Dialogue: A Cronenbergian Conversation Part 1 — Uncut Cronenberg: ‘The Brood’ and ‘Videodrome’
A series discussing highlights from the Cronenberg filmography kicks off with a look at two of his earliest, ickiest, most-Canadian films
For a while it looked like David Cronenberg might be done making movies. Some of the long filmmaking silence that followed 2014’s Maps to the Stars was understandable. It’s a much harder to finance films than the days of his low-budget first features, which were partially backed by funds from the Canadian government. In 2017 he lost his wife, Carolyn Croneenberg, and in 2020 his sister and longtime collaborator Denise Cronenberg. He still seemed interested in working, but mostly as an actor on TV series like Slasher and Star Trek: Discovery. Maybe he was drifting gently into retirement.
Then came word of Crimes of the Future, a new film that shares its name with a little-seen 1970 Cronenberg short feature and concerns a near future filled with body modification, boundary-pushing performance artists and other classically Cronenbergian elements.. Cronenberg admirers and sickos (not mutually exclusive groups, of course) pricked up their ears at rumors that it’s a shocking endurance test. As members of at least one of those camps, we decided to embark on a conversation series covering select Cronenberg films. We’re starting with a pair of early features, 1979’s The Brood and 1983’s Videodrome. Future installments will look at works from different phases of Cronenberg’s career (and, like past Dialogue series, will be available in full only to our paid subscribers).
Keith: The Brood is a movie about a self-help cult/psychological movement called Psychoplasmics headed by Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), author of a book called The Shape of Rage. His followers manifest their emotions physically, via rashes, cancerous growths, and, most profoundly, the murderous child-like spawn produced by Nola (Samantha Eggar), a byproduct of her roiling emotions, her shattering marriage to Frank (Art Hindle), and her separation from their young daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds), a separation she longs to end.
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It contains all the elements that became Cronenberg’s signature in his early work: mutated bodies (and the horror produced by same), heady philosophical themes regarding the separation between mind and body (and the possibility that no such separation exists), and an abundance of blood and other goopy bodily fluids. It’s also, by Cronenberg’s own account, his most autobiographical film, one inspired by his split from his first wife, who told him she planned to leave Canada for California with their daughter Cassandra. (She ultimately agreed to leave Cassandra in her father’s custody). “The Brood was my version of Kramer vs. Kramer,” the director told Chris Rodley in Cronenberg on Cronenberg (a text that will likely come up again over the course of our own discussion).
But you don’t have to know any of that to appreciate The Brood, right Scott? We’re unfortunately skipping over a lot of Cronenberg films in this series, but, in context, The Brood plays like a film Cronenberg had been building up to after Shivers and Rabid, both of which build horror around manifestations of sex and disease. (I can’t speak to how the drag racing movie Fast Company fits in. It’s the one Cronenberg movie I’ve never seen.) Here those themes get tethered to a more personal kind of drama. Frank’s a kind of everyman compelled to deal with forces he doesn’t understand: a new religious movement, unexplained diseases and, taking the broad view, women in general.
I don’t think Cronenberg makes misogynistic films, but he’s not afraid of exploring male characters gripped by misogynistic thoughts (or at least a strong discomfort with women). The film’s sympathies are with Frank and understandably so, but his anger — the shape of his rage, as it were — begins as something directed at a particular woman but, by the s end, becomes a kind of repulsion with women in general and their role in the reproductive process in particular. A being who can produce other creatures from her own body? Ewww!
But maybe it’s wrong to skip to the end and not start smaller. Cronenberg has also said this is the closest he’s made to a classic horror film. Does it work on those terms? And, at the risk of contradicting myself, isn’t it as much about the transmission of abuse from one generation to the next as about motherhood in general?
Scott: Does it work as a classic horror film? Let me set the scene for you.
I’d seen several Cronenberg movies before finally catching up with The Brood while I was working at Video Library in Athens, Georgia, after college, circa 1995. At the time, my entertainment center was basically a 13” color TV with a VCR attached, because I didn’t have the luxury to afford a better TV, much less a laserdisc player. And the place I was living got tons of natural light, and we didn’t have many options for blocking it out during the day. So,I pop in The Brood in the middle of a sunny day. I get as far as one of those mutant children attacking Candice’s grandmother and that’s it. I had to stop the tape, catch my breath, and steel myself for another round. The same thing happened again later in the film. I was fully unnerved.
