Screens at CIFF: 10/7 & 10/15
World Premiere: 12 December, 2010, Israel

The word on the street is that Rabies, a collaboration between first-time writer-directors Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado, is that it's the first slasher movie ever made in Israel. This is almost true: I cannot speak for the state of ultra-violent horror in Israeli or indeed in Middle-Eastern cinema generally, but I can speak for the slasher film genre, and while Rabies is awfully damn close in an awful lot of ways, to just sit there and blithely call it a "slasher" and consider it a fair day's work is to raise some expectations that the movie fails to meet in the most absolute possible terms. I don't mean to say that it's disappointing; on the contrary, one of the main ways it short-circuits expectations is by being kind of really good. But mostly, it's just not structurally or formally any of the things that we expect from a slasher film: there's a crazy killer and hot young people in the woods, but those ingredients are not at all assembled in the customary order.

There is a girl, Tali (Liat Harlev), trapped in a hidey-hole somewhere; her brother, Ofer (Henry David) promises to save her. It's a nice, normal opening for a torture porn sort of movie, but even here things are "off" - the way the opening shot/reverse shot is framed, Tali and Ofer are peering out of tiny rectangles the same proportions of the frame itself, with no indication of what they're caught behind. It's the first of many moments in which Rabies plays with the basic components of what can be known and what can be guessed in cinema, for even though it's easy to guess where things are going when the plot abruptly shifts to focus on four affluent teens lost in a "fox reserve" on their way to a tennis meet, or the corrupt, violent, rapey cops patrolling that reserve, or the dog-killing psycho slasher, it's even easier to be wrong. The slasher gets stopped before he's killed one single person, and the rest of the bloodbath occurs almost entirely as a confluence of bizarre accidents and unfortunate coincidences. Explaining the hows of it all would be doing a criminal disservice to the film, but this much is at least safe to say: not a single character dies in the most obvious way possible, and not a single character dies solely to feed the insatiable god of the body count. Everybody here, even the villains, are given enough of a backstory and distinct personality that their deaths are affecting in a manner quite unusual for this sort of genre film. Particularly in the denouement, which takes a great deal longer than in just about any other horror movie I can recall (depending on where you set the climax, fully a third of the 90-minute film is the "ending"), and gives each of the still-living characters a proper, tragic send-off.

It sometimes seems from an American perspective that every second Israeli film is about war trauma, and that the filmmakers of that country are constitutionally incapable of telling a story that isn't at heart a reflection of the existential dread of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Perhaps amazingly, perhaps not, Rabies fits into that tradition rather neatly (is it not always the case, though, that horror serves as a pressure valve on the terrors of everyday society? and that being so, I'd bet we can expect to see a lot more of this sort of film from Israel over the next few years). The relics of war serve a literal function in the story, providing the means for the most startling and arbitrary death in the whole picture, but it's more abstract than that. In Rabies, there are no peaceable characters; everybody we meet is capable at some point of turning on even the people closest to them without warning - like a rabid animal, you might say, and that perhaps answers the seemingly intractable question about why a film without a trace of communicable disease should be titled thus.

Violence, in this film's worldview, is something senseless and yet so pervasive that it distorts the characters from the ground up, damning them to kill and be killed with no rhyme or reason (I know I haven't said anything about the plot, and that's by intent, but it's extremely hard to get it to make sense in terms of why people do what they do at any given moment, beyond the raw desire to survive). The most blameless individual in the picture's tiny list of survivors MAJOR SPOILER is, ironically, the psycho; and his rancid judgment on Israeli society that serves as the film's last line is also its theme: "Country full of shits".

That's harsh; but it's also not unfair. These characters are decent and even kind of likable individually, but collectively they make up a capricious, blood-soaked anarchy. Violence begets violence and madness begets madness. That's a hell of a message for a body count picture to take on, and certainly it's not always as highbrow as that: there's a strain of snide black humor throughout, and a healthy amount of splattered gore. And I will concede to reading a lot more into the results of the film than the path it takes to get there: while the middle is enthusiastically exploitative and the end is fascinating in its implications about character and society, the beginning is merely long and slow - even by the standards of slasher films, which so often bog down in setting up all the people to be mowed down later, Rabies takes its sweet time to settle into a groove. It's a tentative film, and one that's too content to borrow its aesthetic from European and American horror (several shots reminded me, not unpleasantly but unmistakably, of High Tension), but it makes a good start, and it's never, ever as stupid as its Anglophone cousins tend to be at all but their very best.