Two Different Takes on Female Power in Rabid 1977 and 2019
In the midst of a world changed by a few women taking a stand together against the inherent patriarchy of the Hollywood casting couch, two sisters were taking a cult horror classic and turning it on its side. Jen and Sylvia Soska, aka the Twisted Twins, were given the opportunity to revisit fellow Canadian David Cronenberg’s controversial film Rabid 40 years after its original release. Unfortunately, it would take longer than expected for the film to reach its audience, but now the time has finally come to see how their remake stands up to the original.
David Cronenberg has already had some success with experimental short films and the fairly abstract science fiction movie Crimes of the Future before releasing Shivers in 1975. Cronenberg created a film that outraged critics and politicians when they discovered that a horror film that fused overactive sexual libido with zombie-like masses had been funded with government funding. While Shivers started a national debate about what kinds of art should be allowed to use Canadian funds, it was an underground success around the world.
If that wasn’t enough controversy for one filmmaker, Cronenberg then made an interesting casting choice for his next feature (which also used government funds). 1977’s Rabid would feature known porn star, Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door), as the female succubus that spreads disease to her victims leading to a rabies-like epidemic. This would become an even bigger hit and establish the director outside of his homeland of Canada. Other classics such as The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome would firmly solidify Cronenberg as a true master of horror.
The original Rabid pokes fun at wealth and privilege by having the epidemic start at a plastic surgery clinic. When a young couple out for a ride on a motorcycle is in a potentially deadly crash, the nearest medical facility is the Keloid clinic. Rose is so badly hurt by the crash that it would be too risky to transport her to another hospital, so Doctor Keloid decides the best way to save her life is with experimental skin graft, neutral field tissue technology that would regrow any damaged skin or internal organs.
A month later Rose wakes up screaming, rips off her bandages, and IV to discover that she is in one piece, but something is wrong. Rose eventually realizes that she has developed a hunger for blood. But that is not all that is new. Rose has also grown a new organ, a deadly phallic one that hides in a new orifice under her armpit. Eventually, we discover that Rose’s victims have become infected with a rabies-like epidemic that shuts down the city of Montreal.
Yeah. Things just got weird. Did I forget to mention to those uninitiated that David Cronenberg is the crown prince of body horror? He practically invented the genre. And this is long before he made Brundlefly’s ears fall off (by the way if you haven’t watched The Fly remake, you should).
Cronenberg’s Rabid plays with our fear as a society of science and technology. Just like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein over a hundred and fifty years earlier, Rabid asks the questions: Can science go too far to try and cheat death? In the end, will man’s advances in technology lead to our own demise? While these are the core of Rabid, there is something else being explored.
There is a fear of feminine power inherent in this film. Keeping in mind that by 1977 the Women’s Movement was in full swing, Cronenberg taps in on the very real male fear of the strong, empowered woman. Men manipulate and pull the strings in this film, but it is a woman who can devour them all…almost literally. I can’t help but wonder if this is why Chambers was chosen as the lead. Obviously a role that required a large amount of nudity would be simple for someone known to work in pornography, but the ability to have a strong, confident command of one’s body is both seductive and intimidating in Chamber’s performance.
Her portrayal of Rose is mesmerizing as she gets what she wants by using her feminine wiles to entice a man close to her before viciously pouncing on her prey. At the same time, it is hard to ignore that we are witnessing the male gaze in full effect. Intentionally or not, we constantly see Rose in a state of undress and/or writhing on the floor. She prowls the streets at night with perfect Farrah Fawcett hair and a long fur coat, driven by hunger and seducing the audience as much as her victims. We are meant to see her not just as a monster, a succubus of types, but also as Cronenberg’s deadly sex goddess.
That was then, this is now. I first was aware of the Soska Sisters when American Mary was released on blu-ray around 2013. It’s a dark and twisted tale that reminded me of May and a bit of Hellraiser with its surgery and body modifying themes. I liked their style. A few years later I had the opportunity to meet them at a horror convention. Their excitement for the genre is genuine and infectious.
I was happy to hear that they were working on this remake of Cronenberg’s classic. It seemed fitting for the two to keep the Canadian body horror tradition going strong. The wait was much longer than expected due to distribution issues and false starts for US theatrical releases. As soon as it was announced, I pre-ordered the film to support their efforts. They did not disappoint me.
This version of Rabid does involve a horrible motorcycle accident and experimental reconstructive surgery, but both Rose and her environment are very different and more defined this time. We get to know Rose as a person before the accident now. She is a meek woman who seems uncomfortable in her own skin and the outcast at work, but work is her passion. She works for a fashion designer but wants more than anything to bring her own designs to life one day.
