Saturday, January 23, 2010

#77: Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977)

I'm pretty biased when it comes to evaluating the films of David Cronenberg. I've seen all of his feature films and most of his short films, and I like every single one of them. Really like. My admiration for each individual film varies, and a handful have serious flaws, but I find something to love about each one of them, from the cerebral sci-fi and horror films in the first phase of his career (Shivers, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly) to the successful adaptations of "unfilmable" novels in the second phase of his career (Naked Lunch, Crash (the real Crash, not the Paul Haggis piece of shit)) to his recent psychological crime thrillers (Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises). I even like the odd, awkward departures, like his drive-in action B-movie Fast Company and his adaptation of the David Henry Hwang tragic romantic play M. Butterfly. I find Cronenberg one of the most exciting, visually compelling, and original filmmakers of the latter half of film history, and I can't wait to see what he does next.
Rabid, Cronenberg's third feature film and second to be widely distributed, is a tight, effective, and claustrophobic horror film whose unique spin on vampire and zombie mythology remains relevant because of Cronenberg's ability to create empathetic characters, his focus on the human body instead of the supernatural, and his memorable framing of shots. Rabid retains the spook 30+ years later because fear of epidemic never goes out of style. (The film even contains a swine flu reference!)

Rabid begins with an attractive young couple (Frank Moore and porn star Marilyn Chambers, in her first non-porn feature) going for a motorcycle ride. The couple gets in an accident and Chambers is trapped under the burning bike. The wreck occurs conveniently near an experimental plastic surgery clinic outside of Montreal, and since all other hospitals are miles away, the couple is taken there. Moore has minor injuries, but Chambers is on the verge of death. She is saved by the clinic's large-eyebrowed chief surgeon and co-owner, who unethically uses her as a guinea pig for some experimental skin graft techniques. Unfortunately, the experimental technique causes a serious side effect. Chambers now has a vagina-like opening in her armpit from which a penis-like appendage protrudes. This appendage attaches itself to the skin of other people, burrows in, and sucks blood. The victim then becomes a slobbering, rabid mess who bites others, turning them into slobbering, rabid messes, thereby unleashing a super-rabies epidemic on the streets of Montreal. Chambers can no longer keep any solid food down, and when she tries to take the blood of animals, she gets sick. It's human blood or death. Chambers escapes the clinic and takes to the streets of the city, unleashing a new plague with her Armpit Cock-Pussy Dagger (TM).

The science is a little dubious, and a plot synopsis sounds silly, but Cronenberg's film overcomes its own limitations with strong acting and an instinctive understanding of visual space and indelible film images. Cronenberg fills every role, even the smallest ones, with incredible faces. He still does this, but his actors are more recognizable now. These lesser-known faces give such a rich texture to his early films. His hiring of Chambers, after his producers rejected his suggestion of Sissy Spacek, was a risk that paid off. Unlike the pile of exploded silicon and collagen that makes up the typical porn star of 2010, Chambers looks like both a recognizable human being and a great movie face. Her performance is compelling and her facial expressions and movements are made for an empathetic camera. In its own way, the film is structured like a porno movie, with horror scenes the equivalent of sex scenes. In one clever and beautifully shot sequence, Chambers picks up a victim in a downtown porn theater.

Chambers, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage last year at the age of 56, started out in show business as the face on the Ivory Snow soap box, which featured the slogan "99 and 44/100% Pure." Ivory Snow dropped her from their ad campaign after learning of her background as an exotic dancer and subsequent porn career, but the slogan and boxes of the product were used to ironic effect in most of her adult films. The mainstream film career wasn't as successful, but she had a minor disco hit in 1976 and ran for vice president in 2004 and 2008 on the fringe Libertarian tickets of the Personal Choice and Boston Tea parties, respectively.

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