Sunday, May 8, 2016

Children of Her Rage

Samantha Eggar as Nola Carveth in THE BROOD (1979)

Happy Mother's Day! We at DESCENT INTO MADNESS (and by "we" I mean me and the voices in my head) take this day seriously as there's nothing that can be more horrifying than one's own mother.  There's always a thin line between love and hate in a mother-daughter relationship. With my own mother, sometimes we're very close and get along like old friends. Then there are other times I wonder if she's possessed by JOAN CRAWFORD.
Anyhoo, with all the emphasis mainstream society at large puts on having babies, I wonder how many people realize that parenting is hard work. It's a 24-7 often thankless job that requires utter selflessness and for one to juggle being a nurturer, a teacher, a counselor and sometimes a prison warden. To be eloquent, bringing a little life into this world is a big fuckin' deal.
In a modern society obsessed with babies, most people seem to miss this point, though.
Even my normally pragmatic dad got sucked into baby mania. I had just graduated college and been accepted into grad school, but was totally eclipsed because my fertility monster stepsister got pregnant about the same time.
"We're on baby watch," my dad proclaimed with a glassy-eyed fervor that reminded me of the Manson Girls.
"Big deal," I sneered. "This is just the first one she's carried to full term." I don't know why I was the only one who thought her passing along that conehead forehead to an innocent human being was not a cause for celebration. I don't know why no one else was concerned that my stepsister was a made-for-TV-movie with FARAH FAWCETT waiting to happen.
"How can someone have children when they act like a spoiled child themselves?" I asked, which got me ostracized by my dad's family but if I had said that on DR. PHIL they would've clapped.
I think our culture tries to get people to have children for all the wrong reasons. I know my cousin Lula who's dumb as a sack of hammers and insists she's too good to get a retail job keeps getting pregnant so they don't cut off her food stamps. To give an example of Lula's parenting style, her first-born daughter didn't learn to talk until she was three years old. When I asked Lula is she ever read to her kids, she rolled her eyes and said, "That's what the schools are for."
Despite all of this, my relatives still chorused, "Don't you want to see the new baby?"
"I'm sure I'll see it if I get a job with the public defender," I replied.
Babies have become a living, breathing fashion accessory. They're like puppies but better and all you have to do is feed them, provide shelter and make sure they don't chew up the furniture. If you get tired of them, they'll be somebody else's problem.
Women particularly who do not want children are perceived as monstrous. I'm usually greeted with horror or asked to explain myself if I ever reveal that I don't want children. I just tell people, "I can't. My cats are allergic."
This is not a popular opinion, but the truth is there are a lot of people who really shouldn't be parents.
Without the responsibility, time and effort it really takes to be a parent, we're just creating future candidates for the criminal justice system. And most of them won't be able to afford a lawyer, which just gets on my nerves.
So I guess my lesson to you today, gentle readers, is please don't have children if you don't want to do that hard work it takes to be a parent. They'll grow up and kill us.

And speaking of trauma mamas, today I'm talkin' about THE BROOD written and directed by DAVID CRONENBERG. Frank Carveth (ART HINDLE of BLACK CHRISTMAS and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) is going through a rough custody battle for his five-year-old daughter, Candice. To complicate matters, his emotionally unstable ex-wife Nola (ever-classy horror leading lady SAMANTHA EGGAR) is receiving treatment at the Somafree Institute from controversial psychologist/guru Dr. Raglan (the imperious OLIVER REED). Raglan, best-selling author of "The Shape of Rage" practices an experimental form of therapy called "psychoplasmics" in which patients manifest their negative emotions physically. Seems Nola is consumed by rage as a result of years of abuse she endured at the hands of her alcoholic, probably personality disordered (albeit very stylish) mother. Abuse that her kindly but also alcoholic father chose to ignore. When Candice returns from a weekend with mummy dearest at the Somafree Institute covered in bruises, scratches and bitemarks, Frank is naturally afraid that the cycle is repeating itself and refuses to let his ex-wife see Candice. But Frank's got more than an unhinged ex-wife on his hands: Nola's therapy causes her rage to manifest itself in the birth of a bunch of snow-suited dwarf monsters with mallets that bludgeon the objects of her intense anger to death.
And not even her own daughter is safe.

