Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Movies: Put the "psycho" in psycho-plasmics.

Fun fact: Search for "brood" in IMDB and your first hit is not David Cronenberg's 1979 classic, but that long-suffering staple of latch-key kid entertainment The Brady Bunch. What's attracting IMDB's search engine to the story of a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls (though, only two very lovely girls, really) is the fact that the show's working title was The Brady Brood.

I bring this up because, having found that quirk of the system and having recently re-watched The Brood, I've been replaying plots of The Brady Bunch in my head, but mixing in elements of The Brood. Like, say, everybody's on vacation in Hawaii and one of the boys has bad luck 'cause of a stolen Tiki idol. Only his luck gets so bad that Carol goes insane and starts playing a lethal game of cat and mouse with Mike using psycho-plasmic simulacrum Jans as proxy murderers.

They pretty much all end with "Carol goes insane and starts playing a lethal game of cat and mouse with Mike using psycho-plasmic simulacrum Jans as proxy murderers."

As much as I'd love to review those imaginary episodes of The Brady Brood, I think the blog-o-sphere will be much better served by me posting yet another review of David Cronenberg's film.

Having recently revisited Videodrome, I've been on a Cronenberg kick. Brood is the second film in Cronenberg's Body Horror Period, dating from 1975's Shivers to 1986's The Fly. With the exception of a drag racing pic (the perfectly functional but fairly forgettable Fast Company) and possibly The Dead Zone, the BHP flicks are sciffy influenced horror pics that together make up cinema's most extended riff on how completely gross the human body can be. For a little more than a decade, audiences could rely on Cronenberg's characters to get infected with bizarre diseases, sprout disturbingly sexualized orifices in their tummies, learn to breed through budding, vomit out acids, and otherwise be really really gross. It isn't even a matter of gore. Instead, it's grimly Rabelaisian – a riot of exuding, devouring, spurting, oozing, prolapsed humanity.

Eventually it is the H and not the B that fades from Cronenberg's work. Naked Lunch and Crash are as full of mutants and mauled forms as any Cronenberg fan could hope. What that aren't is straight up sciffy horror in the same way the BHP flicks are.

By the standards of other BHP flicks, Brood is remarkably restrained. The flick opens on a demonstration of "psycho-plasmics," an ill explained psychotherapy that, from what the viewer sees, involves a shrink – one Dr. Hal Raglan – holding conversations with the patient while acting out the role of some figure crucial to the patient's pathological history. Curiously, somebody mentions that Raglan's an M.D., which would mean that he's not actually a psychotherapist. But unorthodox credentials would be the least shady thing about Raglan's operation. There's something cultish about psycho-plasmics. Raglan, in becoming everybody who was ever important to you, becomes literally your all. The vague nature of psycho-plasmics gives it the aspect of a theological doctrine rather than a scientific theory. Finally, the patients and caregivers seem to be charged with an almost sinister anticipation, as is psycho-plasmics was a prophecy of something huge coming down the pipe.

Thrust into this snake pit is one Frank Carveth, played by Art Hindle with the affectless apathy that passed for "Method" in the 1970s. Frank's estranged wife, Nola (the last gasp of Samantha Eggers quality film career before becoming a familiar face in the floating cast of B-list guests in TV-land – her next role was on Fantasy Island), is a patient of Raglan. This has made divorcing her difficult as she spends all her time locked away on the doctor's isolated treatment campus. The need for a break is given extra urgency when Frank notices that Candice, their daughter, has returned home from a visit with mommy covered in bruises and bite marks. Frank appeals to his lawyer, but he's told that there crap all one can do to separate a child from its mom.

In the meantime, Frank investigates the mysterious Raglan and finds some graduates of his psycho-plasmics program have pronounced physical effects, most notably unusual forms of cancer. However, since no connection can be made between these ailments and Raglan's treatments, nobody can do anything.

Frank's frustration turns to fear when his mother-in-law is beaten to death with a meat-tenderizer by a pint-sized assailant. Frank's father-in-law meets with the same fate before Frank survives an attack and the police can recover the mini-murderer's body. A visit to a shockingly calm corner reveals that these sawed-off killers lack standard internal organs, have no reproductive capacity, and show no marks of having been produced in the standard "mommy and daddy's special grown up time" method. On a personal note, I love this scene for the remarkably mild interest all those in the coroner's office show in what is a completely new species of humanoid life. They know it is important, but mainly as an odd clue in an already odd case. Even the coroner, presumably the first to realize that something truly historical has happened, seems only mildly interested: "A new humanoid species of life. Nifty. I'll write it up tomorrow. I want to get home before 7 tonight. They're airing a very special Starsky and Hutch, with guest star Samantha Eggers."

Eventually, the mutant midgets kidnap Candice from her school classroom, after murdering the teacher in plain sight of all the now utterly traumatized students. The audience puzzles it all together just a little ahead of Frank. These munchkins are doing the bidding of Nola. Frank dashes the psycho-plasmic research center. There he confronts Raglan only to learn that Nola spawn these things from herself. They are the physical manifestation of her emotional needs. Raglan proposes a plan to get Candice back, but it will require Frank and Raglan enter the brood's lair and confront the increasing unstable Nola.

Which goes just fine.

I'm kidding – all manner of chaos, some fair amount of death, and a nice sequence of Nola birthing a midget-pod bud from her tummy. It's a suitably grim and discomforting end.

