Alternate titles for Shivers: They Came From Within ; The Parasite Murders ; Frissons
Director / Screenwriter: David Cronenberg
By Roderick Heath
Many directors have made great Horror movies. Some defined and redefined the genre. But few have become unshakeably associated with a specific wing of the genre that they largely invented, as David Cronenberg is with “body horror.” Cronenberg, born in Toronto in 1943, grew up a voracious consumer of EC Horror comic books, science fiction story magazines, and Western, pirate, and Disney animated movies, whilst his father tried to get him interested in art-house cinema, a seed that took a little longer to germinate. A writer from a young age, he started studying botany and biology at college but switched to English, and became interested in filmmaking after watching a short film made by a classmate. After making a pair of shorts of his own, he cofounded a filmmaking co-op with future collaborator and notable director in his own right, Ivan Reitman. Cronenberg made two more, increasingly ambitious short films after graduating, both of them hinging on common sci-fi concepts but given cruel and disturbing twists that took seriously the human meaning of their ideas. The first, 1969’s black-and-white Stereo, evinced an interest in the concept of telepathy Cronenberg would revisit for his breakout hit Scanners (1981). 1970’s colour film Crimes of the Future depicted a future where adult human women have died out, and men are increasingly driven to acts of paedophilia or else are to suicidal ends: Cronenberg would notably recycle the title for his most recent film of 2022.
Crimes of the Future established important elements of Cronenberg’s artistic vocabulary, particularly his fascination for modernist architecture and unease with its implied aesthetic and social meaning, and willingness to tackle themes few other directors would touch with a ten-foot pole. Both Cronenberg and Reitman would benefit from the increased Canadian government support for filmmaking and a resulting national cinema resurgence, exemplified at first by the likes of Donald Shebib’s soberly realistic buddy movie Goin’ Down The Road (1970) and Ted Kotcheff’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), but soon sparking a surge of Horror movies, including Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1973) and Black Christmas (1974) and Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (1973), a trend that would soon make Canadian cinema strongly associated with low-budget but cultishly beloved slasher movies. Cronenberg decided to get in on the act, but in a manner that would immediately establish his unique ability to play the exploitation movie game on his own terms. After several years directing TV episodes and telemovies, and some theatrical work, including writing a musical show for the popular magician Doug Henning (with music by Cronenberg’s future constant collaborator Howard Shore), Cronenberg wrote a script called Orgy of the Blood Parasites, which he then filmed in 15 days on a budget of $179,000, some of it sourced from the national film fund. Upon release the film did reasonable business, but it was soon also targeted by conservative politicians as a grotesque example of what taxpayer money was being spent on. A few decades later Cronenberg was awarded the highest Canadian honour. The wheel spins.
Cronenberg followed Shivers with a number of increasingly professional and heedlessly adventurous movies, mostly blending aspects of Horror and sci-fi – 1977’s Rabid, essentially a retread of Shivers if slicker and tighter, 1979’s The Brood, 1981’s Scanners, and 1983’s Videodrome, with a notable discursion for Fast Company (1979), a film about young racing freaks. Cronenberg’s steadily mounting reputation eventually saw him gain Hollywood backing (even as he remained a firmly Canada-based filmmaker) for the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone (1984), a remake of the ‘50s sci-fi film The Fly (1986), and the psychological horror-thriller Dead Ringers (1988), works that cemented his fame and for many represent his major achievements. Cronenberg then began stepping away from straight genre films, whilst not abandoning his signature aesthetics and provocations. As hot and cold as I tend to blow on much of Cronenberg’s later oeuvre, his early work remains uniquely potent. Not just for the authorial stamp he managed to apply on stringent budgets, coolly energetic and charged with unique personality whilst free of the mannered style he would later develop, but for the way he smartly blended the familiar structures and codes of standard genre storylines and used them, not unlike his perversely transforming characters, as vessels for his concerns, his preoccupation with the body, disease, transformation, and abnormality fuelled by his strictly atheistic artistic and philosophical viewpoints.
