FRIGHTFEST 2019 – Soska Sisters’ ‘Rabid’ Remake Handles Cronenberg Through the Modern, Female Gaze

It’s no secret that twin directors Jen and Sylvia Soska aren’t fans of remakes. But as massive fans of David Cronenberg, they just had to step in to direct an updated version of 1977’s Rabid . They felt it was important for someone who cares about and understands his body of work to be the ones to revamp the Canadian body horror, which is how they got the gig. No one wants to end up with yet another soulless re-imagination of a beloved film – which is something that often plagues the horror genre. 

The Soska Sisters’ Rabid follows Rose (Laura Vandervoort), a couture seamstress who works for Gunter (Mackenzie Gray), an arrogant but highly successful fashion designer. Rose dreams of becoming a fashion designer herself, but a dreadful motorbike accident leaves her scarred beyond recognition. There are many stand-out scenes in Rabid, and the accident is one of them. The Soska Sisters are exceptional in creating an atmosphere filled with suffocating panic and dread. It’s presented in quick cuts: Rose’s bloodied and shaking hand on the ground, sirens and screaming in the distance and Rose’s laboured breathing. 

One week later, Rose wakes up in the hospital with her face covered in bandages, her jaw wired shut and serious intestinal damage. Dr. Burroughs (Ted Atherton) lets Rose see the damage in an unnerving scene that shows off the delightfully disturbing make-up effects that got the Soska Sisters banned from Twitter for a short period of time. Todd Masters’ MastersFX are the team responsible for the impressively gruesome effects, which range from subtle to extreme throughout the film. 

As Rose has nothing to lose, she undergoes experimental stem cell treatment which reconstructs her face and aims to repair her intestinal damage. During the procedure, the medical staff – including Dead Ringers’ Heidi von Palleske as Dr. Elliot – wear blood-red coloured costumes, which are more satanic than surgical – ultimately, it’s a great visual, red signifying here that something bad is about to happen. Dr. Burroughs, her surgeon, oozes a degree of malevolence beneath his seemingly nice persona, creating an unsettling presence. 

Rose is relieved to see herself after the operation. Her face is beautiful. In fact, it’s even better than before – it’s perfect. But something isn’t right. She gets severe stomach pains and intense inner rumblings akin to the sound of thunder. Spoiler alert: it’s not irritable bowel syndrome. With her new found beauty, Rose gains the confidence to go after her career goals, but she soon realises that everything has a price and her new-found perfect life isn’t built to last. 

Rabid marks the Soska Sisters’ triumphant return to body horror since their 2012 cult hit American Mary, which focuses on extreme body modification. In an interview with Dread Central, Jen describes body horror as “scientifically based, or medicine-based horror.” Cronenberg doesn’t believe in an afterlife or the supernatural, hence why these ideas never appear in his films. Instead, Rabid is essentially a story about a biologically created vampire which plays around with themes of transhumanism. Although fictional, the film is grounded in some base of reality as the idea of extreme cosmetic surgery is no longer too far-fetched of an idea – and this only adds another layer of horror to an already scary concept. 

Rabid is told through the female perspective, instead of Cronenberg’s original male gaze, which makes it very timely in relation to modern day issues. Before her transformation, Rose deals with unfair treatment in the workplace, but she is treated differently after her facial reconstruction surgery. 

Placing the film’s story in the fashion industry is perfect for its themes. Although fashion is inherently a women’s industry, they’re often treated poorly. They’re seen as objects; simply just mannequins to dress. But Rose loves how clothes can make people feel like somebody else. “It’s like armour,” she explains. In an industry where models are known to do drugs (perfectly demonstrated by the Soska’s fun cameo) and develop eating disorders in order to meet extreme beauty standards, the theme of transhumanism is well-placed in this setting. 

Overall, the Soska Sisters manage to pay homage to Cronenberg’s beloved original whilst infusing it with their own unique touch. To prepare for this project, the twins listened to his DVD commentaries and read all of his interviews and books to make sure they did it justice. Speaking to Dread Central, Jen explained there were parts of Cronenberg’s Rabid that he had to cut out, such as Rose losing part of her intestines in the accident: “That’s also why she cannot consume anything besides high-protein blood. You never really get that explanation.” However, the Soska Sisters pick up on these missing aspects in their modern take on a film that works for both familiar and new audiences. That, alongside their eye for unsettling gore, are what make their version of Rabid so special.

Rabid screened at FrightFest on August 26th and will be available on Blu-Ray and DVD on October 7th

 

by Toni Stanger

Toni Stanger is a film and screenwriting graduate with a passion for cats, horror films and middle-aged actresses. Her favourite films include Gone Girl, Heathers, Scream and Excision. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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