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The Brood, by Stephen R. Bissette (Midnight Movie Monographs: Electric Dreamhouse, 2020)

As a reviewer, it’s difficult to grapple with Stephen R. Bissette’s immense behemoth of a monograph. In fact, it’s hard to even know where to begin when discussing Bissette’s 600+ page study of David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979). Perhaps it’s best to start by simply acknowledging that Bissette has produced a magnificent and thoroughly original exploration of a difficult, and indeed controversial, film. Bissette’s wide-ranging study of The Brood is suffused with passion, the kind of abiding love that drives a researcher to sift through hundreds, if not thousands, of sources, in search of pertinent facts and new perspectives. It is also a book filled with carefully researched and intricately detailed analyses. Over the course of his study, Bissette provides a comprehensive overview of The Brood’s conception (no pun intended) and development, as well as an in-depth analysis of its key themes. 

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Midnight Movie Monographs’ The Brood is published by Electric Dreamhouse, an imprint of PS Publishing founded in 2016. The Midnight Movie Monographs series has been described as the BFI’s “disreputable cousin, a Northern Grindhouse with tastes a little darker and stranger”. If The Brood is anything to go by, this is an apt summation of the series’ aims and character. Like the British Film Institute’s much-lauded BFI Publishing wing, Midnight Movie Monographs produces well-researched, eloquently expressed explorations of important films. Unlike BFI Publishing, the films they focus on are of the kind that one might have found in cheap grindhouse cinemas or the seedier rental stores of the “Video Nasty” days. 

Stephen R. Bissette’s study of The Brood opens with a quote from director David Cronenberg in which the master of parasitic nightmares and unsettling body horror admits “I have a very strange relationship with film criticism in general, and with film criticism of my own movies in particular. I just find it intolerable, you know, basically, if I come right out with it. If it’s bad, I hate it, and if it’s good, it’s not good in the right way. If I could avoid ever reading criticism of my movies, I would be a happy person.”

This is a good place to begin because Cronenberg is a filmmaker notoriously averse to film criticism. He is also a “difficult” filmmaker, one whose works often promote confusion, controversy, and misunderstanding amongst critics. Bissette, however, commences his discussion of The Brood with a keen sense of self-awareness; he is confident in his analysis while remaining alert to the difficulty of the material on which he writes. For Bissette, The Brood was Cronenberg’s “first masterpiece”, and the attention he gives to every aspect of the film reflects its status as a turning point in the director’s career. 

Fear of the feminine in David Cronenberg's The Brood

Bissette commences his study proper with an overview of critical responses to The Brood, sourcing reviews from both mainstream and genre publications. The material gleaned from contemporary media evaluations again stresses the difficulty faced by many critics who attempted to assign The Brood to a rigid generic category – after all, it is a film both saturated with gore and suffused with a cerebral, occasionally surreal, horror. In Chapter One, Bissette moves on to explore some of the cinematic antecedents of Cronenberg’s unique mode of body horror. Here, the author carefully traces earlier filmic precursors to Cronenberg’s “new flesh” through the dark corners of Pre-Code Hollywood and on to post-war science fiction television. Bissette astutely identifies Warner Brothers’ 1932 WB two-strip technicolour horror film Doctor X as a potential prototype for Cronenberg’s preoccupation with the relationship between psychology and flesh. This chapter also explores the influence of science fiction television programmes like The Outer Limits (1963-65) and The Twilight Zone (1959–64), as well as post-war films like Hammer’s Quatermass series (1955-67), on Cronenberg’s creative development. The second chapter contextualises The Brood, and indeed Cronenberg’s work more broadly, within the larger context of the Canadian film industry. In addition to tracing the origins of Canadian horror cinema back to silent works like The Werewolf (1913) and The Devil-Bear (1928), Bissette also masterfully explores the tension between governmental film-funding bodies and horror/exploitation cinema, both before and after Cronenberg’s appearance on the cinematic landscape. The chapter also explores how Cronenberg’s career was impacted by changes in national and regional censorship laws. 

Chapter Three constitutes an engaging discussion of Cronenberg’s formative years, with a particular emphasis on his childhood interest in entomology (the study of insects) and science fiction. Bringing these two youthful hobbies together, Bissette treats a series of mid-twentieth century examples of sci-fi and weird fiction featuring insects and parasites as possible influences on the young Cronenberg. The chapter also explores the role played by the director’s father in Canada’s post-war pulp fiction boom. Chapters Four and Five are perhaps the most engaging in the book, serving as complementary pieces in which the author first explores Cronenberg’s play with ectoplasmic and parasitic forces, before moving on to a discussion of spirits and poltergeists as manifestations of suppressed rage. These chapters are intriguing because they serve to expand and contextualise some of the key metaphysical and parapsychological concepts underpinning The Brood. After all, if Nola’s (Samantha Eggar) rage is so profound that it can engender a brood of murderous children, then perhaps these materialisations can be seen as akin to psychic powers or the spectrally unleashed fury of poltergeists. In discussing this aspect of the film, Bissette draws a number of convincing parallels between The Brood and cinematic portrayals of the paranormal, such as Forbidden Planet’s (1956) id monster and The Manitou’s (1978) psychic parasite. Drawing on these ideas, Chapter Six features a compelling analysis of Universal’s 1942 film Night Monster, starring Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi in a story about reanimated false extremities – another work that prefigures Cronenberg’s complex interweaving of the psychic and the corporeal. 