The American alternate title of Shivers, They Came From Within, is often noted by genre critics and historians as particularly cogent when it comes to analysing just what Cronenberg did with his work. Where the titles of the 1950s films like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and Them! (1954) encapsulated the era’s anxieties, aimed towards the alien, the unknown, the pitiless other, Cronenberg explicitly recast the equation as the real source of threat and fear as sourced within ourselves, minds and bodies. Rather than seeing the post-World War II landscape of clean-lined modernist buildings and accompanying promises of physical and mental purity purveyed in modern consumerist culture and its wares, Cronenberg saw lurking neurosis blooming, alienation and divorcement, engendering a state of anxiety all the more insidious because it seems to have no cause. If classical Gothic horror as defined by artists like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe provided a psychological landscape rooted in impressions of a decayed and diseased hangover of the past and bygone worldviews and powers, Cronenberg went to the opposite extreme, identifying the percolating fear that even in the most seemingly sterile and ahistorical of surrounds disease and decay still await, the illusion of stability just that. The body, increasingly the object of commoditised perfection in advertising, pop culture, and pornography in the mass media, post-Sexual Revolution age, visions of fit, trim, desirable beauty replete on television and in magazines, was still prey to the same forces as ever, but such forces had now taken on the aspect of a form of heresy to the modern religion. On the other hand, looking a little more deeply, one sees that Cronenberg’s key preoccupations are actually very old, indeed profoundly embedded in a medievalist worldview, where sex and death are perfectly linked, and their umbilicus is the welfare of body.
Cronenberg wasn’t the first to dabble with such themes, even if he was the first to definitively unify them. Cronenbergian ideas are apparent in ancestors like I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958) with its specific take on fear of alien infiltration as invested with erotic and maternal anxiety. Roger Corman, with his 1963 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation The Haunted Palace, placed proto-Cronenbergian horror, manifest in imagery of alien impregnation and hordes of misshapen human by-products, wrapped within the more familiar, old-fashioned Gothic style. Shivers bore incidental but important resemblance to J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise, published the same year as Shivers’ release, as Ballard’s novel took up the same idea of a shiny new residential building swiftly degenerating into lawless barbarism. The early scenes of Shivers display how well Cronenberg understood his assignment as a new player in the ‘70s exploitation movie game, but also clearly convey his ability to spike the brew with unique ingredients. The film opens with slide show advertising a swanky new apartment building development, Starliner Towers, built on an island in the St Lawrence River just outside Montreal. A smooth voice lists the building’s features and services over pictures of the building and its surrounds whilst the opening credits unfurl. Cronenberg’s targeting is immediately precise and deadly, lampooning the language of advertising and the illusions of aspiration it exploits – you too can be a superior human being if you live in our well-decorated sky-riding concrete boxes, with nature kept thoroughly in its place.
Cronenberg immediately and brutally attacks this as he cuts between benign scenes of residents shuffling in and out, like a pair of blonde newlyweds who settle down to sign their lease with the building manager, Merrick (Ronald Mlodzik, who had also appeared in Stereo and Crimes of the Future and is a key performer in Cronenberg’s early work), with a vicious crime: a teenage girl wearing a school uniform, Annabelle Brown (Cathy Graham), tries to hold out a man bashing his way through the door of her apartment. The man, Dr Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), manages to crash through and brutally assaults Annabelle despite her fierce resistance, finally throttling her to death. He lays her corpse on a table and cuts open her abdominal cavity with a scalpel after taping her mouth shut, and pours a bottle of acid into her guts. Hobbes then slices his own throat. This bewildering act of intimate violence seems to pass unnoticed by the rest of the building. Meanwhile, in another apartment, an insurance investigator, Nick Tudor (Allan Kolman, billed as Alan Migicovsky), is suffering from stomach pains, and acts coldly towards his concerned wife Janine (Susan Petrie). When he leaves for work, he first heads to Annabelle’s apartment, making it plain that he’s her lover. Tudor discovers the scene of horror there, and leaves without reporting it. The corpses are instead officially discovered by Dr Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), who runs a medical clinic catering to Skyliner residents, as he makes a house call. Roger is interviewed by a homicide detective, Heller (Barry Bolero), but both men are equally baffled by the crime.
Roger, who was taught by Hobbes at medical school, only begins to get an idea of what transpired when he talks to a friend, Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), who worked with Hobbes. Linsky, looking through Hobbes’ papers, tells Roger the former professor was fired in disgrace after being caught fondling Annabelle during a visit to her girls’ school when she was 12, and then carried on having an affair with her and paying for her apartment at Skyliner. Linsky comments acerbically that, whilst being a pervert and a lousy teacher, Hobbes had unique genius for getting grants, and had a genuinely curious mind. One of his ideas was to breed a species of parasitic organism that could be implanted into human beings and take over the function of diseased organs. Roger and Linsky soon begin to realise that Hobbes had succeeded in creating such an organism and implanted it in Annabelle to test it, only for her to start showing signs of wanton instability, and his murder was an attempt to destroy the parasite before it could be spread. Trouble is, Annabelle has already slept with several men in the building, including Tudor and an older ladies’ man, Brad (actor unidentified), who has seen Roger for a check-up and reported similar abdominal pains to those Tudor is experiencing, and whilst Tudor himself refuses to see a doctor, Janine reports the issue to Roger.
