I had a truly harrowing experience this weekend. A friend decided to have her birthday outdoors in a park. At time, I had assumed this was as a prank to a certain faction of her friends, mostly inherited from her husband: the sunshine-averse and allergy-afflicted gamer contingent. The truth was far more terrifying. As Mrs. Supermarket and I approached the outdoor picnic table, discordant shrieks echoed through the park. Toddlers. Everywhere. Staggering in loose parabolas like comets with a load in their pants. I realized something that nearly loosened my own bowels: the picnic table I was headed to, the one surrounded by friends and peers, was home base to the mob of screaming children.
The outdoor setting was so people could bring their fucking kids.
I have nothing against kids, but they are assholes. Louis C.K. pointed this out and I haven’t thought of children the same way since. It doesn’t help that science keeps reminding us that babies are basically sociopaths with poor motor skills. I was surrounded by these little monsters, feeling every judgmental gaze when I refused to be impressed that someone’s kid had managed just once not to fling her feces at anyone. The crowds around the two strollers staring at the two infants as they slept baffled me. What were they expecting the babies to do? Explode in a shower of mini-candy bars? I left the party profoundly shaken, unable to make sense of the world around me.
Naturally, I turned to David Cronenberg.
Cronenberg achieved mainstream acclaim with A History of Violence, a film that was mostly about what a bad idea it is to point a gun at Viggo Mortensen. (He is Viggo! You are like the buzzing of flies to him!) I will always treasure the shocked gasp in the theater made by everyone but me when Viggo punched the one mob enforcer’s nose so hard he ended up looking like a freshly raised Imhotep. I had been conditioned to expect this, because unlike most, I had actually seen a couple of Cronenberg films. He was the man who taught me to be afraid of my body, since it was only matter of time before it would turn on me. I watched his masterpiece The Fly between my fingers and lost more than one night of sleep because of the dueling fears that my fingernails would fall off and that Jeff Goldblum would crash through my window.
Cronenberg’s filmography from the ‘70s and ‘80s is filled with movies in which the protagonist contracts a horrifying disease that slowly turns him into something other than human. The sickness is usually personified, spoken of by characters as having needs, desires and a purpose. Childbirth is a perfect example of this. Babies are literal parasites while in the womb, and alone in a field of nematodes and tapeworms, have human will. Cronenberg explored this in the film he called his version of Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979’s The Brood, which he wrote and directed following a nasty divorce and custody battle with his first wife.
Cronenberg’s pain is on full display here. The film opens with newly divorced Frank Carveth (Art Hindle, looking like a full-sized Peter Dinklage) picking up his five-year-old daughter Candy from an eccentric mental health retreat where her mother is staying. Frank notices fresh cuts and bruises on Candy and becomes convinced that his ex-wife Nola is abusing her. It’s a reasonable assumption to make. After all, Nola is staying at a mental health retreat to work through her own abuse suffered at the hands of her mother.
Dr. Hal Raglan (played by the film’s sole varsity actor, Oliver Reed) runs the Somafree Institute of Bioplasmics. Based on the demonstration that opens the film, Raglan uses hypnosis to provoke psychosomatic representations of emotional pain on his patients, presumably in the hopes that this will purge them, although (spoiler!) every Somafree patient encountered is in worse shape after therapy than before. So it’s possible he is doing it just to be a dick.
Frank threatens to withhold visitation rights from Nola, but his lawyer and Raglan advise against it. In both cases, it’s not the well being of the child that matters, but rather that Frank can’t disobey a court order. After hearing about Dave Foley’s struggles with Canadian divorce laws, it’s easy to see Cronenberg’s frustration as at least valid in the abstract. I don’t know what happened between Cronenberg and his first wife, but I’m on Cronenberg’s side if only because he consistently makes art which I happen to enjoy. Who cares that it’s entirely made from the screams of lepers? I just can’t imagine that the man behind Scanners could be anything but a caring and attentive husband.
As Frank tries to find a way to keep his daughter safe, the film checks in periodically with Nola and Dr. Raglan. The scenes between them have an odd energy, though some of that is due to Oliver Reed’s typical acting style of attempting to drunkenly seduce whoever he is opposite, which produced the most watchable scenes in Gladiator. Nola seems to exist in a perpetual dream state, growing more serene as things outside the Institute spin out of control.
There’s no easy way to tell you this, so I’ll come right out and say it: Nola’s family are being picked off one by one by a deformed midget. The Brood belongs to a peculiar genre of late ‘70s horror (along with Don’t Look Now and the It’s Alive trilogy) of killer midget-baby films. The Brood is by far the best of these films, due in no small part to Cronenberg’s skill at working with the sometimes chintzy effects. He hides the faces of his monsters as much as he can, placing them in the corners of frames, so all that can be seen are the snowsuits that look very much like Candy’s. Cronenberg wisely does not delve too deeply into the shaky pseudo-science that powers the supernatural elements of the story. He sticks to things that are objectively terrifying: namely midgets with anger management issues.
The Brood is a film about parenthood. Frank and Nola fight over Candy, their rancor spilling over into the physical realm. Frank’s primary motivation is the safety of his daughter: his journey begins with the discovery of possible abuse. Nola’s rage takes the psychosomatic form of the titular brood, a swarm of almost-Candys whose emotional state dangerously echoes Nola’s. Dr. Raglan serves as a surrogate father to his patients, and it is only because of a perceived betrayal that an infantilized patient gives Frank a vital clue. Lastly, in the film’s unsettling coda, Candy displays the kinds of sores that heralded Nola’s horrible power. That is the fear that children will inherit our worst traits, a fear exacerbated after an acrimonious divorce. Growing to hate your child’s other parent can produce an uncomfortable awareness of just how much like that parent the child is. Not enough to override the biological imperative maybe, but enough to provide some upsetting emotional dissonance.
As a child of divorce, I understand the story from Candy’s perspective, although my mother was more Dr. Raglan than Nola. I was older than Candy when my parents split up, but it was a confusing and scary time. Fortunately, neither one of them spawned a legion of hell-dwarves to kidnap me, but considering the amount of venom involved, it wouldn’t have been too surprising. Looking at the film now, from the perspective of a happily married man whose friends have decided to pollute the earth with half-formed copies of themselves, is a different experience. There is the tendency to place ourselves in the role of Frank, the wronged party and upstanding parent, but I found that some of my horror stemmed from the recognition that if Mrs. Supermarket and I split up, I would be Nola. I would be the unhinged, grasping and possessive one, while she would be the overwhelmed and Dinklagian heroine. Based on Cronenberg’s other protagonists, from Rose in Rabid to Seth Brundle, I can’t help but think that there is the germ of a similar fear in him.
That’s what parenthood is to an outsider like me. Constant crippling fear that a potential child will take after me, while other parents blissfully ignore the faults in their subjectively perfect offspring. The next time I’m trapped at a park infested with a bunch of shit-smelling banshees, I can remember the lesson Cronenberg taught me: I won’t care as much when one of those shrieking little monsters is mine.