Sci-fi Meets Horror as David Cronenberg Takes on the Seedy Streets of Montreal
(Beware of Spoilers)
How do you know the medical institution has failed you?
You wake up with a vicious phallus in your armpit and find you have a unquenchable thirst for blood.
Meet Rose. The medical institution has failed her.
But hey, it grows on her - eventually.
Loaded with vampire and zombie imagery, this 1977 Cronenberg film follows the atrocious and violent transformation of the leading lady, Rose, into a monster/victim hybrid. The incident is the result of a botched skin graph - an experiment undergone by a 'mad-scientist' Frankenstein figure, Dr. Keloid, who sees Rose's arrival into his care as a chance to make a medical breakthrough. Don't worry, he's her first victim. Unfortunately, we don't know anything about who Rose is before her motorcycle accident, but her struggle with turning monstrous suggests she was a pretty nice person before. But it is clear early on that she is utterly powerless against her insatiable desire for blood. To fulfill this new lust, Rose heedlessly takes advantage of her own position as feminine, playing the role of the lonely beauty to draw men in. It's no surprise then that the role was given to Marilyn Chambers - a well known porn actress at the time (star of Behind the Green Door). Worse, after succumbing to Rose's seduction and penetration, should they survive, her victims are infected. They turn into rabid, blood-thirsty, zombie-esque creatures. As you might imagine, it then spreads through the city streets like wildfire in a forest. If that's not an STD, I don't know what is.
Obviously, with the rise of Plastic Surgery in the 70s, the sci-fi elements in the film strongly appeal to the contemporary fears about modern medicine and other technologies. This generates much of the horror as well. Moreover, the horror imagery is graphic at times, making a spectacle out of the destruction of the body, for both Rose and her victims.
So despite her attempts to keep her urges under control, Rose comes to embody the monstrous-feminine. Her bodily transformation surely highlights this, as does her role as a seductress. As Barbara Creed points out in her 1993 essay, "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection", classical mythology was "populated with gendered monsters, many of which were female". She connects this to the idea that women themselves represent the abject, as defined by Julia Kristeva: That which "does not respect borders, positions, rules" and "disturbs identity, system, order". Clearly this is what horror cinema does, and even what it is. But for Creed, borrowing from a long line of psychoanalysis and Freudian theory, it also represents women's position in a male dominated society. Such theories argue that woman is positioned opposite to man and is therefore Othered. She is to be feared for her difference; she is a threat. In horror cinema, the monstrous-feminine can be understood as making good on such threats by literally becoming violent. Since Creed understands horror spectatorship as signifying both a desire for the perverse and to eject the abject, being able to play out the fantasy of confronting the monstrous-feminine, and possibly even defeating her, would be quite the cathartic experience for the male viewer.
Rose is especially interesting then because what makes her so dangerous is her recognition of her position as desirable. By stalking the late night streets of Montreal, a place known for its seediness to say the least, Rose is able to find and lure in her prey - using her female sexual energy as bait. It's a quick way to get the job done. Just a little something to think about the next time a pretty girl eyes you on a darkened downtown street...