Cronenberg spares time amidst this to note some of the denizens of Skyliner, like Brad chatting up women whilst also giving away his own anxieties as he talks about vitamin therapies in the clinic waiting room, and two old ladies ambling by the tower with unfortunate timing, as Tudor vomits a parasite over his balcony high above, and the bloody, wriggling creature lands on one woman’s plastic umbrella. The doorman (Wally Martin) sits about the lobby reading paperback potboilers and admits to having never drawn the gun he carries, and Merrick tries to deal with all problems with much sanguine salesmanship as he can muster. Roger himself is in a relationship with his nurse, Forsythe (Lynn Lowry). The parasite Tudor vomits up crawls into a sewer and gets back into the building, where some kids glimpse it squirming around, and it later springs upon a woman (Nora Johnson) in the laundry room, burning her face as squirms upon it before slipping into her mouth and taking up residence. This process is repeated in a daisy chain of rapes and flailing couplings, as everyone in the building becomes infected with the parasites, which renders them, after periods of disorientation and sometimes illness, powerfully and even violently aroused, some to the point of mindless compulsion.
The film’s most significant subplot involves Janine and her friend and confidant in the tower, Betts (Barbara Steele), a friendship that shades into a simmering lesbian flirtation. Betts is single and independent and self-possessed whilst Janine languishes in a mordant caricature of a standard heterosexual marriage. One that sees her husband becoming much fonder of the parasitic organism squirming inside his stomach and stimulating his most intensely onanistic desires, talking tenderly to the thing as it pokes at his belly, than he is of his increasingly distraught and frustrated wife. Only when the parasite’s influence grows strong does Tudor suddenly charge up with lust for Janine, who is understandably perturbed and flees their apartment for Betts’s. But Betts herself has already had a close encounter with one of the parasites, which crawls out of her bathtub drain as she’s bathing, and crawls inside her nether regions in a welter of blood and quasi-orgasmic squirming. Later she comes on to Janine in the same suddenly compulsive and urgent way and the two share a deep kiss: Cronenberg zeroes in to note a bulge in Betts’ throat passing on into Janine’s as she’s infected with a parasite, in a gleeful travesty of pornographic intensity.
The look and atmosphere of Shivers does indeed have something of a strong resemblance to ‘70s porn movies with its blatant fill lighting and filming in chintzy-neat environs, and sequences like the early depiction of Annabelle’s murder, where the actress looks obviously too old for her part, do resemble porn set-ups. Cronenberg turns this to his advantage. He manages to skewer both the niceties of genre movie exposition and the mercenary wont of erotica when he portrays Roger being tauntingly distracted by Forsyth as she strips off her nurse uniform as he’s trying to listen to Linsky’s explanation about what Hobbes was up to. The blank, bright look of the film gives it all a clinical severity. Cronenberg uses the building in a fashion reminiscent in a way of the apartments around James Stewart’s abode in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954): where in Hitchcock’s film the surrounding flats became cinematic projection surfaces for the hero’s various needs and anxieties, Cronenberg fills Skyliner with people whose secret fantasies and hungers soon take them over, spilling out of their little boxes and into public spaces to be enacted. The film was shot in a building designed by the famed modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, giving Cronenberg’s sense of both fetishism and suspicion for such locales a dose of specific grandeur. The cast is mostly made-for-TV anonymous save for Steele, the once-beloved English star of Italian Horror movies, and Lowry, who came to Cronenberg via George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) and Radley Metzger’s Score (1974), whilst Silver’s marvellously air no-nonsense intelligence and deep-voiced presence was carried over to Rabid.
