Movie Review: Rabid (2019)

With their new film, Rabid, the Soska Sisters take on Cronenberg, Haute Couture, and “Schadenfreude Culture”

Schadenfreude (ˈshä-dᵊn-ˌfrȯi-də) noun: enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.

It might be said that in the horror film industry, nothing puts you at risk of being the object of Schadenfreude more than doing a remake of a classic horror film.

An endless cycle of uninspired remakes has made ridiculing them into something of a glib parlor game. They are gleefully derided as either soulless money grabs or blasphemous and unfaithful train wrecks.

A tale of two Rabids: (L) Poster from Cronenberg’s original 1977 film (R) Teaser promo trailed for the Soska Sisters’ 2019 remake.

Filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska (American Mary, See No Evil 2) are explicitly aware of this reality. Their new film, Rabid (2019), is a remake of legendary director David Cronenberg’s 1977 cult film of the same name. Their response to “remake fatigue” is to create a lush film that stays true to the spirit of Cronenberg’s original idea while breaking new thematic ground with a perspective shift and a social context that taps into our current anxieties.

This version brings the viscera and grotesquery one expects from “body horror” while it comments on identity, beauty myths and body politics, the illusion of safety, and a culture that thrives (and profits), on Schadenfreude.

Horribly disfigured after a freak accident, doctors perform a radical medical procedure on Rose Miller (Laura Vandervoort), an aspiring young fashion designer. But when the bandages come off, the side effects soon cause her to develop an insatiable appetite for human blood.

Can you see the real me? Rose Miller (Laura Vandervoort) confronts the literal and figurative destruction of her facade thanks to the magnificent prosthetic work of Todd Masters and MastersFX.

A nod to Marilyn Chambers’ role in Cronenberg’s 1977 Rabid.

From the first line of dialogue being, “Why do we keep remaking old trends?”, to a shot of Vandervoort on a scooter juxtaposed with a billboard model on a vintage motorcycle who resembles Marilyn Chambers in the original film, the Soskas brazenly announce the elephant in the room. It’s a bold move but it is also a mission statement of sorts. They share the same dubiousness about remakes as the audience, and by doing so they also declare that their film will be different.

Top: David Cronenberg directing The Fly (1986)
Bottom: Jen and Sylvia Soska pose with a friend from Rabid (2019)

And that difference is what separates good remakes from the large crowd of timewasters. The Soskas are reverent to the spirit of Cronenberg’s originality, not to the letter of his text. They do Cronenberg the highest praise by bringing their own thoughts, experiences, and emotions to the story instead of attempting to replicate his straight middle-aged male perspective.

And, in doing so, they’ve enriched the characters and expanded the depth and breadth of the themes. The result is the Soska Sisters’ most personal vision since American Mary, a film where each metaphor feels painfully earned. Rabid is easily their most complex, rich and thematically layered film to date. This is assured, confident and, most of all, passionate work that may have been birthed by Cronenberg’s original film, but by the end credits, it has learned to walk tall on its own merit.

What’s in a name? The Soska Sisters give the 1977 Rose the last name Miller, a backstory, and a career that informs her character. She is no longer defined by her predicament only.

One major improvement to the original film is the development and depth of the main character, Rose Miller, expertly portrayed by Laura Vandervoort (V-Wars, Bitten). Firstly, she gets a last name (she was known only as “Rose” in Cronenberg’s film) and a backstory (she was scarred and orphaned by a traumatic incident) and an occupation as a seamstress for a famous and influential designer named Günter (played by the wonderfully scene-stealing Mackenzie Gray). When she is asked why she works in the fashion industry, Rose states that clothes make her feel she can be anybody or anything. Clothes are her armor in an unsafe world.

Body Horror meets Body Satire: Gunter (Mackenzie Gray) and Chelsea (Haneke Talbot) play two versions of Rose’s “dark passenger”.

Vandervoort gives a great performance in a challenging role. There is a large portion of the film where she cannot speak, and her face is almost completely covered in either bandages or a very realistic looking prosthetic. Vandervoort keeps Rose growing as a character using only her eyes and body language. One truly remarkable moment is when Rose is being examined by Dr. William Burroughs (Ted Atherton) to see if she qualifies for “an experimental procedure”, Vandervoort’s eyes convey a heartbreaking resignation to being reduced to morbid curiosity, relegated to a life of loneliness. Vandervoort breathes life into the prosthetics and also gives us volumes of character without even moving her head.

