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{Movie Review} Rabid: A Fresh Take on a Cronenberg Classic

While 2019 saw the release of several innovative horror films, including Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse and Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, just to name a few, it’s also a year that contained a string of remakes, from Child’s Play to Black Christmas. Add to that list the first remake of David Cronenberg’s work, Rabid. In the hands of the Soska Sisters, the film pays tribute to the original and its body horror themes, while at the same time offering a meditation on the nature of remakes in general and reinventing some key plot points to make the story relevant for today’s audience.

Whether or not we needed a remake of Cronenberg’s iconic film is debatable, but if it was going to be made, better that the project was given to Jen and Sylvia Soska, who have a deep appreciation for Cronenberg’s filmography and worked with some of his former crew members. The original film debuted in 1977 and stared adult film actress Marilyn Chambers as Rose, who undergoes an experimental procedure after a motorcycle accident. She then discovers a parasitic new organ in an orifice under her armpit, which gives her an appetite for blood that spreads to everyone she infects.

Photo Courtesy of Back 40 Pictures

In the new take, the Canadian twins generally maintain the same story line but push some new themes. Rose is played by Laura Vandervoort, an aspiring fashion designer with blotchy skin who was orphaned and left physically and emotionally scarred after her parents died in a car accident. From the outset, Rose is a sympathetic character and one of the real highlights of the film, especially in its first half. She is a shy outcast, mocked by her peers for her appearance and quiet demeanor.

By setting the film in the fashion industry, the sisters create a world of class division that’s generally absent from the original. Rose simply doesn’t fit in, which is best illustrated when she attends a party after work and the sleek fashionistas bump into her, as though she doesn’t exist. The bouncer struggles to find her name on a guest list that she put together as part of her job as an assistant. Two attendees, played by the twins in a quick cameo, are overheard calling Rose sad and weird.

After her face is horribly disfigured in a motorcycle accident, Rose undergoes a mysterious procedure that not only reconstructs her face but makes her beautiful in the eyes of everyone else. She becomes the desired belle of the ball. Vandervoort displays a range of emotions in the film, from reservation to confidence post-surgery. She, along with the practical effects, carry the film, especially the scenes shortly after the accident when she slowly removes the bandages and grimaces at her bloody, marred face and wired jaw. The film is not excessive in its gore, but the directors made the most of the $5 million budget. A little more gore would have been good, but alas, budget constraints.

Photo Courtesy of Back 40 Pictures

To add to the film’s uniqueness, the directors explore the nature and purpose of remakes in general. The first words spoken are by Gunter (Mackenzie Gray), a snobbish fashion industry boss who frequently belittles Rose. He says, “Why do we keep remaking old trends? How are we breathing new life into the old? Are we adding something new?” The Soska Sisters were wise to honor the initial film and Cronenberg’s work in general, including a scene with a swimming pool that resembles the conclusion of Shivers. On the other hand, they bring something new to the table through a reinvention of Rose’s character and an exploration of class themes. Furthermore, their version has a drastically different conclusion that works for the story that they wanted to tell, namely how Rose is used by a generally male-dominated world, from the fashion industry to the clinic run by a diabolical doctor. Fans of the original may be dismayed by some of the plot changes the sisters made, but it works for their version of the story.

The film is not without its flaws, however. There is a fake-out and quick cut in the opening minutes that’s rather jarring, as well as wide angle city shots that make little sense and feel disjointed. Additionally, there’s an odd video lecture on transhumanism that acts as a commercial for the clinic where Rose eventually has her surgery. The commercial may serve a general plot function and a nod to another theme of Cronenberg’s work, but it feels wildly out of place and disruptive when it occurs. That said, the Soska Sisters certainly have a good eye for visuals, and you see that several times during Rabid. For example, several frames are awash in striking red tones and images, from the robes the surgeons wear to the bottles of liquid food that Rose keeps in her fridge post-surgery. The color palate has a mesmerizing effect and foreshadows the bloodshed that occurs in the closing 30 minutes, as the infection spreads in a zombie-like fashion.

Photo Courtesy of Back 40 Pictures

In a recent interview, the sisters noted that Rabid was definitely going to be remade and they were approached to do it. Rather than handing it off to someone else, they agreed to take on the project and felt incredibly protective of it. Considering the deep knowledge they have of Cronenberg’s work and the themes of body horror that they’ve explored elsewhere, most notably in American Mary, they were a good choice. This is a remake that understands and honors the original, and some of the director’s other well-known early work, while at the same time questioning the nature of remakes in general. It’s not a perfect film, but fans of the Soska Sisters’ unique style of filmmaking should find much to enjoy in Rabid.

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