David Cronenberg is known for his wacky yet intelligent style, and this film is no exception. It hits you in the gut right from the start, in a disorienting spotlight-centered scene, with a broad-shouldered Oliver Reed sitting on a stage talking to a heavily bearded man. He is acting as if he were his father, and the bearded-man is looking down, not wanting to look his father in the eyes; he tells him he was meant to be born a woman, and the parental smite continues through a series of ill-spoken dialogues. This is therapy; to be more specific, psycho-plasmic therapy, or it could also be called somatic. The bearded-man grows nasty pores on his skin. This is Doctor Hal Raglan’s therapy, played by Oliver Reed, and it is the key premise that destroys the lives of the characters. But it wasn’t them, originally. The therapy works by expressing past traumas, re-living hatred with the Doctor as the subject; he plays the role of a patients mother, father, or anyone who has caused them harm.
Frank Carveth, (Art Hindle), leads a construction business and has a five-year old daughter. The movie starts with Frank’s concern that his daughter, Candice, is being mistreated by her mother, Nola Carveth, on her weekend visits. He wants to file charges, but first speaks to the doctor; he is not willing to accept that the mother beat the child. Then, a series of family-related murders occur in Frank’s wifes’ family. These are all murders of aggression, but by strange child-like people; when one is caught, it has no sexual organs nor a belly button: What are these? This is the question that is trying to be answered by Frank, and he attempts to infiltrate the secrets involved in the Doctor’s psycho-plasma techniques.
The movie is tense, frightening, and intellectually satisfying. We get the sense that Cronenberg is making a commentary on psychology, but what? The world is a long row of dominoes that tip on account of ill-remembered feelings? This point seems to be slammed home in several ways, where humans are subjected to violence in a traumatic manner.
The final shot of the film is a classic wrap-up, an assumption of trait and consequence; If you’ve seen it, you have felt the punch. Nola Carveth’s father says in the film that it is sad that Frank and Nola have to deal with the same things he and his wife dealt with; that is an ode to the idea that we don’t have our own lives, but instead they are shaped by who we interact with, or more precisely, who we are raised by. An eerie voyage into childhood psychology and one of Cronenberg’s greatest accomplishments.