After establishing himself as a skilled low-budget horror craftsman with Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), David Cronenberg took a surprising turn with his third professional feature. Fast Company (1979) is a drag racing exploitation film following the conflict between a star driver (William Smith) and his sleazy manager (John Saxon). There isn’t much more to the story than that. The film packs in all of the expected racing film requirements (copious racing footage, gratuitous nudity, John Saxon) but lacks any of the elements that set the best exploitation films apart from the pack (subversive political statements, offbeat humor, edgy content). Fast Company is an utterly generic little movie that isn’t notable as a standalone film or even recognizable as a Cronenberg project.
The Brood (1979), on the other hand, is about as Cronenbergian as a movie could possibly be. The action develops around the Somafree Institute, where psychotherapist Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) has developed a technique called “psychoplasmics” that allows patients with mental problems to release their suppressed emotions through physiological changes in their body. Raglan’s prize patient is Nola (Samantha Eggar), a former victim of child abuse who is currently locked in a custody battle with her estranged husband Frank (Art Hindle). After discovering some disturbing marks on his daughter’s body, Frank becomes increasingly determined to invalidate Raglan’s work and gain custody of his daughter. As Frank gets closer to discovering the truth behind Somafree’s research, people sympathetic to his struggles are murdered by strange, dwarf-like children that resemble Frank and Nola’s daughter. It is eventually revealed that these are the psychoplasmic offspring of Nola, who target the sources of Nola’s rage (her abusive mother and neglectful father, a teacher who she mistakenly thinks is sleeping with Frank, etc.).
The sci-fi plot is ultimately as silly as it sounds, but the violence is presented in such a matter of fact way that the film takes on a genuine air of menace. Shivers and Rabid were both gross and creepy, and perhaps a bit unnerving in their best moments, but The Brood is outright disturbing. The climactic scene revealing Nola’s psychoplasmic condition is one of the most revolting and fucked-up things I’ve ever witnessed in a piece of entertainment, but Cronenberg’s willingness to go as far as he does gives the film distinction and power. I generally subscribe to the old Val Lewton idea that what is unseen and suggested is scarier than anything that is shown, but Cronenberg is using viscera and gore here to create images that we couldn’t imagine. Frank’s disgust with his wife’s physical and mental state is palpable only because we are allowed to see what he sees.
In many respects The Brood is Cronenberg’s most accomplished film up to this point, but it is also certainly his least pleasant. The filmmaking is smoother overall than in Cronenberg’s earlier horror films – perhaps owing to the director’s discovery of several crewmembers that would go on to be regulars in his staff, such as cinematographer Mark Irwin and editor Ronald Sanders, both of whom first worked with Cronenberg on Fast Company – and the cast is stronger overall than in Shivers or Rabid. For a movie with such a goofy plot, The Brood isn’t much fun; the film seems to have been an outlet for Cronenberg to take out his frustrations with his real life custody battle and divorce settlements with his first wife, which were ongoing as the film was made. But it is a powerful, genuinely scary film, and Cronenberg’s most advanced look at the collision of psychology and biology up to this point.
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