Playing catch up on some films here. I watched The Brood over the weekend with my friend JB. He made a great comparison to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), which I think is entirely appropriate, not only for some obvious costuming reasons, but also for an overall mood. Roeg successfully turns 1970s Venice into a Borges-like labyrinth in his atmospheric thriller complete with dwarves, doubles and damsels in distress. Cronenberg takes this on a much lesser (and, though a really fun and fast-moving film, less successful) scale, turning the house at the center of the first half of the film into a maze of sorts, utilizing tension-building high angles of the kitchen and stairs and brutal “predicting shots” to foreshadow.
Shots as predictor can mean any number of things, and I think is most often related to the sequence shot. Check out the great robbery sequence shot in Robert Siodmak’s 1946 The Killers for a true example, where, in one fluid take, the camera actually precedes the action. Cronenberg – and many horror films – take this idea in a different direction. Three shots stand out in The Brood, all relating to the mutant children and one of the killings. All three shots are close-ups (inserts, even) of the children picking up their weapons. Shot 1 – close-up of meat tenderizer. Hands enter frame and pick it up. Shot 2 – close-up of snow globes. Hands enter frame and pick them up. Shot 3 – close-up of toy hammers. Hands enter frame and pick them up.
This is fairly simple, and nothing new, but it does direct the tension in a much different way than without these shots. Let’s think of the first scene where the grandmother is killed by the mutant children in the kitchen. Grandmother and child sit in the living room. Cut to the kitchen as a fist punches through the cabinet. We cross-cut between the kitchen and the living room, getting conversation between woman and child in the latter and various, but vague acts of destruction in the former. Cross-cut here = danger. But we don’t yet know what kind of danger. The grandmother gets up in a wide shot and walks off frame. Cut to shot 1 – hands on meat tenderizer. It’s at this very moment that the danger becomes quite real. The shot predicts her death. Lose that shot and the tension and danger are still unclear.
Again, pretty simple, maybe even obvious stuff, but it’s a clear choice by the director. Without these shots is the tension actually higher? Is the mystery felt more strongly? Or does the action slow momentarily, but enough to quickly lose the scene? What is Cronenberg’s job in The Brood (and in these scenes in particular)? To satisfy a bloodlust? To clue his audience in to the shock value that’s coming rather than save it for pure surprise? There’s many ways to look at this. The fact that these shots become motif make them all the more deliberate. Cronenberg seems to revel in the fact that it is tiny hands – hands as small as the instruments (or smaller) themselves – and not those of your standard adult-killer.
The Brood seems to draw quite a bit on the Fed Wilcox 1956 film Forbidden Planet. Both are obsessed with the connection between the human psyche and acts of external violence. The Brood dispenses with the Freudian dialogue from the earlier film and replaces it with ill-defined but awesomely sounding terms like “psycho-plasmics.” I still don’t really know what psycho-plasmics is. But I do know that it can cause cancer and other growths (I won’t ruin that moment) in men or women. Cronenberg uses his psycho-plasmics as stand-in for a kind of new wave psychology. His film seems to point to the inherent fragility of the mind and the danger in trying to rearrange such a complex structure. Psycho-plasmics, uncontrolled ego and id, new age methodology – whatever the culprit, nothing can replace good old-fashioned human connection and emotion.