Cronenberg disturbs Jarv: Rabid
Before I get into this review of Cronenberg’s sophomore film, I just want to hand out a “twat of the day” award to Richard Corliss of Time Magazine for this comment in Marilyn Chambers’ obituary:
The sad news is that Chambers, to quote the title from a 1974 movie she did not appear in, is 99 and 44/100% dead.
There’s being rude, and there’s poor taste in an obituary. That comment is offensive for the sake of being offensive, and seems so pleased with its own cleverness that I didn’t read the rest of the article after that. Aye, very good Corliss, you know she was the Ivory Snow soap model. Revolting.
All digressions aside, Rabid is Cronenberg’s somewhat disappointing follow up to the promising Shivers, and I can’t say that I really like it. I think, if anything, Rabid represents a real step back for him.
Ex-porn (well, more of a sabbatical from skin flicks really) actress Marilyn Chambers stars as Rose, the victim of a horrendous motorbike crash and dubious experimental surgery that transforms her into a blood crazed vampire. Rabid follows her development as she feeds on strangers (including a sleazy guy in a skin flick, a nice trucker, an innocent female in a hot tub, her doctor and so forth) with her very typical of Cronenberg armpit mouth. She retains a modicum of control, however her victims turn into mindless crazed zombies. The film builds to a crescendo (martial law is declared on Montreal), before a surprising and depressing climax.
I didn’t like this film, and I also really don’t rate it highly. It’s not particularly innovative, and it isn’t particularly interesting. Rabid does touch on Cronenberg’s trademark body horror (the armpit mouth is both unsettling and disgusting) but a lot of the film seems to trundle along without really engaging me.
Marilyn Chambers was foisted on Cronenberg, and she was an inspired choice. The porn actress has an unexpected range, and a nice screen presence. Joe Silver, returning from Shivers playing basically the same role, supplies able support and Frank Moore is OK as the boyfriend who’s carelessness caused the motorcycle accident and led to the tragedy. However, this really is Chambers’ film- although I do have to wonder if Sissy Spacek (who Cronenberg originally wanted to cast) wouldn’t have been better.
The direction is also, and I can’t believe this, not as good as it is in Shivers. Cronenberg seems to almost be lacking a bit of confidence here. There’s still the odd flash of genius (the frozen body used on the cover for example), but it feels lackluster compared to both his earlier film and the forthcoming The Brood. He’s comfortably at his happiest in such instances as Chambers writhing in agony on the floor, or the Doctor investigating the pit mouth, but the film doesn’t contain enough of these moments. The initial bike crash, in particular, doesn’t look at all threatening or dangerous and really pales in comparison to some of the automobile crashes in Crash.
I think, however, that a lot of the problems in Rabid come from the script. There’s a huge gap in the film where the audience is asked to make an enormous suspension of disbelief based on terrible unconvincing cod science. Rose goes wrong because the Doctor treats her skin grafts with some scientifically dodgy thing that make them “neutral” cells and so will adapt faster as a graft. The problem comes in that this doesn’t explain at all how they morph into a blood sucking mouth, and furthermore doesn’t explain how the rest of her physiology is affected. Really, this is a prime example of less being more- if there was no explanation at all of the grafts and instead they called it “unnamed experimental treatment” or some such without any detail at all then I’d comfortably be able to ignore it. Instead I spent a lot of the film wondering “why is this happening” and I really think this spoilt it for me.
There are things I like in this film. Vampirism is clearly an STD here, and Cronenberg has Rose feed in situations that look, at the very least, intimate. Her first victim, for example, is gripped between her legs and she clings to him to feed. The guy in the porn cinema is bitten on his hand while copping a feel of her breasts and so forth. I really like the way that the feeding looks explicitly like sex- it’s effective and uneasy. Furthermore, the novel location of the feeding mouth allows Cronenberg to film the vampirism in a more overtly sexual way than the usual bite on the neck.
At the end of the day, Rabid isn’t a good film. There are good things about it, and it’s not expressly bad, but it isn’t a film that I have any desire ever to see again. The acting is fine, the direction is the weakest in any Cronenberg that I’ve seen, and the writing is all over the place. Unless you were fool enough to do something completely stupid like, say, a review series of every one of the Canadian’s films then this is a hugely missable effort. It lacks the startling originality that Cronenberg usually has, and is just terribly bland. Furthermore, it feels disjointed in many instances, and the climax of the film (while sad) relies purely on Rose being too stupid to realise that she’s Montreal’s Typhoid Mary.
Cronenberg was not in his stride yet, and Rabid is a real step back from Shivers. I’ve got Fast Company for his next film, and I’ve never even heard of that until attempting this series so I don’t hold out a lot of hope that he’s on form yet (luckily The Brood is after that).
Overall, I give Rabid an extremely disappointing 1 Chang, and have to say that I really do not recommend it. What a shame.
I’m starting to feel about early Cronenberg the way that Droid felt about 70’s Arnie and I cannot fucking wait for The Brood and the 1980’s. Shivers was good but icky, and Rabid is tepid at best. Still, just one more to go.
The order so far:
- Shivers (click here for the review)
Until next time,