Bonus Column #1 — Canada
Happy Boxing Day!
I have a confession to make. I’ve seen enough of David Cronenberg’s work to know that I’m not a huge fan. I know it’s not very cool of me to say that, but it’s the truth. My complaints about the Canadian filmmaker, I imagine, are pretty standard for people who can’t get into his movies – his plots are too convoluted and/or far-fetched, his characters are too unlikable and/or dull and/or one-dimensional. I do love the “feel” of his films and the imagery that they display – what most people who write about him describe as “body horror,” for example, Jeff Goldblum’s transformation into a goo-spitting half-man half-insect in The Fly or the sex-with-leg-wound scene in Crash. If you’re turned off by those two examples, maybe David Cronenberg isn’t for you. He’s not for everyone. I live for that kind of stuff, so in spite of my reservations, I continue to keep coming back to him.
I thought, in honor of Boxing Day, I’d take a look back at one of Cronenberg’s earlier films because, to really understand an artist, I guess it helps to see where he came from. I chose Rabid because – well – I don’t know. It was sort of a crap shoot. The titles of some of his films kind of run together – Rabid, Shivers. Plus, I had already seen Scanners – and Shivers wasn’t available through Netflix.
Rabid, also known as Rage, was released in 1977. It stars porn star Marilyn Chambers. Prior to porn, Chambers was a familiar face to middle-America as the model who graced the cover of boxes of Ivory Snow, in which she posed as a mom holding a little child. This image of domestic purity worked to her advantage when she appeared in the Mitchell Brothers’ landmark pornographic film, Behind the Green Door. Everybody wanted to see the Ivory Snow chick naked. Not that she’s exceptionally good-looking. If I might be blunt, the bone structure in her face resembles a bird-lizard of sorts. On the other hand, compared with the alternative — say – trampy, frumpy Linda Lovelace of Deep Throat, Chambers was a goddess. No doubt many a teenager in 1970s disappeared into the bathroom or their bedroom for hours on end with a box of Ivory Snow… to masturbate.
Fellow blogger Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner of Tales and Their Tellers once suggested to me that I review porno films, but just ignore the sex. I don’t know if that would work now, since porn with a story has kind of gone the way of the VCR thanks to the Internet and what it’s done for our attention spans. If I focused on the golden age of porno, however, that may have been a possibility. The 1970s was the era of porn chic, a brief attempt to legitimate XXX-rated fare where for one strange moment in time, theaters showing dirty films could attract “normal” couples instead of … well … perverts – or so that’s what film history has taught me. I don’t know how true that is. I never asked my mom and dad if they ever went down to the local multiplex to catch an 8 p.m. weekend showing of Debbie Does Dallas. They probably had church choir practice. They probably caught the 9:30 p.m. show.
I have not seen Behind the Green Door. I have seen Deep Throat in bits and pieces. While Deep Throat is a comedy (and it is pretty funny at points), Behind the Green Door, which came out the same year, is an experimental film. From Wikipedia, quoting from Hard core: power, pleasure, and the “frenzy of the visible,” an academic study on hardcore pornography by University of California professor Linda Williams:
Chambers plays the role of Gloria. The story begins in a cafe, where a cook asks two truck drivers to tell the story of the green door. Gloria is then shown being kidnapped and taken to a sex theater, where she is placed on a stage and forced to perform various sexual acts with multiple partners in front of a masked audience. The watching audience become aroused and begin having sex with each other. In a psychedelic key sequence, an ejaculation on Gloria’s face is shown with semen flying through the air for seven minutes.
Enough about porn. (That’s what my wife says! Ha!) Speaking of Anna, I’m sure she is very proud of me that most of what I’ve written so far has been written without the aid of fact-checking. If Linda Williams ever retires, at least there’s a spot waiting for me at the University of California, should Anna ever kick me out of the house. I keep telling her it’s research so why does she get so mad?
Back to Rabid. Rabid is a low-budget horror film about a woman named Rose, played by Chambers, who gets into a serious motorcycle accident. She’s taken to a plastic surgeon who repairs her body with skin grafts treated to be morphogenetically neutral – for instance, hip skin is used to replace skin on Rose’s under arm, only before the skin is grafted it’s treated in such a way that it will eventually morph from hip skin to armpit skin. Skin on different areas of a person’s body varies in texture, sensitivity, etc…, the doctor explains – although when it’s hanging from a rack, they all look like Steak-Ums.
The operation has some unintended side effects. Rose has developed a … deformity, of sorts, a vaginaesque – Anna says “mouth-like” – opening on the underside of her arm. We soon learn its purpose, allowing Rose to “feed” on other people via a phallic – Anna says “tongue-like” – protrusion which penetrates and stabs her victims. When a person becomes a victim of Rose, at first they lose all memory of what happened. Then they go… rabid, attacking anyone or anything in a crazed murderous rage. Then they die. It’s like the worst case of syphilis ever, like the one that killed the Aztecs times a million.
