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RABID (1977)

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"You carry the plague! You’ve killed hundreds of people!"
"Oh, no, you don’t know what you’re talking about! I’m still me. I’m still Rose…."
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Director: David Cronenberg

Starring: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan, Susan Roman, J. Roger Perlard

Screenplay: David Cronenberg

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Synopsis: A young woman named Rose (Marilyn Chambers) and her boyfriend, Hart (Frank Moore), are involved in a serious motorcycle accident on an isolated road outside of Montreal. Hart is thrown clear and sustains only minor injuries, but Rose is trapped underneath the bike as it bursts into flames. The accident is distantly witnessed by a patient at the Keloid Clinic, a private resort for plastic surgery patients whose owner, Dr Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan), and his business partner, Murray Cypher (Joe Silver), are discussing the possibility of a medical franchise. Alerted to the accident, Dr Keloid rushes to the scene in his clinic’s small ambulance. Recognising that Rose will not live if she is not treated immediately, Keloid has her taken into surgery at his clinic. So severe are Rose’s injuries that Keloid decides to try out an experimental grafting technique, wherein the usual graft taken from the thigh is treated in order to make it morphogenic – that is, to give it the ability to form any kind of tissue, an ability that embryonic cells possess. Keloid believes this technique is Rose’s best chance of a full recovery, and he dismisses worries that, used internally, it may give rise to carcinomas. Hart is treated and discharged, but is told that Rose, who has not regained consciousness, cannot be moved. Murray Cypher, who is a friend of Hart’s, drives him back to Montreal. A month later, Rose suddenly comes to, screaming in agony and tearing free of her restraints. One of the clinic’s other patients, Lloyd Walsh (J. Roger Perlard), hears her, and runs to Intensive Care to investigate. Still thrashing about, Rose is babbling and calling for Hart. Lloyd tries to make her understand where she is and what has happened to her. Suddenly, the half-naked Rose begs Lloyd to hold her and warm her, and he is unable to resist. But as her arms go tightly around him, Lloyd cries out in agony…. Another patient finds Lloyd staggering down the corridor, a broad bloody patch beneath his right arm. Lloyd tells Keloid that his entire right side is numb, but that he has no memory of what happened. That night, Rose wakes again and escapes from the clinic. Walking to a nearby farm, she enters the barn and kneels to press her arms around a cow. The animal flinches as something pierces its body. Suddenly, Rose pulls away from the animal and is violently sick. The farm’s drunken owner finds her in the barn and tries to take advantage of her. Rose allows him to begin caressing her, then draws him into her arms. The farmer screams, and Rose flees into the night. Meanwhile, Lloyd leaves the clinic in a taxi. As they travel towards Montreal, Lloyd, leaking some vile fluid from the eyes and foaming at the mouth, attacks the driver, tearing at his throat with his teeth….

Comments: After outraging practically everyone with the entwining of perverted sex and violence in his debut feature, They Came From Within, David Cronenberg toned it down slightly for his follow-up project, Rabid. Nevertheless, Cronenberg’s obsessions are still clearly in evidence. As was usual at this stage of the director’s career, this is a cold, repelling film. (Fittingly, it was shot during the Canadian winter, the starkness of the environment lending yet another layer of discomfiture to the proceedings.) It spends little time on background or exposition, and there are no characters with whom we can identify, or really care about. As with so many of Cronenberg’s films, this is primarily a story of medical horror, exploiting the audience’s fears of doctors and hospitals and what really goes on in operating theatres once the patient is anaesthetised. Once again, events are triggered by an experimental procedure that goes horribly wrong. Rabid centres around the Keloid Clinic, a hospital dedicated to cosmetic surgery. At the film’s opening, Dr Keloid and his business partner are discussing the possibility of developing a whole franchise of such clinics, with Keloid expressing his fear of becoming "the Colonel Sanders of plastic surgery". (The film’s low budget really works against the intended satire here: looking around the threadbare and understaffed clinic, the viewer never for a moment believes that it is the kind of money-making organisation it is supposed to be.) When the badly injured Rose is brought to his clinic, Keloid seizes the opportunity to try out an experimental grafting technique he has been developing. This involves removing the graft from the patient’s thigh, as per usual, then treating the tissue in such a way that it, in effect, dedifferentiates, gaining the ability to take on the form and structure of whatever part of the body it is subsequently grafted into. Inevitably with Cronenberg, the medical staff spend little if any time debating the ethics of all this; no-one bothers to consult Rose’s boyfriend, for instance. Keloid is never presented as cold-blooded or uncaring – the reverse, in fact – and there is no doubt that he has saved Rose’s life through his surgical skill. Nevertheless, the lack of hesitation on Keloid’s part as he decides to implement his experimental procedure, and the absence of any serious remonstrance from the others involved, lends a chilly undercurrent to this section of the film. The operation initially appears successful, but this would not be a David Cronenberg film if things had not in fact gone horribly--- correction, spectacularly wrong instead, although it is some time, and several gruesome scenes, before the audience learns exactly what has happened. When Keloid finally examines Rose, he finds in her right armpit a strange, vagina-like opening. Lurking within this new cavity is what mealy-mouthed reviewers usually call a "phallus-like object". Well, let’s cut the crap. It’s a penis. A penis with a needle in the end of it. How about that for an image to freak out both sexes? As the film progresses, we get increasingly clear views of this organ as it buries itself into the bodies of Rose’s victims (one shot in particular looks exactly like it was lifted from a porn film), events that leave Rose sated, satisfied, fulfilled. The only wonder is that she doesn’t light a cigarette afterwards….

