Rabid (2019)

Rabid is up front about what it is. Before we have seen the first frame of narrative, plain yellow text on a black background reveals that what we are watching is “Based on the Original Film by David Cronenberg.” Yet remakes are a complicated business. They can be painstakingly faithful to their model, like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) and Jon Favreau’s The Lion King (2019), or they can deviate wildly, becoming treasured works of art in their own right, like, heh, David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), as they ring the changes on new times and fashions. Fashion is certainly key to this version of Rabid, directed (and co-written, with John Serge) by ‘Twisted Twins’ Jen and Sylvia Soska, who have relocated Cronenberg’s 1977 ‘skin flick’ to a world of haute couture, where superficial forms of beauty are the highest commodity. 

From the very start this remake marks its differences from Cronenberg’s film. It opens with a big billboard poster of a model on a moped, sporting the latest outdoor wear from the ‘Haüs of Günter’ (the pretentious overpunctuation telling us everything we need to know about this fashionhouse). The camera then tilts down from this idealised image to the more blemished reality of Rose (Laura Vandervoort), also on a moped, but with freckles, glasses, facial scars and a crooked nose. Cronenberg’s film began with Rose and her boyfriend Hart having a serious motorcycle accident, and so the Soskas tease us with the near accident that their Rose has as she weaves off into the traffic on her own much smaller bike – but what perhaps is even more indicative here of difference is that the shift from poster perfection down to real-world imperfection is also a visual quote of the opening image from Antiviral (2012), written and directed by none other than Cronenberg’s son Brandon. What we are witnessing here is an open acknowledgement of a new generation in filmmaking.

  Shrinking violet (and vegan) Rose works as a seamstress for the fashion ‘haüs’ of Gunter (MacKenzie Gray), where she is sidelined, humiliated and taken for granted, with only the model Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot), who is her foster sister and best friend, looking out for her. As Rose arrives at the boutique, we can hear Gunter pontificating aloud to his staff, “Why do we keep remaking old trends?” – the film’s first spoken line – in what is a clear self-conscious reflex on Rabid‘s own identity as a remake. Rose will eventually have her bike accident, and be seen by Dr Keloid – a key figure in the original film, here played by the ever wonderful Stephen McHattie (Pontypool, 2008) – but in another piece of misdirection, this Keloid, an attending physician at a public hospital, will prove a marginal character and largely unhelpful, leaving Rose with horrific open wounds on her face and chest. It is only when she turns desperately to the ‘transhumanist‘ Burroughs Clinic for a free experimental treatment that her life will be transformed. The Clinic is run by Dr William Burroughs (Ted Atherton), who not only spends his downtime listening to tape recordings of the other William Burroughs (expressly discussing vampires), but whose own medical practices align him to the unethical Dr Benway from Burroughs’ 1959 novel of addiction The Naked Lunch (adapted by Cronenberg into a film of the same name in 1991).   

Now looking better than she ever did before, newly confident in her own skin and driven by her dark thoughts to a surge of creativity, Rose will rise meteorically in her career. Yet her recovery comes with unexpected side effects, familiar from the original film: some emergent bodily mutations, and a lust for blood which leaves in its wake a trail of rabies-like infection among her hyperviolent, bite-happy victims (including wrestler C.M. Punk, who with this film and Travis Stevens’ Girl On The Third Floor, is starting to specialise in portraying a certain brand of toxic masculinity). As Rose slowly comes to realise that her predatory assaults are not just hallucinatory nightmares caused by her medication, she will return to the Burroughs Clinic to find out what exactly she has become and whether there is a cure for her wellness.

The Soskas are well-suited to this material: not only are they, like Cronenberg, Canadian genre filmmakers, but their best known work American Mary (2012) featured, like the original Rabid, radical corrective surgery and female revenge upon male predation, while the Soskas’ status as identical twins – something which their cameo here as coke-snorting toilet gossips makes very obvious – ensures that they are literally Dead Ringers (1988), another of Cronenberg’s films referenced in this new Rabid through the distinctive red design of the surgeons’ scrubs.

This neon-lit reimagining certainly bears the surface structure of the original as well as many of its narrative details (even the manically mean-spirited shooting of a Santa Claus!), slightly transformed – but the film, like Rose herself, harbours something different underneath that will only gradually emerge, fully revealing itself in the closing scenes. Like all artists, the Soskas long to be immortalised through their work – but they also show an awareness here that living forever has its dark downsides.

© Anton Bitel