Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Brood: The Mind/Body Problem



a number of young produced or hatched at one time; a family of offspring or young.


to think or worry persistently or moodily about; ponder:

to dwell on a subject or to meditate with morbid persistence 

to cover, loom, or seem to fill the atmosphere or scene

It’s something that’s been argued over by philosophers and other assorted scholars of human behavior for centuries - what’s the relationship between the mind and the body? Is the mind a product of biological systems (the body) that facilitate consciousness, or the illusion thereof? Or is our sense of ourselves as a living thing - a body - the product of our consciousness? Is the mind something separate? Is it the purpose of the body or a byproduct of it? Where does one end and the other begin? There’s a certain anxiety associated with feeling detached or alienated from your own body, of feeling like this unwieldy meat vehicle is completely out of your control, and horror exploits that through the terrors of vampirism, lycanthropy, zombies, disease, mutation...the list goes on. The mind is too - the idea of “psychological horror,” where the psychology is threats to the mind and consciousness, rather than the body. But there’s something especially squirm-inducing about the intersection of the two, when both the mind and body are warped and the horror of one scars the other.

The Brood may not have aged as well as it could have, but its ideas about modernity’s collision with humanity and the tyranny of mind over body are still potent.

It’s the story of Frank and Nola Carveth. Nola’s in intensive psychotherapy for issues stemming from what appears to have been an abusive childhood, and this leaves Frank on his own to raise their daughter, Candice. Nola’s in the care of Dr. Hal Raglan - a pioneer in a field of study he terms “psychoplasmics” - the externalization of suppressed feelings and conflicts as physical trauma. A young man’s conflicted feelings about his father erupt into boils during a demonstration, and this is apparently cathartic. Dr. Raglan has written a book about his approach, titled The Shape of Rage. Nola is in intensive one-on-one treatment with Dr. Raglan and despite Frank’s protestations, Raglan won’t let him see her, because she’s at a critical stage in her treatment. For example, Nola and Raglan, through the use of psychodrama, work through Nola’s hatred of her alcoholic, abusive mother.

A mother who dies mysteriously, shortly after the session in question. She’s found viciously beaten to death by some unknown assailant, and Nola never left the clinic.

As wacked-out as the idea might seem, there’s precedent in early theories of  psychotherapy - Freud’s ideas about psychoanalysis stemmed from an experience he had with a colleague’s patient - a woman code-named Anna O, who had gone spontaneously blind, and later paralyzed, presumably as a response to having to take care of her bedridden father. Freud believed the body was preventing the mind from acting on unacceptable urges. The mind hijacks the body.

More than taking advantage of this tension, The Brood serves, like the filmmaker’s previous Shivers, as another comment on the ways that modern life shapes and is shaped by the body. In Shivers, it was the closeness of modern high-rise living taken to the extremes and the post-Sixties relaxing of sexual mores, and here it references what were at the time new fads in psychology and self-improvement, like EST or primal scream therapy, combined with the narcissism that arose from the abandonment of Fifties stoicism, resulting in the disparaging label “the Me Generation.” People were beginning to talk about their feelings and their struggles and their pasts instead of suppressing them, and though it was probably a swing too far in the other direction, it was an understandable overcorrection, and lead to a lot of quack ideas about self-actualization. Raglan, as an example of one of these many gurus hiding behind a thin sheen of psychology instead of spirituality, encourages his clients to somaticize their feelings and unresolved issues, making the "lancing the boil" or "draining the wound" metaphors literal.

And we get the picture clearly enough with regard to the protagonists - the way Nola's parents conduct themselves tell you everything you need to know about them. The constant refills of drinks, the nips from the flask, the huge gulf between her mother’s recollections and her father’s. All of the trips to the hospital. You can only imagine what her childhood was like, but you know it wasn’t good. Frank is a man in over his head, trying to balance work and being a single father for all intents and purposes, and the father part's going lacking. But it's hard to be wholly sympathetic - there's definitely a strong undercurrent of bitterness that makes you wonder, just as we do about Nola's childhood, what things must have been like between them before Nola went into Dr. Raglan's care. In the middle of this maelstrom of toxic anger and bitterness is Candice, mostly mute throughout, buffeted one way and another by the legacy left both by her parent's marriage and the abuse her mother suffered. And behind all of it the mystery of a body count that seems to escalate with Nola’s distress and target those by whom she perceives herself to be wronged.

It's very much a film of its time, and to the extent that there are indeed monsters in this film, the practical effects go a little lacking to the modern eye, and things that should be viscerally frightening feel more like placeholders because the artifice is too obvious. Nevertheless, it still by and large gets over because of the absolute audacity of the concepts presented here - feelings literally made flesh, the perversion of motherhood, both by Nola and Nola's mother, the way children are constantly at risk - for physical abuse, neglect, and as witnesses to horror - throughout the film. I suspect it'd be very difficult to make this same film today without some folks being really up in arms, and it's that unsparing quality, that willingness to put taboos about the body and society aside to interrogate these ideas, that still gives this film power decades later.

IMDB entry
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Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix


  1. One of my favorite movies, by Cronenberg or anybody else. I think the fact that it's "of its time" works in its favor - 70s stuff (and some 80s stuff) has a grit and power, for me, that movies from the 90s and 00s simply don't share. And it's not just about the film stock or the lighting or the haircuts - it's the willingness to GO THERE that you mention. It's going to be released by Criterion one of these days - currently, if you have a Hulu Plus account, you can stream it.

    1. I definitely agree about the grit and the willingness to go there, I just sort of wish that the practical effects hadn't been quite so clumsy in this case. If he'd made Shivers with the skill that he made The Brood, it would have been twice as scary, and Videodrome was shit, we are IN FOR IT now.

      For that matter, I don't think you COULD make The Brood now because the zeitgeist is all wrong - that sort of self-absorption-as-self-affirmation-as-therapy thing was so very 70s, and it wouldn't make sense now.