Saturday, October 13, 2007

CCS at SPX, SpiderBaby Halloween Horrors I

Just a quick reminder that The Center for Cartoon Studies is a real presence at the Bethesda, MD SPX convention today! It's the only place in the world you can pick up my new creation (the six-page story "Tenderfoot") in the new CCS anthology Dead Man's Hand, but more importantly the CCSers are out in force with their new work.

Allow me one more time to steer you to
  • the official SPX website.

  • CCS
    will be at table W22, near the door and registration table, and I Know Joe Kimpel has a table on the floor, too, as does JP Coovert, Stephen Floyd and Joe Lambert's imprint, One Percent Press, at booth H1.

  • One Percent Press has its own website, here.

  • For those who can't be there, I'll be posting followup ASAP, as information, art, links etc. are made available.
  • Dead Man's Hand has a website, here.

  • If you're there, check 'em out, please! A new generation of cartoonists are sharing their visions, pick 'em up!

    It's October, Halloween is a'comin' in, and I feel the need to share with you some of my personal favorites among the countless horror films I've savored over the decades.

    Understand, for me, the genre has always served a vital function. From the tender age of four and five, when I saw films like the Korda Brothers's The Thief of Bagdad, Eugene Lourie's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Gordon Douglas's Them! (the 'holy trinity' of my formative years) repeatedly on television (The Early Show on Channel 8 out of Poland Springs, Maine), I felt I'd found a secret map to something magical and important. The fantastique spoke to me in secret languages, and often did so with more clarity, honesty and integrity than any other kind of cinema. Horror films above all did so with a power I could not shake and eagerly embraced. I've spent my life -- and it's been a good life, thus far -- steeped in all the horror cinema I could see, reach, find and experience. Here's a few of my personal favorites, films that have been touchstones for me over the years. There's many others I haven't time or inclination to share in the short time between now and Halloween 2007, but I'll return to the 'list' from time to time in the coming year.

    Let me begin with a film I first experienced as an adult, about 25 years ago, and which remains among the most truly adult of all horror films. It's also a film which never fails to move me deeply whenever I revisit it, in part for reasons I shall get into here...

    SpiderBaby Faves:
    David Cronenberg's The Brood

    David Cronenberg, as he looked two decades ago

    I caught David Cronenberg's latest feature, the extraordinary Eastern Promises, two weeks ago, which prompted my revisiting an earlier Cronenberg favorite -- and my thoughts on that classic kicks off my Halloween season overview of personal favorite horror films.

    To my mind, David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979) is his first masterpiece.His debut commercial feature -- Shivers, aka They Came From Within (1976) -- still packs a wallop three decades later, as it did on first viewing; and his second commercial feature, Rabid (1977), isn't too shabby either. Rabid was the first theatrical film I recall seeing (in the long-defunct theater on Blackwell Street in downtown Dover, NJ, where I was attending the Joe Kubert School) that really got to me on a physical level: once Marilyn Chambers was on the prowl, but Cronenberg had yet to reveal what that -- thing -- was turning her every embrace into a feeding process, my body responded to the unease (dis-ease?) the film generated with waves of involuntary shudders. This was new to me: the film was plugging in on a cellular level. The Brood took that to a whole new level, and I was a Cronenberg convert for life thereafter.

    Attention all Marvel zombies! Forget the Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum 'brood' from the early 1980s The Uncanny X-Men comics...

    Prior to his breakthrough commercial shockers, Cronenberg had begun charting his unique brand of imaginative, speculative and decidedly intimate science-fiction/horror in a pair of odd semi-underground features, Stereo and Crimes of the Future. Whereas those films were austere, narratively defused and emotionally sterile, and Shivers and Rabid were obsessively consumed by their multi-character mini-apocalyptic scenarios, The Brood brought a new focus to Cronenberg's transgressive scenarios. The Brood depicted a more personalized apocalypse, and it was all too human in every way -- ugly, beautiful, touching, terrifying, sorrowful, and ultimately unflinching in its exploration of the depths and extremes of human need, pain, anger and love.'s David Cronenberg's Brood, pre-dating Claremont's Alien ripoff -- and a far greater horror!

