Released in 1979 from New World Pictures, the film initially received mixed reviews from critics. Over the years, later reviews were more favourable regarding the film and it has since developed a cult following.
Psychotherapist Hal Raglan runs the Somafree Institute where he performs a technique called "psychoplasmics", encouraging patients with mental disturbances to let go of their suppressed emotions through physiological changes to their bodies. One of his patients is Nola Carveth, a severely disturbed woman who is legally embattled with her husband Frank for custody of their five-year-old daughter Candice. When Frank discovers bruises and scratches on Candice following a visit with Nola, he informs Raglan of his intent to stop visitation rights. Wanting to protect his patient, Raglan begins to intensify the sessions with Nola to resolve the issue quickly. During the therapy sessions, Raglan discovers that Nola was physically and verbally abused by her self-pitying alcoholic mother, and neglected by her co-dependent alcoholic father, who refused to protect Nola out of shame and denial. Meanwhile, Frank, intending to invalidate Raglan's methods, questions Jan Hartog, a former Somafree patient dying of psychoplasmic-induced lymphoma.
Frank leaves Candice with her grandmother Juliana, and the two spend the evening viewing old photographs; Juliana informs Candice that Nola was frequently hospitalized as a child, and often exhibited strange unexplained wheals on her skin that doctors were unable to diagnose. While returning to the kitchen, Juliana is attacked and bludgeoned to death by a small, dwarf-like child. Candice is traumatized, but otherwise unharmed.
Juliana's estranged husband Barton returns for the funeral, and attempts to contact Nola at Somafree, but Raglan turns him away. Frank invites his daughter's teacher Ruth Mayer home for dinner to discuss Candice, but Barton interrupts with a drunken phone call from Juliana's home, demanding that they both go to Somafree in force to see Nola. Frank leaves to console Barton, leaving Candice in Ruth's care. While he is away, Ruth accidentally answers a phone call from Nola, who, recognizing her voice, insults her and angrily warns her to stay away from her family. Frank arrives to find Barton murdered by the same deformed dwarf-child, who dies after attempting to kill Frank.
The police autopsy reveals a multitude of bizarre anatomical anomalies: the creature is asexual, supposedly color-blind, naturally toothless, and devoid of a navel, indicating no known means of natural human birth. After the murder story reaches the newspapers, Raglan reluctantly acknowledges that the murders coincide with the sessions relating to their respective topics. He closes Somafree and sends his patients to municipal care with the exception of Nola.
When Candice returns to school, two dwarf children attack and kill Ruth in front of her class, and abscond with Candice to Somafree. Frank is alerted of the closure of Somafree by Hartog. Mike, one of the patients forced to leave the institute tells Frank that Nola is Raglan's "queen bee" and in charge of some "disturbed children" in a property work shed. Frank immediately ventures to Somafree. Raglan tells him the truth about the dwarf children: they are the accidental product of Nola's psychoplasmic sessions; Nola's rage about her abuse was so strong that she parthenogenetically bore a brood of children who psychically respond and act on the targets of her rage with Nola completely unaware of their actions. Realizing the brood are too dangerous to keep anymore, Raglan plots to venture into their quarters and rescue Candice, provided that Frank can keep Nola calm to avoid provoking the children.
Frank attempts a feigned rapprochement long enough for Raglan to collect Candice, but when he witnesses Nola give birth to another child through a psychoplasmically-induced external womb, she notices his disgust. The brood awakens and kills Raglan. Nola then threatens to kill Candice rather than lose her. The brood goes after her, Candice hides in a closet, but the brood begins to break through the door and try to grab Candice. In desperation, Frank chokes Nola to death, and the brood dies without its mother's psychic connection. Frank carries Candice back to his car and they drive off, but it is hinted that the events she endured result in the same phenomenon her mother experienced: a pair of small bumps are seen growing on her arm.Oliver Reed – Dr. Hal Raglan
Samantha Eggar – Nola Carveth
Art Hindle – Frank Carveth
Nuala Fitzgerald – Juliana Kelly
Susan Hogan – Ruth Mayer
Gary McKeehan – Mike Trellan
Cindy Hinds – Candice Carveth
Harry Beckman – Barton Kelly
Nicholas Campbell - Chris
Michael Magee – Inspector
Robert A. Silverman – Jan Hartog
The Brood was filmed in Toronto and Mississauga, Ontario, on a budget of C$1,500,000. It was a financial success, and executive producer Victor Solnicki (who also produced Cronenberg's Scanners and Videodrome) called it his favorite Cronenberg picture. Cronenberg called it the most classic horror film he did, and, together with The Fly and Dead Ringers, one of his most autobiographical. At the time The Brood was developed, Cronenberg fought for custody of his daughter from his first marriage.
This was the first film scored by composer Howard Shore. Shore has written the music for all but one of Cronenberg's subsequent films.
The Brood had cuts demanded for its theatrical release in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom. Actress Samantha Eggar conceived of the idea of licking the new fetuses that her character Nola Carveth has spawned. "I just thought that when cats have their kittens or dogs have puppies (and I think at that time I had about 8 dogs), they lick them as soon as they’re born. Lick, lick, lick, lick, lick…," Eggar said.
However, when the climactic scene was censored, Cronenberg responded: "I had a long and loving close-up of Samantha licking the fetus […] when the censors, those animals, cut it out, the result was that a lot of people thought she was eating her baby. That's much worse than I was suggesting." The US MGM DVD and UK Anchor Bay DVD, as well as the Criterion Collection Blu-ray feature the uncensored version, while most other releases feature the shorter version.
Reviews of The Brood were generally mixed to positive. Despite this, the film holds a 'fresh' rating of 78% on aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 7/10 based on 18 reviews. While Variety called it "an extremely well made, if essentially unpleasant shocker", Leonard Maltin reviewed the film in two sentences: "Eggar eats her own afterbirth while midget clones beat grandparents and lovely young schoolteachers to death with mallets. It's a big, wide, wonderful world we live in!" and rated it an outright "BOMB". Roger Ebert called it "a bore" and "disgusting in ways that are not entertaining", and even went as far as asking, "Are there really people who want to see reprehensible trash like this?" In Cult Movies, Danny Peary, who openly disapproves of Shivers and Rabid, calls The Brood "Cronenberg's best film" because "we care about the characters", and, although he dislikes the ending, "an hour and a half of absorbing, solid cinema". In his An Introduction to the American Horror Film, critic Robin Wood views The Brood as a reactionary work portraying feminine power as irrational and horrifying, and the dangerous attempts of Oliver Reed's character's psychoanalysis as an analogue to the dangers of trying to undo repression in society.
The Brood was listed #88 on the "Chicago Film Critics Association's 100 Scariest Movies of All-Time". In 2004, one of its sequences was voted #78 among the "100 Scariest Movie Moments" by the Bravo Channel.
In mid-2013, The Criterion Collection added The Brood, as well as Scanners, to their selection of films available to Hulu and iTunes customers. On July 15, 2015, the Criterion Collection announced a Blu-ray and DVD release of The Brood slated for October 13, 2015.
In 2009, Spyglass Entertainment announced a remake from a script by Cory Goodman, to be directed by Breck Eisner. Eisner left the project in 2010.