Somehow, I’m not surprised Rabid – of all David Cronenberg’s run of 1970s/80s genre pieces – has been the movie selected for remake … though, technically, The Dead Zone got there first by being rebooted as a TV series. The 1977 Rabid isn’t as focused or transgressive as Shivers or The Brood, the films that precede and follow it in the Cronenberg oeuvre, but is still very much its makers’ work, combining mind-stretching bio-horror notions with a sense of urban panic. This remake – directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska, who share a script credit with John Serge – picks up on the fact that Rabid is also a sort-of vampire movie, and pays more attention to its transforming central figure, picking up on the transhumanist themes of the Soskas’ American Mary and literally dressing them up in arch high-couture satire. The original has a gritty, grungy, bleak feel, but this is much more stylised, to the extent of putting unlikely works of art on the walls of the ‘William Burroughs Clinic’ (honestly, big mangled Francis Bacon faces are probably not advisable for institutes specialising in facial reconstructive surgery) and kitting up its mad scientist Burroughs (Ted Atherton) in the cardinal-crimson robes Jeremy Irons modelled in Dead Ringers.
Apparently immune rabies-carrier Rose (Laura Vandervoort) expresses her internal turmoil after being turned into a presumably immortal blood-frinker by dashing off absurdly hideous scarlet fashion designs of course proclaimed as works of genius by couturier Gunter (Mackenzie Gray), who acts more like a movie mad scientist than Stephen McHattie does in his one-scene bit as Dr Dan Keloid. I’d not be surprised to learn that this was a difficult production, since it has some of the rip-marks I’d associate with an eve-of-shooting budget cut – the all-important initial motorcycle accident happens during a blackout and one key action sequence is described rather than shown – but there’s also a wild inconsistency of tone between effective black comedy (a freakout on a soap opera set, with a hilarious cameo by Greg Bryk as a director delighted by method carnage) and the sort of horror hash we’ve seen too often. Even the script oscillates between smartly-written exchanges and thudding exposition (‘Rose, I heard you fainted and the hallucinations have become more persistent?’). There’s a weird tripling among the supporting cast when a couple of bitchy hangers-on played by the directors (who never cast themselves as sympathetic characters) are replaced by two near-identical models later in the story (surely, the twins didn’t become unavailable on their own set?) while their homage character namkes (Ellie and Bev, referencing the Mantle Twins from Dead Ringers) are carried over to two different characters Dr Eliot (played by Heide von Palleske, from Dead Ringers) and Dr Beverly.
With only a couple of instances of outbreak action – including a reprise of the shot-dead Santa gag, followed by a smart bit of finger-wagging to the audience for laughing (‘that was a sick man who came here for help’) – this doesn’t get out on the streets to follow the chaos, instead sticking with Rose, who gets a stem cell graft about as scientifically plausible as Cartman growing a pizza place from aborted foetuses on South Park to cover her Morlock mouth facial injuries (she already has faint scars from a bit of hinted backstory) and emerges as a literal glamourpuss who stalks and bites obnoxious guys. The armpit syringe/penis returns, but it’s snakier and echoed by other tendril-like organs (the ‘immortal cancer’ is at once Cronenbergian and Screaming Mad George-ish) – and the wilder extremes of mad science in the service of beauty, shifting the locus from internal organs to the face, evoke things like The Wasp Woman and The Leech Woman … even as the Canadian content medical vampirism seems like a nod to David Blyth’s underrated Red-Blooded American Girl.
Vandervoort is solid in the lead, going through a wild series of changes and looks, but seems dissociated from her mixed ability co-stars, striking more sparks with her flatmate/big sis model pal Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot, one of the murdered maids in Ready or Not) than with plankline leading man Brad Hart (Benjamin Hollingsworth, from the Soska’s overlooked Vendetta and presumably poking fun at the somewhat stoic Frank Moore in Cronenberg’s film). With bits for wrestler CM Punk (also in Girl on the Third Floor), Lynn Lowry (from Shivers) and Tristan Risk (from American Mary). The oddest participating credit is producer Paul LaLonde, from the Cloud Ten evangelical film compy behind the Apocalypse and Left Behind rapture series.