The wonderful thing about David Cronenberg’s films, and the reason they appeal so much to me, is they have absolutely no safety net. They simply don’t play by the rules of the game. Anything can happen in them, and to anyone. Their events unfold with a cold matter-of-factness that somehow makes the most impossible things believable. Thus, Rabid makes no attempt to explain how Keloid’s technique could have produced such an end result, nor how it could have converted Rose into a vampire-like creature needing human blood to survive; but somehow, this doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the laws of nature have been tampered with, and that the result is a disaster of catastrophic proportions. Naturally enough, Keloid himself is amongst the first to suffer. His examination of Rose, and his discovery of her new "organ", is brought to an abrupt end when he becomes one of her victims. This leads to one of the most truly terrifying scenes in all modern horror, as Keloid begins his own transformation while in the middle of performing surgery. This sequence is the very essence of Cronenberg, as he torments his audience with lingering shots of Keloid holding first a scalpel, then a pair of scissors, over the exposed throat of his unconscious patient. Having built the suspense to an unbearable level, Cronenberg then springs a scene that is both unexpected and probably even more horrible than the viewer was anticipating. Our last view of Dan Keloid is as a foaming-mouthed monster in the back of a police van. He has transgressed, and he has paid the price. Unfortunately, in Cronenberg’s world a great many other people must pay the price as well. As Rabid proceeds, its structure mimics that of Night Of The Living Dead (probably intentionally: it is interesting to note that the credits of Rabid refer to its victims as "crazies", echoing the title of George Romero’s sadly little-seen second feature), with the initially claustrophobic atmosphere surrounding the events in the Keloid Clinic segueing into a broader view of the breakdown of society as the disease spreads through Montreal. This section of the film is studded with classic Cronenberg set-pieces ranging from the sickly comic (the accidental scragging of a department store Santa) to the unbearably cruel (Murray Cypher’s visit to his baby’s nursery [it is to Cronenberg’s infinite credit that he leaves the full horror of this scene to the viewer’s imagination]). The reaction of the authorities to the disease is almost as frightening as the disease itself: martial law; policemen armed with automatic weapons and orders to shoot to kill; white-clad clean-up squads tossing corpses into garbage trucks. Although we are told that the vaccine being issued to the populace is protective, we are given no actual evidence of this. Nor are we reassured that the disease has not already escaped the confines of Montreal. The source of the infection may have been disposed of by the time the credits roll, but in the Cronenberg universe, nothing is ever that easy.