The Brood': Psychoplasmic violations and familial crises - Split ...

Chapter Seven confidently defines The Brood as a pivotal moment in Cronenberg’s career. As Bissette argues “The Brood depicted a more personalized apocalypse, and it was all too human in every way—ugly, beautiful, touching, terrifying, sorrowful, and ultimately unflinching in its exploration of the depths and extremes of human need, pain, anger and love” (221). Expanding on this beautifully constructed paean to The Brood’s aesthetic and thematic nuance, Bissette argues that the film exemplifies Cronenberg’s growing sophistication and his increasingly adept mastery of cinematic technique. The chapter also delves deeper into the production history of The Brood, investigating the film’s casting, scripting, costuming and special effects as well as its much-discussed relationship to Cronenberg’s personal life. What makes this chapter truly spectacular is Bissette’s attention to detail and his nuanced reading of the film’s admittedly striking imagery. For example, when discussing the practicality of the colourful snowsuits in which the brood are clad – they minimised the need for elaborate body makeup – Bissette also notes how the suits stand out in the snowy vistas the creatures inhabit while also enabling them to invade children’s spaces.

Chapter Eight includes a discussion of The Brood as a reflection of recent Canadian history. Arguing that the image of maternal monstrosity at heart of the film mirrors the wider proliferation of monstrous parents in Canadian fiction, Bissette connects these wicked mothers and fathers to Canada’s long history of institutional abuse. In doing so, he demonstrates how such figures embody the horrors that took place in Canada’s industrial schools, orphanages and medical facilitates throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chapter Nine explores The Brood in the context of both the developing Canadian film industry and Canada’s growing prominence as a tourist destination. The chapter also includes an overview of the film’s marketing and distribution as well as a detailed account of its box office earnings and initial audience responses. The penultimate chapter, Chapter 10, explores the influence of The Brood, both on Cronenberg’s work and that of other filmmakers, with Bissette finding traces of the film’s influence in works like Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), The Stuff (1985), Brain Damage (1988) and Slither (2006). Bissette also notes that The Brood engendered a series of more explicit representations of monstrous births in subsequent horror cinema. The final chapter brings the study to a close with a discussion of Cronenberg’s work after The Brood

The Brood (1979, David Cronenberg) – Brandon's movie memory

In addition to a carefully researched exploration of The Brood’s development and an incisive analysis of its themes, Bissette’s book also includes an incredible collection of supplementary material in the form of appendices. Alongside a “Parasite Poll”, conducted to determine “the most insidious parasitic creatures…ever seen in a movie”, there is also a detailed overview of The Brood’s North American box office returns, 1979-1983; an account of the film’s UK distribution; and reprints of some useful contemporary publications. Bissette has also included some fascinating interviews with individuals involved in the making of The Brood, including actors Cindy Hinds (Candice Carveth) and Art Hindle (Frank Carveth), and cinematographer Mark Irwin. The appendices also include interviews with George W Myers (General Manager of Amherst Cinema), who discusses the afterlife of The Brood in modern American art and alternative theatres, author Graham Masterson, and writer, director & experience designer Lance Weiler, who collaborated with Cronenberg on Body/Mind/Change.

Stephen R. Bissette’s Brood monograph is an impressive feat of film criticism. It undertakes an in-depth analysis of The Brood as a film, but it also looks further afield, to the cultural, artistic and cinematic contexts from which The Brood emerged. The book is well-written, persuasively argued and suffused with an unwavering enthusiasm for its subject matter. However, despite its careful focus on Cronenberg’s 1979 masterpiece, Bissette’s monograph displays an impressive grasp of cultural, intellectual and cinematic history as a whole. It is an essential book not only for fans of The Brood but for anyone wishing to gain a greater understanding of Cronenberg’s wider oeuvre. For horror aficionados, it also provides an invaluable overview of some the genre’s more niche aspects: body horror, parasitic horror, monstrous births. Ultimately, Bissette’s study of The Brood is ambitious, masterful and wholly original. 

Midnight Movie Monographs are available from PS Publishing https://pspublishing2.com/all-8-midnight-movie-monographs-959-p.asp and via Amazon

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About Miranda Corcoran

Miranda Corcoran currently teaches American literature in University College Cork, Ireland. Her research interests include Cold-War literature, genre fiction, literature and psychology, and popular culture. She also enjoys researching and writing about topics related to horror, the supernatural and witchcraft.

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