Early films by directors I admire seems to be the order of the day, at least so far. My impressions of Cronenberg have been wildly varied over the years, having seen most of his iconic films and even seeing the last two, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, in theatres. I watched Scanners and had difficulty staying awake. I rented Videodrome and my dad asked what it was, and he said, “Oh another yuck-fest,” with a disappointed/disgusted look. This was my first real inkling of his squeamishness (something I was almost done with by then, myself). I recall finding the name Cronenberg important at the time, but I imagine this was more due to my habit of reading my subscription of Fangoria cover-to-cover (which is a lot more reading than you might imagine). I learned a lot from reading those, but I can’t definitively attribute to it my interest in Cronenberg. Certainly The Fly made a strong impression on me (if you might recall the arm-wrestling scene, perhaps), but I had not really seen any others at that time that I can recall–beyond, perhaps, a brief glimpse of Naked Lunch (which, at last viewing, also put me to sleep, somewhat inexplicably–realistically caused by exhaustion at the time though). I’ve had a few people comment on Rabid after telling them I purchased it, mostly telling me it was a disappointment. I didn’t expect much as I have seen plenty of Cronenberg’s films at this point and know the weakness of his earliest ones (which typically falls to his budgetary limitations).
Rose (Marilyn Chambers–yes, the porn star) and Hart Read (Frank Moore) are a young couple motorcycling through Canada when a stalled van and their speed results in an accident that leaves Hart with a broken hand, injured shoulder and concussion, but Rose in a coma and in desperate need of skin grafts. The accident occurs near the Keloid Clinic, where Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) is discussing the expansion of his plastic surgery practice with his wife Roxanne (Patricia Gage) and business partner Murray Cypher (Joe Silver). Dr. Keloid tries a new procedure in the process of Rose’s skin graft, attempting to neutralize the morphology of the skin cells transplanted so that they can differentiate into the type of skin that should naturally be present there. Keloid is pleased with the results, especially in the emergency context they took place, but Rose remains in a coma. When she screams into consciousness, it’s the middle of the night and recovering patient Lloyd Walsh (J. Roger Periard) is the only one to come check on her. When he does, she embraces him and attacks–drawing blood from him through a new appendage that has developed beneath her left arm. Lloyd survives but is groggy and amnesic when Dr. Keloid examines him and the profusely bleeding wound under his arm–which fails to coagulate–but an artificial coagulate slows it enough that Lloyd decides to leave. Lloyd’s departure is cut short when he begins foaming at the mouth and attacks the man driving him away. Rose has become aware of what she needs to do to survive–draw blood–but attempts to escape, little knowing that she’s leaving her victims in a state that mimics rabies and is spreading rapidly through Montreal.
The vampire (this is vampire movie?! Cronenberg?!–sort of my reaction) is a natural choice for Cronenberg, though I never would have imagined it all the same. He’s notorious for his interest in the physiological horrors, and in the psycho-sexual horrors, and the vampire has always been these things. Of course, it’s not the typical vampire and it’s not the typical response to them either. Rose is a vampire of need who realizes her need, yet seems to become more alien through it–a strong performance for Chambers. She tries to feed only on strangers, and she even tries to feed on an animal, but she’s only so successful, and fails to recognize the chaos she’s leaving in her wake. In Romero-esque fashion, the city of Montreal declares martial law and locks itself down under this epidemic, with her victims biting other people and spreading the infection. Mind you, this is closer to The Crazies than Romero’s dead films, but the comparison remains. The imagery of the proboscis Rose uses and the way in which it is used (anyone surprised it’s somewhat phallic?) is pure Cronenberg, as is the choice to take one victim in a porno theatre, but the rest of the film is more in line with his earlier work (Scanners, The Brood–which are earlier in a general sense, but later than this), having that grainy look of 60s and 70s film (which I guess isn’t surprising since it’s from 1977) and a sort of Larry Cohen-like straight-laced drama to it. There’s that greater menace that Cronenberg’s films carries (as compared to Cohen’s), but it’s still a greater percentage of the film that fits more into the Cohen mold. There’s nothing at all wrong with this, but it is going to disappoint someone looking for The Fly, Videodrome or Naked Lunch. I’ve always liked David Cronenberg himself when I’ve seen him interviewed or even acting (as in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed), because he has a relaxed attitude but a sharp wit, a sense of humour and a clear intelligence that he doesn’t seem to lord over anyone, rather using it to share his enthusiasm for the things he cares about. This is probably what drives me most to see his films, because I know they are made by someone who means something by them and who wants to make them, who recognizes the value of horror films, and the ability to make something that isn’t one, making it a reasoned choice to do it in the first place.