If like me you consider the 70’s and 80’s to be the golden years of film especially within the horror genre, you too are no doubt jaded by modern movies and find little in them that is truly original and plots that you have simply seen done before, regurgitated ad-infinitum. We are in the age where Blumhouse Productions provide the scares or the yawns for the modern Millennials, where Jordan Peele is looked on as clever and M Night Shamalangadingdong a competent box office go to name. Call me cynical but everything I have seen by these modern disasters of horror have been numbing and painful to sit through as have certain films I have bought in recent years and have sat on a shelf wondering why the hell they are there. Naturally there are exceptions but they seem ever the far and wide. Bringing the genre into further disrepute are the constant remakes of the classics but if you are a fan of the original and have watched it many times through the decades, there is no two ways about things, you are going to feel compelled to see them and normally do so with a crushing sense of disappointment. Well here’s the latest and the question is, are fans of Cronenberg’s classic 1977 Canadian body horror going to be in horror heaven or left shaking their heads at the remake of Rabid and are the new audience who go to see it even going to know it’s a remake? Inconceivable though that may be.
Fair play to the so called ‘Twins Of Terror’ Jen and Sylvia Soska for having attempted this in the first place. I’m pretty sure Cronenberg has never had his films remade for obvious reasons, namely that the auteur has never made anything in his own right that is exactly going to be straightforward to get the treatment. Being twins one has to wonder why The Soska’s didn’t go for Dead Ringers and reupdate it with themselves in the main role as twin gynaecologists. I bet they considered it. I guess ‘Rabid’ was a simpler option and a faster paced film to tackle and the good news should be that they have the backdrop for the film, Canada running through their very life blood. Rose, as by calling her any other name would have been far from sweet, is played here by Laura Vandervoort who already has a mountain to climb as Marilyn Chambers put on a brilliant performance on the original. She works in the pretentious and incredibly bitchy fashion industry and funnily enough here so do the Soska’s giving them the opportunity to (fleetingly) star in their own film. Cutting to the chase and through all the flim-flam it is not really a spoiler to tell you that Rose is involved in a terrible motorbike accident and is left horribly disfigured and in the care of a Doctor Keloid (groan) played by Stephen McHattie. There’s plenty of background information about Rose that I won’t bore you with and it isn’t terribly exciting, propping at the plot. She seems determined to make the most of life despite her jaw being wired shut and half her face hanging off via some particularly gruesome FX work. She luckily qualifies for free experimental stem-cell surgery techniques at the ultra-modern facility named after its chief medical deviant Dr. William Burroughs (yes you couldn’t make it up). Luckily, we do at least hear the unmistakable voice of WS from beyond the grave and in one of many cool touches, here his assistant and wife Cynthia is played by horror icon Lynn Lowry. The surgery itself is one scene that will have Cronenberg fans smiling in homage but it is shortly after that they will have to suspend all disbelief (as does everyone else) at the miraculous transformation of Rose. Naturally with it comes a downward spiral into infection and the rabidity of the films main theme.
There are times when the Soska’s play things fairly straight and add some cool subtle touches to the original but there are plenty of others where you just can’t but wonder what the hell they are playing at? The film suffers terribly in the last reel in much the same way as Luca Guadagnino’s ill-judged Suspiria remake (2018) by moving into sheer silliness. Let’s just say that it is as though the Soska’s suddenly forgot the source material and decided to go into the territory one might expect from a Stuart Gordon or Brian Yuzna film. It’s obvious they know horror films very well and previous to this have alluded here to everything from Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (1960) to the many filmic interpretations of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom Of The Opera.
There is unfortunately lots to pick on here and peel away like the bandages on poor Rose’s face. Too much time is spent on the vagrancies of the fashion industry and it seems like the Soska’s are wielding a personal axe of their own at it. The director putting on the show that Rose is involved played by Greg Bryk however is great fun to watch in such an overblown fashion (no pun intended). A couple of things that made the original so great are neglected unfortunately. For one the atmosphere and greatness of the Canadian environment displayed in both the Quebec countryside and city itself which really added to the tone of the film is completely overlooked which is a shame. It must be expensive to film in a busy city and indeed a shopping centre but it would have been nice to see the spread of contagion portrayed the way it was done to such good effect in the original. Haters of Santa are luckily not short changed however. The music is another thing, what a shame there isn’t even a hint of the striking and chilling main theme unearthed by Ivan Reitman to such great effect to be found here. We go here from vacuous poppy songs to a preponderance of classical music. Whilst the latter sticks out why the hell would Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ be utilised when it had already been used to such dramatic effect in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009)? The sultry main theme is however very good. At 107 minutes Rabid also loses much of the drive and punchiness of the original unfortunately and feels unnecessarily overdrawn in places. Still it’s far from a total loss or even a plastic surgery disaster and I was always going to be a very hard critic to please. Rabid 2019 is an engaging viewing experience on the whole with some nice referential nods and it is ultimately entertaining albeit daft fun. Whereas Cronenberg’s vision was completely ahead of its time and everything about it including the film’s main image used on the poster stuck in your memory through the years, little here probably will. The original was prescient leaving you with a worrying sense of “shit this could really happen” (at least in the spread of the contagion) the remake is more likely to leave you chortling at the sheer absurdity of it all.
If you did pick up 101’s recent re-re-release of the original Rabid and indeed I did end up putting money where mouth is and doing so you will have seen part 1 of Xavier Mendek’s documentary ‘The Quiet Revolution.’ Canny marketing or downright annoying if you have no interest in the remake but Part 2 is included here in the extras. Running at 53 minutes and entitled ‘New Territories & Diverse Fears’ things concentrate on the post tax-shelter years and move into the emergence of new directors from Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre in the more modern era of the 1990’s. Film-makers and movies such as Vincenzo Natali whose Cube (1997) was a prime example in original story-telling and John Fawcett’s excellent and underrated werewolf caper Ginger Snaps (2000) are discussed. By this point I have to admit I was close to shouting at the screen but thankfully was doing so prematurely. One film and director who epitomises the transgressive underground cinema of early Cronenberg is Karim Hussein and somewhat ground-breaking first feature ‘Subconscious Cruelty’ (2000) is the next focus of attention. Don’t go looking for this in the UK, I suspect it would fall very foul of the censors due to the profound blasphemy of one of its 4 segments. Naturally The Soska sisters are on hand to chew the fat on their enjoyable body mod feature American Mary (2012) and of course their remake of Rabid. There’s far too much time spent on them though kind of losing the actual theme of the documentary. Professor Ernest Mathijs makes some excellent points about the differences between the two Rabid’s and his observations were certainly valid and on point. Gigi Saul Guerrero and Nyla Innuksuk are representatives of the new breed of Canadian based director’s whose films you probably haven’t heard of yet but ultimately I was left with the impression that there are only a handful of genre films coming out of Canada post 1990. Of course with the likes of Pyewacket, Summer Of 84 and Incident In A Ghostland (all 2018) we know that this is definitely not the case and things are definitely picking up in Canada as far as horror cinema is concerned. Perhaps these very recent examples might be addressed in part 3…
Also we have a 16 minute featurette with the Soskas and they are certainly enthusiastic. Their motormouth delivery is not the easiest to understand quite honestly and I found it difficult to follow what they were saying. It was kind of like watching Quentin T enthuse but there’s two of them! They also deliver a brief message to the Frightfest audience and there is a four-minute interview with main star Laura Vandervoort.
Rabid 2019 left me with mixed emotions, it’s worth a watch if you are a fan of the original but then again its also superfluous to requirements and could easily be lived without. Best advice is stick with Croneberg’s far superior vision.