    Make no mistake, silly as its central conceit may seem if articulated outside of Cronenberg's carefully-crafted narrative, The Brood is a profoundly potent horror film -- among the best and, sadly, least-screened of all Cronenberg's works. Dominated by autumnal and winter Canadian suburbs and countrysides appropriate to the film's soul, comfortable only for the snow-suit wearing titular brood itself, The Brood also established a union of emotional and environmental landscapes instrumental to all Cronenberg's subsequent work. It was one this native New Englander responded to with more fidelity than the insular apartment complex of Shivers or martial law urban horrors of Rabid; those were alien environs for me. The Brood spoke directly to me like no other Cronenberg film -- and curiously prepared me for the dire family issues that would dominate my own home life in the 1990s.

    For me, The Brood's power only grew in later life. It became the most personally affecting of all Cronenberg films in hindsight and subsequent re-viewings. A few years after my first wife Marlene (then named Nancy) and I first saw The Brood at the (now defunct and long gone) Deerfield Drive-In (in Deerfield, MA), our family life was ravaged by her reawakened memories of sexual abuse she had suffered as a child and teenager. Our lives were irrevocably shaken, turned upside-down and inside-out.

    The Brood: Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) bathes his daughter (Cindy Hinds) after her visit with her mother, and is horrified to find evidence of physical abuse

    While we quickly found the professional help she needed, there were precious few anchors or life buoys in that stormy sea for myself as Marlene's partner, husband, lover, friend, and as our children's father -- there were no support groups, no community network, and for the first year I could not even tell friends what we were dealing with. I felt utterly alone. We all came through that ordeal, reinvented ourselves in the process, and remain close friends to this day, but it was an agonizing process.

    Not to in any way trivialize that terrible reality of those years and its consequences for all of us, I have to acknowledge the import The Brood carried in the wake of those revelations and the very tough years that followed. Books like Allies in Healing (which was, in fact, the only book available to someone in my position at that time) and intensive shared therapy sessions helped enormously, but only went so far in recognizing and coping with my own confusion, sorrow and rage, which found its mirror in Cronenberg's strange masterwork. Horror films heal, too, in part by positing more extreme (and hence more concrete) metaphoric mirrors of emotional terrain that is too treacherous and/or traumatizing in life to initially grasp. By adhering to his own coda of his art -- "speak the unspeakable, show the unshowable" -- Cronenberg vicariously (and quite directly) addressed that in my own life I was for a time not permitted to speak of, and thus was unable to communicate or articulate. Somehow, Cronenberg's cinematic externalization of his trauma gave me one more tool to deal with my own situation: one facet of the power of art. (Note, too, that Marlene's key tool amid this tortuous process was the creation of her own artwork, which was from the beginning a real lifeline; some of her work from this period was published in Taboo.)

    When I first saw the film, however, I had no idea all this lay beneath the surface of our own life together, much less what lay ahead for us -- and I vividly recall my first impressions, sans the future personal associations, and the grip The Brood held upon me.

    As if any writeup can recover from that personal a bombshell in this context, let me return to discussing The Brood as a movie, specifically as a Cronenberg film. Though there's no feces-like venereal parasites slithering about or phallic blood-drinking organs sprouting from someone's armpit in The Brood, the film is no less disturbing or horrific for that. Yes, there are 'monsters' -- the snowsuit-wearing mongrel brood are among the most chilling 'bad children' in cinema -- and there is blood... a lot of blood. But terrible as the overt horrors onscreen, it's the emotional wounds, damage and repercussions The Brood charts that cut deeper than ever before. For the first time, Cronenberg was tapping deeper nerves and matters of the heart in ways he would not approach again until the grand guignol heartbreak of The Fly.

    If anything, The Brood marked the maturation of writer/director Cronenberg. It is wholly original and unlike any film before it, completely transcending the somewhat imitative aspects of Shivers (derivative, in structure and some imagery, of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead) and Rabid (derivative of Romero's The Crazies aka Code Name: Trixie) and drawing from far, far more personal emotional turf than any Cronenberg film before (or, arguably, after).