A member of THE BROOD (1979).

DAVID CRONENBERG has stated that THE BROOD is his version of KRAMER VS. KRAMER, but more realistic. Lest some think he was joking, I agree with him that this film is a more accurate portrayal of the pain inflicted by divorce. Though KRAMER VS. KRAMER is the more critically lauded of the two, I never bought that a career-driven man like DUSTIN HOFFMAN's character would have learned to become a dedicated father rather than hiring a full-time nanny. And I always thought it was a pretty big cheat that the little boy be handed back over to the narcissistic mother who abandoned him in the first place. Most importantly, though, KRAMER VS. KRAMER completely neglected to mention a point explored in-depth by THE BROOD: that children are the silent victims of divorce. This was a deeply personal film for CRONENBERG who had gone through a custody battle of his own and like all smart horror films, utilizes the genre to mine darker emotional terrain than more mainstream films.
Candy spends most of the film in a state of shell shock, numbed by pain she does not fully comprehend and helpless to do anything about the adult machinations around her.
The most chilling moment in the film for me was the scene in which Frank takes polaroids of the injuries on Candy's back, placing them in a folder labeled "CUSTODY."
"Sometimes it kills me to think I've screwed up my kid already," Frank confesses.
Nola's father, Barton, expresses the same worry, lamenting that the trauma Nola endured as a child as a result of his and her mother's divorce is now all happening again, but with Nola as a willing participant and her daughter as the helpless child.
I'm tellin' ya, KRAMER VS. KRAMER completely glossed over all this shit. The kid was all happy because DUSTIN HOFFMAN learned how to be a good dad and then he was all happy to go live with his mom. So, THE BROOD is really a more honest film.
It is significant that the film ends on a close-up of Candy's tear-streaked face, then tilts down to show fleshy sacs growing on her arm, indicating that the cycle will continue.
Some critics have stated the behavior of the characters in THE BROOD is exaggerated or unbelievable. I'm willing to bet these same people have never been to family court. As a family law paralegal, I've seen conduct that guests on THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW would be ashamed of.

Cindy Hinds as Candy Carveth in THE BROOD (1979).

THE BROOD also offers a critical view of modern psychiatry. I used to joke that I would never go see a psychiatrist because it's to their benefit that their patients get better because there'd be no one left to write them a paycheck. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great therapists out there. However, there's no shortage of ineffectual or downright terrible ones either.
Frank dismisses Raglan as "an emotional opportunist." It's a pretty fair assessment considering that Raglan exploits Nola's mind and body to the benefit of his career. He even goes far as to neglect his other patients for Nola. Worse yet, he constantly re-opens old wounds without giving her the tools necessary for her to heal.
There are plenty of therapists who will have their patients rehash the same traumatic episodes over and over, mainly collecting a check and offering nothing more than a few affirmative statements like, "That's sounds stressful" or "That must have made you feel very angry."
Or what about those psychiatrists who are really nothing but glorified drug dealers, peddling highly addictive prescription medications rather than any coping strategies?
While there are patients whose lives are positively transformed thanks to the right prescription medication, there are many psychiatrists who use them irresponsibly, handing out boxes from their sample closets like candy. In light of this, does Dr. Raglan really seem so far-fetched?

Oliver Reed as Dr. Raglan against THE BROOD (1979).

