Thursday, April 12, 2007

Overlooked Classics: Marilyn Chambers in 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. 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 real 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 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. 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 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.


Frengers said...

Great review there. I love Rabid and Chambers does give a very underrated performance in it. Looking forward to your next choice.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad to hear someone else admires this film and Marilyn's performance as much as I do.

Anonymous said...

Nice write-up mate. I too am a great fan of the early works of DC and think that Rabid is a fine example. It is well made and has a well chosen music (stock) score. For a low budget film it is very ambitious and well acted by all concerned. It was a deserved financial hit for Cinepix and would lead on to the great The Brood, which was a major step forward. It is a shame Marilyn never achieved greater success in mainstream films as she had the talent and the looks. From what I have read they both enjoyed working together and Cronenberg still claims to have never seen any of her hard-core porn movies but did say he had seen Together. Good work!

Amanda By Night said...

Awww, poor Marilyn. This is a good article and spotlights here underrated work as an actress. I like this movie too...

Chuckj69 said...

Rabid is clearly Marilyn's moment in the "mainstream" sun. I always thought that she had the ability to act and this movie shows her talent in that arena. It's truly a shame that she was never given the opportunity to perform in more mainstream movies. She obviously had the looks,talent,and charisma to succeed. I'm glad so many have taken the time to recognize her talent as David Cronberg did then, albeit posthumously.You are missed by many. R.I.P. Marilyn