The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

TAX SHELTERS, MUTANT CHILDREN, and EXPLODING HEADS: A Brief Look at David Cronenberg and Canada in the late 1970s.

The following blog post was guest-written by Frida volunteer and all-around cool guy Gabriel Neeb.

“A couple weeks before we started shooting Rabid, he came up to us, and he had dreamed up The Brood over the weekend or something, and had written a treatment. And he basically came to us begging not to do Rabid, but to do The Brood instead. And we all went ‘This is crazy! You’ve got people growing out of shoulders and stuff. No Way!’”

-Don Carmody, producer, Rabid and Shivers

  “He” was Canadian director David Cronenberg. In this case, the cooler heads of the producers prevailed and filming on Rabid went ahead in November 1976, for its April 1977 release to profitable box office numbers and good, and bad, reviews. Starring Marilyn Chambers, an actress known for pornographic films like Behind the Green Door, Rabid was the story of a woman injured in a motorcycle accident, that receives an experimental plastic surgery treatment resulting in her development of a parasite that subsists on blood and spreads to other citizens of Montreal. 

Figure 1 LA Times 06 July 1977

With the success of Rabid, and his earlier film, Shivers, surely David Cronenberg would make The Brood his next film.

CAPITAL COST ALLOWANCE

Before I continue, I have to talk about the Capital Cost Allowance. (I imagine many of you are already thinking about clicking over to Facebook or cat pictures, I’ll try not to take too much time, and for the three or four accountants reading this, I hope I don’t mangle the terms and concepts I’m going to spend the next hundred or so words talking about). Because Canada is an English speaking country, located next to an extremely rich English speaking country with the world’s most robust film industry, its modest film industry is always in danger of being subsumed by its larger neighbor to the south. In 1975, seeking to pump money into its film industry, Canada created a tax loophole that allowed 100% of all money invested into Canadian films to avoid taxes. This was called the Capital Cost Allowance and led to an era informally referred to as the “tax shelter years.” 

For example, if a doctor had a great year and ended up with a million dollars, he could avoid taxes on the money and invest it all in a movie. If he was savvy, he could pay himself a producer’s fee, and if the movie happened to be a hit… his investment could return several times the first million. 

This ended up creating a few good movies and lots of terrible ones. While there were a few notable films like The Changeling or Prom Night, they were exceeded by films like Circle of Two or Crackers. To the best of my knowledge, no film society has ever hosted a festival dedicated to the “tax shelter” films of 1975 to 1982. Thus was born, “Canuckxploitation.”

…………………..

“Strange as it may seem, I don’t think I was getting offered anything at that time! [post-Rabid]”

In this era, David Cronenberg found himself as the director of a drag racing movie called Fast Company, starring John Saxon. This is considered David Cronenberg’s first “tax shelter” production. It is also regarded as the least Cronenbergian film David Cronenberg has ever been involved in. He took the job as it seemed well-funded enough, and because he could work out of Toronto, although the film ended up being shot in Alberta.

Fast Company is the strange aberration in Cronenberg’s oeuvre, because it is a tonally normal film. It’s very entertaining, but if you’re expecting the force of his earlier or later films, you’ll be disappointed. However, from this film Cronenberg would meet cinematographer Mark Irwin (who would shoot many of Cronenberg’s next films), editor Ronald Sanders (who has edited every Cronenberg film since except The Brood), and art director Carol Spier (who would design almost every one of Cronenberg’s films since). Cronenberg regards Fast Company as a positive experience, even though, due to the circumstances beyond his control, it almost never received a proper release when the distributor went bankrupt and was lost in subsequent asset litigation (its availability today is due to DVD and blu-ray releases by Blue Underground).     

SHAPE OF RAGE

“I couldn’t write the script I was supposed to because The Brood kept coming.”

Between shooting Rabid and Fast Company, David Cronenberg had two years of limited directorial work, and he spent that time fine-tuning the script for The Brood. Working in the upstairs of the house purchased with earnings from Rabid, Cronenberg kept working on the script for The Brood, neglecting the script that would serve as the basis for Scanners that he was also working on.  

Cronenberg has stated that catharsis is the basis of all art. Although Cronenberg had been working on the script since the mid-1970s, he directly attributes the final version to the experiences wrought from his divorce in 1979, and has referred to the film as “my version of Kramer vs Kramer.”- the Best Picture winner from 1979 (awarded in early 1980). Cronenberg states that the fuel for the film arose from his ex-wife telling Cronenberg, over the phone, that she was leaving Canada that very day with their daughter, Cassandra, and going to live with a religious group in California. David immediately withdrew (“It wasn’t really kidnapping, but we were still sharing custody.”) his daughter from school, sought and received a court order preventing her from taking Cassandra. 

The Brood is the story of Frank Carveth (played by Art Hindle), locked in a brutal child custody battle with his estranged wife, Nola (played by Samantha Eggar) who is currently under the care of Dr. Raglan (played by Oliver Reed) in the Somafree Institute and is undergoing an experimental therapy called “psychoplasmics.” Against this situation, Frank soon finds himself and his daughter being afflicted by child-sized creatures that soon kidnap the daughter and kill anyone that gets in their way. Of course, Frank begins to suspect there is a link between Dr. Raglan, these creatures, and Nola.

