The New Flesh
The Soska Sisters’ feminist reworking of Rabid honors the mind and bodies of Cronenberg
If you’re going to remake a David Cronenberg film, you’d better not try to ape his ideas, because Cronenberg’s ideas are inextricable from his filmmaking. They are the source of the horror: in much of his work, a disease is a misunderstood monster, just doing what it has to do to survive. Jen and Sylvia Soska, who like Cronenberg are Canadian, have now remade Cronenberg’s 1977 cult favorite Rabid, and they have filled it with their own notions about surgery and transhumanism and fashion. The Soska sisters don’t try to be Cronenberg, but they sure pay tribute to his films throughout their own. Their Rabid, a project that was offered to them and possibly would have been made with or without them, expresses more than anything their deep and abiding love for Cronenberg’s work. As Cronenberg is one of my movie gods, I’m on board with that.
The new Rabid takes off from a premise similar to the original. A woman, Rose (Laura Vandervoort), is badly disfigured in a motorcycle accident. Her case is taken up by a surgeon (Ted Atherton) who applies experimental skin grafts. Rose’s looks are restored; the procedure even smooths out scar tissue from a previous, less extreme accident. But Rose is also left with a craving for blood, and when she feeds off of a victim, that person in turn is infected with the blood delirium. It all boils down to the doctor trying to cheat death (aren’t they always?) by developing this grotesque parasite that perpetuates itself violently. But in the Cronenberg aesthetic, the horror is that this new thing — this new flesh — brought to life is not in itself evil. It just evolves incidentally into a threat to humans. In the Soska playbook, it’s simply one of many things that twist mind and flesh, generally to the detriment of women.
The script, by the Soskas and John Serge, puts Rose to work for a fey, decadent fashion designer. The Soskas seem to liken the fashion world to the moviemaking world: in both, art and transgression are possible — a post-infection Rose produces some tormented gothy dress sketches that her boss flips over — but so are body dysmorphia, drug abuse, and a self-destructive quest for perfection. The Soskas’ interests and emphasis deviate from Cronenberg’s own, but the end result honors his work. There are any number of Easter eggs for Cronenberg fans, such as a wink to the famous “college of cardinals” scene in Dead Ringers, and others I will leave you to discover. Eventually the action leaves the realm of Cronenberg and incorporates elements of, if I’m not mistaken, Re-Animator and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Like many young filmmakers, the Soskas like to pile everything they’ve been obsessing about into the latest film because there’s no guarantee they’ll be granted the keys to another.
Ultimately, Rabid has a warmer center than the original — Cronenberg had to make do with adult-film actress Marilyn Chambers as Rose (he’d wanted Sissy Spacek), and about the most you could say about Chambers was that she was surprisingly competent. Laura Vandervoort brings a lot more vulnerability and pain and spiky anger to Rose, and when the action around Rose gets outlandish, Vandervoort grounds it all in credible female angst. When Rose feeds on a loutish, abusive man, it’s partly you-go-girl revenge, but it’s also pragmatic: a dude this stupid and single-minded makes the perfect prey. Vandervoort doesn’t play it like Zoë Tamerlis in Ms. 45; Rose is driven by her need for blood, and this idiot makes himself known to her.
There was a certain way-before-its-time non-binary/intersex thread in Cronenberg’s Rabid — his Rose was left with what read as male and female sex organs in her armpit (!), with which she fed on blood. We see a bit of that in the new film, but since it deals far more organically with a female point of view, the threat is mainly and viscerally phallic. The Soskas’ 2012 body-horror original American Mary showed they had more on their minds than grrl-power snarls and splatter, and Rabid confirms it. It ends on an image comparable to the bleak nihilism with which Cronenberg sealed his film, only with a distinct nightmarish Gilead tinge to it. As in Alien: Resurrection, perhaps the most Cronenbergian (and most underrated) of the Alien films, a woman isn’t even going to be allowed the peace of death if her existence will benefit men.