The accident seems to destroy all of her dreams. When Rose wakes up in the hospital she is horribly disfigured and the doctors had to wire her jaw shut. The hospital refers her to the Burroughs Clinic who is doing cutting edge stem cell manipulation – all free of cost since they need test subjects. Even though Rose is scared of the risk, she has no alternative and agrees. When she wakes up and removes the bandages, she looks perfect and completely healed, but something isn’t quite right.
Rose definitely has a new found thirst for blood, which is disturbing for her since she is a vegetarian, but her doctor explains it away as a side effect of anesthetics. When she describes encounters she has where she looking for victims, the doctor says her medication can cause strange dreams and hallucinations that feel real. Rose returns home and heads back to work as a new woman, with bold new ideas.
Her only set back seems to be stomach issues. Of course, things escalate from there and her victims, which are very real, start becoming the infectious patients filling the local hospital. Things come to a boil when Rose is part of a fashion show during the health epidemic that has closed down most of the city. In the end, the mutated Rose was patient zero and she must go back to where it all started to confront her maker.
The Soskas’ take on Rabid does push Cronenberg’s original themes to extremes. There is still the Frankenstein question of humans believing that they have godlike powers to create, heal and even stop death. There are even nods to the FDA not clearing the new procedures and the rising costs of health care pushing patients to take risks that ground us in the world today. The sisters also use Cronenberg’s theme of male fear of female power, but they twist this upside down.
We are seeing this from the opposite side of the argument now. In an interview on the blu-ray, they openly discuss the use of the female gaze in their version of the story, even calling the film a female fantasy. We see men’s fear of women because for the first half of the film Rose is letting this lead her life. Her boss ridicules her; the guy she likes is only with her as a favor to a friend. We can see that men have been telling Rose her whole life who to be and why.
This results in her mousy demeanor and lack of confidence. Once she emerges as a new woman post-surgery, Rose has lost those inhibitions. Her blood lust is just the beginning. Her creativity flows, she walks with a new air of self-worth. Men had treated her badly in the past, but now they are her victims. Yes, she is seductive to get what she wants, but for once she is manipulating those who have had power over her life before. Rose is truly an empowered woman.
My biggest criticism of the Soska film is they fall into one of the oldest tropes in cinema history…or at least since the 80s when John Hughes ruled the box office. The first tell to the audience that Rose is a shy and timid woman, are her large glasses. Of course one of the positive side effects of Doctor Burroughs’ experimental stem cells is that her eyesight is now 20/20. So in true high school film fashion, Rose emerges sans glasses, flipping her long hair to take on the rest of the movie. This is just too easy and could have been easily eliminated to make her character’s evolution far more interesting without such an obvious gimmick.
I do appreciate what they have done to enrich the original story and make Rose more the focus of the film and less the villain. We are experiencing this change with her, not just watching her. This does change the feel of the story and lets the audience care more for her character. I also applaud them for pushing the envelope even further than Cronenberg, letting Rose continue to mutate and become even more dangerous.
There is also the decision the Soska sisters make to set a horror story in the world of high fashion. Like Cronenberg’s playful stab at the world of the rich who can afford to make themselves perfect with cosmetic surgery, the Soskas take this even further. By surrounding the transforming, monstrous Rose with beautiful and thin models they show us the consequences of making bodies perfect.
I also enjoyed the nods in the remake to the original film. There is a moment when Rose is alone in her apartment when the hunger pains attack her, forcing her to double over and end up in a ball on the floor. She is dressed in white cotton underwear and T-shirt, just like a particularly memorable scene in the original film where Chambers is writhing around on a bathroom floor. They also do a wonderful job of expressing the hunger Rose feels in the new film by putting the sounds of an empty stomach growling when she first wakes up. This subtle choice sets the stage for her cravings to come.
Overall, I enjoy both films for the stylistic choices of their filmmakers and their ability to express the times that they were created in. I am not usually a fan of remakes, but when a film can expand on without just copying the original than they can justify the need to revisit a well-loved film from the past. Much like how Cronenberg took on The Fly in 1986 and made it something new and different that was respectful to the original, I can say Jen and Sylvia Soska did the same here. Watch both films and enjoy each other for how different they are.
I highly recommend anyone interested in learning more about the Soskas and their experience making the film to read Fangoria Magazine’s coverage from vol. 2 # 2.