Rabid is not merely a film of medical horror. Even more – and it may be this that truly bothers people about it – it is a film of sexual horror. Cronenberg is one of the few directors out there who does not resort to casual, gratuitous sex scenes. Oh, there is sex in his films, all right, plenty of it, but not usually in a form that the ordinary film-viewer cares to see. Because Cronenberg doesn’t make sexy films; he makes films about sex. (His closest rival in this respect is, I believe, David Lynch. Both men makes films that are frequently deeply disturbing for the cold, detached manner in which they examine sexual relationships and the way they can become twisted and perverted. Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut also falls into this category, which is why so many people hated it, particularly those hypocritical "nice" people who flocked to it in the hopes of seeing some kind of genteel pornography, and were hugely disappointed when they got a fairly clinical dissection of marital dysfunction instead. But I digress….) The sexual angle of Rabid is particularly interesting. The film is probably best known for its casting of porn star Marilyn Chambers as Rose. Cronenberg may originally have wanted a post-Carrie Sissy Spacek for the role, but Chambers’ presence in the film gives it whole myriad of deeper resonances. There is no pretense that Chambers is escaping her past by playing Rose: her history is referenced throughout the film, and in a way that is quite fascinating. For one thing, Rose’s first three attacks are played out like textbook porn scenes. When Lloyd goes into Rose’s room he finds her thrashing around half-naked. She begs him to hold her and warm her, and knowing perfectly well he should not, he does. We do not at this stage see the physical detail of Rose’s attack on him, but the scene concludes with Lloyd writhing and moaning while lying on top of Rose, her arm tightly about his neck and a smile of infinite satisfaction on her lips. (This is also a classic play on the clothed man/naked woman sex scene that appears in so many films.) Rose’s second victim is the middle-aged, drunken farmer who catches her in his barn. He is all over her immediately and of course, she responds to him: the "women always want it, no matter how repulsive the man is" card. The third attack is the inevitable lesbian scene, as Rose discovers a fellow patient luxuriating in a hot tub. (Interestingly, Rose’s female victim immediately intuits that something is wrong; her male victims never see any further than the come-on.) By staging these scenes, then turning them into episodes of violence and horror, Cronenberg seems intent on punishing that section of the viewing public that bases its opinion of women upon such things as pornographic movies. This reading of the film is further supported by the fact that Rabid is one of the very few horror films out there that punishes its male characters for their sexual misconduct. Apart from the scenes described above, we later follow Rose as she trolls for victims in Montreal. Intriguingly, she succeeds in this while remaining almost completely passive. Her food supply comes to her. She sits down in a cinema showing porn films (anyone know if that’s a genuine film playing? – maybe one of Chambers’?), and a man immediately hits on her. She sits down in a shopping mall, and another man hits on her – and this when the public is fully aware of the danger at large. (Significantly, Rose’s attack on a helpful truck driver, who seems like a pretty nice guy, is kept offscreen.) By treating Rose as nothing more than a sexual object, these men sign their own death warrants.

Disturbing and intriguing as it is, Rabid is not as good a film as its predecessor. One of the reasons for this is that it lacks They Came From Within’s withering social satire. The victims here are victims, attacked by something outside themselves, not by something that already lurks within them, waiting to be unleashed. The other major problem with Rabid is the uncertain feel that surrounds the characterisation of Rose. It is never made entirely clear whether she is aware of what she is doing, or whether, like Lloyd, she has no clear memory of events. However, most of Rose’s behaviour suggests that she does know: she tries to feed on a cow, but becomes sick; she goes out at night, rather than stay home with her friend, Mindy; and, to prevent Mindy being her next victim, she locks herself in the bathroom, even though this means suffering through what looks distinctly like the symptoms of heroin withdrawal. Thus, her denial of the truth to Hart (played by Frank Moore, who at times bears a really creepy resemblance to Christopher Walken) seems to spring more from her simple inability to admit what is happening, and from her fear of losing him, than from genuine ignorance. In this light, Rose’s next step – to lock herself in with a victim she has deliberately infected – becomes, not just suicidal, but an act of expiation. As Rose, Marilyn Chambers is no more than adequate in what is not a particularly demanding role, given that throughout, Rose is more reacted to than reacting. When she does finally get the chance to emote, after Hart accuses Rose of being responsible for the "plague", her acting lacks the kind of dramatic edge that the scene really requires. But Chambers’ mere presence in Rabid creates the kind of "layer upon layer" feel that makes David Cronenberg’s films so interesting. And there’s something else here, too, something that may have been the real motivation both for Cronenberg’s choice of leading lady, and for Chambers acceptance of the role: for as we watch Rose thrust her scientifically-acquired penis into victim after victim, using it to draw rather than deliver bodily fluids, it becomes increasingly difficult to view Rabid as anything but Marilyn Chambers’ personal revenge upon an exploiting world.

Footnote: Special thanks to Jason MacIsaac of Jabootu’s Bad Movie Dimension for the copy of the film. Well, what can I say? It was no Degrassi Junior High – but then, what is?