The Brood (1979) may reasonably be considered the first of David Cronenberg’s mature films. It’s undeniably the first that afforded him the presence of two actual stars—Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar. It’s also the first that is clearly about more than it seems, which only serves to make its excursions into Cronenbergian “body horror” even more horrific. The premise has disturbed wife and mother Nola Carveth (Eggar) undergoing a series of experimental treatments at a controversial, unorthodox center run by Dr. Hal Raglan. Raglan’s approach is to externalize—quite literally—the patients’ problems and anger. The question is whether he mightn’t be succeeding too well. The bulk of the film’s mayhem comes from murderous small creatures in hooded Dr. Denton’s who aren’t children—or even human—yet resemble nothing else. That sounds amusing, but it doesn’t play that way. More disturbing, though, is the fact that, underneath, the film is about child abuse. The levels in which it deals with the topic are varied—ranging from the fantasticated (the idea of the rage of an abused child literally manifesting itself) to the disturbingly suggestive (that the pattern will continue from generation to generation). Few horror films have ever dared to explore such territory.
The Brood was, in fact, the first Cronenberg film I saw—and it was probably the first time I’d been shocked by a movie in several years at that time. The brutal nature of its horrors wasn’t quite like anything I’d seen up to that point. I don’t find it shocking today—certainly not in the way that Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) retains its shock—and it lacks the kind of single iconic image of the exploding head of Scanners (1981), but it has a quality of its own. There is a sense of inner dread that is unique to the film, born of the lurking horror we suspect may be in ourselves. That alone makes it one of Cronenberg’s most compelling and unsettling works.