Directed by Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska
Written by John Serge, Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska
Classification: 18+; 108 minutes
In 1977, David Cronenberg released his fourth feature Rabid. The grisly horror movie, financed through the Canadian tax-shelter system and produced by Ivan Reitman, picked up right where Shivers left off: another blistering gorefest in which crazed urban dwellers end up gnawing on each other’s flesh after contracting a viral contagion.
When Cronenberg didn’t get his original casting choice, Sissy Spacek, to play his lead, Beyond the Green Door’s Marilyn Chambers stepped in to play Rose, a victim of a grisly motorcycle accident who undergoes surgery at an experimental clinic that gives her a thirst for blood, leading to a national pandemic after the men she attacks start contracting rabies.
Today, the movie is remembered as an entertaining diversion in the Cronenberg canon en route to better-realized work. Still, you can’t have Scanners’s head-explosion scene without a phallic tentacle protruding out of Chambers’s armpit.
Now, 43 years later, David Cronenberg’s Rabid has been remade by two female filmmakers: the Canadian-born identical twins The Soska Sisters, who made a name for themselves after their 2012 body-modification horror American Mary was championed by Eli Roth.
While the Soska Sisters bear the honour of being the first directors ever to get permission to remake an original Cronenberg film (there’s been a TV adaptation of The Dead Zone and a few sequels made by other directors before), what they’ve done with their material is … slight. Rabid is a limp satire with a lacklustre female protagonist, and this shallow remake of a cannibalistic rabies attack film barely leaves a mark.
Following the same basic framework as the original film, Bitten’s Laura Vandervoort plays Rose, a withdrawn assistant at a fashion house nursing a bad crush on a sexy photographer at work (Benjamin Hollingsworth, standing in for Rabid’s original male saviour played by Frank Moore). Rose’s main affliction seems to be that she has to wear glasses, so her life will always be a sexless prison of loneliness.
The Sisters also give Rose a nonsensical backstory in which her entire family was killed in a car crash and the family of a now-famous British supermodel took her in. Rose and the supermodel now work for a campy German designer (played by Vancouver character actor Mackenzie Gray) who is about to launch a new collection, aptly titled Schadenfreude (sigh).
Everything changes when Rose gets into a life-threatening motorcycle accident. Her jaw is dislocated, her organs get pulverized and she’s treated at a mysterious plastic surgery clinic by a nefarious doctor named William Burroughs (double sigh). That’s when the Soska Sisters unleash their only true moment of visionary gore: Rose peeling back the layers of gauze to unveil her harrowing reflection, all exposed skull and teeth where her pretty face used to be.
A scene in which a now monstrous Rose attempts to drink a smoothie by inserting it into a syringe and squeezing it into her gaping, bloody maw is funny, tragic and unexpected. But Rabid isn’t a clever character study of a six who becomes a 10 after reconstructive surgery and develops a thirst for human blood and sex. It’s a confused and campy genre picture helmed by two women who don’t know what the hell they’re making.
I have a feeling the Soska Sisters are in the genre picture business for the gore and special effects (and maybe so they can take a lot of #twinning photo opps for their Instagram). There are some arresting scenes of violence that pay homage to early Cronenberg, as they film models striding down the runway, only to enter a grisly collision course as other infected, flesh-eating models run into their path.
Kind doctors try in vain to assist the afflicted, only to have their arms chewed off and blood spurts from every orifice. But mostly the protagonist’s undeveloped exploits in love, sex and work remind me of a lesser Katherine Heigl movie. Rabid with a female lens isn’t camp, it isn’t satire. The Soska Sisters’s take on Cronenberg’s cannibalistic horror film is full of empty calories.
Rabid opens across Canada on Jan. 31