Filming began immediately after Fast Company was completed. The performances are generally lauded, though Samantha Eggar later considered The Brood “the strangest and most repulsive film I’ve ever done.” The creatures which drive the main terror, the “broodniks,” were unique cases. Played by female gymnasts–for the background–and little people in make-up for the foreground (including Felix Silla–who would go on to play the robot Twiki in the Buck Rogers TV show in the 1980s), make-up prep took three hours and was designed and created by JackYoung and Dennis Pike.

Budgeted at $1.5 million, The Brood was released to 400 theaters in North America in Summer 1979. This was Cronenberg’s widest release yet, although he later felt that it was due to a misleading advertising campaign which eschewed the complex family dynamics for the phantasmagoric spectacle. This is attributed to Roger Corman and his company, New World Pictures. Oddly, Cronenberg and Corman might have met years earlier, but Corman was having dental work done, so that meeting was cancelled.

Figure 2 LA Times 08 June 1979

Cronenberg has come to describe The Brood as “the most classic Horror film I’ve done: the circular structure, generation unto generation, the idea that you think it’s over and then suddenly you realize it’s just starting again.”   

The Brood was not without controversy. In its original released form, assorted film boards of North America and Europe demanded certain segments be deleted, specifically some frames of one of the final shots of Nola “caring” for one of the broodniks. 

“I could kill the censors for their narrow-mindedness and stupidity! Talk about rage!” The irony being that, “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 what I was suggesting. What we’re talking about here is an image that’s not sexual, not violent, just gooey-gooey and disturbing…why cut it out? It fucks the whole movie as far as I’m concerned.” 

The deleted seconds, are available on the Criterion DVD and blu-ray release of The Brood, and will be shown on September 25. 

THE SENSITIVES

David Cronenberg was supposed to have been working on a script for a project called The Sensitives while he wrote The Brood. Finally, he delivered his script to producer Victor Solnicki, and Solnicki’s new production company, Filmplan International Inc. Hot off the success of The Brood, and flush with tax shelter financing, the script, now titled Scanners, received a $4 million budget.

Scanners had been an idea that existed in various forms since the 1970s, when it started as “Telepathy 2000,” was written as “The Sensitives” for a while, until it finally coalesced as Scanners. It was initially about artificially created telepaths led by a charismatic leader.

Before I go any further, Scanners is this movie:

Yeah, it’s the movie where the dude’s head explodes. If you’re on the internet, as you are, and if you’ve never heard of David Cronenberg, Scanners, or even movies, you know this image. And since we’re in an election year, you might experience this.

Since Scanners was set to be the first film of a new production company, and needing to take advantage of tax shelter money’s availability (due to weird tax requirements, many tax shelter movies ended up being filmed in the winter), production began quickly. As in, the film was shooting within two week of approval, without a finished script. And it showed, Cronenberg has said, “Inevitably the first day was the most disastrous shooting day I’ve ever had. We went out and there was nothing to shoot. Nothing was there: we didn’t have the truck; we didn’t have the insignia on the building; we didn’t have the costume for Stephen Lack.”

The production continued in a similar vein. Actors were struck with the kind of challenges actors endure, they were sent the wrong scripts and reacted poorly. And there was the ever present pressure to finish the film by December 31 in order to reap full tax shelter benefits. 

Then there was the exploding head. It was created by Chris Walas, who would go on to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark for Lucasfilm Ltd, and attracted the attention of the MPAA who threatened Scanners with a ‘X’ rating. Cronenberg responded by moving the sequence further into the film instead of opening with it as originally planned, and trimming a few frames. 

Cronenberg was very satisfied with the head, and even with the shooting. The make-up crew shot the sequence three times, but Cronenberg only stayed for one- he got the take he wanted, and took a nap. 

As required by the demands of tax shelter requirements, the production finished quickly, although second unit photography continued for about two months, and post-production- where a film is molded into its final form- lasted nine months.

Filmplan liked the final product. For their significant investment, they wanted a strong releasing partner, and made a deal with Avco Embassy to secure a release in January 1981. Below is the full page ad placed in the Los Angeles Times for Scanners’ opening day.

Figure 3 LA Times 16 January 1981

To the credit of Filmplan, this tactic worked. Released on January 16, 1981, Scanners would gross $14 million and spawn a series of sequels and spin-offs, none of which provided Cronenberg with any money. Since he didn’t have a film lawyer, and wasn’t interested in directing Scanners II, he never saw proceeds from the series. However, the success of Scanners, and the artistic impact of his films to this point, did provide him with a higher artistic profile and further opportunities in the film world.

Scanners and The Brood play at the Tustin Mess Hall this Friday, the 25th of September.

For more information follow this link:

Tickets can be purchased here:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/scanners-and-the-brood-double-feature-the-frida-cinema-drive-in-dine-out-tickets-121099111703

Works Cited:

Vatnsdal, Caelum. They Came from within a History of Canadian Horror Cinema. Arbeiter Ring Publ., 2014. 

Rodley, Chris. Cronenberg on Cronenberg. Faber and Faber, 1993. 

Peary, Danny. Cult Movies. Dell Publishing, 1981. 

Box Office Information on Scanners:

https://www.boxofficemojo.com/title/tt0081455/?ref_=bo_se_r_1

Cuts to The Brood:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078908/alternateversions?tab=cz&ref_=tt_trv_alt