    Censorship cuts for most North American markets during the film's original theatrical release made this key sequence much nastier than it is in the film's full narrative context -- which I won't give away here!

    Cronenberg was on the rebound from a particularly volatile marriage breakdown, and he allowed The Brood to manifest many of the negative emotions and experiences from that terrible family situation. In doing so, he also anticipated the societal zeitgeist of the coming two decades.

    The Brood uses one of Cronenberg's most potent metaphoric materializations of transformation and internal rage (in fact, a fictional book entitled The Shape of Rage is central to the film) to explore the generational shock waves of child abuse in a more direct manner than any film of its era. There had been exploitation films before The Brood tapping the subject for its shock value -- Hammer Film's reviled, rarely-seen but really quite good Never Take Sweets From a Stranger and Sam Fuller's marvelous, infamous The Naked Kiss in the early '60s, '70s borderline-adult films like Toys Are Not For Children and Matt Cimber's still-shocking The Witch Who Came From the Sea, etc. -- but no filmmaker had explored this dangerous emotional turf with any gravity or consequence.

    Exploration is a world away from exploitation, mind you; Cronenberg was exploring, not exploiting, and doing so with every tool at his disposal. Not until the Canadian TV docudrama The Boys of St. Vincent and Tim Roth's directorial debut The War Zone would another film unreeling in North American theaters dare to so potently confront the devastation wrought by child abuse -- though Cronenberg does it, of course, in a far... uh, more biological manner than any filmmaker before or since.

    Family ties: The Brood attacks Candance (Cindy Hinds)

    As Cronenberg was fond of pointing out in the '80s, the popular drama Kramer vs. Kramer was in theaters as The Brood opened. Both dramatize the repercussions of separation and divorce, but while Kramer vs. Kramer curried Academy Awards and mass acceptance by soft-pedaling its core issues as pop soap opera culminating in a traditional courtroom climax, mediated by all the legal trappings of that civilized realm, The Brood charts its family tragedy across generational lines to no comfortable resolution. It's an aggressive, angry, messy film in polar opposition to Kramer vs. Kramer's niceties. It also pulls together its seemingly unrelated narrative threads into one of the most mind-bending (and, for some, nauseating) climaxes of its era. No, I've already said too much -- and don't go reading online reviews. The less you know before you watch, the better!

    The Brood: The Cronenberg 'hero' adrift: Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) confronts Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed, left) with news of his daughter's abuse

    The Brood also boasts the first dimensional characterizations and performances in Cronenberg's body of work, which is now studded with many bravura performances in films like The Fly, Dead Ringer (which should have earned Jeremy Irons his Academy Award, rather the following year's "safer" Reversal of Fortune, a fact Irons himself acknowledged while accepting his Oscar), A History of Violence and his latest, Eastern Promises. The Brood is saddled with yet another ineffectual male hero (a staple of Cronenberg's first quartet of films) -- though here, the protagonist's inability to function, to engage, to change or shape or ultimately deal with events, is key to the narrative and film's ultimate point (and oh, how that stings every time I see the film, having experienced similar powerlessness in the grip of our own family crisis). Samantha Eggar's disturbed matriarch of the titular 'brood' is an unforgettable character -- that said, many critics (Robin Wood prominent among them) considered the role inherently misogynistic, though upon repeated viewings it's hard to fathom such a one-dimensional dismissal of Eggar's remarkable character and performance.

    The Brood: Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) cradles Candace (Cindy Hinds) and cold steel

    The most affecting turn, surprisingly enough, comes from vet British thespian Oliver Reed's central 'mad doctor' Raglan, whose radical theories of 'psychoplasmics' are the true mother of the film's horrors. Reed, renowned for his many roles in 1960s Hammer Films (Paranoiac, Captain Clegg/The Night Creatures, Curse of the Werewolf, etc.) and 1970s breakthrough parts for director Ken Russell (Women in Love, Tommy, and best of all The Devils), works quiet wonders under Cronenberg's direction. The synthesis of writer/director and performer steers Raglan and our reactions to the character into unexpected terrain, lending cumulative gravity to what is, after all, among the most genuinely tragic of all horror films. Reed lends Raglan a fierce male intelligence that resonates uncannily with the almost feral maternal intensity of Eggar's 'queen bee.' Once Cronenberg moves his cunning tale to its chilling final act, the sparks between the characters and frightening immediacy of its one-of-a-kind climax moves all involved -- and the viewer -- in mysterious and shockingly primal ways.

