Grimmfest 2019: RABID (2019)

Rabid 2019.jpg

Studio:      101 Films
Director:    The Soska Sisters
Writer:      Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska, John Serge
Producer:  John Vidette, Paul Lalonde, Michael Walker
Stars:     Laura Vandervoort, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Ted Atherton, Hanneke Talbot, Mackenzie Gray, Stephen McHattie, Phil Brooks, AJ Mendez, Kevin Hanchard, Greg Bryk

Review Score:

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Summary:

After being horribly disfigured, an aspiring fashion designer undergoes an experimental reconstruction that comes with horrifying consequences.


Synopsis:     

Grimmfest Film Festival Review:

Forgive me D.C. diehards. I grew up in the 1980s. My indoctrination into the Church of Cronenberg came via “Scanners,” “Videodrome,” and “The Fly.” To any eyes in which this next revelation costs me credibility, I merely shrug, “shucks.” I’ll simply admit that partly due to my local video store’s limited selection, I never got around to reaching back into David’s seventies screamers “Shivers,” “The Brood,” and the original “Rabid.”

I’ve also not previously seen any feature film directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska. However, I’d have to live like a horror Luddite to not be aware that, to a thankfully lesser extent than Rob Zombie or Eli Roth, there can apparently be no discourse about a Soska Sisters project that doesn’t devolve into an accusatory debate concerning perceptions of their personalities.

Detractors decry the “Twisted Twins” as talentless hacks who made their name courting/conning fervent fans into believing they’re relatable peers who worship the genre. Supporters seem to furiously defend everything The Soskas do simply because the two women interacted with them on social media one time.

I once considered a marathon of “Dead Hooker in a Trunk,” “American Mary,” and “See No Evil 2” so I could come to an impartial conclusion about the duo’s content and capabilities. Frankly though, the ongoing argument over their reputation is probably what’s kept me from ever bothering. Why would I willingly want to involve myself in such a temperamental mess?

The point I’m making is that I went into The Soska Sisters’ reimagining of “Rabid” without any of the heavy baggage so many others carry regarding supposedly sacrilegious remakes and exaggerated impressions of filmmakers. Judging by the dominant complaints I’ve seen thus far (“How dare anyone defile Cronenberg!” “Soska Sisters suck!”), you might want to do the same. Because uncolored by constant comparisons to what came before, and unconcerned with who sits behind the camera, “Rabid” puts an entertainingly wicked bite into body horror using gobs of gruesomeness and a little bit of cheeky glee.

While we’re putting prejudicial concepts out of mind, save some suspension of disbelief for lead actress Laura Vandervoort. Vandervoort probably qualifies for the top 10% of actresses in terms of natural onscreen beauty. Yet “Rabid” asks us to accept her as frumpy introvert Rose, a mousy fashion designer’s assistant mocked by her peers and overlooked by everyone else.

Equally wonky is the weird way the movie takes a typical setup for teen melodrama and transposes it to the adult world of working professionals. Knowing she would never have the gumption to go for it herself, Rose’s well-meaning gal pal Chelsea clandestinely coaxes Brad, the headshot handsome photographer Rose has a blushing crush on, to invite Rose to a party. Elation turns into frustration when catty gossip overheard in a bathroom tips Rose to the truth regarding how her long-desired date came about. Now her night of shyly kissing while dressed to the nines ends in embarrassment as she storms out of the club and into oncoming traffic in her first step toward unleashing a mutated monster.

Wait, am I covering a remake of “Rabid” or another remake of “Carrie?”

Luckily, “Rabid” is a film about transformation. This means its awkward growing pains where a gorgeous girl tries to pass as dorky during a setup normally staged at a high school’s homecoming dance only last for the first act.

Horribly disfigured from her post-party accident, Rose undergoes a reconstruction procedure at The Burroughs Clinic, a fringe facility whose unusual experiments in regenerative medicine cryptically claim to help humans evolve past their bodily limitations. They aren’t kidding. Rose unwraps her bandages to find she not only has a stunningly fixed face, but newfound confidence and an assertive attitude to go with. Oh, she also has painful cravings for raw meat and haunting hallucinations where she tears at men’s flesh with her teeth.

