The Soska Sisters give Rabid a twisted makeover

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      Starring Laura Vandervoort. Rated 18A

      If 1977’s Rabid is remembered as perhaps the least of David Cronenberg’s early efforts, this remake has prompted Vancouver’s Soska Sisters (American Mary) to produce their most fully realized feature to date.

      Cronenberg’s film concerned a young woman turned vampiric disease-carrying monster, thanks to experimental plastic surgery. Its greatest strength was the treatment of Rose as a tragic figure (affectingly played by porn star Marilyn Chambers), and the Soskas extend yet more sympathy to the character, once again the victim of unethical science after a disfiguring accident. Laura Vandervoort takes the lead, and she’s the best thing about this reboot, which places Rose inside a heartless fashion industry and surrounds her with victimizing men, most obviously Ted Atherton’s megalomaniacal surgeon, who sees Rose as little more than a lab monkey for his mad dream of transhumanism.

      He’s named Dr. William Burroughs in one of the film’s many callbacks to the Cronenberg oeuvre. Blink and you’ll miss the desk photograph of Mrs. Burroughs, played here, as it were, by ’70s scream queen Lynn Lowry, whose iconic scene in Cronenberg’s Shivers gets replayed when Rose seduces and then bites a hunky soap-opera star (Stephen Huszar) during a late-night visit to the pool. Thus begins the contagion that eventually brings extremely gory chaos to Toronto and Hamilton, probably playing New York.

      If Cronenberg’s interest was society in breakdown, unleashed by a woman in sudden possession of an infectious armpit phallus, the Soskas treat their film’s mayhem as the fate of a world already weakened by inhumanity. Incredibly, it ends on an even bleaker note than the original. But it’s also outlandish fun, with lashings of gore and extravagantly disgusting practical effects compensating for the ripe dialogue and Mackenzie Gray’s camped-out performance as fashion honcho Gunter.

      You could make the case that a certain lack of polish is the exploitation filmmaker’s historical privilege. But when the Soskas drop the gloves, as when that soap stud is overcome by infection and his rage is triggered by a younger rival—it’s a ferocious, superbly staged sequence—you see what they’re really capable of.