We all have our triggers when it comes to what scares us in movies—at least those of us whose emotions haven't been completely calloused over. Since my parents introduced my sister and I to the TV cut of The Exorcist at far too early an age, I’ve always had a difficult time with possessed or evil children, a fear that’s perhaps tied to the vulnerability and susceptibility of youth. And regarding mutant dwarves specifically, the big reveal in Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now remains the single most jolting shock I’ve ever experienced from a movie, so bad that I can remember suffering what felt like an ice-cream headache afterwards. So these odd psychic child-beasts in The Brood seemed destined to get a reaction from me, even though I wouldn’t characterize any other Cronenberg film as classically scary in the conventional sense. It doesn’t surprise me to learn he thinks it is, too.
The background that you offer about Cronenberg’s divorce and subsequent custody battle accounts for the hostility that animates the film. I’m not sure that I’d characterize it as misogyny, exactly, though The Brood ends with a father strangling a mother to death in order to save their child. At the same time, there is a crucial mediary between Frank and Nola in Dr. Raglan, whose dubious New Age-y therapeutic treatments have the effect of worsening Nola’s mental distress rather than relieving it. (There must have been something in the air, since Joe Dante’s The Howling, made two years later, also revolves around a treatment cult, which in that case involved werewolves.) I like that Dr. Raglan isn’t a villain here—which is not true of the doctor in The Howling—but a doctor whose experimental psychiatry has simply borne rotten fruit. (Though, c’mon man: When you’ve got an entire wing full of bunk beds to house these psychotic, rage-filled, asexually produced children, it’s long past time to throw in the towel.)
But as we know from other movies, Cronenberg harbors plenty of sympathy for those whose bodies are transformed by psychic stress. The big difference here—and a reason why I’d understand those who found The Brood hostile towards women—is that Nola isn’t at the center of the story. Frank is a normal guy intrepidly fighting for his child’s safety while Nola’s anger and irrationality are manifesting themselves as a literal danger. The Brood certainly feels aligned with its Divorced Dad, just as Kramer vs. Kramer ultimately stacks the deck against Meryl Streep’s character.
That said, The Brood does have enough perspective to make the act of getting a divorce the primary stress point, rather than put it all on Nola, who is reacting to the same phenomenon that Frank is, just in a more extreme way. And the filmmaking is just so memorably creepy: The big shocks of the attack s are one thing, but images like two of the brood kids in their snowmobile suits flanking Candice as they escort her down a road still give me chills. And that final scene with Eggers giving us a glimpse of her reproductive mutations is the sort of gross-out horror that Cronenberg would soon master at delivering.
Any standout moments from The Brood for you, Keith? And how did Videodrome, perhaps his transitional moment out of Canadian independent horror, hold up for you? Do you worship at the Cathode Ray Mission?
Keith: Not counting Fast Company, The Brood was the last of the first wave Cronenberg films I got around to, in part because of lingering prejudice created by my beloved reference Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which awarded it a “BOMB.” Allow me to quote the two-sentence review in full:
“Eggar eats her own afterbirth while midget clones beat grandparents and lovely young schoolteachers to death with mallets. It’s a big, wide, wonderful world we live in!”
Well, you can’t be right all the time. (See also Maltin’s Taxi Driver review.) All that’s technically true, but the dismissive summary loses the poetry, if poetry’s the right word for such a work. This is a haunting film, one that’s only grown more disturbing to me revisiting it as a parent (which I’ve now done a couple of times). I think you accurately summarize why it’s not just about the fear of women (though that feeling’s certainly in the mix). What sometimes gets lost in talking about Cronenberg’s body horror — and he seems to have mixed feelings about that term — is the way his twisted forms can evoke pity, fascination and sadness as often as repulsion. What’s repressed doesn’t stay repressed. Nola’s internal damage becomes externalized. The final shot suggests we pass what hurt us onto our children, no matter how heroic our efforts to spare them. It’s disturbing for reasons beyond the overflowing goo. For Cronenberg at least, some ideas can only be expressed with images of bloody mallets and dead grandparents.
