Rabid (2019): “mutating to its heart’s content”

While writing his 1977 film Rabid, David Cronenberg had a crisis of confidence. In Chris Rodley’s book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, he remembers saying to his producer John Dunning:

…I just woke up this morning and realised this is ridiculous. Do you know what this movie’s about? This woman grows a cock thing in her armpit and sucks people’s blood through it. It’s ridiculous! I can’t do this. It’s not going to work.

He pushed through it, obviously, but it’s true that the premise of Rabid is a strange one even by Cronenberg standards. The Soska sisters’ new remake – released on DVD and Blu-Ray by 101 Films – has even more creative anxiety to cope with, which is that Cronenberg’s weird armpit-penis-vampire movie has become a cult classic, that Cronenberg himself became one of the most original and challenging directors the horror genre has ever seen, and this is the first remake of one of his films. Frankly, it’s enough to send a woman on a flesh-eating rampage.

The Soskas deal with this quickly and irreverently, with an opening voiceover by pretentious fashion designer Gunther (a very fun performance by Mackenzie Gray) questioning why anyone would ever bother to repeat an idea. There’s also some neat doubling in the opening shot, panning from a glamorous billboard of a beautiful female motorcyclist to Laura Vandervoot’s mousy, stressed-out Rose in a similar pose. Cronenberg’s original can be read as a parable of female sexuality being simultaneously exploited and feared by men, a subtext strengthened by the fact that he cast legendary porn star Marilyn Chambers as his Rose. The Soskas have a lot to say about this in their remake, and casting the less notorious Vandervoot turns out to be the perfect way of saying it. Vandervoot’s Rose is a straight-laced career woman whose surgery turns her into a statuesque femme fatale, a tragic victim and a rampaging monster, all of which she carries off with ease. Without any weight of expectations or typecasting attached to her name, she can mutate to her heart’s content.

The film as a whole doesn’t always ring the changes that successfully. One of the narrative oddities of Rabid is that it’s both an intimate story of personal transformation and an apocalyptic story of social collapse. It’s a hard circle to square, and Cronenberg’s film essentially ends when one element cancels the other out. The Soskas’ version doesn’t manage to tie the two strands together, leaving the outbreak storyline dangling as it refocuses on Rose and her mutation. This would, admittedly, be a bigger problem if the outbreak didn’t resemble fairly standard zombie-movie business. It’s nasty enough – the Soska sisters have never been shy about catering to the gorehound audience – but the slavering infected are one-dimensional next to Rose’s gruesome glow-up.

Rose’s career in the fashion industry – as well as the modish, neon-lit cinematography by Kim Derko – recalls recent offbeat horrors by Nicolas Winding Refn and Peter Strickland, but it’s most fascinating as a window into the Soskas’ existential worldview. If Cronenberg is fascinated by what our bodies do to us, the Soskas are fascinated by what we do to our bodies. Their biggest previous hit, American Mary, was about the world of extreme body modification; this never goes as far as saying vampire mutations are chic right now, but the camera’s worship of the infected Rose opens it up as a potential reading. There is also a telling scene where Rose saves a runway show by tearing apart and reshaping a dress as unsentimentally as her plastic surgeons are reshaping her.

As well as the original film’s Dr. Dan Keloid – played here by Canadian character actor Stephen McHattie – Rose is also experimented on by the even madder scientist Dr. William Burroughs, his name an obvious nod to one of Cronenberg’s key influences. The original film’s social concerns are also built on, now including contemporary anxieties over vegetarianism, body image and transhumanism. It ends up as overload, but overload can be fun. In an age where the most commercially successful remakes are Disney’s cycle of software upgrades of their ’90s hits, the Soskas’ ambition to thoroughly reinvent their source deserves credit. If you’re going to remake a film by David Cronenberg, after all, you might as well let it evolve.

RABID (2019) IS OUT NOW ON BLU-RAY FROM 101 FILMS

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