Review: Rabid (2019) Go Ahead, Get Bit!

Just like Rabid’s lead character Rose… on the outside – following her miraculous skin-grafting treatments – her beauty is unmatched.

But on the inside, things are a little messed-up and uncertain.

It’s a metaphor for the Soska Sisters’ (Jen and Sylvia) new remake of David Cronenberg’s ‘70s classic – Rabid.

I’ve never seen the 1977 original. I actually have it in my possession. And when I saw this remake was coming up, and it became apparent that I was going to review it – there was the “Should I or shouldn’t I?” question. In the end, I chose to let this remake stand on its own. Now that I’ve seen it, I will indeed sit down with the original for comparison.

Following a disfiguring accident years ago, Rose (Laura Vandervoort) is something of a wallflower in the high intensity world of fashion design. Following some unfortunate (but well-intentioned) events masterminded by her best friend Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot) and potential work love interest Billy (Benjamin Hollingsworth), Rose is struck by a car, as she speeds away from a nightclub on a scooter. When she awakens in the hospital a week later, her face and chest have been basically destroyed. Unable to communicate verbally, she writes with a pen, “I’m a monster”. She’s lost her job and home and has fallen into a deep depression. When a “too good to be true” experimental process falls into her lap, she goes under the knife. Her new scars, as well as her old scars are healed. She goes back to work, now confident, poised and beautiful. But these strange skin-grafts come with some nasty side-effects.

I enjoyed the performances across the board. As Rose, Vandervoort manages to express her depression, anxiety and horror – even from behind that gnarly make-up. When she’s “healed”, she glows. And when Rose finds her feet and makes great strides toward her fashion career – you’ll root for her. But of course, when the treatment’s side effects begin to take over Rose’s life, Vandervoort goes there – primal screams, painful body spasms and all-out chaos. This is body horror, yo. You can’t fake your reactions. Vandervoort’s is an expert performance.

As Rose’s long-time friend (and foster sister) Chelsea, Hanneke Talbot practically steals the show. I loved the character and the actor immediately. The character is fun but sympathetic, driven but kind and always in the moment. With so many tiny reactions, when Chelsea is not the scene’s focus – Talbot shines. My favorite being her reaction to Rose’s initial unmasking. Some serious back and forth going on in the character’s head (“I’m disgusted, but need to remain positive”). Talbot pulls it all off.

The supporting cast is great all around. Kudos to Ted Atherton as Rose’s physician, Dr. William Burroughs. He’s a fantastically slimy villain – the definition of love to hate. The scene where he dons his surgical attire (an obvious reference to Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers), you’ll practically be howling with laughter. A truly brilliant moment.

And a call-out to actor Mackenzie Gray as designer Gunter, Rose’s eccentric boss. Whenever he’s on-screen, he chews the hell out of the scenery, and you’ll love every single moment.

The film’s look (art direction/cinematography) is wonderfully sleek, matching the high fashion world it’s meant to illustrate. Even in the clinic where Rose receives her initial and follow-up treatments, every desk and wall seems to be beautified and covered in a coat of high-gloss paint. Obviously, this was a choice – considering the journey Rose will undertake – to find her ultimate beauty. And these glossy backdrops and settings, make for a perfect canvas to then display so much blood, gore and death. I may have loved the performances, but I adored the film’s production design.

The make-up effects, including Rose’s first reveal of her damaged jaw/face following the scooter accident – are absolutely stunning. It’s grotesque and frankly heart-breaking. The make-up effects, paired with Vandervoort’s acting prowess in this scene, makes this reveal a powerful punch to the audience’s collective gut. And with where the film leads you, you’ll not want for a moment – the grotesque body horror one would expect from a Cronenberg-inspired project.

And now that I’ve touted the amazing wares available to you in Rabid, I must make note of some of the pieces with which I took issue.

The pacing is sometimes quite slow. The film’s run-time is a daunting 110 minutes (quite long for a horror flick). There is a build to the film’s climax, but it never felt totally driven. I believe several of the “What the hell is happening to me?” scenes with Rose could have been removed, thus picking things up a bit, and removing some of the repetition.

We do get some insights into Rose’s past, but with so much space in the film’s run-time, I think a deeper dive into her history would have been beneficial (and certainly possible). While I cared about Rose’s well-being, I felt I could have loved her even more. There were times when Rose came off a bit cold. And while I can understand the choice (again, the high stakes and emotionless world of fashion), it didn’t allow me to completely love her. I needed a bit more.

On another positive note, I do have to call-out the tiny (but effective) “photo cameo” from one of Cronenberg’s collaborators back in the day, Lynn Lowry (of Shivers). Loved this detail – obviously meant for the fans. Well done.

I’ve never seen a Soska Sisters film. Obviously, I’m behind the curve here, but based on Rabid, I will now seek out their other efforts. They’ve got a great aesthetic and a keen eye for interesting details within the frame. I loved the fact that the Soska sisters captured that same, inexplicably Canadian (and ‘70s) feel of Cronenberg’s early work. Overall, the new Rabid felt right at home.

Oh, and both Jen and Sylvia show up in cameos as two bitchy party guests.

Rabid is a good film, it just doesn’t quite reach “great” status. And I’ve come to that conclusion based on this film and this film alone. So perhaps not seeing the original ahead of time, was a fairer and wiser choice.  It’s a glossy, beautifully-produced horror show, worthy of your time. But please make note of my reservations listed above.

One of my screening mates – who is familiar with the original – said that the remake is an improvement over Cronenberg’s vision, simply based on the fact that the infection/virus receives a more complete explanation of its existence. Obviously, I’ll reserve that judgment until I’ve screened the Cronenberg original.

So peel off those bloody bandages, go in for some experimental treatments, and we’ll see what you think of the film, post-op. Call me in the morning for your test results.

Rabid is scheduled for a limited theatrical release toward the end of 2019.

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