'Rabies': The First Israeli Horror Film Is Just That

What do you say about the first Israeli horror film… besides the fact that it’s the first Israeli horror film? And that, with that distinction comes a frenetic array of cultural, religious and political associations that may as well serve as a Rorschach test for anyone watching it? Israel as the setting for a horror film (Rabies, or Kalevet in Hebrew, which just debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival) is a manifesto in and of itself — particularly when the directors, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, have been touting the movie as an allegory on the state of Israel (though honestly, they have plenty of incentive to spew jargon like this — it hands their film cultural significance on a platter).

Still, at the end of the day, no matter how much we may want to enmesh this film in political importance or elevate it to a cultural statement, it’s just a slasher flick. And a pretty good one! So let’s try to slog out of the political muck (as much as possible, anyway) and just talk about that.

The best part of being the “first slasher flick from a country” is the lack of canon dragging you down. There’s no precedent, no ankle-weights of Freddy or Jason or Michael or Carrie or Chuckie or Vigo the Destroyer, etc., etc. A clever filmmaker will take this freedom and use it to ferret out a new way of doing things, while remaining faithful to the genre at large.

All of which happens, for the most part, in Rabies. The premise sounds as unoriginal as they come (but then, that’s sort of the point). Good-looking (and I mean slap-somebody good-looking) 20-somethings heading for a day at the country club find themselves lost in the woods, hunted by a serial killer. Mayhem ensues, blood and madness spurt, and body counts rise.

The spark of originality comes from an early twist: taking the killer out of the equation. How many slasher films shoot the psychopath up with a tranquilizer and leave him unconscious ’til the third act? And then proceed to create shit so nuts you barely notice? It’s a neat trick that hasn’t been pulled off since… well, ever really. Of course, to get this trick to work, you’re required to believe that normal people could become murderous at the drop of a hat (or a gun) — a bit of a stretch, even for directors trying to make a statement about the savagery of their nation’s history (crap, there’s that political discussion again). The film plays with a few clever touches that are distinctly Israeli; one scene in an abandoned minefield is fantastically tense (you can’t exactly get away with that plotline in the woods outside Cleveland). But other imagery is unsubtle to the point of eye rolls — cue the close-ups of the young hottie wearing a Star of David around his neck, which eventually gets covered in blood.

Nonetheless, the mayhem manages to suck you in, particularly with the entrance of cops, who bring with them the “authority figures are worse than psychopaths” trope. Yes, it too has been done, but Danny Geva is just about the rapiest policeman ever depicted onscreen, and his scenes with the women are more viscerally uncomfortable than any murder in the film. His performance steals all attention away from the killer, and turns the film into a brutal gender battle. Let’s see that happen to Jason or Freddie.

Of course, in the third act, things fall apart. Massive plot points make no sense, huge details are never explained (is there incest going on here? Who is screwing whom? WTF??). Then things turn unapologetically sour and nasty when two sweet men are mistakenly murdered, leaving behind devastated women. Their grief transports you out of the adrenaline-cranked horror-movie fun into a world of loss — which again is fine for a political statement, but it won’t mean a good time at the scary movie. You can make your horror film, or you can make your fraught statement about Israel — but you’re not gonna bake both into the same cake.

As for future Israeli horror, Jerusalem’s walls have come down (sorry, I’ve been so good ’til now!). A zombie film is already in the works, promising Romero-levels of patent cultural critique. Though if there are any Palestinian zombie raids, I may have to maim somebody.

We are ranking movies now!! This one gets two drippy chainsaws (out of five).

Melissa Lafsky, The Awl’s Horror Chick, wants to be scared by your movie.