Our self-appointed cultural enforcers constantly demonize “toxic fandom,” but even they should concede horror fans have maintained an impressively open mind regarding this remake of early David Cronenberg. Probably, they assumed the Soska Sisters fully understood the enduring value of the original film and therefore would not reconceive it as a gender-swapped movie musical set inside a Somali refugee camp. Of course, Cronenberg’s body horror cult classic still remains plenty transgressive in its own right. Jen & Sylvia Soska update the story, but frequently tip their hats to Cronenberg during the course of Rabid, which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.
Aspiring designer Rose Miller is bullied by her couture house colleagues and pitied by her condescending best friend Chelsea, because of her ugly duckling looks and borderline social anxiety. Things go from bad to worse when she is horribly disfigured in an auto accident. However, the Burroughs Institute (yes, the director just so happens to be Dr. William Burroughs) offers to take her on as a pro bono test patient for its radical reconstructive techniques.
Naturally, the initial results are amazing, bestowing her with supermodel looks, but there will be a few side effects. Suddenly, the vegan Miller starts craving meat—or rather red blood. She also starts experiencing blackouts and disturbingly vivid dreams. You do not want to cross paths with her during these fugue periods. Those who do start to exhibit disturbingly violent symptoms of their own.
The Soska Sisters offer plenty of olive branches to Cronenberg fans, starting with Dr. Burroughs, who even listens to a William Burroughs spoken word recording during one scene. The crimson surgical scrubs also conjure up memories of Dead Ringers. Unfortunately, it is not nitpicking to call out the ending for departing radically (and unsatisfyingly) from Cronenberg’s metaphorical punch-in-the-face closing.
Regardless, the Soskas’ execution is consistently slick and well-paced. In fact, they unleash several violent altercations with such surprising suddenness and visceral force, they will make most viewers bolt upright in their chairs. Clearly, the film is more than open to feminist and anti-consumerist readings, but the Soskas and co-screenwriter John Serge largely avoid didactic excesses. Instead, the vibe is more like vintage EC Comics, wherein mean, shallow pretty people deserve what’s coming.
As Miller, Laura Vandervoort freaks out with admirable conviction and intensity, generally doing a nice job of filling Marilyn Chambers . . . shoes. Ted Atherton makes a smoothly sinister villain as Dr. Burroughs and Mackenzie Gray hams it up with panache as Miller’s arrogant Eurotrash designer boss (think Karl Lagerfeld crossed with “Dieter from Sprockets”). Unfortunately, the great Stephen McHattie only gets a few minutes as Miller’s conventional attending, Dr. Keloid (the name of the original film’s mad doctor). On the other hand, there is probably too much time devoted to bland Chelsea.
Generally speaking, the Soska Rabid gets the genre job done, while respecting the film that came before it and the horror enthusiasts who vividly remember it. The individual elements are all quite familiar by now, but the Soska Sisters bring them together quite skillfully. Recommended for their fans and receptive Cronenberg fans too, Rabid opens tomorrow (12/13) in LA, at the Arena CineLounge.