Written and Directed by: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Danny Geva and Ania Bukstein
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“What a screwed up day…”
The above quote pretty much sums up Rabies, which is the first ever horror film from Israel. Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s debut effort is an interesting film in the way it escalates from a trite, familiar point (a couple being stalked in the woods) to a sprawling series of events that puts a bunch of people through a hellish wringer of violence. One might call it a “slice of life” flick in that it peers into a short window in the lives of these characters; however, it would of course be more apt to call it a “slice of death” flick considering how few of them make it out alive.
We begin in those woods, where a girl has fallen into a trap; her brother goes to seek help, and stumbles right into the path of a moving car. Inside are four young adults headed to a tennis match, but they’re soon drawn into the brother’s plight. The two guys in the group head back out into the woods while the two girls call in a couple of cops. Meanwhile, a forest ranger patrolling the area also becomes entangled in the events of the day.
I’ll say this about Rabies: it may be the first body count/slasher movie where the actual slasher takes a back seat. We see him early on, where he’s up to no good (dog lovers, avert thine eyes) before he lets everyone involved do his work for him. Yes, this is another one of those movies where everyone goes into the woods and loses their mind with deadly results; the title might cause you to think it’s similar to Cabin Fever, but the actual disease referenced there doesn’t seem to be literal. Instead, it’s plain old stuff like jealousy, sadism, and misunderstanding that causes everyone to go rabid. It’s almost as if the killer has wound up the gears and lets fate play out; he’s not as perceptive as Jigsaw (in fact, most of the bad things that happen here are by chance), but he’s left a few things lying around to remind you that he’s there, such as bear traps and land minds.
I find it hard not to give Rabies a certain amount of credit for its clever mechanizations, as it sometimes is a swift, deft exploration of things going from bad to worse (and then even worse). Some of the bits, such as the sadistic, perverted cop who sexually assaults the two girls, is quite disturbing (though the film takes a misstep when it comes to handling his fate--for some reason, it wants us to accept that maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all). However, some of the more intense moments are diluted by some clunky editing; at one point, the girls’ showdown with the sick cop and the guys’ encounter with one of the bear traps are intertwined, and the film awkwardly bounces between each and fumbles the climax for both.
Before things go south, the screenplay scatters about a fair amount of effective humor. The kids especially engage in the usual sort of bawdiness (one guy begins to list the sexiest things in life, which is headlined by watching girls urinate), and even the cops exchange some funny banter before we learn that one of them is a despicable human being. All of this is just a mere prelude to the succession of gut punches that follow, as the film essentially piles on heaps of dramatic and situational irony to make the situation all the more tragic (one of the characters is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time). Ultimately, I felt a certain amount of emptiness to it all, perhaps because I was simply expecting some sort of point to it all. This is a film that feels like it should be leading somewhere, but, instead, there’s very little payoff--it’s just a very, very bad day, and that’s it.
Of course, that probably makes it no more loosely-plotted than most traditional slasher flicks, so maybe that isn’t a fair criticism. Rabies’s subversion of the usual body count discourse is admirable to a point, but it mostly just feels like one of those neat concepts whose execution is sometimes lacking because the film doesn’t do anything else remarkably well. Though it’s briskly paced and has a few good shocks, Rabies only adds up to a fairly decent movie. It isn’t a bad first horror outing for Israel to be sure, and the idea of society tearing itself apart (even just on the level of a handful of people) certainly seems to carry some political implications for the directors' homeland. However, the bleak, sometimes nihilistic bent is fairly universal, and the ultimate message seems to be a simple one: “shit happens.” We’ve heard that before with more effectiveness from other flicks, but Rabies at least goes about it with a certain amount of narrative ingenuity. Perhaps best described as an Israeli Bay of Blood, it mixes sparse laughter with chaotic bloodshed to varying effect. Rent it!
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