Tuesday, August 30, 2011

And my favorite Cronenberg is...

There are at least two North American DVDs of David Cronenberg's 1976 film RABID floating around out there and its a tough call to say which disc is a "must own" because both have their flaws.

Hopefully, someday, we'll get the definitive version (Blu-ray) of this overlooked - yet great film - in the Cronenberg canon. But, until then, we have to make do with either the New Concorde Home Video DVD or the 2004 released Ventura Distribution disc.

The New Concorde Home Video version was released in October of 2000 (and was my first DVD purchase), is full screen with image cropped on the sides and includes hefty headspace. New Concorde's colors are slightly muted giving the film a greenish cold appearance, which works nicely within the film's chilly context. This version was part of a series of DVDs released under the auspices of "Roger Corman Presents." The New Concorde version runs 91 minutes, includes no extras except for a trailer and very limited bios - but it is out of print, making it desirable for DVD obsessives and collectors.

The Ventura Distribution (Sommerville House Releasing label) DVD is, for better or worse, presented in a matted widescreen format, which would be great except the image has headspace problems - it simply looks cropped - but you do get some nifty image information on the sides that are missing in the New Concorde edition. Coloration is brighter, autumnal but, at times, fuzzy. I'm not sure of the print's source material - but its almost certainly not the same as the New Concorde. Happily, the cloudy imagery gives the film a nice, sleazy vibe and accentuates its odd pacing. By no means definitive, the Ventura runs 88 minutes, three minutes shorter than the New Concorde.

The bonus of the Ventura release is the inclusion of a Cronenberg commentary, which is heady, deadpan and, mosty, serious. In fact, Cronenberg takes all of his works seriously. Each one of his films is a piece of a vast puzzle, addressing bodily dysfunction and its effect on the psyche (SPIDER probes the dissolution of the psyche and its effect on the body) - and RABID is prime bodily dysfunction despite its drive-in, B-movie roots, which (especially during the 70s) typically signified dopey teen sex flicks or nonsensical splatter films. Simply put, horror with brains was a rarity at the drive-in back "in the day." (If you were lucky, you saw RABID as a double feature with Larry Cohen's excellent GOD TOLD ME TO - another smart B-grader from the latter 1970s).

The Ventura DVD also includes a lengthy interview with Cronenberg about the film, which was actually included at the tail end of a Canadian VHS release of RABID probably dated from the late 80s or early 90s. Subsequently, the commentary and interview make the Ventura release preferred but, using image as a basis, fans of this film may be disappointed with its wonky presentation. Either way, both DVD versions are superior to any tape release of RABID, which are smeared and cropped.

Although the film follows Rose (Marilyn Chambers) from a motorcycle accident to a harrowing skin graft operation from an ethically dubious doctor that causes a vampiric infection that makes Rose crave blood and, subsequently, violently draw blood from victims with a protrusion from her armpit to the rapid spread of rabies that leaves her victims slobbering and on the attack like manic zombies, RABID is really about losing control of the body and the inevitable lonliness of a victim who's been termed a "monster" - a term Rose uses about herself when she realizes that it is her that is spreading a sort of venereal disease that devastates Montreal.

But what I especially like about RABID is the film's sequence of events that lead to a totally expected conclusion, which, despite its predictability, still shocks even if you've seen the movie dozens of times (which I have). The beauty, of course, is the film's crazy-seeming logic but, in fact, events happen that make total sense (within this universe).
Spoilers ahead...
  • Hart and Rose are involved in a firey motorcycle accident
  • Rose is rushed to, not a hospital, but to the Kelloid Center for plastic surgery
  • Dr. Dan Kelloid is about to embark on franchising his business yet is leary about becoming the "Colonel Sanders" of plastic surgery.
  • The motorcycle accident interrupts his business decision.
  • He operates on Rose using an untried technique where he grafts skin from her thighs to mend her extensive internal injuries.
  • The operation is a success, only something happens inside of Rose and she grows a dual phallus/vaginal appendage under her arm, which is a piercing receptacle for blood - much like a stinger.
  • Rose awakens confused, leaves the hospital and seduces and infects everybody she runs into.
  • The infection leaves her victims rabid - they, in turn, attack other humans, leaving them infected, spreading the disease like "wildfire."
  • Rose wanders the streets of Montreal, alienated and unaware that it is she who is spreading the disease even as sanitation trucks carrying lifeless and diseased corpses rumble by.
  • When she realizes that she's the one passing the infection, she acknowledges she's a "monster."
  • When she dies, she, too, is dumped into a garbage truck. Nobody knows she's the disease's "host" so there's little chance of finding a cure.
Terrifically bleak and intelligent, RABID is my favorite of all Cronenberg's films. From the bizarre static shots, the musical score (which is somber and eerie floating under images like a haunted Theramin), the bloodletting and green ooze, RABID plays as a sister film to Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER, which also delves into the mind of someone who is fractured and alone. In fact, Rose, like Travis Bickle, wanders city streets looking to connect with someone - anyone - to sate an unquenchable thirst. Porno theaters provide, for Rose and Travis, a comfortable (for them, at least) environment to find that connection, although Travis never succeeds whereas Rose finds a willing victim.

Rene Verzier's desolate cinematography is chilly, autumnal and evokes a kind of longing in the viewer, a nostalgic creepiness that's both strange and beautiful. Freeze frame almost any shot from the film - Rose's lonely walk down a deserted, rain soaked country road - and you have an image that's nothing short of impressionistic.

Cronenberg's obsession with the dissolution of body and the mind's ability to comprehend the termination, stems from his father's lucidity while riddled with tissue eating cancer. Cronenberg watched - in horror-filled wonder - as his father's body changed into something else under the ravages of the disease.
Almost every one of Cronenberg's films deals in metamorphisis and many, including RABID, FAST COMPANY, SHIVERS, THE BROOD, eXistenZ, THE FLY, SPIDER, NAKED LUNCH, allude to insectile metamorphisis, referencing, of course, a Kafkaesque dilemma of nature where you, once of sound body and mind, wake up a starving insect looking for fuel (blood, flesh) to survive. Like cancer, the change comes quickly and, naturally, too late.

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