Remaking a classic movie is filthy with pitfalls and raises the ire of fans who are none too quiet about their belief that classics should be left alone and that remakes always suck. Just ask David Cronenberg who likely regrets remaking the 50s sci-fi classic The Fly-except…no. 1986’s The Fly is one of the finest films ever made, certainly one of Cronenberg’s best films and often spoken of in the same breath as another remake that has become an undisputed classic in its own right, John Carpenter’s The Thing. As a horror fan, I never want to count out a movie just because its a remake, because you never know if you’re going to get a Fly or a Prom Night. In either case, though, a film or any piece of art deserves its day in court.
This coming weekend, starting on Friday the 13th, we have two remakes of classic horror films hitting the big screen – Black Christmas and Rabid. The internet had opinions the moment the films were announced, not waiting for cast or even a trailer. That’s the nature of social media, fine. There were more opinions when the trailers finally dropped, but something I’ve come to learn is that directors generally don’t cut their own trailers and the end result might sully an otherwise great film. In Rabid’s case, its real charm was nearly absent from the trailer, though it still piqued my interest, and for Black Christmas, they seem to give away all three acts of the story, but it’s a story I still want to see in full. For now, let’s forget trailers and knee jerk reactions to remakes and focus on the art of filmmaking and specifically Jen and Sylvia Soska’s update of the David Cronenberg classic Rabid.
The original 1977 film starred porn star Marilyn Chambers as Rose, a woman who undergoes an experimental surgery after she’s in a devastating accident. The surgery turns her into a sort of vampire and her bite spreads like rabies among the people of Toronto. Rabid turned the concept of Cronenberg’s previous film, Shivers, inside out. Where Shivers was like Night of the Living Dead in JG Ballard’s High Rise– an outbreak but contained within a singular location, Rabid let it out. Both films explored body modification and science run-amok, not to mention sexually transmitted diseases pushed to terrifying and shocking outcomes, pre-dating the outbreak of AIDs by a few years. Cronenberg’s films came with a thesis, a philosophy. They were existential nightmares and paranoia-inducing deep dives into the human condition, pushing the boundaries of good taste and challenging taboos. Rabid was significantly more polished than Shivers and while you can make comparisons to or find touches of George Romero, Ballard, and William Burroughs, Cronenberg was on another level with Rabid than other exploitation and horror filmmakers off the time.
Jump to 2019 and the concept of Rabid is still very relevant today. In 1977, Cronenberg was essentially talking about stem cell research before it was a thing. Now stem cell research is a household term, debated among scientists, doctors, and politicians. The Soska Sisters gives Rabid‘s medical sci-fi a modern update, exploring the concept of transhumanism- which, to dumb it down, is the concept of technology evolving the human body or say having your iPhone surgically implanted in your skin and wired to your central nervous system. The Soska’s, like Cronenberg, wield sci-fi like a surgical tool-it takes us slightly out of our world, just enough to make us believe in a theoretical, but always keeping both feet planted firmly in a world that is very much our own. One of Cronenberg’s heroes, William Burroughs, was good at telling a story peppered with sci-fi, that still had the feel of the street. The clinic that treats our new Rose, played by Laura Vandervoort (Smallville), is named after him, and we are even treated to a bit of recording of Burroughs talking about vampirism.
Throughout the film, there are nods and references to Cronenberg’s other films, but surprisingly, I found the scenes just post-accident to really give a Universal Monsters vibe. The tragic figure, cut off from society, struggling with a curse, and reaching for anything that might bring them peace. Rose’s bandaged face, hiding her horrific scars, the big hat, scarf, and dark glasses she wears the first time she visits the Burroughs Clinic – it brings to mind The Invisible Man, but the real gut emotion you encounter with that film instead of something cheesy or ham-fisted.
Rabid is the Soska’s best film since American Mary and shows a lot of stylistic growth from the duo. I like the way this film is shot and lit and I especially like the way it plays at being high-brow and then lashes out with grindhouse violence. I’m not a big fan of Rose pre-surgery, as she’s supposed to be less desirable because her face is scarred from a childhood accident, but I think that could have been pushed a bit more because she’s only Hollywood ugly; take off her glasses and ta-da! But that and a few minor gripes not worth getting into are really the only negatives I saw and they don’t detract in any major way from the overall enjoyment I got watching the film. Time will tell if critics and fans ultimately embrace Rabid as a “good remake,” for me I’ll be happy to take the Blu-ray off my shelf from time to time and watch it alongside the original. I think it was a success and I’m looking forward to what the Soskas do next.