Over the last 20 years, Hollywood has raided most major horror masters‘ closets for remakes. Romero (Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies), Craven (The Hills Have Eyes), Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) – each of these filmmakers has seen their work re-imagined with mixed results. It was only a matter of time before someone turned their attention to David Cronenberg’s work. Like Romero’s The Crazies, Rabid – an early Cronenberg cult classic – was a good candidate for a modern re-imagining. Aside from its 70’s micro-budget, Rabid’s subject matter could easily be re-contextualized for today’s socio-political environment. And Canadian horror filmmakers The Soska Sisters were the right choice to helm a remake. But critics haven’t been as hungry for the update.
After a motorcycle accident, timid fashion designer Rose is left horribly disfigured. Despite initial reservations, Rose agrees to an experimental stem-cell treatment at a private medical facility. The facility’s chief medical director, Dr William Burroughs, assures her that he can help her make a full recovery. Initially, Rose is thrilled with the results that not only heal her scarring, but turn her into a striking beauty. Now Rose is turning heads and attracting the attention of her fashion mogul boss. But she soon starts experiencing a crippling thirst for human blood. And as she stalks hapless male victims to quench her thirst, she spreads a ‘rabies-like’ virus that threatens to spiral out-of-control.
Rabid Promises Several Interesting Story Threads, But Struggles to Focus
For the most part, the Soska Sister’s maintain Cronenberg’s basic story thread. Cronenberg fans will also find plenty of sly references to the Canadian icon’s work. Certainly, the Soska’s appreciate the ‘Body Horror’ master’s filmography. And Rabid doesn’t suffer from a lack of ideas. In addition to directing, the Soska’s share writing credits with John Serge. Between the three writers, several story threads emerge and recede. Throughout its runtime, Rabid alternates between putting toxic masculinity, the fashion industry, and even harmful self-image under the microscope. Rose preys on ‘alpha males’ while fending off the self-serving affections of a male co-worker. Thrown into this mix are philosophical ideas around trans-humanism and vegetarian diets.
There’s a frustrating lack of focus to the movie – one gets the impression the Soska’s have something bigger to say but that message remains just out of reach.
Unfortunately, Rabid never brings all these ideas together into a cohesive narrative. There’s a frustrating lack of focus to the movie – one gets the impression the Soska’s have something bigger to say but that message remains just out of reach. Along these lines, character threads and relationships feel underdeveloped. Rose feels more like a handful of ideas collected together than a fully realized protagonist. And fashion mogul Gunter is so cliché that it’s difficult to tell if he’s meant to be ironic or serious. Rather unexpectedly, Rabid’s most interesting (and now very relevant) thread is its viral outbreak and the subsequent refusal of characters to self-quarantine. It’s a prescient theme that, sadly, goes nowhere. By Rabid’s conclusion, most of its ideas are left as tangled and unfinished as its mangled body horror.
Rabid May Leave You Hungry for More Body Horror
Horror fans familiar with the Soska Sister’s American Mary know that the directors can do body horror. And in a movie that feels a bit scattered at times, the body horror is Rabid’s best asset. Rose’s injuries featured prominently in the movie’s marketing. Not surprisingly, then, some of Rabid’s most striking imagery are Rose’s startling post-accident deformities. Watching Rose struggle to suck down a drink through a straw with her jaw wired shut triggers the kind of queasiness Cronenberg’s best work achieved. And some of the blood-spurting, face-splaying, and contorted bodily symptoms of Rose’s victims feel inspired. In particular, the Soska’s save their most haunting bodily deformation for their red-tinted finale.
…the Soska’s seem to pull their punches …
Yet in spite of some of this appropriately uncomfortable imagery, Rabid often feels somewhat reserved. Especially for the Soska Sisters. On the one hand, Rabid is much closer in spirit to American Mary then the more generic See No Evil 2. Nevertheless, the Soska’s seem to pull their punches when they should be doubling-down on the grotesquerie. At times, quick editing obscures the mayhem to the movie’s detriment. But Rabid’s anticipated runway fashion show can’t help but feel kind of tame as compared to the Suspiria remake’s Grand Guignol finale.
Lukewarm Performances Fail to Stand Out
None of Rabid’s performances are bad, but no one really stands out. Over the course of her career, Laura Vandervoort has enjoyed a varied acting résumé including the short-lived V series reboot and belated Saw sequel, Jigsaw. In part, Vanderbvoort’s ‘Rose’ feels underwritten – a collection of stereotypes rather than a real person. And though Vandervoort is good, she’s never particularly compelling in the role. Rose never really elicits much in the way of sympathy for her plight. Outside of veteran character actor Ted Atherton, most of the other performances are kind of lukewarm, failing to really register on an emotional level. Former pro wrestler, Phil Brooks (aka CM Punk) has a fun, small role that reminds horror fans he may have a promising career in the genre (Girl on the Third Floor).
Rabid a Step in the Right Direction, But Needed a Sharper Bite
Rabid represents a significant improvement over See No Evil 2 for the Soska Sisters. In spirit, this Cronenberg remake is much close to the very good American Mary. Few horror filmmakers have the same eye for Cronenbergian ‘Body Horror’ as the Soska’s. And it’s this aspect of Rabid that works best. But it’s also a maddeningly frustrating experience as one always feels there’s a much more poignant movie somewhere amidst all of its ideas. As it stands, Rabid is good but lacks focus and just a bit of bite.