spawn. These creatures operate as Nola’s Freudian id, putting into action the violent extremes she only envisioned. However, they are not uniformly malicious or rage-bound. After the creatures break into the school to kill Ruth Meyer, they walk hand-in-hand with Candy back to the shed. Amidst the cold snow and desolate highway, the only warmth or solace Candy receives is from her mother’s manifested anger.

The heritable nature of rage and trauma is examined until the last shot. Nola’s mother abused her, which built up pain and resentment within her. Nola’s father was witness to the abuse and did nothing except divorce Juliana when he had enough. Nola, then, lacking any strong parental model, entered a marriage without an understanding of intimacy or love. Although she wasn’t intentionally abusive to her daughter, her repressed anger boiled over in front of Candy’s eyes. Members of the brood killed Juliana while she babysat Candy and Ruth Meyer as she started the day’s class. Then, finally, Nola’s marital struggles reached a breaking point, and her anger towards Frank was redirected towards Candy just as her own mother’s was to her. After the dust settled and Nola’s rage was interred with her bones, a close-up on Candy’s arm shows the same boils which eventually overtook her mother. While Nola’s were born via prolonged therapeutic probing, whatever Candy endured was enough of a catalyst to manifest them unabated. If abuse remains systematically unaddressed, it continues to poison the well of development. Candy leaves the film physically unharmed, but her proximity to the anger of others likely irrevocably scars her future.

Like with Dr. Raglan’s psychoplasmic therapy, Candy and Nola’s trauma will continue to spiral until it bursts. When the basis of operations is already warped, everything built upon it will be that much more. And unless you receive proper lancing, to expel and curtail the wounds, the wounds might birth agents of their own. The central horror of “The Brood” comes less from its kills or effects as much as from its bleak illustration of the traumas of dysfunction. 

Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at henry.skalbeck@richmond.edu.

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