Thursday, December 3, 2009

There's a Party In My Armpit and Everyone's Invited!

Since flu season/a month of chocolate covered Santas is upon us, it seemed appropriate to revisit the work of a man who always makes me thankful for the body I've got. Sure, I may have a tickle in my throat and lack the Ivory Soap sanctioned skin of Marilyn Chambers, but at least you won't find an Ironside-sized headache spinning my brain or vaginal VHS insertion strip growing out of my stomach.
And so, to celebrate December, I give you David Cronenberg’s Rabid. 

Don’t look at me like that. The film has snow. And a smoking elf. Plus pornography, popped collars, and plastic surgery. What could be more seasonal?
Quick Plot: A young couple on a motorcycle flip themselves into a nasty accident but thankfully--or not--they land close to the Keloid Center, a plastic surgery clinic on the cutting (moohahaha) edge of experimentation. Driver Hart Read is treated and sent home but girlfriend Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is worse for the wear. Operations are needed, which is a bonus for Dr. Keloid, a talented surgeon itching to try out some new skin graphing technology on the unsuspecting patient.
A month or so later, the comatose Rose awakens to find a concerned doctor at her bed. Rather than call for help or morphine, she nuzzles the man into a bloody mess, later sneaking out for a little more off-premises squeezing from any creature she can get (grizzled alcoholic farmer, nonconsenting cow, etc). As we follow a few of her victims, it becomes clear that Rose is a Typhoid Mary of sorts, spreading a new strain of gooey green rabies all throughout the land of mounties and maple syrup.

Rabid marks the second full-length horror feature from David Cronenberg, and it makes a perfectly fine (although highly infectious) partner to his 1974 shocker Shivers. Both films take a deep and fluid-covered look at a toxic, almost zombie-esque disease spread through close (often suggestively sexual) human contact,. Like George Romero’s The Crazies, Rabid integrates some of the potential fear factor of martial law and the breakdown of society in the face of nearsighted scientific advancement (even mall Santa himself falls victim to what happens in a shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of world), while the smaller-scaled Shivers kept the action inside one prime-meat filled apartment complex.
Neither film represents the best of Cronenberg’s canon, but both Shivers and Rabid offer prime looks at one of cinema’s most innovative filmmakers getting his start. With Rabid, Canada’s least shy director delves into the human body with what would become a trademarked sense of current advancements blending into the organic organism and creating a monster completely of its own. Sex and violence unabashedly coat each frame, but nothing feels gratuitous, nor is it pretentious in issuing any outright verdicts on medical practices or societal relations. While we can easily read Rabid as a sort of pre-meditation on plastic surgery and the AIDS crisis, it’s just as easy to sit back and wait for the next infected attack. 
High Points
Although she doesn’t quite get enough to do, Marilyn Chambers gives a nicely understated performance that 
proves the occasional stunt casting can work perfectly well when the actor in question still fits the bill

Few directors can stage such suspenseful surgery as Cronenberg. The ear lifting scene here doesn't quite rival Jeremy Irons' homemade scalpels and gynecological treatment in Dead Ringers, but it does cause for a quite a little squirming

Naturally, Cronenberg doesn't disappoint when it comes to the twisted aspects of body horror. Even though we’re now aware that Rose is stabbing or bleeding the men and women she grabs, it’s still quite shocking to get our first glimpse of (SPOILER ALERT) the sharply phallic armpit sword inside one nasty and poorly placed vaginal opening

Low Points
Like a lot of Cronenberg characters, Rose is drawn rather thin. Perhaps this was intentional in making her a less specific person, but it’s hard to know how to feel about Rose’s changed behavior when we don’t know a thing about her life before the accident.

In a combination of a stale character and a dull performance, Frank Moore's Read brings the film to a slow and creaky halt every time he takes center stage
Lessons Learned
Hitchhiking is a great way to meet some very kind drivers' license carriers in Canada. Likewise, traffic cops north of the border are just so darn nice.
Smooth Eddy always looks good
It's hard enough to pick up a woman when you're dressed like an elf, so always be sure to pack some sort of conversation incentive. Cigarettes help (in the '70s), but one can't really expect full wooing without a light

A good trucker never hits a man with glasses
If you’re looking to meet men at a porno theater, make sure you buy a small popcorn to share (even if you can’t actually eat any pieces yourself)

Any genre fan has something of a responsibility to fully absorb the horrifically headiness of Cronenbergia, and Rabid is worth a watch on that premise alone. It’s not nearly as frightening as the masterful buildup of The Brood or quite as intelligent as something like Videodrome, but Rabid is still a fascinating ride into an intelligently rich cinema with a very specifically Cronenbergian twist. The DVD includes a filmmaker commentary, as well as a candid nterview which is really just one more excuse to hear Cronenberg discuss his early films, Canadian censorship, and the casting of Chambers. Stick the film on your queue and save it for one of those movie nights when you want something a little smarter than your average genre flick, yet still feel like watching zombie-esque vampiric Canadians chomp on straphangers and station wagon-driving chauffeurs.


  1. This sounds amazing and that poster art is ridiculous! Admittedly, I've never seen it before. Great write-up.

  2. Thanks PoT! Love to hear your thoughts when you get around to some venereal vampirism!

  3. I watched this one a few months back right after Ms. Chambers passed away. I have to say that before then I didn't even have this on my radar (or know that Chambers was in mainstream films). As you said, it is definitely one of DC's lesser films, but like Shivers, it defiantly shows that body horror was going to be very important in his work. Great review. Glad to know that others are finding out about this one as well.

  4. For a long time, I didn't realize this and Shivers were two different films. I actually think Shivers is a little more enjoyable to watch, but Rabid is probably better made and definitely more ambitious. Both do plow the very fleshy path Cronenberg would spend the next thirty years making us squirm in.

    Just read your review and I could not agree more on the greatness of Joe Silver! I want him as a helpful neighbor. And yes, Moore was awful and Chambers deserved a much better career.