A totemic figure of alternative cinema, David Cronenberg stemmed from a covert gene pool of Canadian, underground film that drew its DNA from the New York experiments of Warhol’s Factory and Antony Balch’s work with literary renegade William S Burroughs.
By the time he came to making Rabid, Cronenberg had already explored his below-the-radar leanings in student films Transfer and From the Drain, before broadening his canvas in steady increments with Stereo, Crimes of the Future and his first commercial film in the independent sector, Shivers. In a rare feat for a director just out of the blocks, he had managed in those early works to establish some remarkably coherent thematic threads: alienation, sinister conspiracies and, above all, the Problem of the Body – expressed through a lingering focus on mutation that was more clinical than morbid.
With Rabid – re-released by Arrow Video as a lovingly lurid Blu-Ray – all of those concerns show through in a film that marks a further step forward for Early Cronenberg’s hunt for scale, yet never loses sight of its protagonist’s grim, downbeat journey.
It opens with a couple taking a full-throttle ride on the same motorcycle through the bleak, Canadian wilderness. On a blind turn, the pair slam into a truck, and while Hart (Frank Moore) is hurled free, Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is trapped beneath the bike while it explodes. In apparently blessed circumstances, the accident happens right on the doorstep of a remote, cosmetic surgery clinic run by experimental medic Dr Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan). Pulling the pair in for treatment, Keloid patches up Rose with skin grafts that have been processed to be “morphogenically neutral”, in other words, more likely to be accepted by the body – an anticipation of stem-cell therapy that is quite extraordinary for 1977.
After several weeks in a coma, Rose awakens – and almost immediately we discover that her proximity to the Keloid Clinic at the time of the accident was anything but a blessing. Stirring in a convulsive torment, Rose is attended by a fellow patient, who is the first to learn (the hard way) of her treatment’s unpleasant side effects. As he bends over her, she moves to embrace him, and a phallic proboscis launches from her armpit to tap his blood supply. From that point on, it is the only way Rose can draw sustenance – conventional food makes her sick – and she begins to work her way through a series of hapless victims in the clinic and its locality. In a double whammy of cruelty, Rose’s prey don’t die: with her phallus leaving a genetic taint in their systems, they turn sour and lose their minds, becoming effectively “rabid”, driven only by an urge to attack others and spread the disease.
Eventually, Keloid – the one figure with the smarts to turn Rose’s mutation around – is also in the sick bucket… and by that stage, his former patient is hitching a ride to Montreal. Soon after her arrival, and under her influence, the city’s social norms collapse, inviting the spectre of martial law.
Seen from an almost 40-year distance, Rabid is undeniably date-stamped, and evidence of the formal deftness that Cronenberg would later apply to Videodrome – the apotheosis of his early period – is scant. But it is nonetheless a convincing self-portrait of an auteur in the making, and contains a number of tropes that would come to define his output: the backfiring experiment that can’t be reversed (The Fly); scientific obsession with anatomy (Dead Ringers); the undoing of rational reality (Naked Lunch, eXistenZ) and even the transformative, knock-on effects of vehicle accidents (Crash).
Chambers, who was plucked from the realm of hardcore porn to play Rose by producer Ivan Reitman, is far better than many of the professional actors in the piece. Indeed, it’s timely that Rabid’s re-emergence should remind us that her solitary journeys through rural and urban milieus as a predatory outcast were so clearly echoed in last year’s Jonathan Glazer masterpiece Under the Skin. We can only hope that the rep circuit has cottoned on, and that a few package screenings of the films are in the offing (actually, they can throw in the Marianne Faithful opus Girl on a Motorcycle, too, for good measure).
Chambers’ presence also embodies the film’s schizophrenic personality. On one hand, we have the aloofness and sterility of Early Cronenberg’s quest to intellectualise gore: rather than approaching every attack or disease incident as a spectacular set piece – like his contemporary George A Romero’s zombie films – his camera hangs back as though watching cells curdle under a microscope. On the other hand, Early Cronenberg knows full well that he is captaining an exploitation film – and isn’t above writing lines like “Hold it right there” if it will sell the drunkenness of a farmer who is about to molest his way to his own demise. Bringing copious baggage to her role, Chambers becomes a knot of connective tissue between the sensationalist cinema that Cronenberg cut his teeth on, and the themes that would drive his artistic growth. In that sense, she is one of horror’s most deeply significant scream queens.
It is for those reasons that watching Rabid in the light of Cronenberg’s more recent work, from A History of Violence onwards, induced a hunger for his earlier self. Prior to his recent explorations of psychological neuroses – including the Dead Ringers-lite, Cronenberg-does-Merchant-Ivory of A Dangerous Method – there was simply no one else on Earth like him… a director so willing to push audiences into the fears of their own flesh, yet so eager to set out his disturbing theses with a sharp and cunning intelligence. Now, no one has picked up the baton that Cronenberg abandoned after Spider – although his son Brandon’s Antiviral was a laudable attempt – and the man himself is keen to unravel the lives of well-to-do sophisticates in a way that doesn’t call for the distinctive imagery that made him famous.
It is imagery worth mourning, and one wonders whether Cronenberg would ever be tempted to sing in his Rabid register again.
On the technical front, the Blu-Ray is an outstanding package. The gorgeously grainy transfer is so well done, you could imagine you are watching the film in a grotty Montreal flickhouse in the late 1970s rather than on a flatscreen hi-def TV in 2015. There are also several documentaries and interviews that sketch out Cronenberg’s fascinating career, and show what an engaging speaker he is.
Yet another disc to demonstrate that Arrow Video and horror go together like the intestine and the tapeworm.
Words> Matt Packer