The Brood feels like a big step forward for Cronenberg in many ways, including the acquisition of a key collaborator in composer Howard Shore. (His Psycho-inspired work here isn’t my favorite of his scores, but we can get into why he’s so important a little further down the line.) As much as I love Cronenberg’s later work, I can’t help but wish we’d gotten a few more of these before he went Hollywood (relatively speaking) with the very good Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone. That film arrived in theaters in October 1983, a few months after Videodrome, which I think is the best of his early films. He went out with a bang (kind of literally, if you think about the film’s final image).
There are so many ideas banging around in Videodrome that it’s sometimes hard to keep straight who wants what and why. What is Brian O’Blivion hoping to accomplish with his TV-filled Cathode Ray Mission? Who’s ultimately controlling Max Renn, the sleazy Canadian cable executive played by James Woods? While I’m sure there’s a densely written 18-paragraph analysis of the plot somewhere on the internet, I think that opacity’s partly by design. Renn’s not sure what’s real at any moment. Why should we be?
Cronenberg spent years trying to adapt Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale,” which eventually became the source of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. But while he never adapted Dick directly, both Videodrome and its predecessor, Scanners, bear the author’s influence with their shadowy corporate forces who secretly influence the course of society. Videodrome’s exploration of the unknowability of reality goes even deeper into PKD territory, particularly with its conclusion that we can’t know even what we think we know. Our minds and bodies are limited, flawed tools that are susceptible to manipulation.
It’s a very 1983 exploration of that idea, and I don’t mean that as a knock. The cable-centered narrative, pulsing videotapes and Betamax-friendly orifices perfectly complement Rick Baker’s practical effects. These were the elements that shaped how we saw the world at the time, both within the film and without it.
There’s a lot more to unpack, but I’ll hand the remote to you. But first, Maltin gave it a considerably higher rating than The Brood. Two stars! I’m guessing you’d go higher, right?
Scott: I loved those Leonard Maltin guides, too, and would wear out a new one every year, but I learned quickly that he had his limits when it came to violent and disturbing material, so he didn’t keep me away from Cronenberg for long. (Other Maltin BOMBs: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Salo, Popeye, American Gigolo, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.) Cronenberg aims to provoke a strong response with films like The Brood and Videodrome; that he got one from Maltin reminds me of John Waters’ line about how someone throwing up at one of his movies was like a standing ovation.
Which brings me to an important point about Cronenberg that both these films bear out: He’s willing to go as far out on a limb as any filmmaker I know. He’s a great intellect, with forward-thinking ideas about the convergence of the mind, the body, and new technologies, but he’s also a remarkably instinctual director. At a certain point in Videodrome, I start to feel a little bit like Max Renn in that I lose my grip over what’s happening and enter this intuitive, abstract realm that Cronenberg has created, one with an internal logic that’s so obscure I’m not sure even he fully grasps it.
Videodrome makes clear that Cronenberg saw where things were headed. While it’s true that our bodies have not, as of yet, become fleshy, vaginal VCR slots for tapes, weapons, and other inanimate objects, he did understand “virtual reality” before the internet came along and radically changed our sense of self and how we relate to each other. Who is Professor O’blivion but an anonymous account of messianiac proportions? And doesn’t the arc of Max’s journey feel like an internet rabbit hole, as someone impulsively drawn to the extremes of “what’s next” gets red-pilled into a dark subculture? (It seems like James Woods himself has taken that journey, too.)
Canadian filmmakers were on the vanguard of the changes that might be prompted by the video age—first Cronenberg and then Atom Egoyan, whose early films like 1987’s Family Viewing and 1989’s Speaking Parts were also about the alienating effects of a life that was more and more mediated by screens. I have no idea why the Cathode Ray Mission exists in the world of Videodrome: What’s the end goal of vagrants watching TV in cubicles? Is TV supposed to be sustenance on par with what you’d get at a soup kitchen or maybe a temporary home like a shelter? But it’s nonetheless fascinating to see a near-future where technology has reordered society so dramatically that the television medium has become our religion.
