This is an excerpt from Kier-La Janisse’s book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press).
Let’s go back to the official definition of hysteria: ‘the bodily expression of unspeakable distress’. In genre films, this is where things get most interesting. In David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Art Hindle stars as Frank Carveth, the exasperated husband of Nola (Samantha Eggar), a neurotic woman who’s checked herself into the Somafree Institute for experimental therapy with Dr. Hal Raglan (screen titan Oliver Reed, also of The Devils). Raglan, the author of a popular self-help book called The Shape of Rage is the proponent of an unconventional psychotherapeutic method called ‘psychoplasmics’, in which past traumas, when discussed openly, manifest themselves in the form of sores and abrasions on the patient’s body as the trauma is being ‘expelled’. A very literal take on Freud’s ‘talking cure’ through which hysterical patients could be cured by confronting the thing making them ill (which is still the foundation for psychological treatment today), and an exaggeration of common stress-induced hives or rashes, psychoplasmics is nonetheless a dangerous game. Because what Nola is expelling from her body during these sessions aren’t just toxins – they’re repository rage monsters. Faceless children who kill all those who have ever hurt her.
While Frank isn’t hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife, he is concerned that her therapy is having a negative emotional effect on their young daughter, Candy, who is becoming increasingly antisocial and despondent following every visit with her mother. After one such visit, Candy comes home with bruises, and Frank becomes more determined to keep the child away from her mother. But, as Dr. Raglan asserts, access to the child is key to Nola’s recuperation, and at that time (1979) awarding sole custody to the father without access to the mother was practically unheard of and not likely to occur in Frank’s favour. The film is notoriously referred to as ‘Cronenberg’s Kramer Vs. Kramer’, and is inspired by his own custody battle with his ex-wife, who joined a religious cult in California and was planning to take their daughter Cassandra with her, before Cronenberg kidnapped the child and got a court order that prevented the ex-wife from taking Cassandra away.
As with many of Cronenberg’s outlandish ideas, carrying them off often comes down to the performance, and Samantha Eggar pulls it off with gusto, equally threatening and oblivious. The therapy sequences in which Raglan draws out her past trauma are as frightening as the film’s more overtly horrific set pieces; reverting to a childhood state, Nola reveals that anger at her husband is not the only thing fuelling her neurosis – beatings by her alcoholic mother have never been addressed. But her real anger is reserved for her father, the parent she loves the most, but who she feels abandoned her at those crucial moments: ‘You shouldn’t have looked away when she hit me. You pretended it wasn’t happening. You looked away… didn’t you love me?’
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