Getting Rabid with Horror’s Soska Sisters
Canada’s horror auteur twins, the Soska Sisters, remade their idol David Cronenberg’s earliest and grisliest film.
Canadian filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska have been delivering artistic haymakers since they started their careers. It was back then that they self-financed, wrote, directed and starred in the the delicately titled Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Since then, they’ve also created their best and most acclaimed movie to date, American Mary (2012), while also directing a segment for The ABCs of Death 2 (2014), and two movies for WWE Films, the slasher sequel See No Evil 2 (2014) and the action thriller Vendetta (2015).
Their movies are marked by a decidedly feminist point-of-view as well as a gleeful, often outrageous use of gore and visceral horror, so it’s no surprise that they have now taken on the risk of remaking Rabid, one of the early films by their idol and fellow Canadian, David Cronenberg. The original, released in 1977, starred adult film superstar Marilyn Chambers as Rose, a woman who undergoes an experimental surgical procedure after a motorcycle accident and discovers a parasitic new organ in an orifice under an armpit–which gives her a ravenous appetite for blood that soon spreads to everyone she infects.
The original was one of the cornerstones of the “body horror” subgenre that Cronenberg became closely associated with, touching on familiar themes of disease, sex, transhumanism, and mass hysteria. Most of those elements are still front and center in the Soskas’ loving remake, which places their Rose (Laura Vandervoort) in the fashion industry and offers a modern take on Cronenberg’s still subversive material.
Den of Geek spoke with the Soskas recently about remaking one of horror’s greatest filmmakers, meeting Cronenberg and discussing the movie with him, whether they wanted to cast an adult film star as Rose this time around, and more.
Den of Geek: Let’s start with the inspiration to remake this. Is there a little bit of trepidation when you’re remaking somebody like Cronenberg?
Sylvia Soska: Well, yeah, of course it’s terrifying to remake a Cronenberg film. If he hadn’t made The Fly, I don’t think it would’ve been kosher at all. But the nice thing was that David knew of our work before. We almost actually met when we were premiering American Mary during the Canadian premiere in Toronto. He was in post on a film, and we couldn’t get away from a premiere so we weren’t actually able to meet. We didn’t actually meet until we actually finished on this film.
At the same time, I’m totally used to people being very passionate to discuss remakes, whether it’s in the positive or the negative. And I think because we’re so self-aware of that, we made sure that schadenfreude was a big theme. Because as much as this is a loving re-imagining and homage to everything that Mr. Cronenberg has ever made, it’s also a very self-aware remake.
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Jen Soska: I’m guilty as anyone for not giving remakes or re-imaginings a fair chance. I think that is because as a horror fan we’ve so often been manipulated by the studios that make one that is a remake in title alone, and then it’s a completely different film. I think it’s important for a filmmaker to do their own thing. I think Scream said it best that the golden rule is, “don’t fuck with the original.” As much as we said “fuck remakes” on set, the joke was that we were making love to our remakes. So we’re really remaking it for an audience of one. Sure we had all of our peers, all of Canada, and one of our greatest inspirations to not let down. But when we thought, “Let’s just make this one for David,” it was easy.
We were actually approached for Rabid, by the way. Otherwise, we would have done Dead Ringers and when they approached us for Rabid, we thought, “Oh God, they’re going to remake it with or without us.”
I noticed your characters are named Beverly and Elle [after the twin gynecologists Bev and Elliott in Dead Ringers].
Sylvia: Oh you got that! You’re the first person to actually catch that. Yeah, that’s after the Mantle brothers. Jennifer and I are actively seeking out the rights for Dead Ringers. We want to remake it with a female proctologist. And I know before you say, “That’s crazy, nobody should even touch that movie,” we really want to take the Olsen twins out of retirement. And I know that sounds nuts, but when the Olsen twins were kind of at the height of their fame, they weren’t in control of the dialogue being made about them. There’s kind of a disgusting twin narrative that they were never in control of. So how cool would it be to see them come out and have their own voice and see their own vision.
read more: Dead Ringers — David Cronenberg’s Classic at 30
In the original Rabid, David cast adult film star Marilyn Chambers in her first relatively mainstream role. At the time, that wasn’t so completely shocking because films like Behind the Green Door or Deep Throat got reviewed and ran ads in newspapers. Do you think that’s something that could be done now?
Sylvia: You know, it’s so funny because we actually tried to get an adult film star for Chelsea [played by Hanneke Talbot] and then Billy [played by WWE star Phil “C.M. Punk” Brooks] was almost played by one as well. And there wasn’t any resistance towards it. But at the same time, more of the interest for doing it was to be respectful to what Marilyn Chambers did with the role.
That said, Jennifer and I have a lot of friends that work in adult film, so we actually love a lot of the new talent that’s coming out of that industry. I think a lot of people don’t really know what it’s like because it is kind of taboo. You don’t see it being reviewed in the newspaper. You don’t see it playing in theaters like you used to. But you’re still looking at artists that are creating some very interesting films.
read more: Looking Back at David Cronenberg’s Rabid
Jen: Even though Laura worked really hard to make the character her own, there are scenes that she would watch Marilyn Chambers’ performance over and over again beforehand because she’d be like, “Okay, this is one of the big Marilyn moments, so we definitely want to emulate her and we want to pay tribute to her.” I hate it when somebody says, “Oh, Marilyn Chambers is a porn star.” I’m like, “Oh my God, shame on you. That’s blasphemy. She’s such a feminist icon.”