Shivers’ narrative form has some strong resemblance to ‘70s disaster movies, like the Airport films, with their social cross-section characters and interest in evolving personal and sexual mores, forced into a tight space in a crisis situation, bringing out hidden dimensions of character from rank pathos to unexpected heroism. Moreover, the very end of the film strongly, and amusingly, resembles the ritual ending of the TV show The Love Boat, itself a derivation of the Airport template with disaster removed and concentrating instead on fulfilment-seeking Me Decade mores, everyone now installed in seemingly correct partnerings. A more experienced Cronenberg might have developed many of these character vignettes more to wield more concisely developed ironies and to pack more metaphorical and thematic punch, but on the other hand their randomness does befit his insistence on treating the inhabitants of Skyliner more as subjects in a sociological-scientific study. Hobbes’ name echoes back to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes with his famously pessimistic view of humanity and nature, and his design for his parasitical creation, Linksy says when reading Hobbes’ notes to Roger over the phone, provides what might as well be a mission statement for Cronenbergian cinema, “‘Man is an animal that thinks too much – an over-rational animal that’s lost touch with its body and its instincts’…In other words, too much brains and not enough guts.” Linsky again quotes Hobbes in his design for the parasite: “A combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that’ll hopefully turn the world into one beautiful, mindless orgy.”
But Shivers could also be, gross and disturbing as it is, the closest thing Cronenberg has made to an out-and-out comedy. The story set-up with all the buttoned-down neighbours becoming increasingly randy and wild is the stuff of farce. Visions like the parasite, after being vomited up, splatting against a biddy’s umbrella, and then leaping out of a washing machine to plant itself on a host’s face, evoke utter absurdity before swivelling hard to the grotesque. Other, sardonic touches like Linsky and Roger squabbling over the lunch they’re munching down in between discussing Hobbes’ gut-infesting creation, have a Hitchcockian flavour. Inherent in Shivers’ thesis is a darkly concerted satire on post-1960s mores, with Cronenberg providing a metaphor for the accruing costs of a rapidly mutating social survey in which everyone has become a kind of free-floating entity seeking out erotic and emotional fulfilment. This implicitly sceptical attitude helped earn Cronenberg the first of many attempts to critique him for a lurking reactionary streak, which would be amplified by elements of his films like the gross portrait of neurotic matriarch in The Brood. Cronenberg’s habitual disinterest in clarifying his thinking on such matters didn’t help. Crucially, Cronenberg’s approach keeps in mind the essential duty of the Horror genre artist, which is to provoke rather than try to mollify the audience’s anxiety, to enter deeply into profoundly uneasy fantasies and psychological zones – one reason why the genre still resist being entirely domesticated despite shifts that have seen a filmmaker like Cronenberg move from the very fringe of culture to its respectable centre. Whilst Cronenberg’s early work gained serious attention in some quarters in its time as well as unease and revulsion in others, it took the age of AIDS to make what he was getting at seem urgent, as sexual activity was suddenly seen as consequential again as it was before the invention of the contraceptive pill, and Cronenberg’s cinema was taken up with particular fervour by queer cineastes as the disease impacted their community, appalled by the strange spectacle of bodies rebelling and collapsing.
Shivers is a messy movie, one that Cronenberg doesn’t seem to have thought through too deeply, instead representing a madcap travelogue through the building blocks of his imaginative concerns, invested with an energy and abandon that sometimes seems more reminiscent of Romero or Ken Russell than his own, later, carefully modulated style. Much of Shivers unfolds in a state of flux without a clear narrative backbone, and an edge of the surreal to some of its vignettes in a story that’s supposed to be at least vaguely couched in rational motivations. Aspects of the story don’t make much sense, like why the parasites are so dangerously corrosive outside the body, and the differing behaviour of the infected, although the latter detail can, arguably, be the product of their different characters: the parasites don’t control them but provoke them to unleash their most deeply egocentric behaviours. That Cronenberg opens the movie bluntly with Hobbes’ crime and death means that the plot is left to be explained by Linsky rather than discovered and enacted. When he would return to a similar kind of maniacal savant figure for the likes of The Brood, The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Cosmopolis (2012), Cronenberg would find rich dramatic value in making them central antiheroes. And yet the messiness nonetheless is a large part of what makes Shivers interesting, particularly as the DNA just about the whole of Cronenberg’s future oeuvre is somewhere in the churn, and indeed its many body horror followers, including Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
The scenes focusing on the Tudors, with the husband becoming fixated and even charmed by his new, transforming, suddenly bilaterally inhabited body, much to his wife’s flailing despair, before monstrosity consumes him, presents all the essentials of The Fly in miniature. When Linsky comes to the building to see Tudor at Rogers request, he’s attacked by one of the parasites which burns his face, forcing Linsky to try and kill it, whereupon Tudor launches on Linsky and kills him to protect one of his spawn, in a scene of striking, agonised pathos. When Roger finds Linsky dead and Tudor standing over him, the doctor abandons his humanism and guns Tudor down. Roger, having saved Forsythe from being raped by the infected doorman by shooting him dead, finds she’s already been infected, a parasite bobbing gruesomely within her mouth as she experiences a spasm. Before the reveal, Forsythe raves on about a dream she had where a dirty old man explained to her that everything in life experience contains an erotic element – another thesis statement from the director. Cronenberg’s delight in fillips of esoteric detail and weird organisations is also in evidence, as when Linsky notes that Hobbes gained funding from an organisation calling itself the Northern Hemisphere Organ Transplant Society.
