❉ We review the Soska sisters’ satirical update of the Cronenberg classic.
Whilst attempting to do something new with the same concept, the Soska Sister’s 2019 remake of David Cronenberg’s previously reviewed 1977 film, Rabid only occasionally manages to rise above a bland sea of post-modern homage and social commentary with some neat ideas and decent shock moments.
Entering into any remake always brings about a sense of trepidation. I desperately wanted to like the Soska Sisters’ new version of Rabid and, in watching it, you do feel like its makers cared about the material, and it does have flashes of brilliance, but it generally falls flat, mainly because it too often telegraphs its ideas and reduces its characters to mere ciphers. Too often the Soskas are unable to escape the thrall of Cronenberg, so while this version is very different in plot and themes to its forebear (and has some genuine merit at times), it’s packed with shout-outs such as the red operating gowns seen in Dead Ringers (1988); a swimming pool scene reminiscent of Shivers (1975); although the original’s Dr Keloid (Stephen McHattie) does appear, his real analogue in this version is Dr William Burroughs (Ted Atherton), and so forth. Though the film wears its heart on its sleeve (displaying a credit that announces “Based on the Original Film by David Cronenberg,” Rabid‘s often shallow reverence for him (and occasionally for others) means that we’re too often having our suspension of disbelief broken to be reminded of better movies, but it does use its shout-outs to subvert the audience’s expectations, albeit with varying degrees of success, thanks to a plot and tone that’s all over the place.
Thus we open on a shot of a girl on a motorcycle recreating Marilyn Chambers’ iconic pose from the opening of the original, but a quick pull out reveals this to be only a poster advertising a fashion label named Haüs of Günter. We are then introduced to the new Rose (Laura Vandervoort) who narrowly avoids a crash whilst riding on her scooter to work and, having had our expectations Rian Johnsoned, we immediately size up how this whole thing will play out; once Rose, a talented seamstress, gets to work she is revealed to by a mousy wallflower kicked around by her overbearing boss, Günter himself (Mackenzie Gray, presumably sending up Karl Lagerfeld but coming across like Tommy Wiseau). Everyone else seems to look down on her too, but she has a friend in the shape of British model Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot), and is approached by hunky photographer Brad (Benjamin Hollingsworth) to be his date for the evening’s afterparty following the reveal of Günter’s new collection, “Schadenfreude” (“Der pleasure derived from somevon else’s misfortune,” he explains, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary definition at the top of the Google search results for the word and having just given the film’s opening speech about “remaking old trends”).
One of the film’s main flaws is that while the original wasn’t just a horror but a tragedy, the Soska Sisters seem to be aiming toward satire. Now, satire can be far more disturbing and upsetting than horror because it often shows us things we don’t want to think about, but it only works if the characters are believable as human beings. Here we only get archetypes; Rose wears unflattering specs and no make-up before surgery, is suddenly beautiful and alluring after it, like the shy student who takes off her glasses and lets down her hair before a makeover reveals she was a hottie all along and yes, she will go to the prom! Frustratingly, the film misses a trick by having all this happen to Rose to make the obvious point that with looks comes success but it won’t make you happy. As I was watching all this unfurl and successfully predicting the next plot point, I couldn’t help think how much more interesting this all would have been had it happened to Chelsea instead; the tale of beautiful, nice but vapid model horribly disfigured who’ll go to any lengths to get her looks and fame back because she’s hungry for it.
Günter is egotistical, but the film never addresses the serious abuses of power within the fashion industry to justify its setting outside of making its rather obvious points; besides, his strictness with Rose seems like frustration at her not realising her full potential. The experimental stem cell treatment and surgery is more a result of an accident victim’s wish to lead a normal life after suffering horrific injuries rather than vanity. We never got to know Rose in the original until after she became a conflicted, predatory “monster” but we did get the strong impression that she wasn’t just beautiful but a genuinely lovely person as well. All the characters were well defined with odd little private moments giving us insights into their lives outside of the narrative. Here, we feel nothing for them because they only deal with issues directly involved in the service of the plot.
It would be unfair to say the whole enterprise is without merit; it’s not. There’s a couple of shocks that prompt an “Oh my God!” Once we get past the sluggish and slightly clunky first act, the film picks up, and Rose’s victims tend to be the sort of misogynistic alpha-male jocks who are just as predatory as she has become, and you get a genuine sense of the Soska Sisters’ anger at such folk. There’s a good degree of catharsis in seeing these men devoured. Rose’s victims become flesh-crazed zombies after a gestation period, so their attacks are sudden and shocking, and are portrayed as episodes of hyper-masculine violence. I’m tempted to criticise one of these instances for its seemingly deliberate resemblance to another (non-Cronenberg) movie, but I won’t since it’s actually a well-handled surprise and I don’t want to spoil it. The theme of “remaking old trends” does actually come back when, after it looked like it was just a cheeky reference to the fact that you’re watching a re-do, it slowly becomes apparent that the Soskas are actually referring to transhumanism after we see a quite well done promotional video for Dr Burroughs’ clinic. Unfortunately, the film eventually loses its way again and goes completely bonkers in the final act.
2019’s Rabid is ultimately anaemic, and after a shaky start begins to head somewhere interesting before getting utterly daft toward the end to the point where you half expect the theme from the Saw movies to kick in. The Soska Sisters clearly have some talent, but I suspect they were hampered by limited resources because they don’t get to indulge in enough mayhem and theirs and John Serge’s screenplay sacrifices character for a desire to juggle far too many ideas. Their own preference to focus on horror over drama, their insistence upon self indulgent movie references and an inability to conclude the story without bringing in a loony Diabolus ex Machina are also hindrances. The result is undisciplined and lacks focus, and while I found myself rooting for the film makers and engaged by their ideas, I was not often enough rooting for the characters or engaged in the story.
❉ The Quiet Revolution: State, Society and the Canadian Horror Film – Part Two: An Emerging Revolution: New Territories & Diverse Fears, a brand new feature-length documentary exploring the social contexts behind Canadian horror cinema from filmmaker and author Xavier Mendik (exclusive to Blu-ray)
❉ Behind the scenes with Jen & Sylvia Soska
❉ An interview with Laura Vandervoort
❉ FrightFest Presents The Soska Sisters’ on set message to the FrightFest 2018 audience, with Paul McEvoy
❉ Behind the scenes with Jen & Sylvia Soska
❉ An interview with Laura Vandervoort
❉ FrightFest Presents The Soska Sisters’ on set message to the FrightFest 2018 audience, with Paul McEvoy.
❉ 101 Films presents Rabid on Blu-ray & DVD 7 October. Feature Run Time: 107mins 42sec. Cert: 18. @101_Films #Rabid
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.