Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1977)

4. Rabid

“Shivers” was met with controversy. Cronenberg says the backlash actually got him kicked out of the apartment he was living in at the time. However, business is business and money can't be argued with. “Shivers'” financial success meant that Cronenberg's next movie would also receive some funding from the Canadian government. That follow-up was “Rabid.” Also produced by Ivan Reitman, the film would touch upon many of the same themes and ideas as Cronenberg's commercial debut. It would be another success for the director, showing that there was still a market for his visceral brand of horror.

Rose and her boyfriend, Hart, are going on a scenic motorcycle ride through the Quebec countryside. When they collide with an RV, Rose ends up pined by the flaming bike. She is rushed to the nearest medical center: The first establishment in a hopeful franchise of plastic surgery clinic. She undergoes an experimental skin graft. The surgery has an unforeseen effect. Rose now craves blood, which she drinks with a penetrating spur that extends from her armpit. Unbeknownst to Rose, her attacks spread a new, deadly strain of rabies. Soon, Canada is under marshal law as the populace grows more rabid.

“Rabid” directly follows up on many of the same themes of “Shivers.” Both movies concern a disease spreading through a location that drives people into a violent frenzy. Cronenberg, given a bigger budget, pulls his camera back further. Instead of confining the outbreak to one apartment building, he has the virus ravage an entire city. “Rabid” also continues the fascination with body horror, in the form of the strange mutations Rose's body undergoes. The films are similar enough that “Rabid” honestly feels like a bigger, pricier update of “Shivers.” Cronenberg's interests are so clear that his first two commercial films resemble each other perhaps a little too much.

Cronenberg's second commercial feature also uses mad science as the basis for its horrific events. The doctors in “Shivers,” at least at first, had benevolent goals in mind. The doctors in “Rabid” are not quite so angelic. They want to open a franchise of medical centers., fast food cosmetic surgery. “Rabid” seems disgusted by the idea of medicine becoming a franchised commodity. The doctors putting commerce ahead of the Hippocratic oath is indirectly responsible for the outbreak the film depicts. What's scarier still is that the idea seems pretty plausible. In an example of reality being more on the nose than the movies, there's been recent examples of MedExpresses moving into old fast food locations.

Cronenberg put a novel, sci-fi spin on the zombie genre in both “Shivers” and “Rabid.” However, he throws a radical reinvention of another classic horror troupe into this one. The film is a unique take on the vampire story. Rose is a bloodsucker. However, the origins of her blood lust are scientific, instead of mythical. She essentially becomes something like a human mosquito. She drinks blood not with a dainty pair of fangs but a piercing proboscis. Like mosquitoes spread malaria, Rose passes her disease onto each victim without displaying any symptoms herself. There are no crucifixes or stakes through the heart because Cronenberg is interested in completely reinventing genre troupes, instead of simply participating in them.

Continuing from “Shivers'” super aphrodisiac plague, “Rabid” also brings a sexual component to its mutation. Rose's mutated elbow has a very suggestive appearance. The opening is both vaginal and anal. The bloodsucking spike, meanwhile, is highly phallic. This is dripping with connotations. When given a more masculine sexual organ, Rose becomes more predatory. In a notable scene, she corners another woman in a hot tub before attacking her, a scene obviously recalling sexual assault. She also hungers for blood, for penetration, in a visceral way that takes over her logical mind. So when her easily inflamed desires are aroused, Rose doesn't care about the consequences as long as she's satisfied. “Rabid” seems to be saying that a woman given a man's sex drive would result in a monster.

Unlike a traditional vampire, Rose's victims do not become fellow bloodsuckers after they're “bitten.” Instead, they become rabid zombies. The film plays this transformation up for as much visceral horror as possible. Yellow pus drips from the infected's eyes, foam or black blood leaking from their mouths. Predating “28 Days Later,” the most famous not-technically-a-zombie-movie zombie movie, the rabid people attack wildly. Many of these scenes have a certain visceral quality to them. An old man bites a waitress in a dinner. A foaming truck driver swings a meat hook. One of the film's best scenes involves a woman going nuts on a crowded subway train, leading to chaos and confusion. Some of these attacks are even shockingly organized. Such as when an infected construction crew pins a car down and stabs their jackhammers into the doors.