Shivers plainly takes a great deal of licence from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as it portrays a steady degeneration and collapse of the protagonists before the increasing hordes of the infected, and The Crazies, with its theme of spreading contagion causing aberrant behaviour: Lowry’s presence makes the connection more immediate. Some later scenes of the infected launching on the heroes in narrow corridors and crashing through barricades, as well as the setting and satirical purview, might have planted seeds in Romero’s mind for Dawn of the Dead (1978). Another evident influence is Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in the general portrait of a relentlessly subsumed populace being made into something other than entirely human, and the revelation of Forsyth’s infection strongly recalls the similar twist in the Siegel film. Steele’s presence meanwhile connects the film to a different tradition, her dark, tantalising features, so perfect for the sensuous witches of Italian Gothic Horror, here embodies a modernised version of the same kind of figure.
As the building’s populace is entirely consumed Roger, the last uninfected men, is forced to abandon Forsythe after initially trying to gag her and carry her out of the building. He scurries around the corridors witnessing increasingly depraved sights, like a man leading twin teenage girls acting like dogs on leashes, and a father who enthusiastically exhibits his daughter’s beauty before grasping her in a passionate embrace. Cronenberg’s perturbing interest in paedophilia as a kind of ultimate marker on the fringe of human behaviour, evinced in Crimes of the Future and likely informed by admiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, recurs here, as when a waiter attacks and infects and mother and prepubescent daughter in an elevator. Later they emerge to assault and infect the doorman, girl clinging close to her rapist-lover-infester who sniffs her hair whilst she consumes his suggestive gift of food, before placing blood-smeared mouth on the guard’s to pass on the parasite – another scene that nods heavily to Night of the Living Dead, when the daughter consumes her father. But Cronenberg’s event horizon of behaviour is a descent into completely wanton and amoral sexual behaviour rather than cannibalism. He defines Hobbes as a pervert for a reason, to make him seem less like a pied piper of sex and more like a pathological case who, unable to stand being written off as a weirdo by society, instead tries to remake society in his own image.
Nonetheless the film’s climax is invested with a sarcastic ring of orgiastic festivity and revolutionary explosion, as Roger is finally driven into the building’s swimming pool where Forsythe, Betts, and Janine bob like sirens given up to the new flesh and awaiting their Odysseus to bring under the spell. Roger is crushed by a mass of converging infected and brought into the fold by Forsythe’s consuming kiss. Cronenberg dissolves to the sight of the building’s denizens driving out in a convoy from the underground car-park, heading out into the world to continue spreading their gospel. Roger and Forsythe are glimpsed as a reborn pair of super-swingers, Roger with cigar jutting from his lips and the orchid-wearing Forsythe lighting it for him, followed out by Janine and Betts and other couples. Cronenberg ends the film with one of their cars cruising on the freeway at night whilst a radio announcer describes an outbreak of violent sexual assaults around the city.
