Rabid (2019)

There’s a little bit of cult personality going on around twin Canadian horror auteurs Jen and Sylvia Soska aka The Twisted Twins, See No Evil 2 (2014), which can somewhat obscure just how interesting the work they’re doing actually is. The Soskas are not a gimmick, and you sometimes get the sense that they have to work pretty hard to remind the world at large, and certain reactionary subsets of horror fandom, of that fact. In a better universe, feminist body-mod horror American Mary (2012) would speak for itself, but no — it seems the Sisters have to keep proving themselves again and again and again.

Touch me, I want to feel your body …

Their latest film, an update/ remake/ reboot of Canadian cult guru David Cronenberg’s 1977 flick, Rabid, is both wildly ambitious and opens them up to criticism that they’re trespassing on hallowed ground — for a particular stripe of fan, jumping from a couple of WWE grinders to repurposing one of the Body Horror Big Kahuna’s revered early works is practically heresy, especially for a couple of g-g-g-girls. Of course, in this age of repackaged, branded, high-recognition IP-first, story-second filmmaking the only sane response to news of any remake is ‘I hope it’s good,’ and surely the notion of a couple of hardened, horror-loving, no-fucks-given feminist filmmakers taking a run at Cronenberg’s VD-parable shocker-schlocker is cause for celebration?

Yes, to answer my own rhetorical question, yes, it is. One of the advantages of reviving and reconfiguring an older text is the ability to draw out thematic elements that were somewhat hidden in the original — elements, perhaps, that the original author may not have intended but have become apparent after generations of analysis and appraisal. This is very much the case here, with the Soskas’ Rabid forefronting issues of feminine autonomy and sexuality, roping in ruminations on the degrading nature of the fashion and cosmetics industry and the way the latter intersects with the health industry, seeding in some trenchant thoughts on trying to live as a creative artist in a sector and a world that devalues you because of your very identity, and seasoning it all with plenty of blood and brutality, so we never nod off. It’s not perfect — neither was the original, it’s worth remembering — but it’s singular and strident and insistent. The Soskas’ fingerprints are all over it, for good or ill; that might be enough to make up your mind for you already. I had a ball.

‘… don’t worry, it’s only a scratch.’

In the broad strokes, the narrative of Rabid ’19 is the same as the ’77 original. A young woman, Rose (Laura Vandervoort, Smallville’s erstwhile Supergirl, stepping into Marilyn Chambers’ shoes), is disfigured in a motorcycle accident but is returned to health and beauty by an experimental stem cell treatment developed by a, ahem, Dr. William Burroughs (Ted Atherton). In the aftermath Rose, a formerly timid wallflower struggling to tread water in the cutthroat world of fashion design, is left with heightened confidence, a more aggressive sexuality, enhanced senses and, because this is a horror movie, a taste for blood — whatever’s in the super-protein shakes she’s required to slurp down isn’t cutting it. Our heroine, while making strides in her own little world, finds herself Patient Zero in an epidemic that has shades of any given zombie flick, but really takes its cues from Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend.

Which means that this version of Rabid is, more or less, a vampire movie; indeed, you can also look to Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) for a precursor in the gritty urban bloodsucker vein. While the iris of the film opens up to take in events outside of her immediate area — a bloody dust-up on set with an infected and aggressive soap opera star is a hoot — the focus is kept pretty firmly on Vandervoort’s Rose, and this is very much to the film’s benefit. Vandervoort is great in the role and makes Rose’s journey from put-upon introvert to traumatized victim to predatory avenger really work. In the second phase of the character’s development she’s helped by some gnarly prosthetic makeup that leaves half her mandible exposed; in the third by a plot that pushes her into urban vigilante territory, hunting alpha male douchebags for sport (again, I think of Abel Ferrara, only this time it’s 1981’s Ms. 45). But the meat of the character is all Vandervoort, who is used to better effect by the Soskas than by any previous filmmaker who has cast her.

Nursing. It’s a risky profession.

Support comes from a roster of actors who should be familiar to fans of Canuxploitation and the Soska oeuvre in particular; Stephen McHattie, Watchmen (2009), cameos as the original film’s Dr. Keloid, while Mackenzie Gray, Legion (2017-19), gets to be flamboyant and bullying as fashion designer Gunter. Phil ‘CM Punk’ Brooks gets a short, fun moment as one of Rose’s victims, and Tristan Risk, American Mary (2012), turns up, briefly, as a nurse who cops the bad end of the growing epidemic.

Some of the more central characters come across as a little flat, notably love interest Brad (Ben Hollingsworth) and best friend Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot) but, perhaps charitably, I wonder if that’s deliberate; Rose inhabits the shallow and narcissistic world of fashion, and so it makes sense that even those denizens of that culture that she’s closest too would be somewhat two-dimensional simply by dint of being creatures of that biome, and that becomes more readily apparent as Rose gains agency through the course of the film.

Mascara Snakes

Importantly, Rose is not the victim in this film, as she most definitely was in the original. Or is she the villain; that role falls to the shadowy Burroughs, who is effectively the sharp end of the biomedical industry here. The term ‘transhumanism’ is invoked early on and, this being a Cronenberg joint once removed, you can be sure that the more horrific implications well and truly outweigh the potential benefits of that ethos. There are gore gags galore, and a third act reveal bloody and audacious enough for the old master himself.

There are a few wobbly spots in Rabid, mostly down to budgetary limitations driving the staging, but these are eminently forgivable. This is a smart, bold update of Cronenberg’s provocative original, and if it’s not quite the singular angry cream that American Mary was, well, it’s not far off it.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Rabid is released through Defiant Screen Entertainment