I want to preface this review with the fact that I have not seen the original David Cronenberg film and so my opinion of the film is not based on any comparison to his work, aside from some understanding about the references contained within the remake.
Synopsis: Rose is a quiet, demure, unassuming woman in her looks and actions. Her dream is to become a famous designer in the fashion world, but a terrible accident leaves Rose scarred beyond recognition. She seeks out a radical untested stem cell treatment. The treatment is nothing short of a miracle and wallflower Rose turns into the belle of the ball. It all seems to good to be true. She is now everything she wanted to be. But everything in life comes at a price and this new found perfect life is no exception.
It has clearly been a period of instability for directors Jen and Sylvia Soska. The release of American Mary appeared to represent the emergence of two strong voices in the horror genre – something with more gloss than their DIY ethos in the entertaining Dead Hooker in a Trunk. However, after numerous projects were announced and then did not materialise aside from some WWE Studios productions (I find See No Evil 2 to be pretty good fun, as it happens, although obviously studio restrictions mean it probably isn’t the exact vision they had for it) it seemed the film-making had stalled for them. Instead, the pair have turned their hands to being game show hosts and writing for graphic novels and while this is commendable when experiencing difficulties with other projects, it is really lovely to see them back taking on a feature film which fits their sensibilities.
It feels necessary to include that background because Rabid routinely feels like the pair announcing their return to their kind of film-making. As a result, there are a number of direct parallels with American Mary – the use of Ave Maria and music by Kevvy on the soundtrack, the presence of actors like Tristan Risk and ultimately, their female protagonist undergoing a transformation that is signified by them donning a borrowed dress to name but a few. These direct links don’t feel like a retread of the material but a reinforcement of elements that most fit the vision of the directors. There is something symbolic in the use of the borrowed dress – Rose in Rabid (played to perfection by Laura Vandervoort) is an incredibly attractive woman, but her position within the fashion industry makes her vulnerable to insecurities about her facial scars from a traffic accident which claimed the lives of her family. The borrowed dress represents her taking the first step into becoming someone she is not. Her discovery at the party that her friend/quasi-sister Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot) has asked Brad (Benjamin Hollingsworth) to ask her to attend the party with him as a favour, rather than through genuine interest leads her to flee, resulting in the accident which deforms her. In a dress that isn’t hers that she wears to feel different she faces humiliation and physical trauma – much as anti-hero Mary does in American Mary.
It is notable that the experimental stem cell treatment does not only repair the damage to Rose’s mouth which would prevent her from living a normal life, but also perfects non-functional aspects such as removing a bump from her nose and clearing all scars. Her renewed appearance is the catalyst for renewed confidence and this means that her boss Gunter (Mackenzie Gray) rapidly changes from making an example of her when she is late to including her designs in his latest show – Schadenfreude. It feels like a comment on the perceived privilege of outward beauty as providing opportunities, while her struggle behind closed doors during her recovery and her increasingly dark desires acts as a metaphor for the sometimes unusual and dangerous treatments to maintain that beauty. Vandervoort is excellent in the role, especially as it calls for a period of time where she has no dialogue and also a significant portion of her face obscured. Her ability to emote even with these restrictions is a credit to how good an actress she is and her performance is really powerful. The supporting performances are solid, although Ted Atherton’s incredibly sinister Dr Burroughs is something of a standout.
The effects within Rabid are very impressive, especially the wired jaw imagery featured on the poster and other promotional materials. The wiring looks genuinely painful and the reveal within the film is still powerful, even though the image has already been widely circulated. The use of performers like former wrestler Phil Brooks and excellent contortionist Twisty Troy mean that some of the effects are carried off in full view of the camera which is especially effective in creating some surprising moments. The use of shape-shifting Tristan Risk in multiple roles is very effective as she has a real talent for losing herself in heavy makeup while still retaining an element of humanity within that role. The photography in the attack scenes is brilliantly chaotic with slight blurring to emphasise the frenzy which somewhat reminded me of the way attacks are represented in 28 Days Later. I don’t want to delve too far into the later special effects, but there really is a whole world created that feels fantastical and thoroughly disturbing. In addition, the creations within the fashion world it represents feel fully formed rather than being extra elements. A moment in which Rose and her redesign of a dress take centre stage is made to feel incredibly important – a representation of her more reckless, impulsive, darker vision.
The Cronenberg references come thick and fast showing how much a labour of love the film is and how it seeks to honour his work. There are Dead Ringers-style surgeons, a charged scene in a swimming pool that wouldn’t feel out of place in Shivers and multiple other nods to his work and inspirations. Obviously, taking on the task of remaking a Cronenberg film is a big ask as there are so many fans of the original and so it seems wise for the remake to change it’s setting to the world of high-gloss fashion to separate itself. There are also cameo appearances from Canadian genre stars like Stephen McHattie. Everything about the film feels like a love letter to Canadian horror over the years.
Rabid is a welcome return to form for two interesting voices in the horror genre and one can only hope that this is the beginning of more work from the pair. Laura Vandervoort cements herself as an actor who is more than capable of tackling intense and challenging roles so I hope she will soon appear in more films. Strong in its themes of the dark side of beauty, the ethical limits of science and individual insecurities, Rabid is an incredibly interesting entry into the body horror genre.
Rabid is currently on the festival circuit but distribution news will soon follow.