David Cronenberg made his first two full-length features, ‘Shivers’ (1975) and’Rabid’ (1976), for a low-budget outfit called Cinepix who started life as a distributor of soft-core porn and whose track record as a production company pre-Cronenberg was, predictably enough, soft-core porn. This accounts for the presence of adult performers Sue Helen Petrie in ‘Shivers’ and Marilyn Chambers in ‘Rabid’.
Taking advantage of tax-shelter opportunities for Canadian filmmakers (but having to abide by stipulations such as only one non-Canadian star per picture), Cronenberg made what has come to be regarded as the odd-one-out in his filmography, the drag-racing drama ‘Fast Company’ (1979), before hooking up with producers Victor Solnicki, Pierre David and Claude Héroux to make the two features which arguably cemented his maturation as a director, defined his intellectual and visceral aesthetic, and propelled him towards a wider audience: ‘The Brood’ (1979) and ‘Scanners’ (1980).
Before we go any further, let’s pause for a SPOILER ALERT. Attempting to discuss these movies without lifting the lid on pivotal plot points would make for a short and rather pointless article. Not that either film deals in M. Night Shyamalan style twists (although ‘Scanners’ ends on a moment of debate-it-to-death-in-the-pub-afterwards ambiguity that Christopher Nolan might well have taken his cue from); there’s more a sense of gnarly inevitability to their big revelations. Nonetheless: SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the article and for other Cronenberg movies beyond ‘The Brood’ and ‘Scanners’.
It’s also worth pausing to consider two defining elements of Cronenberg’s work. One is endlessly rehashed in bargain-basement analyses of the director and is only superficially accurate. The other is a lot more subtle and meaningful. Let’s get the first one out of the way. Let’s take a deep breath, conjure up some images of a decomposing Jeff Goldblum in ‘The Fly’ or a quasi-vaginal slit in James Woods’ stomach in ‘Videodrome’, and say it: body horror. But as Bryce notes in an excellent piece on ‘The Dead Zone’ at Things That Don’t Suck, “the more I think about it, the more I confess that I believe the body horror in Cronenberg to be an elaborate feint, a window dressing for his real obsession, that of the corruption of the mind”.
The second one, a strand of critical thought exposited in the Faber & Faber book Cronenberg on Cronenberg (ed. Chris Rodley), is that Cronenberg’s films contain a thematically or emotionally significant* absent character. Usually these characters are an absent scientist – to some degree Doctors Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) and Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) in the films currently under consideration are absent characters in that they serve a primarily expository purpose and who meet bad ends as a result of their own hubris – or an absent father figure. Discussing ‘The Dead Zone’, Cronenberg says “you could make a good case for saying that God is the scientist whose experiments are not always working out and that the Johnny Smith character is one of his failed experiments”.
Beyond these observations, Cronenberg’s work can also be said to treat, as fairly key themes, the dysfunctionalism of human relationships, the depiction of physical aberration as a metaphor for the sexual imperative, and the concept of the dual personality. Time and again throughout his career Cronenberg has returned to the dual personality theme, which generally finds its expression as either two minds/personas contained in one body (Brundle the insect and Brundle the human ‘The Fly’; Tom Stall the family man and Tom Stall the stone cold killer in ‘A History of Violence’; Nikolai the gangster and Nikolai the undercover cop in ‘Eastern Promises’) or one consciousness and/or an intrinsic genetic connection split across two characters (evidenced most explicitly by identical twins Beverley and Elliott Mantle in ‘Dead Ringers’). It’s this latter that informs ‘The Brood’ and ‘Scanners’.
After ‘Fast Company’, Cronenberg pitched to Solnicki, David and Héroux the basic idea for ‘Scanners’ (then called ‘The Sensitives’). They liked it and Cronenberg got to work on the script. At the time, though, he was embroiled in a custody battle for his daughter (he had split from his first wife in 1977) and work on ‘The Sensitives’ was sidelined as a different, utterly personal, project took over. Kudos to his producers that when he presented an entirely different script – ‘The Brood’ – they backed him to the hilt.
‘The Brood’ is one hell of an accomplished film. The rough edges of ‘Shivers’ and ‘Rabid’ are gone. The facility with actors is apparent (if Art Hindle’s central performance seems a tad bland, it’s only because Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed are delivering the goods in fine style – I’m all for calling it a career best in Eggar’s case). The juxtaposition of genuine intellectual concerns with effective horror-movie jolts and iconography is seamless.
‘The Brood’ is easily Cronenberg’s first fully realised statement as a mature and capable filmmaker. It’s also a film that demands background and context, so cynical is its depiction of the sanctity of the family unit in disintegration; so persuasive is its apparent misogyny.