Sylvia: One of my favorite things about what David did with casting Marilyn Chambers is everyone said, “Well, this is her first legitimate movie.” And he was like, “Wow, this is the first time anyone’s called any of my movies legitimate.” But also people were so enamored with her being in that role. They didn’t even realize he put monster pornography right in there, when it has an orifice on her armpit and a man fingering it. That was NC-17 material. But at the same time everybody was like, “Oh my God, this actress was a porn star.” They weren’t even looking at what David was showing them.
What were your impressions when you finally met him?
Jen: I’d say it was beyond wish fulfillment because I never had a wish as arrogant as “I’m going to remake a Cronenberg film,” let alone, “We’ll be the first ones to do it.” We’re Canadian, we’re Catholic, and we’re female. You don’t have as big wishes as that. So when we finally got to sit across from him, and he said the words, “The film ended up where it should have,” it was such a moving experience.
Sylvia: He’s so down to earth, and he’s so humble and so kind. When I thanked him for his films and let him know what they meant to me, and how they affected the person and artists that Jennifer and I became, he looked at us and he had no idea what I was talking about. Like he didn’t know he was David Cronenberg. He said, “Wow, okay. Well, thank you. That’s very kind of you.” And he’s like, “I don’t see myself like that. I always see that this actress was difficult this day. I didn’t get my way this day and, we had to lose this other thing. So I don’t look at those films like that.” And I thought, “Oh my gosh, wow.”
Jen: As identical twins, getting to sit across from Mr. David Cronenberg and talk about Dead Ringers and hear his insider Dead Ringers stories was the thrill of a lifetime. Plus the fact that he likes Hungarians and he likes twins and that he likes filmmakers. He was delighted we’re female filmmakers. It was pretty magical. It was fantastic.
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What was the first Cronenberg film you two saw?
Jen: The funny thing is I don’t think we saw the same one together. The first one I saw was The Fly. And The Fly still has such a strong effect on me. I’ve seen the behind-the-scenes, the making of, how they did the prosthetics. I’m a big, big prosthetic girl. It still really messes me up and it really boggles my mind that that’s his biggest commercial, theatrical success because if I tried to make effects like that in a movie, people would lose their minds. “You can’t put that in, no one’s going to be able to watch that.”
Sylvia: Cronenberg was too adult to watch in our house. I think when we watched Hellraiser at 12, our parents were just like, “Oh, we should be really careful about what the girls watch from now on.” I remember Shivers was on and I missed the beginning. I had to sneak it. Nobody else was home and I was like, “Oh my God, what is this?” And then I remember the next movie I snuck of his, I also missed the beginning and it was Crash. It wasn’t until years later that I realized it was the exact same filmmaker. But you could kind of feel the vibe because you’re not only watching a horror movie, but you’re watching something that deals with taboo subject matter and it’s kind of wrong. And it does have that criminal kind of energy to it. You never forget your first Cronenberg.
If you were looking at your Rabid objectively, how would you sort of pitch it to fans in terms of what insight the you bring to this great cult horror classic?
Sylvia: There is an aspect of the film where if you wanted to just take the piss out of us, go ahead. It’s schadenfreude and we totally expect that. I have absolutely no problem with people who hate remakes going here and just getting their hate on. That’s fine. That’s a healthy way to do it. But it’s a film that’s very respectful to the original film. We got a cast and crew who had worked with Mr. Cronenberg. So not only were we trying to do the most respectful job, we had people that we could ask literally who had worked on his original films. I don’t know if there’s any film like this that is a remake that is so respectful to the original because every aspect of it does grow from the original one in some way.
Jen: I don’t know if there’s ever been such a self-aware film where the film itself is an examination of doing a remake. And if you love Cronenberg, don’t worry. A huge reason why we took on this remake is to protect the original and to protect the original creator. I am a fan like the rest of you and I’m just lucky to be directing films and trying to make them what us as fans would like to see. I was terrified of somebody misusing and abusing Rabid. My God, it could have been about rabid dogs and rabies. It could’ve gone really, really far from transhumanism and weird body horror.
Tell me about your experience writing a Black Widow comic book for Marvel.
Jen: I would love to have continued writing it, but we’ve done five issues in a mini-series called No Restraints Play where Natasha, after being resurrected, is breaking bad and getting back to what matters. So she takes down an elite pedophile ring in Madripoor. I assume that as the Disney-Marvel turnover happened, they took a look at our books and said, “No thank you, ladies.” Also our book is a top seller. The fans love it. Killing pedophiles is the feel-good story of 2019.
Sylvia: We were watching the Jeffrey Epstein thing and the book came out at the same time that guy was arrested. Like that was way too perfect. So if you love Black Widow and hate pedophiles, No Restraints Play is awesome. Hopefully the next time Marvel wants to break bad with one of their characters, they’ll let us come out of Marvel jail.
What’s next for you?
Sylvia: Maybe we’re going to get to make an original film since we haven’t been able to make one since American Mary. It’s a monster movie and it looks like we’re going to be shooting it next year. There’s also a TV series that were attached to that we’re very excited about. So it’s funny, there’s a lot of things that made us kind of niche, weirdo, body horror directors, but now it kind of seems to have melted into place where we’re the only weirdos you can hire for certain jobs.
This interview has been edited for length.
Rabid is out in theaters, on digital and on demand now.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye