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In Conversation: David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979)

This is the first entry in Diabolique’s “In Conversation” column, where two or more writers informally—and often personally—discuss cinema, art, and current contentious issues. 

Samm Deighan: Recently I was having a conversation with a friend and the subject of Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) came up and it was brought to my attention that some people find the film to be misogynist. I think in recent years, particularly in the wake of #MeToo, a lot of people are having conversations like this: what films do we find misogynist and why, and how do we respond to that as cinephiles and as film critics? Personally, I was really taken aback—and a little appalled—by that attitude towards The Brood in particular, as it never even occurred to me to see the film that way. It seems like the general arguments center around three topics: the use of the female protagonist as the film’s central villain, the negative depiction of motherhood, and the complicated theme of mental illness, particularly as it relates to a female character. What do you think? Do you find The Brood misogynistic?

Neil Snowdon: Not at all. Nola (Samantha Eggar) might not be a positive depiction of motherhood or femininity, but equally, neither are the men portrayed as anything especially positive either. At best, in Art Hindle (as Frank Carveth) we have an ostensibly good person, who nonetheless is barely hanging on, and is withdrawn enough, distracted enough by just trying to make ends meet in both career and family that he didn’t notice Nola’s problems in the first place (or dismissed/overlooked them); failed to notice that his daughter is incredibly withdrawn most of the time, and has suffered physically while in her mother’s care. Nola’s mother may or may not be as abusive as Nola claims, but we can see that both she and Nola’s father have drinking issues, and according to Nola her father did nothing when her mother beat/abused her. Meanwhile Raglan (Oliver Reed) is so filled with overconfidence, or lack of perception/care that he is putting his patients and their families in danger with his treatment for his own selfish desire to know more, to “take it all the way through to the end”. It’s a film about trauma, and the complexity and complicity of the society/culture that, if not breeds it, fails to comprehend it fully, or deal with it well.

No one in the film seems to communicate effectively. Everyone seems locked in their own world of concerns, and as a result, they express, but don’t communicate; are not understood. They express—verbally and physiologically—but they don’t heal. There is no healing in the film, physically or emotionally. If anything it seems like trauma is, in a sense, presented as an emotional contagion. And what we see are only negative emotions—fear, rage, revulsion, sadness. What the film doesn’t reach, but perhaps implies by presenting the inverse, is that positive emotion might/can be contagious too.

SD: I totally agree. For me, it’s a film about trauma: the trauma of divorce, the inherited trauma of systemic abuse that passes down from generation to generation. Seeing it as a teenager, with my own personal history of child abuse and growing up with divorced parents, it felt so much truer to me than more realistic dramas about the same subject matter (Cronenberg himself always cites Kramer vs. Kramer, also from 1979, for example). It explores the various ways in which families can be toxic—explicitly as a horror film, because that subject, that experience, is genuinely horrifying. I think, in some ways, it represents this ultimate domestic horror trope that is so rarely explored but that certainly exists in life: this concept that a mother, who is supposed to love unconditionally and in a self-sacrificing way, is not only incapable of loving her children, but is willing to commit abuse and violence against them (a theme to which Cronenberg returned more recently in the really underrated 2014 film Maps to the Stars).

NS: It’s interesting as well that while Nola is clearly a bad mother to Candice, she is demonstrably a loving mother to her ‘brood’—the image you’ve used here being key: it is a tender and intimate image, but also primal, and somewhat animalistic. What’s clear to me is that she ‘loves’ the brood, whom she controls, but not the child who has a will of her own, and independence, whom Nola cannot control. There comes a hatred, a rage in her inability to control that which she gave life. For Nola, on some level, to love is to control, or to acquiesce to be controlled (in terms of a recipricatory gesture). That need to control, and the need for obedience, is frighteningly common in abusive relationships I think, particularly between an abusive parent and abused child.

SD: That really concisely sums up my personal engagement with the film as it relates to my own relationship with my mother. Art in general, but especially cinema, has always been really important to me in how I process my own life and particularly my own traumatic experiences. When I first saw The Brood, I connected with it—but it also made me profoundly uncomfortable—because at the time, I had never seen a depiction of motherhood on screen that I felt was reflective of my own life. It seems like the horror genre, in general, is more willing to explore difficult family relationships, and in that sense I think it belongs with films that look at the trauma of motherhood and family life: for me Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973)and Possession (1981) are in a similar vein. Possession, in particular, is another film that deals with the horror of divorce and maternal abuse/neglect in such a frank way, but is another film that I’ve seen described (to my intense frustration) as misogynistic.  

NS: It’s something that I’ve witnessed, but thankfully never experienced. I see the pain, and can only imagine what it’s like to grow up with, and be amazed and moved by anyone who comes through the other side of it, to define their own lives, and define it in such a way as to break the cycle. It takes a profound amount of strength and resilience. I tip my hat to you.

