Rabid Review

David Cronenberg is probably the most interesting of all horror directors to have emerged in the seventies and certainly the only one to retain his artistic integrity. Even his "major studio" films - The Dead Zone, The Fly and M Butterfly - are recognisably products of the same artistic vision which produced the decidedly non-mainstream shorts Stereo and Crimes Of The Future back in the early seventies. Rabid was his second feature length film after the fascinating but flawed Shivers and it is the work which really shows what Cronenberg could do with the SF-horror genre. It's not the fully achieved masterpiece that 1979's The Brood is, but it is a very impressive film.

As usual, a summary of Cronenberg's film makes it sound ludicrous. A motorcycle accident leaves Rose (Chambers) badly mutilated, while her boyfriend Hart (Moore) escapes with minor injuries. He is taken to a hospital while Rose is rushed to the Keloid Clinic, a private institution for plastic surgery research. Dr Keloid (Ryshpan) decides that the only successful treatment for Rose is some radical neutral field grafting (invented by Cronenberg incidentally, so don't rush down to your GP with requests). This involves taking deep tissue from one part of the body and neutralising it so it can be grafted onto another part where it will imitate the cells of that area of the body, creating new, living tissue. No, I don't really understand that either, but the potential for carcenogenic growths and mutation is obviously immense and it should come as no surprise to Cronenberg followers that everything soon goes wrong. Rose develops a vaginal opening in her armpit from which she can release a penis shaped syringe-like organ which sucks the blood of any person unfortunate enough to get too close. Worse still, anyone who has been "bitten" seems to get some kind of virulent infection that causes them to froth at the mouth, become insanely violent and desirous of biting other people. Before long, Montreal is in chaos and martial law is declared, while Rose wanders - alternately serene and distressed - through the disaster she has created.

Rose, a typical Cronenberg victim of scientific hubris, is an unusually strong female character for this director. As (well) played by Chambers she is both touching and frightening, bewildered and predatory. Rose can't help her condition but she refuses to be defined by it, searching for answers one minute and for victims the next. In this sense, the feminist accusation that the film is a misogynist study of rampant and lethal female sexuality is entirely wrong headed. Rose is as much acted upon as she is dangerous, attacks men and women equally and the final image of the film is a potent reminder of how scientific progress, and by extension society, can reduce women (and men too) to the level of trash. Chambers is a fascinating choice for such a role. Her casting was due entirely to commercial motives - Cronenberg wanted a pre-Carrie Sissy Spacek - but it actually works very well, the (illusory) paradox of innocence and voracious sexuality co-existing within one woman being the main feature of her work in hardcore porn cinema. This leads to some queasily unsettling sequences such as the moment she kills a girl in a jacuzzi and when she, rather bizarrely, attacks a sleeping cow. Chambers captures the clash of impulses within Rose very convincingly - revealing moment when she tells her confused boyfriend "I'm still Rose" - and especially her despair at being unable to control her lust for blood and this ensures that the climax is just as horribly painful as in virtually every other film that Cronenberg has directed since.

Indeed, despite a certain hesitancy, Rabid is full of what we now recognise as typical Cronenberg touches. The scientists are cold and aloof, thinking they can manipulate the human body with no consequence to themselves or society at large, Dr Keloid being a direct descendant of Antoine Rouge and Luther Stringfellow ; the central protagonist is as much victim as aggressor whose mutation is entirely logical while being totally irrational; the authorities seem helpless to stop what's happening - at one point they actually say "We don't know what we're up against" but it's a genuine cri-de-couer as opposed to the usual SF pulp dialogue filler; and the body is allowed ascendancy over the mind in an inventive rebuttal of Cartesian philosophy. There is also the usual superficial coldness which hides, not so subtly in this case, emotional turmoil under the surface. His imagery is as potent as ever and, in this case, explicitly sexual in a way which will prompt laughter or admiration and possibly both. You have to admire Cronenberg's nerve here - mix up penis and vagina, place under armpit and add bloodsucking capability. Oh, and make it retractable as well. The impressive thing is that, in context at any rate, it works. At the same time, the advance in his directoral abilities since Shivers is also obvious. The opening shot, a slow rotation around Chambers, is elegant and atmospheric and the action scenes are genuinely effective. There's a great moment when madness erupts on a subway train and a tense scene where potential rescuers prove to be harbingers of death. Although not yet working with his regular team of collaborators - most of whom would join him on his next, non-horror film Fast Company - Cronenberg's directoral signature is all over this film.

You could read this as a feminist text in some respects or as a Freudian nightmare in which the problem of penis-envy is solved in a particularly direct manner. But I think it has enough personality and intelligence to survive as Cronenberg's first fully achieved film. It's got all the intellectual coherence of his early work and the same direct assault on the sense as his first commercial feature, while being more coherent and accessible as any of them. But thanks to the good performance of Chambers, it's effective on an emotional level as well, the level on which Cronenberg's later films are most interesting. As such, it's essential viewing for fans of the genre - admirers of Night Of The Living Dead will be especially interested in the final scenes - as well as lovers of Cronenberg's later work.

The Disc

The thought of reviewing another Metrodome disc after Shadow Hours and Guardian was somewhat intimidating but I am honour bound to say that they have done a rather better job here than on some of their other discs. It's far from perfect but there is the sense that they have tried to make it a good release and they deserve praise for intentions even if the reality is not quite as good as it could be.

The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. I am almost certain that it was shot fullscreen and then matted for cinema showing. However, this is how you would have seen the film at the cinema and it looks fine although I suspect 1.66:1 would have been more satisfactory. The transfer is highly variable in quality. Colours - given the cold range deliberately used in the production - and contrast are excellent throughout but the blacks are a little washed out and show some serious artifacts in places. Grain is fairly constant but that's been a feature of every version of this film I have ever seen. There is also a softness to some scenes which is particularly noticable towards the end. Many of the problems with the transfer seem to result from the quality of the print used, which has evidently not been restored and shows some damage.

The soundtrack is the original mono track. It's perfectly acceptable and sometimes surprisingly effective but it's nothing to get excited about. Dialogue is audible and there isn't too much hiss.

There are a few small extras, the best of which is a ten minute interview with Cronenberg that was recorded for Film Four last year. He is typically compelling and makes some good points, the most revealing being that "one is not totally in control of one's metaphor". He also talks about the subversive basis of art, making a powerful case for his own work in the process. He evidently wants to disturb people, regarding it as a compliment when someone finds his work hard to watch.

There are textual production notes from Kim Newman, making extensive use of quotations from Faber's excellent "Cronenberg On Cronenberg", a book which is essential reading for fans. He also includes some brief comments on the film and a very useful bibliography.

The stills gallery lasts about a minute and is uninteresting. Rather bizarrely, there is no trailer even though Shivers contains one for this film. The filmographies are taken from the IMDB. There are 18 chapters and animated menus which are simple but effective. The main menu nearly gave me a coronary when I first saw it.

A fascinating film has received a perfunctory but acceptable DVD release. Cautiously recommended although it's not really a good starting point for exploring Cronenberg's wonderfully twisted world and the DVD doesn't contain much that you couldn't get from reading a book on the director.

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