I doubt there are many people incapable of understanding Cronenberg’s issues with the first Mrs C. If you don’t know the story, here it is in his own words (as quoted in Cronenberg on Cronenberg): “I got a call from my ex-wife saying she had decided for religious reasons to go and live in California and was going to take [our daughter] with her. I’d get to see her at Christmas and stuff, and she was leaving tomorrow. I said, ‘Okay, that’s nice, great, good luck.’ I put the phone down, told Carolyn (I was now remarried) and went to the school and kidnapped my daughter. It wasn’t really kidnapping, but we were still sharing custody. I got a court order which prevented her from taking [our daughter]. And then she left. After swearing that she would never leave her daughter, she signed her over to me so that she could go.” Moreover, at the time Cronenberg was writing the script – and with the ironic timing of Roy Orbison’s ‘It’s Over’ coming on the radio just seconds after your girlfriend’s dumped you – Robert Benton’s syrupy opus ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ was raking in the greenbacks at the box office. It’s an oft-quoted Cronenberg-ism that ‘The Brood’ was his response to the Hollywoodized sentimentality of ‘Kramer vs Kramer’. Here’s how he describes Benton’s film: “false, fake, candy. There are unbelievable, ridiculous moments in it that to me are emotionally completely false”.
If Cronenberg’s rage fuelled the writing of ‘The Brood’, it’s the rage of Nola Carveth (Eggar) which infuses the film. Nola is the estranged wife of building contractor Frank (Hindle), who has been left as the carer of their young daughter Candace (Cindy Hinds) while Nora undergoes therapy at the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics run by the charismatic but confrontational Dr Raglan (Reed). Forbidden from visiting Nola under the strictures of her therapy, Frank’s life is turned upside down when a series of grotesque murders, seemingly committed by psychotic dwarves (Cronenberg knowingly evokes the iconography of Nic Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’), decimate those closest to him. When one of the “dwarves” expires after an attack, Frank is present at the autopsy which determines that whatever these creatures are, they were not born in any traditional sense.
The protagonists of ‘Scanners’, while gestated and delivered as per normal conventions, were born with dangerously advanced mental capabilities, the result of a drug marketed to pregnant women in the 1950s but swiftly withdrawn once the side-effects became apparent. Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), born a telepath (or scanner), has no recollection of his childhood. A vagrant, semi-cognizant of his ability to link with another person’s mind but unable to control or contextualise it, he is recruited by Dr Ruth (McGoohan) of the government-controlled Consec to infiltrate an underground scanner organisation led by the psychotic Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). Revok is using pharmaceutical company Biochemical Amalgamate as a cover to produce a drug called Ephemerol. Cronenberg’s proclivity for dualism reaches new heights here. Ephemerol is used by Dr Ruth to placate the adult telepaths in his care (it calms them from the “overheard” voices that clamour their mind during social interaction) and by Revok to inculcate pregnant women in order to produce a new breed and by extension a new world order of scanners.
‘Scanners’ saw Cronenberg painting on his biggest canvas yet. It contains chases, shoot-outs, car crashes, explosions, helicopters, a large cast and a barrage of special effects, including – most infamously – an exploding head. In this respect it’s the antithesis of ‘The Brood’, a small scale and character-driven movie by comparison. And yet the two are intertwined, even in their differences. Whereas ‘Scanners’ has the same drug put to different uses, ‘The Brood’ demonstrates Dr Raglan’s commitment to drug-free (hence, with a tip of the hat to Aldous Huxley, the name of the clinic) therapy designed to force the patient into the very heart of their problem and “out the other side”. Only in Nola’s case, her anger/jealousy is cathartically released in a very physical and animalistic way: she manifests child-like assassins who attack anybody who threatens (or is perceived to threaten) her. Cronenberg takes these pint-sized, facially deformed psychopaths into the most normal and ostensibly safe of settings: family homes, schools. Years before ‘Them’ or ‘Eden Lake’, Cronenberg disturbs the audience with the concept of a child as killer. The revelation that these abominations are not children, however, doesn’t let the audience off. Not one little bit. In fact, it makes it worse. These are the products of a twisted, bastardized, psychologically damaged maternal instinct: not children, but the manifestations of a mother whose emotional mindset is irreversibly negative.
‘The Brood’, then, has a mother who creates monsters of her own volition, whereas the pregnant women in ‘Scanners’ who are exposed to Ephemerol are innocent victims: they have no idea that their children will be born telepaths. The familial schism in ‘The Brood’ is matrimonial; in ‘Scanners’, fraternal. The missing father figure is the estranged maternal grandparent in ‘The Brood’ (an alcoholic whose well-meaning intentions are ultimately futile) and the literal father of whom Cameron Vale has no recollection in ‘Scanners’. Scientists who have, through the tunnel-vision of their respective specialisms, literally created monsters (or at least been present at the birth) provide surrogates for these missing fathers in both instances.
Cronenberg has described ‘The Brood’ as the most autobiographical of his films. Watched back to back, ‘Scanners’ presents as equally so. Viewed with even the laziest of critical faculties engaged, it’s impossible not to see them as companion pieces; variations on a theme. As with everything on Cronenberg’s CV, the obvious knee-jerk reaction is artificially resonant but ultimately an exercise in missing the point. ‘The Brood’ is not misogynistic. ‘Scanners’ is not about sibling rivalry. Both are about the forces – medical, scientific or governmental – that spectacularly fuck up their remit of curing or palliating and instead threaten to destroy the individual and/or the family unit by one crucial misconception: that from the very cause they seek the cure.
*Using the word “emotionally” in an article on David Cronenberg opens up a can of worms, given that his directorial modus operandi is the kind of clinical detachment that would make Ingmar Bergman or Carl Dreyer whistle softly and murmur “Dude, that’s cold.” Nonetheless, I think there’s a case to be made that these absences account for the dearth of emotionalism in the films.