1 Hr., 31 Mins.
Rabid February 12, 2018
ust yesterday I watched a movie featuring a heroine named after a flower. It was 1991’s Rambling Rose, a Laura Dern-starring melodrama about an impulsive pretty young thing’s coming into her own. Sunny and floral – but deathly serious when need be – it was an appropriately honeyed piece of Americana. A throwback to the not-so-good old days that nonetheless was presented with the same sound and color of, say, the quintessentially bittersweet Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
Today, I also sat through a film revolving around a protagonist named
Rose. But the girl featured here was more thorn than softened efflorescence – a direct contrast from the misguided sweetheart Dern so memorably portrayed. You wouldn’t expect anything else from a lady driving a David Cronenberg movie, anyway; from Samantha Eggar to Debbie Harry, the auteur’s famously turned conventionally bonny women into she-beasts not to be fucked with.
The movie hosting this unapologetic hellion called Rose is called Rabid. It was released in 1977; was only Cronenberg’s fourth film; and, akin to his previous feature, 1975’s bloodthirsty Shivers, explores the parallels between vampirism (or zombieism, depending on your outlook) and human sexuality.
Incidentally, Rose is the most interesting part of Rabid. Played by Marilyn Chambers, an iconic fixture of the Golden Age of Porn (leads in the groundbreaking 1972 “feature” Behind the Green Door and the 1980 quasi-classic Insatiable made her a household name), she is a fascinating creation, a womanly undermining of the blonde bombshell stereotype.
But we don’t get much more than that in Rabid. Here is a fairly traditional – though sometimes visually inventive – B-horror movie that plays with the conventions of zombie movies with limited success. Though sometimes inspired, it, like most pieces sitting in the earlier part of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, is not quite interesting enough to overcome its limited origins. It’s just a slightly more imaginative take on exploitation fodder.
But Rose is compelling, and perhaps that’s worth something in a film comprised of so many nothings. As the film opens, she is involved in a near-lethal motorcycle crash. Her boyfriend escapes with a couple minor injuries, but Rose is left pretty mangled; she gets herself trapped under the vehicle just as it bursts into flames, suffering extensive burns and bruises. Death seems imminent. But the doctor treating her – a radical creep named Keloid – suggests testing out a new, sort of fanatical procedural on the girl.
Nothing’s really explained. But then a month passes and Rose is acting like an archfiend in a Hammer horror movie. Apparently a new organ (which resembles something of a phallic stinger) has developed under her armpit, and with it is she able to stab – and then suck the blood out of – any person who so much as crosses her path.
Given her newfound bloodthirstiness, the development of this bodily contraption is a godsend. But it’s also a nightmare for anyone who becomes one of her victims. Whenever Rose indulges her vampirism, the person on the receiving end becomes a raving, foam-mouthed zombie of sorts. Such makes this protagonist a relative patient zero, and the rest of the picture either a disease thriller or a less fun Night of the Living Dead (1969).
But Rabid is never much more than an elementary exercise. Perhaps if it went with a more standard thriller storyline – say a clever underdog catches on to what Rose is doing and has to slyly put a stop to the madness – there’d be some tension to be found. There are components of this, I suppose: her boyfriend eventually comes to realize that all these attacks reported on the news might actually be the fault of his girl, and that doesn’t sit well. But the movie is mostly a muted depiction of a horrific rampage, pretty emotionless and uninvolving.
But the casting of Chambers is rather ingenious. After making her name as a sex fiend onto which you could thrust your wildest carnal fantasies, it’s interesting to see Cronenberg maim ideas about Chambers’ persona and showcase just what it’d be like if the woman smut-worshippers jacked off to the most some four decades ago were the center of a sexual fantasy with a bloody twist. In this scenario, she’ll sip on your blood before you can so much as start getting aroused. If only Rabid itself were as provocative as such an idea. Then maybe I’d start taking Cronenberg seriously during the time predeceasing The Brood (1979). B-