SD: I mean, you survive because you have no other choice, but I definitely found films like this more central to my trauma recovery process than years of therapy. I think that’s why I take it so personally when people think they’re misogynistic. I also think that’s why Nola is such a terrifying character. She didn’t deal with her own abuse at the hands of her mother, and that unresolved trauma has transformed her into something monstrous. There’s a statistic I read years ago saying that a percentage of abuse victims will become abusers themselves, which is a sort of tragic, terrible irony. I’ve seen some of the criticism towards The Brood lobbed at its portrayal of mental illness, a theme that has gotten some attention again recently with the release of films like Hereditary (2017). No spoilers, but it similarly deals with issues of multi-generational abuse and related mental illness, though I hated the film and felt like it was much crueler towards its protagonist (a mother, Toni Colette) than The Brood.

NS: There’s something monumentally hubristic and naive in Raglan’s thesis re: mental illness and ‘The Shape Of Rage’. He believes that by manifesting psychological problems as physical symptoms they can then be treated medically. But we already manifest our symptoms physically every day, in our actions. We cry, we shout, we talk, we break things, we self harm; we write them down, we make Art, as Cronenberg does. This is catharsis. What Raglan risks by manifesting negative emotion as physical sickness is the surely conceivable cancer of one patient, let alone the inconceivable outcome that are the rage filled children of Nola’s brood. Rage/emotion without conscience can be dangerous. It is not catharsis, because it is not a release. A manifestation of pure rage can only be dangerous, without conscience it will hurt indiscriminately, without thought of consequence. How is the manifestation of Frank Carveth’s rage ultimately any different to Nola’s? He strangles her to death with his own hands. That is rage made manifest just as much as the brood and their killings.

SD: To me, Raglan is the real antagonist of the film because of this and, in a really interesting way, through his character The Brood attacks psychology, psychiatry, pop medicine. I can understand why people feel that Cronenberg is anti-medicine or anti-science, as a lot of his films deal with this subject (especially 1988’s Dead Ringers, and of course he played—to perfection—an insane, serial killer therapist in Nightbreed [1990]). But the fact remains that during the ‘70s and ‘80s there was a wave of crack therapy, with implanted and repressed memories as being central to things like the Satanic Panic which manipulated abused children and abused adults. People were, and are, taken advantage of by lazy, crooked, or just cruel medical practitioners. This has been an ongoing problem in the United States, with our health insurance issues and the fact that mental health is so stigmatized here. I think this also really highlights how Nola is doomed by a corrupt, broken system. Yes, Cronenberg could have made a film about a traumatized, dangerous woman going to a supportive, helpful therapist, but to me The Brood’s third act really represents the limited possibilities—now, but especially then—for victims of trauma and abuse because of its social stigma. Nola’s rage and unresolved trauma inevitably turns back upon her family. Of course the means, her “Brood,” is monstrous, grotesque, surreal, and maybe even a little absurd, but for me it represents a really horrifying and realistic emotional truth.

NS: Emotional truth is something I feel is at the heart of the why the film is so powerful… and so disturbing. Art Hindle has been criticised for his acting in the film, there have been critics who call the performance bland or wooden, but I find it extremely true. He is withdrawn, subdued, depressed, but also he’s repressing his feelings, his anger, his rage until finally, Nola goads him into manifesting by attacking her. The repressed emotion finally becomes so great that it breaks free. I guess some people see that scene as cathartic, like ‘the good guy wins and the bad guy gets their due’, or—more problematically—‘the bitch gets what’s coming to her’. But to me it was always tragic on a grand scale. I mean, like Shakespearean. THIS is the end result of undealt with trauma, and emotion. It can make you do unspeakable things. It destroys everything. And the act of that destruction, that concentrated negativity and rage, begats itself in the process; sows the seeds of its own legacy, which we see in Candice. Seething, roiling, repressed but always there; changing us physically and emotionally and affecting everything we do. Made manifest in our personal, and social, actions and interactions. Trauma isn’t only about the traumatised individual; it affects everything about the way that person interacts with the world.

‎Repressed emotion, not released or channelled cathartically, is destructive. We need the release of tears, a punch bag, or Art to discharge it, and (hopefully) transform it from a negative to a positive. Released as a positive energy we can heal, and new connections can be made—internally, and externally, in ourselves and with others; we grow, as individuals, as a society, as a culture because of those connections and interactions… we evolve. Failure to do so isolates us, condemns us, amplifies the negative until it becomes all consuming. Unchecked, undealt with, a negative emotion grows like a cuckoo in the nest, ousting all others, feeding on us until it alone inhabits us, and the be all and end all of our existence is to feed it.

Note from NeilIf you enjoyed the roughly 2000 words above, I think you’ll love the more than 500,000 words that make up Stephen R. Bissette’s forthcoming Midnight Movie Monograph on The Brood, which I commissioned for Electric Dreamhouse Press. It goes much further and much deeper than anything above, and is – frankly – extraordinary. It’s due out later this year.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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