The Brood, Cronenberg’s third feature made four years after Shivers, displays a great leap in control on all levels for the director, from narrative and conceptual emphasis to directorial technique. It marked his first collaboration with Shore, whose eerie, sophisticated scoring makes an immediate mark. The film’s opening is betrays the new, crisp sense of purpose, as Cronenberg opens cold on an intense and confronting depiction of psychiatrist Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a psychiatrist who’s created a new field of therapy he dubs “psychoplasmics,” engaged in role-playing therapy with patient Mike Trellan (Gary McKeehan), whose deep neurosis is sourced in anger and shame for his father. Raglan deftly draws out Mike’s hang-ups in playing the part of the father, trying to draw Mike through to a cathartic rupture, climaxing when Mike shows off seething buboes manifesting on his torso, the physical expression of his mental anguish. The session is occurring before an audience of interested colleague, acolytes, and students, at Raglan’s Somafree Clinic. Amongst the onlookers is Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), an architect who looks on with grim fascination whilst others comment with awe that Raglan is a genius. Frank has come to Raglan’s therapeutic retreat to fetch his daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds), who’s been on a visit to her mother Nola (Samantha Eggar). Nola is currently being isolated for intense therapy with Raglan in a cottage separate to the main clinic. She and Frank are separated and estranged because of Nola’s intense, borderline maniacal neuroses. When he gets Candice home, Frank is appalled to find scratches and bruises all over her back, and, assuming Nola made them, looks into preventing Nola reclaiming her, getting Nola’s mother Juliana (Nuala Fitzgerald) to look after her as he goes on the warpath.
The blunt opening on a process of enquiry and revelation echoes on in Cronenberg’s films to the infamous panel demonstration at the start of Scanners that ends with a head exploding, and the lengthy early therapy scenes of A Dangerous Method (2011), a film which returned to Cronenberg’s interest in and scepticism for the world of psychiatry. McKeehan gives a fiendishly convincing performance as the emotionally crucified and desperately needy man-child whose jealousy at being displaced by Nola as the focus of Raglan’s attentions ultimately proves important to the story, whilst Reed instantly emblazons Raglan’s blend of cool professional authority mated to insidious rat cunning when it comes to getting into the heads of his patients. Cronenberg aims acid satire on the New Age therapy craze of the ‘70s as a new form of secular religion, portraying the arrogant Raglan as a kind of cult leader, provoking people in his care to the point of crisis in acts of theatre whilst also rendering himself a messianic figure of epiphany and redemption. “You sound hostile,” he remarks coolly to Frank as he confronts him with righteous wrath.
Cronenberg has been unusually forthcoming about the origins of The Brood, which he wrote in a frenzy of purgative activity, sourced in his bitter divorce and custody battle with his first wife. As this suggests, where Shivers was a communal portrait, The Brood is a tightly focused character and family drama with added elements of surreal grotesquery. The Brood also has a reputation for being perhaps the darkest and most disturbingly violent of his early films: certainly compared to the flashes of black comedy in Shivers or the interludes of action movie-tinged pyrotechnics of Scanners it’s a compressed and ruthless ride, one that enters into a zone of unmediated expression of personal angst that’s rather singular in Cronenberg’s career. As Frank delves deeper into Raglan’s method and plans a lawsuit, he’s thrust into the company of a disaffected former patient, Jan Hartog (Cronenberg regular Robert A. Silverman), who has a growth on his neck which he keeps hidden and a form of cancer both of which he says were caused by psychoplasmic therapy. Meanwhile, as Raglan works on her in their therapy sessions, Nola expresses vehement rage at her mother, who she accuses of beating and mistreating her, and her father who weakly refused to intervene and eventually left. Meanwhile Juliana explains to young Cindy that Nola was often in hospital as a child because she would suffer spontaneous physical injuries: when young Nola was already manifesting the psychoplasmic talent which Raglan prizes as the perfect test case to prove his theories.
Eggar, who had first gained attention in William Wyler’s The Collector (1966) as the victim of an obsessive and destructively controlling young man who kidnaps her, here was cast in something close to the opposite role. Eggar offers an unnervingly convincing performance as the kind of deeply egocentric and self-mesmerising mania who might well be conjuring crimes and abuses from her past to justify more nebulous discontent, and constantly whipping her emotions up with scant justifications, largely at Raglan’s enabling encouragement, as her spectacle of suffering is his bounty of data. What neither of them is entirely aware of is that the physical by-products of these sessions enact her poisonous emotions. Cronenberg doesn’t entirely reveal what’s going on until the climax, when Nora displays for Frank’s horrified edification that through the psychoplasmic process she’s grown a new, exterior womb, and gives birth to drone-like and deformed children who vaguely resemble Candice, and who live in the attic of Nora’s hut. The Brood, as Raglans calls them, are also possessed of malevolent and murderous intelligence, and set out to deliver Nora’s wrath. One of them sneaks into Juliana’s house and beats her to death with a kitchen mallet, Candice glimpsing sight of the bloodied body sprawled on the floor and the diminutive killer, glaring down at her from the staircase.
