Rabid

Canada (2019) Dir. Jen & Sylvia Soska

I suppose everybody at some stage in their lives wishes they were more attractive than they are, whether to boost their confidence or purely from a vanity perspective. But there is always a price to pay for this, especially if it is achieved via cosmetic surgery, the easiest path to discovering nothing, let alone looks, last forever.

Meek, plain-looking Rose (Laura Vandervoort) is a fashion designer working for the demanding Gunter (Mackenzie Gray). With a staff party looming, photographer Brad (Benjamin Hollingsworth) asks Rose to be his date and she reluctantly agrees. At the party, Rose overhears two women (The Soska Sisters) laughing about how Brad was put up to ask Rose out by her best friend and model Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot).

Leaving the nightclub upset, Rose crashes her scooter into another vehicle. Waking up after a weeklong coma, she learns her jaw was destroyed in the accident, repaired with skin grafts, and wired shut to hold it together. A few days later, Rose receives an e-mail from a clinic and signs up for their experimental stem cell treatment. The surgery not only restores Rose’s face she is prettier too, though there are some odd side effects.

Cult director David Cronenberg is one of those revered figures in cinema that nobody dares remake his films – until now. With a cult following of their own, Cronenberg devotees the Twisted Twins Jen & Sylvia Soska have taken one of his more recognisable titles, 1977’s Rabid and given it a 21st century makeover. Since the Soskas are known for their grotesque take on the world, this seems to be tailor made for them.

Since I have very vague memories of seeing the original so there’ll be no blow-by-blow comparisons in this review, though a look at the plot summary on Wikipedia reveals only the barest plot elements are featured in this retelling. It is telling the film credits declare this is based on Cronenberg’s original, illustrating the Soskas’ regard for the director as well as letting horror fans know this is no rip off or lazy remake.

The first half of the film focuses on Rose’s journey from wallflower to desirable vamp with a taste for blood. Whether it is Gunter not taking her designs seriously, to a club bouncer struggling to find her name on the guest list she compiled, it is laid on pretty thick from the onset where this is heading. It’s a bit of a stretch when as is the most attractive woman in the entire cast which even glasses and dowdy clothes can’t disguise but that’s cinema for you.

For the next fifteen minutes this is a moot point as Rose’s post-accident appearance is sadly grotesque, leaving her housebound in Chelsea’s apartment. A vain airhead with no idea of tact, Chelsea and Rose are former foster-sisters after Rose’s parents were killed in a car accident when she was a child, yet there is almost no chemistry or palpable connection between them.

Coming to Rose’s rescue were the general hospital failed is the Burroughs Clinic, fronted by Dr William Burroughs (Ted Atherton) – yes, it is deliberate – propagating the radical theory of transhumanism, the process of bettering and extending human life through stem cell treatment. If it was this good, it should be more widely known but it actually isn’t approved by the medical board which says it all really.

Rose’s physical transformation is of course remarkable and she is now (still) gorgeous and she feels it too. But she feels weird after waking up after surgery and goes for a wander around the hospital where she finds TV soap actor Dominic (Stephen Huszar) in the pool, and feels unusually frisky. But instead of a steamy smooch Rose bites him, enjoying the taste of his blood – or she thinks she did; Dr. Burroughs insists she was hallucinating, a common side effect his bespoke medicine will remedy, as well as her hunger pangs.

Of course, we know differently. Rose begins to experience many further hallucinations involving her biting men, one being overbearing player Billy (Phil “CM Punk” Brooks), who, like Dominic returns some time later as a flesh eating psychopath. Soon there is a rabies epidemic spreading yet Rose is the only one with a bloodlust who isn’t foaming at the mouth and going on the rampage.

So, what starts as a satire on the fashion industry and a caustic comment on how the value of beauty is perceived, ends up a tale of a zombie-esque outbreak with lashings of gory violence. The transhumanism experiments fulfil the moral disputes over the medical contribution in creating and destroying beauty, the “playing God” card played in the disturbing final act.

We should credit to the Soskas for knowing what their audience wants and delivering it, but with their own kinky twist on things. As with 2012’s American Mary, they use the theme of striving for aesthetic perfection as an easy conduit to bludgeon our senses with blood and guts, whilst creating horror from everyday life too, as if modern life wasn’t scary enough as it is.

The budget was a modest $5 million (Canadian?) but the effects and make-up are truly amazing. Rose’s wired up face is as naturally disturbing as you’ll ever see thus is a work of art, along with a gruesome and horrific set piece in the climax that also stands as a magnificent construction.

Laura Vandervoort is the shining star of this film, displaying incredible versatility in her charting of Rose’s gradual transformation. It’s a change that is physical, emotional, and psychological, requiring nuance and empathy with which Vandervoot incisively suffuses her performance. Sadly, the rest of the cast of woefully overshadowed – either they can’t act or the Soskas only know how to direct their main lead.

You don’t need to have seen Cronenberg’s original Rabid to enjoy or appreciate what the Soskas’ have done with it. If you like your horror twisted this is for you.

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