And then there's Nola. Unable to heal from the abuse she endured as a child, she remains a wounded child herself. She's emotionally reactive, possessed by rage to the point where it warps her body, poisons her mind and destroys all of those around her.
The inability to let go of rage is a frequent subject in horror. After all, anger is one of those taboo emotions, particularly for women. A woman expressing anger, even if it is justifiable, is usually written off with, "Oh, she's a bitch" or "She just needs to get laid."
The pathologist notes that the members of "the brood" only see things in black and white. This is ultimately Nola's problem. Everyone is a perceived enemy while she is the helpless victim. Rather than acknowledge her own part in her marriage's failure, she blames Frank and her parents. She perceives Candy's teacher as a serious romantic rival even though she and her husband are divorced with no hope for reconciliation. Nola's anger ultimately consumes her life and destroys all of her relationships.
In a role-playing exercise, Raglan remarks that mummies don't hurt their children.
"Yes they do," Nola insists. "Bad mummies, fucked up mummies do."
Nola, spending all of her time focusing on her own wounds, is blind to the fact that in her selfishness, she is inflicting the same damage upon Candy that she blames her mother for inflicting upon her.
"I'd kill Candice before I'd let you take her away from me!" Nola screams at Frank.
Candice is not a daughter to Nola; she has become a possession, a pawn to be used to hurt her ex-husband.
Nola, in focusing everything upon her own anger, is blind to the fact that she has become the "bad mummy, the fucked up mummy" like her own mother she so despises.

Samantha Eggar as Nola Carveth in THE BROOD (1979).

Like most of CRONENBERG's work, THE BROOD explores the relationship between the mind and the body; something that can be explored by science, but perhaps never fully understood and certainly never controlled. The notion of intense emotions manifesting physically is not an outrageous one. Many sufferers of mental illness experience physical symptoms in conjunction with their psychological ones. I've never spawned any homicidal dwarf monsters though.
I'm kind of disappointed.
The color scheme of the film is made up of the reds, whites and yellows of bodily fluids. Some reviewers have pointed out that the color red signifies femaleness in the film. Red is the color of Nola's hair and Candy's parka. Is this related to menses, one of the things that characterizes the "Otherness" of the female body and differentiates it from the male body?
And what exactly is the film saying about the female body? Is Nola, with her fleshy sac and asexual mutant monsters spawned from intense anger, a monstrous representation of motherhood?
Does the red of the female characters represent the tradition of abuse and dysfunction passed down from mother to daughter for multiple generations in the film?
I think there may be a little bit of "yes" to all of these. And I think the film can explore male anxieties about the female body without being misogynistic. After all, pregnancy, birth and motherhood can be frightening for women as well. Despite the idealization of pregnancy in Western culture, it is something that is pretty taxing on a woman's body -- and often pretty gross.
But then again, red is also the color that characterizes the Somafree Institute which puts an interesting wrinkle on things. In that case, the functioning of the female body is not monstrous; the female body manipulated by men in authority becomes a monstrous thing -- and something they ultimately cannot control.

I have to add that even though critics dismissed THE BROOD when it was first released, the film is skillfully crafted. The production design and photography are accomplished, particularly considering the small budget. The film is filled with the kind of carefully composed symmetrical shots that STANLEY KUBRICK was so fond of. Perhaps it's just hard for critics to give a film about mutant dwarf rage monsters it's due. The performances are all excellent as well, particularly SAMANTHA EGGAR, who deftly conveys Nola's intense anger without making her a one-note harridan. In the infamous "birthing" scene, she also renders something that could have, in lesser hands, been ridiculous into something harrowing and emotionally raw.

THE BROOD ultimately illustrates the thing I love about horror movies so much. Through genre tropes and symbols, they explore the taboo subjects that people are afraid to discuss and mine darker emotional territory that more respectable films are afraid to venture into. You almost never see films that realistically convey the pain, the trauma, the straight-up crazy behavior involved when a couple decides to get a divorce. And you rarely to never see a film depicting the damage experienced by the unwitting children involved as their batted back and forth like a shuttlecock between two unhinged parents. Without snow-suited dwarf monsters, I guess it would get too depressing for most people. So, THE BROOD isn't really an exploitation movie -- it's just honest.

THE BROOD (1979)

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