After shedding her librarian-like shell, which she is physically incapable of convincingly selling anyway, Laura Vandervoort finally breaks free to truly clamp down on Rose’s characterization. Vandervoort struts like a sultry predator when Rose prowls in possessed form. Her visible fierceness truly translates into intangible danger.

But she shines even brighter during Rose’s early stages of metamorphosis. To convey shock over her hankering for blood and aggressive actions, Vandervoort only offers as much effort as necessary, refraining from going too far with bugged eyes or dropped jaws. In a weird world where others come off as either cartoonish or hollow, Vandervoort’s performance provides a magnet that pulls “Rabid’s” pendulum tone back to the center.

Vandervoort’s co-stars aren’t similarly subtle. Some, maybe many, will understandably find Mackenzie Gray’s portrayal of Rose’s German fashion mogul boss to be too much of a “Saturday Night Live” skit. They’re not wrong. But I’ve enjoyed Gray’s creepily comedic brand of inflated acting since his appearance in “Grave Encounters” (review here). For me, his side order of ham hits the spot.

A similar sentiment applies to Greg Bryk, who plays an obliviously bro-y soap opera director whose set descends into chaos when his cast contracts Rose’s virus. The Soskas appear comfortable sacrificing a tight tempo to include scenes that seemingly exist solely so Gray, Bryk, and Phil ‘C.M. Punk’ Brooks can indulge in acting that teases the top without going all the way over it. Their playfulness often runs contrary to the vicious vibe and the narrative doesn’t need as much of them as it gets. “Rabid” could easily excise many of their minutes and be rewarded with a snappier runtime.

Here’s the thing though. Like Mackenzie Gray, Greg Bryk’s shtick becomes admittedly amusing. It would be hypocritical to fault the film for failing to filet its fluff when several of those scenes are enjoyably engaging, never mind that they’re ancillary to the A plot.

Forgiveness isn’t as forthcoming for the movie’s jarring technical trip-ups. Several sequences, particularly the opening, seem to be missing a shot in between confusing cuts. Some frantic camerawork also makes it difficult to identify certain people during chaotic scenes where a stunt double probably had to stand in. And maybe my misreading is to blame, but I only retroactively figured out what the artistic motivation was behind scattered freeze frames of background players in a nightclub montage.

I can continue coming up with criticisms. Maybe the movie’s casual commentary concerning health care costs wouldn’t come across so oddly if “Rabid” weren’t a Canadian production. Then there are unintentionally laughable moments such as one man quietly asking to talk about “what happened last night” as though he’s referring to drinking too much. “Or did you want to discuss how you brutally beat a man to death after he bit off someone’s face?”

Yet when I consider what matters most for a modestly budgeted B-movie made to be frightful, fascinating, and fun, I have to concede that “Rabid” has it where it counts. Uneven charisma exists across the cast, but Laura Vandervoort and chief co-star Tim Atherton maintain a mood that keeps creepiness compelling. Juicy effects make things more macabre with grotesque face rippings and an impressively eerie end creature that would bring Clive Barker a smile. Unexpected bursts of action unsettle atmosphere with sudden intensity. Rose’s escalating evolution and accompanying epidemic contribute to an intriguing story. What more must a movie deliver to qualify as a solid slice of straightforward horror?

Would I be so bullish on “Rabid” if I had an unwavering affinity for the 1977 original? Who knows? More importantly, who cares?

Some may dismiss “Rabid” for somehow slighting David Cronenberg’s sacrosanct filmography or because merely mentioning “Soska” induces an eyeroll. Take it from someone without any allegiance to either, “Rabid’s” warts add to its appealing weirdness. It’s sometimes sloppy and sometimes goofy. Overall, “Rabid” remains a satisfying shocker provided you don’t hold it to any unattainable aspirations.

Review Score: 75