Released: 12th October
Seen: 1st November
Out of all the directors whose work I never thought would be remade, David Cronenberg is up the top of the list. How could you remake anything he did? His work is so influential that it’s credited with the popularization of the body horror genre with his early work like Videodrome, Scanners and The Fly. His work is so strange and visceral that the idea that someone would even consider remaking any of them feels like a recipe for disaster. Enter the Soska Sisters who took the risk and remade one of Cronenberg’s earliest films, the epidemic-driven horror film Rabid.
The 2019 version of Rabid follows Rose (Laura Vandervoort), a budding fashion designer who is at the bottom of the social food chain due to her total lack of self-confidence. Her self confidence is so bad that her good friend Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot) ends up setting Rose up with the fashion companies photographer Brad (Ben Hollingsworth) in a way that’s meant to make Rose feel like it was Brad’s idea. Of course, this attempt to get Rose to go out with Brad ends up backfiring and in the ensuing chaos of Rose’s hasty exit she ends up being in a horrifying car accident that causes her to have severe facial disfigurement that sends her spiralling into a deep depression. At some point she happens to find out online about a company doing experimental surgeries for cases just like hers and she takes a meeting with Dr William Burroughs (Ted Atherton) who not only promises that he can make Rose look good as new but that it won’t cost her a thing. Because free healthcare isn’t something that Americans are used to being offered, she jumps at the opportunity and sure enough, the procedure works. Not only does she look good as new but better than ever, she has gone full ‘90s movie makeover and taken off her glasses to reveal she was always a runway model. Of course, because this is a horror movie, there is the slight catch that she now has an almost unquenchable hunger for blood that she feeds on in moments that feel more like a nightmare. Unbeknownst to her, everyone who she feeds on ends up becoming rabid and infecting other people.
Part of what makes this film work well is that it keeps the people becoming rabid as a background thing, it never really even gets noticed by Rose until the last second when she’s realizing that she might’ve been accidentally infecting people. It smartly puts all the focus on how Rose’s newfound confidence in her appearance has pushed her, only showing us hints of the horror that comes with the new power. It’s almost like wishing on a monkey’s paw, sure you can get your dress in the fashion show but the model’s going to have rabies and try to kill the boss when they do it. Everything slowly builds up to an elaborate fashion show massacre that’s the kind of goofy fun I go to these movies to see.
The catch is the build-up to that glorious climax (There’s more after it but everything builds to this big fashion show) plays more like a spin on a werewolf movie than a body horror movie, complete with strange nightmares that might actually be things that are happening and painful ‘transformation’ scenes where the main character whimpers and rolls around in pain because they haven’t eaten in a while. One of the big things about this property is that the original had the reveal of a weird phallic monster in the lead character’s armpit which we don’t really see until right near the end. For most of the film, it’s just Rose biting people and ripping out their throats and that’s a lot of fun right there. It’s so much fun that when we have to cut away for our semi-regular reminder that there’s a bunch of people with rabies around it almost feels wrong. It’s more interesting to just watch Rose trying to figure out why she’s having these weird nightmares, why she has the urge to try and drink the blood from a steak or why the doctor-prescribed protein drink is bright red and the consistency of blood. It’s less interesting to have the Center for Disease Control running around a hospital trying to deal with crazy people with rabies (although that storyline does lead to one glorious moment where a guy with rabies gets shot and a doctor screams “He came here for help!” as though that somehow absolved the guy with rabies who was violently attacking people).
Where this movie trips up is the ending. It suffers from the old classic “Can’t pick one ending and stick with it” so it has about three and just keeps hurtling through them. It sucks because one of the endings is beautifully tragic and could’ve been a very fitting ending considering the tone of the rest of the film, but then they basically undo it and keep on going. I’m also seriously not fond of the twist reveal of who one of the bad guys was, it’s something that feels so forced to create a shocking moment that it just falls flat. The worst parts of this movie basically all happen right at the end so they’re hard to describe but also seriously important. A stumble in the middle can be forgiven if the ending is great, but if the ending irritates you then that can spoil all the memories of the movie itself and this movie’s ending is pretty bad.
Rabid has got a lot going for it, a great visual aesthetic and charming performances by a cast that’s gung ho to be as extreme as they need to. There’s a lot of great elements here, some genuinely shocking moments of pure dread and a lot of great effects work. The image of Rose with half her face missing is truly the kind of horror iconography you dream of getting to see. It stumbles at the ending and takes too long for the rabies plotline to catch up with Rose, but all in all, it’s still a quite good movie. If nothing else, I kind of love that we have a pair of sisters providing some good shocking horror for us to enjoy.