Cronenberg on Sex and Gender: The Brood (1979)
I have not watched many of David Cronenberg’s films in my life, and for someone who is a major horror fan it has always been a part of my movie watching shame. I was lucky enough to watch Videodrome for the first time last month and was struck by the social commentary he was trying to make, specifically in relation to sex and gender. It stuck with me so much that I have not been able to stop thinking about what Cronenberg’s other movies say about these topics as well. I am still far too deep into Videodrome research to finish up that piece so I decided to revisit one of the few Cronenberg’s that I own, The Brood.
Among other things, The Brood is a film about psychiatric care, abuse, trauma, family, and a strained marriage. The film is about a husband and father named Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) whose wife Nola (Samantha Egger) is away from the family undergoing deep psychiatric treatment with Dr. Hal Raglan who is using some pretty experimental treatments to get results. His form of psychology is called psychoplasmics which was based on a real movement known as Gestalt Therapy. The idea of psychoplasmics was to harness rage by conversing with a surrogate version of those who were behind the trauma. Nola is allowed visits with her daughter Candy, but after Frank finds bruises all over their daughter he starts putting together a case for custody. Eventually people around Frank start to be murdered by the “brood” deformed children birthed from his own wife as a result of this experimental treatment.
I saw this film for the first time a few years ago but after going through a Master’s program and studying the history of women and mental health care I saw this movie in an entirely different light. It is important to mention that this story was based on Cronenberg’s own traumatic custody battle, something I did not realize until after watching it for this piece. An incident where Cronenberg’s ex wife abducted their daughter and joined a cult, where Cronenberg had to remove his daughter from this place and try to gain custody rights seems to have inspired the film. So right away it makes sense that you understand his personal frustrations and it makes the film feel like not only is it based on his personal emotional connection, but blended together with overall social commentary on marriage and psychiatric care.
When we are introduced to Frank it does not feel like he is a married man. It is only until Frank see scratches and bruises all over his daughter that he mentions he wants to fight for custody. I never got the impression that Frank loved his wife, or that he was waiting for their life to resume after her treatment was over. We learn from Nola later in the film that he refused to see her while she was under treatment. He is resentful from the beginning especially when his lawyer tells him the law believes in motherhood and even though she is in psychiatric treatment she might be able to win the custody battle.
For a crowd in 1979 I do not think that Nola comes off as a sympathetic character, I know I didn’t even think of her this way the first time I watched this. However, having more understanding of psychiatric history and cycles of abuse I see her more as a victim trying to cope. When we are introduced to her it is hard to know what she was like before going into treatment, we get pieces here and there about events that occured that got her to the point where going away was necessary, but not much. In her state it is hard to say if she is even on the road to recovery.
Soon we are introduced to Nola’s family and you begin to realize there is a cycle of abuse and trauma that has been going on for some time. There are references made to the frequent hospital visits that Nola had when she was a kid and in therapy she talks to her “mother” and “father” Through Dr. Raglan and mentions the abuse that was inflicted on her by her mother and how her father did nothing, and eventually left the both of them behind. Both parents exhibit alcoholic tendencies as well, a way for them to escape from dealing with their part in traumatizing Nola. Early on, Nola’s mother says that children begin to resent their parents from the beginning “by 30 seconds you have a history and by 60 seconds you start to lie to yourself about it.” It is hard to say if she is lying to herself or if she is referring more to Nola.
We learn that the treatments Raglan’s patients are undergoing has certain physical effects when we meet one of his former patients, Mr. Hatog, that believes he and others have grown cancerous tumors as a result of therapy, as Hatog says, “ he encouraged my body to revolt against me”. However Nola’s trauma manifests in a way that allows her rage to give birth to these small children who can only see in black and white, have no sexual organs, and who also have no belly button. This leads to some of Cronenberg’s crazy practical effects used in the climax of the movie to see one of these children being born from a sack attached to Nola’s stomach. Learning about the children who make up the “brood” was intriguing. The idea that these rage babies only seeing in black and white seems to symbolize their inability to see the complexities in these issues and only see those who are good and those who are out to hurt them. The lake of sexual organs and gender also seems to suggest that rage is rage no matter who it is coming from.
For me this film displays paranoia about therapy that seems common at that time and especially from a male perspective. The bones of this story seem similar to a lot of stories around this time of women being institutionalized, either of their own free will or by the demands of the husband. The idea that delving too deep into one's’ trauma and channelling rage can actually give birth to and destroy those around you seems like a fear especially for the men of the household. Of course being a woman Nola is the only character shown with this ability to give birth to her rage. The film also brings up several of the psychiatric misconceptions about “hysterical” women and references to them as being “crazy”. Frank even says that he was duped “you got involved with a woman who married you for your sanity and hoped it would rub off, instead it started to work the other way”. It was an odd comment especially since it seems the movie goes out of its way to make Frank seem like the most sane and logical person in it, which if Frank is supposed to be some version of Cronenberg it makes more sense to me.
In the climax of the film Frank goes to Somafree , the place that Nola has been staying which has now been emptied of all other patients. When we see this happen it reminded me of a mini deinstitutionalization much like that which happened in the U.S. in the 1960s when a large amount of mental health institutions were closed down and many were left without anywhere to go. You see one of Dr Raglan’s patients take this very hard he keeps looking for anyone to act as his surrogate daddy. Dr. Raglan convinces Frank to talk to Nola and make her believe that Frank wants to make the relationship work in order for him to save his daughter. The plan fails and the Doctor is killed by Nola’s brood, Nola tells Frank she would rather kill their daughter than have her taken away. In response Frank strangles her, clearly showing what he will do to protect his daughter. It was said that this was a very “satisfying” part for Cronenberg to film. The film ends with Candy driving away with her father and closes in on some of the bumps appearing on her arm insinuated that she too is not affected by this trauma and has the potential to release her issues in a similar way, her mother did. Perhaps it even shows Cronenberg’s fear of what might happen to his daughter after their personal traumatic experience.
I found this to be an interesting film to watch through a gender lens. Frank seems like a caring father but at the same time one that is not totally understanding of his wife and her mental health issues. One could see how this could be a problem when Candy gets older and has to deal with the events she went through. Although granted there are some major issues with the treatment Nolareceives, Frank made no real effort that we can see to understand what she was going through and stand by her. He seems overall pretty weary of psychiatric care. His short lived encounters with Candy’s teacher seem to elude that Frank is searching for a new wife, one that is more “normal” and one that can take care of his daughter. Nola mentions that Frank does not listen to her and is only concerned that she is becoming her mother which has notes of emotional abuse and potential gaslighting within the relationship.
This is obviously a personal story for Cronenberg as it relates to some of his real life trauma and perhaps this was a form of therapy for him to work through some of those real life issues. I like this movie a lot but given that it is a movie from 1979 I wonder how Cronenberg deals with mental health and specifically female mental health in some of his other films, I have yet to watch A Dangerous Method, a story about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, but I am looking forward to it and would be interested to see what points he has to make years later. I think that Cronenberg is an incredibly smart writer who has such interesting complex ideas that he melds together in fascinating ways. I’m eager to see how his ideas change and evolve in these later works. I have also noticed that I felt many of Cronenberg's male protagonists are boring or have little depth to them, but his female leads have been very interesting Samantha Egger mentions what a “robust” character Nola was to play. I am very interested to pay more attention to this as a move forward in this Cronenberg series.