When Nora’s father Barton (Henry Beckman) comes to Toronto for the funeral, he approaches Raglan to get him to bring Nora out, but is appalled when Raglan refuses to interrupt Nora’s seclusion. Later Barton gets drunk and weepy in Juliana’s house, and Frank goes to pick him up, leaving Candice in the care of her teacher, Ruth Mayer (Susan Hogan), to whom Candice has turned to as a maternal substitute and represents a faint glimmer of romantic interest for Frank. Before Frank can reach him, however, Barton is attacked and killed by the small assassin, which beats him to death with some glass globes. Entering the house, Frank sees and pursues the dwarf, only to corner it in the bathroom where it suddenly curls up and dies. Meanwhile Nora tries to ring Frank at his house, and when Ruth answers the phone, Nora immediately assumes she’s Frank’s lover, and becomes consumed with the conviction she can have perfect family happiness again if only she can get Ruth out of her life.
The Brood could be described as the ultimate cinematic adaptation of Philip Larkin’s famous poem ‘This Be The Verse,’ with its sentiment, “They fuck you, your mum and dad,” as Cronenberg expresses an aching sense of the way cycles of damage repeat in families. Candice (and other children) is repeatedly exposed to the brutalising effects of the chaos enveloping her family, emotional damage made literal by the lurking, murderous homunculi. Nora denies to Raglan that she wants to fashion Candice into another version of her, but by the film’s end has achieved exactly that result. Frank, whilst far more practical and forceful than Barton, who’s reduced to weeping in despair over the failure of his life duties just before he’s murdered, has almost the opposite problem in trying to save his daughter: he has such a vehement, and largely justified, vein of anger that he has trouble keeping on a leash when he requires diplomatic cool. The climax revolves around this very issue, as Frank has to keep Nora mollified long enough to ensure Candice’s rescue from the Brood, but cannot keep his cool when she exposes her most perverse new habits to him, a lapse that has fatal consequences. Meanwhile, when a pathologist examines the corpse of the dead homunculus Frank brings in, he notes that it has no sexual organs, and with symbolic portent comments, “I should think his vision of the world is very distorted. I’m pretty certain he only sees in black-and-white, no colours.” A product of rage that is the embodiment of the lack of nuance.
Cronenberg himself noted that despite its highly original qualities, The Brood was actually the most classically structured of his horror films. That’s easy enough to make out. It sustains a familiar alternation of plot development and suspense sequences punctuated by slasher movie-like killings, and recalls old genre films like The Invisible Ray (1936) in dealing with a victim/villain, newly endowed with supernormal characteristics, using that weird talent to commit a series of killings in revenge for perceived wrongs. Raglan is an wittily updated version of a mad scientist, and his eventual comeuppance recalls the end of Island of Lost Souls (1932). A scene of him creeping tensely through the Brood’s room trying not to disturb them recalls the end of The Birds (1963), and the concept of a shadow school populated by alien children echoes Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963), which also starred Reed. The gnarled, murderous “children” were plainly inspired by the ending of one of Cronenberg’s favourite films, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). The connection between Nola and the Brood and the idea of psychoplasmics itself is reminiscent of Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956), with its driving concept of mind-projecting alien technology spawning monstrous actualisations of the id that attack and annihilate threats.
Cronenberg nonetheless fuses and compresses his influences and kneads them to serve his personal urges. The concept of people essentially becoming artists who work with a palette of their own flesh is one that bobs up repeatedly in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. This idea is embryonic in Shivers, with Hobbes’ efforts to create the parasite his own attempt to assert the transformative potential of creation over social convention, and is apparent in The Fly, Naked Lunch (1990), eXistenZ (1998) and the latter Crimes of the Future. The warping and transitioning of the flesh becomes another tool of, and also a tool working upon, human action and creation. It’s approached here on a most visceral and perturbing level, of course, with Nora constructing homunculi that paint in shades of red. Nora, as a fierce and vindictive exemplar of the very idea of the monstrous feminine, is contrasted with Ruth, an image of unthreatening femininity, with her pixie hairdo and job teaching young children (although not in any way childlike herself and canny enough to recognise getting involved with Frank at this point in his life isn’t a great idea). She teaches kids in one of those concrete-and-glass institutional structures that anyone who was a kid in the ‘70s or ‘80s will instantly recognise.
