The most uneven of David Cronenberg’s early commercial horror features, the 1977 “Rabid,” was nonetheless probably the biggest success among them, in large part due to the novelty value of seeing “Behind the Green Door” porn superstar and erstwhile Ivory Snow detergent-box model Marilyn Chambers in a lurid mainstream vehicle. It’s also the one ripest for remake, if only because his just-prior “Shivers” aka “They Came from Within” and ensuing “The Brood” should be left alone — largely reviled upon release, they’re now rightly considered genre classics. Lacking their outrageous ideas and cumulative narrative momentum despite some striking elements, “Rabid” nonetheless has a strong-enough basic concept to warrant revisiting.
In theory, “twisted twins” Jen and Sylvia Soska are fair candidates for that job: Like Cronenberg, they’re Canadian, attracted to body-horror, and have cut their own path from micro-budget projects toward the mainstream. They also claim they dislike remakes as a rule, but “couldn’t bear the thought of Cronenberg’s work being re-imagined by someone who doesn’t both love and understand the original material.” Those sentiments are more than a little belied by their “Rabid,” however, which not only has little to do with its predecessor, but doesn’t feel satisfying or fully realized on its own terms. It opens Dec. 13 on 10 U.S. screens, simultaneous with on-demand release.
The Canadian siblings stirred interest among horror fans with 2012’s “American Mary.” That surgical-horror tale was a mixed bag, but interesting—certainly more so than their uninspired WWE-produced features since, rote sequel “See No Evil 2” and Dean Cain actioner “Vendetta,” neither of which they wrote. “Rabid” is a return to more personal terrain, yet often it seems not so much a revamp of the designated title as a rehash of “Mary’s” themes and aesthetic. Paying lip service to the Cronenberg film while mostly going their own way, albeit less successfully than before, this film by the Soska Sisters (as they prefer to be billed) never gels into a cohesive whole.
The classic bespectacled screen wallflower bullied by less-pretty mean girls, Rose (Laura Vandervoort from werewolf series “Bitten”) aspires to be a fashion designer. Still, she’s little more than a glorified seamstress at House of Gunter, a backstabbing couturier whose eponymous chief (Mackenzie Gray) is a caricature of Eurotrash bitchy-queendom. When Rose is asked to a party by in-house photographer Brad (Benjamin Hollingsworth), she’s flattered — then humiliated, upon discovering it was a “charity” date orchestrated by her adoptive sister and only friend, Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot). Our heroine rushes distraught into the street, where she and her scooter are promptly creamed by a passing van.
As if her self-esteem weren’t already low enough, Rose is now grotesquely damaged in face and body. Thus she’s willing to offer herself up as a guinea pig for the “experimental research” of the Burroughs Institute, whose presiding scientist (Ted Atherton) promises miraculous results through “stem cell manipulation.” Indeed, overnight Rose is not just healed, but radiant, with no further need for glasses, and seemingly organic improvements in makeup and hair styling. There are, however, ominous stomach rumblings portending of side-effects Dr. Burroughs very much undersells. They soon drive the now-stunning former vegetarian towards murderous “meat craving” fits he convinces her were just nightmares in the fuzzy morning-after.
Some of her hunky victims survive and run carnivorously amok themselves, leading to citywide panic over this mysterious “epidemic.” The 1977 film gradually drifted away from Chambers’ heroine toward depicting mass hysteria, a narrative shift that wasn’t entirely successful.
But it still worked considerably better than the Soskas’ version, which reinforces that they have little feel for building suspense, and none at all for staging action. Starting with Rose’s accident, several key pieces of physical business inexplicably take place offscreen, and the original’s most memorable set piece (an attack on a subway train) is just mentioned as something that happens to Chelsea. Other bits that offer vivid potential, like an afflicted man’s invasion of a busy cafe, or another in a Santa suit raging into a hospital corridor, are thrown away via inert camerawork and editing.
What the Soskas do favor is gore, as well as a semi-camp, semi-satirical sensibility that manifests itself primarily in cartoonish subsidiary characters and garishly colorful visual elements. That tenor worked well for the surgical-body-modification theme of “American Mary,” but it feels trite when aimed at a target as obvious as the fashion world. Written with John Serge, the co-directors’ screenplay is more broad than witty, with Gunter’s new collection called “Schadenfreude” — as if we didn’t already get that he’s a vindictive creep — and other half-baked ideas.
For a while the movie seems to be turning into “Ms. 45,” with ravenous Rose targeting sexist louts. Then it strays into zombie territory, before finally turning into a muddled, over-the-top mutant creature feature. Add in a surreal dream sequence that’s like a music video, plus pretentious dialogue with a pro-vegan tilt, and “Rabid” begins to feel like a movie from which no stray concept was discarded, but the connective tissue got left out.
The result is superficially slick and diverting, not to mention icky in a way that will appeal to some horror aficionados. Yet the critique of female objectification and conformity the Soskas gesture toward is undermined by their own penchant for vaguely Goth, glam dress-up. The film feels more like a horror costume party than a commentary, while lacking the basic tension, excitement, and narrative drive to function as a thriller.
The performers do their best coping with the varying demands for naturalism here. Vandervoort at times comes close to making Rose a three-dimensional person, while at the opposite end of the scale, Phil Brooks aka CM Punk fares best among the more caricatured roles with a funny one-scene turn. But overlong, undercooked “Rabid” can’t settle on a unified tone for its actors, let alone its narrative. Even its misanthropy ultimately feels indecisive and trifling. Humans gone feral should terrify us, but this movie’s snide attitude ultimately places its threats more in the realm of cartoonist Lynda Barry’s famous “Poodle With a Mohawk.”