There’s a moral and political component to this sinister plot that seems tied to its conservative era, too, right? The Videodrome signal is designed to cause malignant brain tumors in the viewer, which O’Blivion intended as a pathway to a higher form of consciousness, but was hijacked by Barry Convex and the Spectacular Optical corporation, which is involved in advanced weaponry and rooting out the cultural decay caused by those who might be drawn to the channel’s content. One of the fascinating contradictions built into the film is that the most outré feed imaginable, where people can indulge their darkest fantasies of sexual violence, is a mechanism for corporate control.
For as much as Videodrome works as an intellectual exercise, it’s also one of Cronenberg’s boldest and most visually striking movies. What images stay with you? And am I alone in watching Max stick a Betamax tape in his body and retroactively wishing it had become the dominant format instead of VHS?
Keith: For all his intuitive understanding of what was to come, Cronenberg couldn’t see the triumph of VHS. This, I feel, invalidates his work as a whole, so maybe we should wind this conversation down and cancel future entries.
Failing that, I’ll answer your question. It might be a matter of what images don’t stick with me, but I think one of the most powerful effects is also one of the simplest. It’s when Max and Nicky Brand (Debbie Harry) are making love and with one cut they’re on the Videodrome set. Reality just slips away, if it was ever there in the first place. Another is one I can’t explain. Max’s co-worker/secret antagonist Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) gets his hand stuck in Max’s new orifice and it emerges as… what is that? Some kind of drill? It’s the most mysterious of Baker’s effects, if not the grossest.
But what sticks with me the most might be a line, one that connects to your observation of the film’s prescience. It’s when Masha (Lynne Gorman), a trafficker in sexy material Max deems too soft, particularly after his glimpses of Videodrome, says of Max’s new obsession, “It has something you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that’s what makes it dangerous.” I think I’m echoing something Cronenberg has said in saying this, but it’s not the technology that’s scary in Videodrome — OK, it is pretty scary — but it’s what summons that tech into existence and how it’s applied. The machines are neutral. And so, in some ways, are the bodies they alter, which are just trying to adapt to a changing environment, which is what bodies do. Only here the environment is changing so rapidly that bodies have to twist themselves into grotesque new forms.
If they change at all. Maybe it’s all in Max’s head? This is a confounding movie, and it stays that way no matter how many times I watch it. Is that part of what makes it so resonant? And do you see that state of enlightened confusion you described so well above as part of the appeal of this period of Cronenberg’s work?
Scott: I wouldn’t say that the “enlightened confusion” of Cronenberg’s work stopped after this period, though perhaps it was put on pause for a bit before he got weird again with later films like Crash, Naked Lunch, eXistenZ and Spider. But there didn’t seem to be anyone around to tell him “no” on Videodrome, even after the hilariously scabrous audience survey cards rolled in.
To circle back to its politics and prescience, I think you’re right to understand the technology to be neutral and changes to the body inevitable, but Cronenberg does recognize that powerful forces will see this new space—this new flesh—as territory to be conquered. Given the mesmeric qualities of the signal and the amount of control yielded to whoever owns that signal, there are all sorts of insidious possibilities for engineering human behavior. Videodrome may be difficult to parse, but Cronenberg does have a strong feeling for how our increasingly virtual, screen-based lifestyles would become a new corporate and political battleground. I don’t think we can emphasize enough that this was only the year 1983, but there’s so much material here that aligns with present-day experience—save for, you know, the literal fusion of the human body with pulsating inanimate objects.
I also have to praise Woods’ performance here, which is a reminder of what an electrifying presence he was in movies before lapsing into self-parody and far-right wingnuttery. Videodrome kicked off a run of films —Against All Odds, Salvador, Best Seller, True Believer, and Diggstown, among others—that Woods either enhanced or redeemed with his sleazy charisma. He could be charming or oily or both at once, as in the scene where Max, on that panel show, can’t help himself from making an on-air pass at Nicki. He’s an unapologetic smut merchant here, always looking for an “edge” that’s ostensibly for his channel, but more likely about his own edification. We may root for him as the little guy, but Woods doesn’t care if we like him, too.
As for lasting moments, nothing for me beats the television itself pulsating with malevolent life. Television is supposed to be a passive medium, leaving us docile and zombified. In Cronenberg’s film, it has a nasty bite.
Next week: David goes to Hollywood with The Fly and Dead Ringers.