After the discovery and examination of the drone homunculus, Frank naturally assumes there’s no further danger, but whilst he chats with one of Candice’s classmates’ mothers outside the school, inside Ruth is confronted by two more of the homunculi, who gained entrance to the class because they dress in bright parkas like the other kids. The homunculi snatch up wooden mallets for the class’s woodblock games, launch on Ruth, and beat her to death before the horror-frozen kids, except for one lad who dashes out for help and fetches Frank. He arrives too late, the homunculi having snatched Candice away and left the empty-eyed Ruth in a pool of blood. This scene, one of the most infamous in his oeuvre and indeed of the genre, highlights Cronenberg’s most viciously unsentimental streak, eliminating all semblance of familiar story and emotional cushioning, and makes the dark unease about what the kids are witnessing all the more disturbingly immediate. He still has an eye for pathos, as Frank drapes a piece of crepe paper with a child’s scrawling upon it over Ruth’s staring eyes. The height of outré in 1979, Ruth’s killing now evokes the more frighteningly immediate spectre of violence in schools.
Cronenberg continues to follow the logic of a certain brand of New Age therapeutic advice, with Nora literalising the act of cutting everyone who interferes with her sense of personal mission (in current parlance they’d be dismissed as toxic). Whilst Nora doesn’t know what her homunculi have done, she experiences the emotional results, reporting to Raglan after Ruth’s death that “I just don’t feel threatened by her anymore.” By this time Frank has learned from Mike and Jan that Raglan has cleared out all the residents at the clinic save Nora, because, having seen the photo of the dead homunculus in the newspaper, Raglan has realised the Brood are dangerous but he still doesn’t want to give up on Nora. Frank, searching for Candice with the police, first checks out the apartment Nora was living in after they broke up, and eventually concludes the homunculi must be taking her all the way to the clinic: Cronenberg offers a glimpse of the three siblings ambling along the highway’s edge amidst the snowy, midwinter Ontario landscape. When Frank arrives and confronts Raglan, the doctor is shocked by the news of Ruth’s death and the probability Candice is now with the Brood, and he sends Frank to talk to Nora, to keep her calm and distracted long enough for him to bring Candice out. Frank confronts Nora and starts promising her the moon, and Nora, as if challenging him, decides to reveal her secret and lifts up her robes to display her growth and external womb, which disgorges one of her new children.
This revelation is Cronenberg’s piece de resistance of gruesome outrageousness, and perhaps the most successful dovetailing of metaphor, plot device, and sheer what-the-absolute-fuck visceral impact in Cronenberg’s cinema, delivered somehow utterly straight-faced but charged with just the faintest lilt of absurdist camp. Still it gets taken a step further, thanks to Eggar’s delighted ferocity in the role, as Nora begins licking the blood and afterbirth off the infant like a mother dog with a pup, a vision curtailed by censors at first. Much like Tudor in Shivers, Nora wields a strange and powerful pride in her body’s new expression. Frank’s disgusted reaction ruptures the illusion, and she becomes worked up, stirring the Brood from their cots and launching upon Raglan as and Candice near the door. Raglan shoots several of the Brood but the rest wrestle him to the floor and thrash, beat, and even bite him to death. The Brood then try to kill Candice, as Nora vows to Frank she’s rather seen their daughter dead than with him: Candice locks herself in the bathroom whilst the Brood claw at the door, ripping a hole through it. Frank finally, with a maniacal glaze, wraps his hands around Nora’s throat and, with her external womb and new homunculus squashed between them, he throttles her to death. The homunculi die with her, allowing Frank to leave with Candice.
Cronenberg’s concluding revelation that the weeping, near-catatonic Candice is displaying signs of having developed her mother’s psychoplasmic talent in compensation for a series of ruinous emotional shocks, presents a bleak signature for the director that’s similar to but also inverts the end of Shivers. Where that film found the blackest of black humour in the failure of the heroes and the prospect of the oncoming liberation and “beautiful, mindless orgy,” The Brood sups arsenic-dark irony as Frank’s efforts to rescue his daughter seem only to have helped perpetuate the cycle of abuse and maladaptation. And yet the ultimate end of this cannot be known: for a parent, every day is a new day of creation. Cronenberg dances close to the edge of the pathological with The Brood, and it earned suspicion from some quarters of expressing seething misogyny. And perhaps it does, but it also weaponises and analyses the impulse, the awe and repulsion inspired by the very idea of the birth process and the mystified realm of motherhood. Like most of Cronenberg’s best cinema, it finds a raw nerve, presses it, and keeps pressing.