    Technically, The Brood was also the most polished of the director's films to that point, and to me the far more successful (in boxoffice terms) Scanners was a step backward. Now-veteran Cronenberg collaborators were firing on all cylinders here -- Carol Spier's art direction, Howard Shore's musical score (which is brilliant), etc. -- and most of the folks who worked on The Brood have remained steadfast creative collaborators on all Cronenberg's films since, right up to Eastern Promises. This is where it all began to really click, the fusion and fission point.

    The original New World ad campaign art (UK promo, but the US campaign was identical) failed miserably to express anything about the film, the title or its content.

    Alas, the usually dependable showman Roger Corman had no idea how to market Cronenberg's confrontational, offbeat shocker. Acquired by New World Pictures -- Corman's experienced hard-sell supplier of drive-ins, nabes (indy neighborhood theaters) and grindhouses which had fanned Rabid into a hit with its potent advertising campaign that bought Cronenberg the added commercial clout to up the ante with the higher-profile cast of The Brood -- the film tanked when it opened. Clueless as to how to sell its titular menace, and unwilling to build its promo around the adult content fueling the film, posters and ads featuring shapeless blog-like sacs with glowing eyes understandably failed to draw audiences. The key promo and poster art looked like a tawdry knockoff of the ad art for John Frankenheimer's risible mutant bear opus Prophecy from a year or so earlier. The Brood was one of New World's few commercial flops, alongside Monte Hellmen's Cockfighter aka Born to Kill and Larry Cohen's similarly tough-to-market (and, if anything, even more subversive) God Told Me To, aka Demon.

    UK DVD packaging incorporating the original 1979 promotional art, as did the US videocassettes and laser discs.

    Even eager Cronenberg fans like me -- yes, his cult was growing by '79 -- were hard-pressed to find a theater showing the film, which many caught on second-run as a companion feature to more marketable (and safe) New World fare. That's when Marlene and I saw it at the drive-in about 1981, around the time the Boston alternative arts newspaper critics were (among the first) championing the film, and it gradually gained the reputation it always deserved, though it remains rarely screened.

    None of the films' various home video releases -- not video, not laserdisc, nor DVD -- have mounted a better sales campaign. All featured the same amorphous graphics the lousy posters sported, or a poor substitute, despite Cronenberg's much higher profile since The Fly and Naked Lunch and the film's incredibly provocative, rich imagery. Hell, just a shot of the Brood in their snowsuits would have done a better job (echoing as they do the red-garbed spectral child of Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now), or the most frequently seen still of Candace in the grip of the brood's bloodied hands breaking through a door. Neither image gives away too much, either is preferable to the amorphous Glad-bag birthsac, taloned hands and glowing eyes. Thankfully, the cover art for the most recent US DVD release (below) is far more effective, though it still communicates nothing of the film's imagery, content or power.

    The Brood is a film ripe for rediscovery, and essential viewing for adventurous viewers, horror fans and Cronenberg devotees. Make it part of your Halloween seasonal viewing this month -- you won't be disappointed.

    The current US DVD cover art, the packaging to look for!

  • SPOILER ALERT --- For the best online analysis of The Brood I've read to date, click on this link -- though beware, major spoilers! Just looking at the site will give away too much, trust me. I recommend you see the film first -- but if you've already seen it, this is a terrific essay.

  • I especially urge you to see the original before the damned inevitable remake hits screens -- here's the first news on that -- as noted, The Brood is among the most personal of all Cronenberg's films, so the thought of a remake truly rankles!

  • More SpiderBaby Halloween Horror Faves to Follow... have a great weekend!

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