Sunday, February 3, 2008

Far Out Films From The Seventies, Rabid

For his second full length feature film, RABID (RAGE), Director David Cronenberg originally wanted to cast a young actress named Sissy Spacek for the lead role of Rose. His Canadian backers fought against Spacek as they wanted a 'name' actress that could fill the seats. They had no way of knowing that as RABID went into production Spacek would become an overnight sensation with her powerful performance in De Palma's CARRIE.
The financiers of RABID, including future director Ivan Reitman, made an admittedly odd and risky move and brought in adult film star Marilyn Chambers to play the pivotal lead role, Rose. Chambers, while known mostly for her work in The Mitchell Brothers' BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR, had worked in the early seventies Sean Cunningham-Wes Craven project TOGETHER but RABID would be her first large role in a mainstream production.
Chambers had started out her career with some modeling, including the mother on the famous Ivory Snow box, but her life was forever altered after being discovered at a Mitchell Brothers casting session at the age of 19.
Her work in BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR made her an instant underground sensation and forever solidified her as one of the three most famous adult stars of the seventies. Unlike most of her adult world peers though Chambers possessed a real charisma and charm in front of the camera and she had a natural and fresh acting ability that Cronenberg was successfully able to tap into.
RABID is my favorite of the early David Cronenberg films and it is a textbook example of not just his early obsessions but also of how to make an independent, low budget film. Much of RABIDS strength comes not just from Cronenberg's remarkably smart direction and script but from Chambers, who gives an absolutely pitch perfect performance as the very doomed Rose.
Cronenberg was obviously aware that he was working with a relatively inexperienced actress so many of the film's finest moments come through moments of silence, rather than dialogue. The incredible opening shot is a good example with Rose standing silent as Cronenberg's camera pans around her. Chamber's has one of the great faces of the seventies and Cronenberg makes good use of it especially in the opening shot and with a particular screaming close up of her in the hospital a bit later.

Chamber's would say of Cronenberg on RABID'S 25th anniversary in a interview with Rue Morgue, "he really calmed me down and said 'less is a lot more'". It was a good piece of advise as the silent spots of RABID make its more chilling and explosive moments all the more intense.
There are so many great moments in RABID that it is hard to single specifics out. One shot that sticks with me is Chambers walking through the cold Canadian city getting hungrier and looking for her next victim. She passes a poster of CARRIE, Cronenberg's sly wink to Spacek, and decides to go into an adult movie theater.
Rose is a remarkable character because she is so tragic, there is never a moment in the film where Cronenberg lets us forget that the killing and feeding she is doing isn't by choice but by need. Upon escaping from the hospital for the first time Rose attempts to feed from a cow and immediately gets ill. Chambers is great in this moment as she lightly pets the cow as if to say, "I'm sorry".
Everything about RABID, from the chilling library score to the final bleak closing shot, is perfect to me. The bleak and chilled look of the film is particularly striking and can be credited to famed Candian cinematographer Rene Verzier, who had just shot another one of Canadian's cinemas best from the seventies, THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE. The special effects by Al Griswold and Joe Elsner are also extremely well done and overwhelmingly creepy, with special mention going to the terrifying new appendage that appears out of Rose's armpit throughout the film.
RABID is often overlooked by even Cronenberg's most dedicated fans and that is truly unfortunate. VIDEODROME might be the ultimate expression and culmination of Cronenberg's art but you can literally watch him build his own mythology in his earliest films, specifically RABID.
After early doubts and some problems on the set with her boyfriend Cronenberg grew to respect Chambers and has said many good things about her and her work as Rose. He also expressed regret that she didn't have more success in later mainstream films. I share that regret.
Chambers would never again be given the opportunity to give a performance as good as Rabid. There would be more films, some straight...some adult...a brief singing career...personal problems...arrests and finally resolution as reports now have her at her happiest with a daughter and a much calmer life.
RABID is out in a couple of different DVD versions. The orginnal reagion one disc is bare bones and features just a full screen presentation, but it is a must have for people who grew up watching this film on VHS as it accurately reflects that presentation. The real way to go is the Candian special edition which features a widescreen cut, and a fantastic long interview and commentary by Cronenberg. If the film does have another release in the future, one would hope that Chambers would be contacted for an interview and commentary as she seems to have very fond feelings towards the film.
RABID isn't often mentioned among the best Cronenberg films but it is a real personal favorite to me. It's like watching one of the great masters beginning one of his most ambitious pieces, a piece that he has continued to build upon, refine and improve in his remarkable 30 plus year career. The film remains one of his most important works and Marilyn Chamber's performance in it is one of the finest ever given for him.


Rogue Spy 007 said...

I loved this film. It's been ages since I've seen it, but it's probably my favorite of the early work of Cronenberg. I'm glad that Chambers was cast and not Spacek. I thought she brought something more freshing and different to the role. She always had this innocent looking beauty even when you saw her in adult films. I'm glad she was given a shot like this. I wish she had done more roles like this over the years.

Jeremy Richey said...

I wish she would have had more shots like this as well..I love her work in this film..