As a thematic follow-up, “Rabid” also inherits “Shivers'” biggest problems. Cronenberg's follow-up is even more unfocused than his previous film. “Rabid” isn't just a story about Rose's personal decent into body horror-laced vampirism. It's also an outbreak movie, showing the Canadian government attempting to contain the disease. In-between all that, the film focuses on a bunch of minor characters as they're affected by the pathogen. That's a lot to squeeze into one ninety minute exploitation movie. The sequences devoted to the masked soldiers gunning down rabid citizens, possible inspired by Romero's “The Crazies,” feel especially tedious. “Rabid” should've focused on Rose. Instead, it feels overextended and unfocused, leading to a jittery pacing.

Cronenberg certainly never fled from the label of horror director in his early career. However, you can feel a somewhat uncertain need in “Rabid” for the director to top his shocking debut. A scene where a surgeon goes insane and bites off a nurse's finger is sloppily directed, feeling like something from a much trashier horror picture. This sense of self one-upmanship is most apparent in a scene where an infected man attacks in a crowded mall during the Christmas shopping season. That sequence concludes with a mall Santa getting gunned down in cold blood. It's probably the only example in Cronenberg's entire career where it felt like he was being edgy for edginess' sake. By the time we get a dead baby, the audience begins to feel a little tired.

It's a well known bit of trivia that Cronenberg originally wanted “Rabid” to star Sissy Spacek but the producers balked at her Southern accent. Instead, Ivan Reitman recruited porn legend Marilyn Chambers to star in the movie, confident that her sex appeal would give the movie a wider audience. Chambers is a better actress than her porn heritage would suggest. She's capable of playing Rose's sense of inner turmoil. Scenes where she struggles with desires she can't control or understand are compelling. She's also suitably chilling when stalking her prey. However, Chambers still seems a little limited in a few scenes. Her final moments, where she faces down her decisions and her own mortality, push her ability to the limit. For the most part, Chambers is good. (Though it's very easy to imagine Spacek doing wonders in the role. A poster for “Carrie” is spotted in the movie's background, as a likely homage to its intended star.)

Chambers' presence does contribute to the movie's pre-existing seedy atmosphere. Though less sexually explicit than “Shivers,” “Rabid” still feels like the sleaziest thing Cronenberg has directed. Murder scenes, which feature nearly as much penetration and gasping, stand in for sex scenes. Yes, Chambers has several nude scenes. One of my favorite scenes in the movie, which makes the sex/death parallels even more obvious, has Chambers looking for prey in a porn theater. Her target ends up being a handsy pervert. Though made and set in Canada, it's very easy to imagine a version of “Rabid” made across the border that prominently features sleazy old Times Square. The movie has that grindhouse energy.

There's at least one familiar face reappearing from “Shivers.” Joe Silver shows up again, this time as a potential financier for the plastic surgery clinic. Silver brings a lot of colorful moments to the role, especially in the scene where he cradles his newborn baby in the middle of the night. Howard Ryshpan appears as the punnily named Dr. Keloid, bringing a distinctive voice and appearance to the minor part. Frank Moore plays Rose's boyfriend and is basically the secondary lead of the movie. Sadly, Moore seems uncertain in the part. He blusters through some moments but underplays it in others.

Ultimately, “Rabid” is a movie I like more conceptually than in execution. It's bio-punk take on the vampire genre is interesting. It's scarier than “Shivers,” the attack scenes being more intense. However, the script is simply a mess, bending in far too many directions as once. What could have been a squirmy, personal horror picture attempts to go wider and more epic too many times. Recently, a remake and accompanying television series directed by the Soska Sisters was announced, which seems like a good idea. I can imagine the Soskas focusing on the perils of an ostracized woman, as they did in “American Mary,” for the film while using the TV show to focus on the outbreak. Hopefully that comes to fruition. As for Cronenberg's original, it shows the horror legend displaying some obvious growing pains early in his career. [Grade: C]

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