Rose attempts to eat a hamburger but winds up puking it up like a vegan who accidentally took a bite of the non-vegetarian chili. She tries to feed on a cow but it’s human blood she craves. Rose’s victims multiply until the city of Toronto is crawling with infected humans. The Canadian government responds by declaring martial law. It’s hell on earth. People are being shot. People are eating people. Everyone’s foaming at the mouth like Old Yeller.
If you don’t want to read any spoilers, skip this paragraph. The end finds Rose locked in a hotel room with one of her victims. She has put herself in this situation, Rose tells her boyfriend, who was also injured in the motorcycle crash and has spent the entire film searching for her. Rose admits to her beau what she’s done and tells him that she wants to see what her new diet does to people firsthand. The experiment doesn’t end well, and Rose dies. The final shot of the movie is her body lying in an alleyway. It’s picked up by a pair of garbagemen and thrown into the back of a trash truck. As the closing credits play, her body is crushed. Fade to black.
Was it all a dream? Was the whole experience in Rose’s head? Did Rose die as a result of the motorcycle crash? Was she in hell? If this film was a metaphor, what was it meant to represent? Was it sexual in nature? Given my interpretation of Rose’s deformity, I think it’s a possibility, with the infection meant to represent … what? Sexual obsession? I would say AIDS if the movie took place in the 1980s, but in1978 AIDS had yet to appear on anyone’s radar. Considering the lead actress is a well-known porn star, I’m sticking with my theory that the movie has something to do with sex – although this theory kind of falls flat when you consider that Chambers was not the initial actress picked for the role, as a then-unknown actress named Sissy Spacek was originally considered for the part. Still, Chambers does a pretty decent job playing Rose and, for the most part, keeps her clothes on. Although her brief foray into mainstream film didn’t last and Chambers went back to porn, I’m sure she could have had a decent career if she had wanted to.
I think the best way to approach this movie is not to look at it as a metaphor but as a straight horror flick – a cautionary tale about the dangers of tampering with nature. In that way, it works … at times.
There are a few things that hurt this film – none of which are the fault of Cronenberg or any of the film’s actors or actresses. I found it hard to get past the low-budget special effects. They’re not particularly good – although there are exceptions. There’s a cool scene where a man is stabbed in the leg with some kind of large construction tool which pierces both the vehicle he’s seated in and his body. Rose’s underarm deformity is also pretty gross/cool and there’s some fairly realistic-looking medical procedures. The “zombie” make-up and the foam that Rose’s victims spew from their mouths, however, is hard to take seriously.
Then there are my typical complaints. No real memorable characters – even Rose is only memorable because it’s Marilyn Chambers. Then there’s the plot, which is fairly laborious and never really seems to go anywhere.
Still, it’s not bad when you consider it was made on a shoestring budget – it probably cost less to make than Behind the Green Door. Also, it was only Cronenberg’s second full-length film, and he not only directed it but wrote the script. It’s unique. That’s for sure. Cronenberg takes the zombie film, a blossoming genre in the 1970s, and put his own unique spin on it. If anything, it’s a sign of things to come.
So, if you’re a horror or science fiction movie fan, check it out. If you’re a Canadian, check it out – pay your respects to your homegrown master of “body horror” or skip Rabid and check out Videodrome, my favorite Cronenberg flick. It’s about snuff films and stars Debbie Harry and James Woods … but that’s another sordid tale for another time.
Matt D.’s Top Five Porn Crossovers
5. Nina Hartley in Boogie Nights – Although she plays essentially herself as Little Bill’s porn-star spouse, she plays it well.
4. Katie Morgan in Zack and Miri Make a Porno – The movie stunk, but Morgan was actually pretty funny. Also features Tracy Lords.
3. Rocco Siffredi in Anatomy of Hell – A total misogynistic asshole, even by porn’s standards, a persona which director Catherine Breillat used to her advantage in casting Siffredi as an almost-submissive homosexual. Siffredi also appeared in Beillat’s Romance.
2. Tracy Lords in Cry-Baby and Serial Mom – The teaming of the once-underage porn star and John Waters just makes sense.
1. Ron Jeremy in Orgazmo – The Hedgehog, as he’s known by some, has made numerous appearances in mainstream films. He reached a whole new audience when he appeared on VH1’s The Surreal Life, showing that off-camera, he’s a really charming and funny guy. Jeremy played Jizzmaster-0 in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Orgazmo. I’m not going to explain it. Just watch it.
Rabid on YouTube