Far more linear than Videodrome or post-BHP like Naked Lunch, The Brood is built along fairly conventional horror lines. There's even something a bit retro in its over-the-top misogyny. The admitted product of Cronenberg's own nasty divorce and custody battle, the women are portrayed, in order, as an abusive bad-mother figure who spawns mutant pod people out of her tummy, a sharp-tongued drunk rich diva type, and a witness to Frank's humiliation at the hands of Nola. Only the young girl, Candice, who is more of a prop than a full character, is unquestionably good. By contrast, all the men are schlubs, victims of their families, their wives, their unlucky fates, cancer, whatever. Even the sinister Raglan proves to have been attempting to contain and control Nola and her offspring. Despite this regrettable knuckle-dragging, The Brood is more successful than some of the later films in delivering reliable genre pleasures. By working within narrowing dramatic ambitions and focusing on an earnestly felt (if philosophical dubious) hatred, Cronenberg made a picture that is darker and more intense than some of the more experimental and intellectually naunced films that would follow. In this sense, The Brood may be a film that appeals more to the horror fan than the fan of Cronenberg.

Before we go, let's talk about Ollie.

Now generally, I'm not the cat to cult out over some now relatively discarded film star from the 1960s and 1970s. There are those who get swampy in their nether regions over the z-grade stars that dot the steaming pile of grindhouse cinema like flies repeatedly alighting on a particularly ripe cow patty. That's never really been my bag. I lack the imaginative faculties necessary to turn the dross of repeated incompetence into stylistic gold.

That said, even I've got my little obsessions. Regular readers know, for example, that I'll watch just about any picture that features an alligator or crocodile, super-sized or not, giving humans a lesson in the contextual specificity of food chain dominance. Why? No idea. It's just one of those things.

Here's another weird critical blind spot of mine: Oliver Reed. Yeah, Bill Sikes from Oliver. That guy. Menacing even when he's trying to be calming, charming, or thoughtful, the young Reed always seemed to me like he might, at any moment, whip out a weighted walking cane and beat the crap out of somebody. Eventually, age softened him a bit, but never enough that he did carry with him the hint of seething. Even his role as Proximo, in 2000s Gladiator, hinged on the fact that you had to genuinely believe Reed could intertwine a worldly paternalism with bloodthirsty self-interest. Reed was perfect for that role in that he probably couldn't have done worldly paternalism without giving some sinister undercurrent.

His casting as Raglan in this flick is brilliant as it exploits the fact that viewers will almost immediately distrust him. (In fact, it takes some suspension of belief to allow that any patients would ever trust him.) Even when he turns out to be "hero" of sorts, his complex motives are murkily communicated by Reed's though a strange stiltedness, as if Raglan has carefully thought through everything he's saying and is now simply recalling the edited and cleaned up results. Is he trying to end Nola's reign of terror, protect her, protect him and his method? Did he see this coming as the ultimate result of psycho-plasmics or is he realizing this is all out of his control? Reed gives the character more life than he needs to carry out some fairly simple narrative duties. Good stuff, Ollie.

Oh and don't forget: the Tales from the Captcha contest runs until Friday. Enter and win fabu prizes!


Sasquatchan said...

Never underestimate the drawing power of Starsky and Hutch.. (Well, ignore the awful remake from a few years ago..)

Dead Zone and Fly were both quality movies in the sci-fi arena (sorry, skiffy reminds me too much of the furballs from alma mater and their group..) Fly turns more horror towards the end than Dead Zone, but if both were by same Director, guess I should find a few to rent.

How's job search going ? We could use a technical writer, but doubt you'd enjoy the job, or want to move South.

Ed Howard said...

Nice write-up. I love how creepy this movie is despite its relative restraint. In comparison to something like Videodrome, the gore is pretty tame, and the appearances of those disturbing little kids widely spaced out. But the slowly intensifying atmosphere is smothering, perhaps because the emphasis is not on the actual horrible acts being committed but on the curdling emotions that drive those actions. The film's horror arises from the fact that the ugly, brutal violence that's happening is being propelled by normal human feelings and needs: motherly nurturing, familial love, the desire for companionship. This is Cronenberg's nightmare about how badly awry the human family can go.

And Sasquatchan, if you want to see more Cronenberg, I'd highly recommend Dead Ringers, Videodrome, and The Brood, all chilling, incredibly creepy films.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Thanks for looking out for me, but all is well. I've got freelance lined-up for a couple months now and we should be alright.

I second all of Ed's suggestions or follow-up, though I'd tackle them in reverse order. Brood first, then weird up a bit with Videodrome, then tackle Dead Ringers.

houseinrlyeh said...

Very fine review. It was obviously worth it writing the hundredth review of The Brood.

I very much agree with you about Cronenberg still being very much about the body even after leaving the horror behind.
One of the interesting things about The Brood is that it's the only of his BH films in which the bodily transformation is coded as "evil". In the earlier ones and in The Fly the changes are amoral, and dangerous for societal mores, but I never get the feeling that Cronenberg positions himself above them.

Ed Howard said...

Very good point, house. And in the later films, of course, particularly Videodrome and Crash, bodily transformation is viewed in a much more positive and optimistic light, as necessary to the overthrow of outmoded social structures, and as a way to usher in new ways of understanding the world and the human condition.

CRwM said...

houseinrlyeh and Ed,

Good points.

I would have pegged Naked Lunch as the movie that tips the whole splooginess thing away from danger/evil/contamination.

The Fly still seems to suggest that, amoral or not, BrundelFly is a destructive force and Videodrome's conflict between the immoracidal signal developer and the pomo television cult fanatics is no win.

But you and Ed are definitely right that the function of all this new flesh definitely shifts over time.