The acting is uniformly strong, with memorable scenes with Stephen McHattie and C.M. Punk. Both actors are asked to mix humor and menace. The ever-mercurial Tristan Risk sinks into makeup and plays three different parts in the film, and has one of the funniest lines in the film as an unlucky nurse.

Top: C.M. Punk
Bottom: Tristan Risk

One of the pleasures of the work of Jen and Sylvia Soska is their penchant for infusing humor and satire into their horror films. They have a great feel for the natural rhythms of both comedy and horror and they expertly dance between the two-sometimes in the same scene.

In Rabid, we not only get body horror, but we also get body satire. Setting the film in the glamorous and seductive world of high fashion allows the Soskas to satirize the cultural obsession with beauty and transformation, and there are many sharp comedic barbs to temper the horrific elements. This version of Rabid pays homage as much to the humor and audaciousness of author Chuck Palahniuk as it does David Cronenberg.

One of the great infusions of humor and pathos is in the character Chelsea (Haneke Talbot), Rose’s closest friend and an up-and-coming model in Günter’s stable. She embodies the narcissistic obsessiveness of the fashion industry one minute, then projects vulnerability and hunger for connection the next. She is the Janus mask of Rose and that gets to be a riskier designation as the film goes on.

Ecstacy in agony: Rose drinks deeply.

The script (co-written by the Soskas with John Serge) draws parallels between the fashion world and the worlds of cosmetic surgery, cloning, and transhumanism. Structurally, the first act is faithful to Cronenberg’s story, but each act takes the film further off the expected trail and deeper into a very dark vision, indeed. And that’s all I’m going to say about the story because the element of surprise is part of what makes Rabid such a visceral experience.

The cinematography by Kim Derko is beautiful, varying color intensity to convey different levels of emotion and visually creating distinctions between reality and…something else. This is also a movie set in the fashion industry, so the clothing design for fashion shows is spectacular. The clothing also adds a layer of expressionism to the film. We get to see Rose’s internal struggles manifest themselves externally in drawings and fabric.

This is a horror film and, in particular, a body horror film, and the Soskas do not skimp on the disturbing visual imagery. The prosthetic work and practical effects by MASTERSFX are gorgeous in the best horrible-beautiful way. Effects can be the make-or-break of a body horror film and the creations here give visual heft to the original vision of the filmmakers. There is at least one moment in particular where the practical effects, the sound effects, and the cinematography evoked a waking nightmare.

The Soska Sisters’ Rabid is not a safe remake; it is a remake created by artists who despise the vacuous storytelling of most remakes. It takes risks in tone and in subject matter and it is a restless creature that bursts at the seams with ideas and passion and social critique. It is unafraid to go deep into the dark night of the soul. Despite being a remake, Rabid is the most intensely personal vision from the Soska Sisters since American Mary.

Rabid has it’s U.S. theatrical premiere and VOD release Friday, December 13th.

Hollywood, CA – Arena Cinelounge

Denver, CO – Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Sloans Lake

Philadelphia, PA – Studio Movie Grill, Upper Darby

Marietta, GA – Studio Movie Grill, Marietta

Chicago, IL – Studio Movie Grill, Chatham

Dallas, TX – Studio Movie Grill, Spring Valley

Tampa, FL – Studio Movie Grill, Tampa

Houston, TX – Studio Movie Grill, Pearland

Detroit, MI – Emagine Canton

Cleveland, OH – Tower City Cinema

Rabid is written by Jen and Sylvia Soska and John Serge and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska. It stars Laura Vandervoort (Jigsaw, BITTEN) as “Rose”. Ben Hollingsworth (CODE BLACK) is “Brad” a fashion photographer. Rabidis a remake of the classic David Cronenberg 1977 horror feature film which was executive produced by Ivan Reitman. Rabid also stars Hanneke Talbot (PLAYING DEAD) who portrays Rose’s best friend Chelsea and Mackenzie Gray (LEGION, RIVERDALE) as arrogant fashion designer “Gunter”. Rabidwill also feature WWE superstars CM Punk as “Billy” and his wife New York Times best-selling author AJ Mendez as “Kira”.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.