Of the films talked about after Frightfest 2011, Rabies was strongly recommended by those who saw it as one of the best that year. The first Israeli-made slasher flick, it is definitely a cut above the rest, and is now out on DVD courtesy of Soda Pictures in time for this year’s Frightfest, where the directors will be screening their follow-up Big Bad Wolves as the closing film.
The set-up is simple. Four young tennis players drive into the woods where a slasher is holding a woman captive while her brother goes to look for help. A hunter and two cops also end up in the woods, and paths cross for the worst. It is a series of tragic misunderstandings and petty conflicts that explode into violence and death. Directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado took some of the best and well-known actors in then-current Israeli cinema, cast most of them against type, and made their version of a slasher flick. Not a million miles way from some of the earlier successes of the French New Wave of Horror, but with more in common tonally with low-budget efforts from the U.K. and Australia, Rabies sets out to be different from the American Slasher Flick template, to act in direct response to it, choosing instead to focus on character, cruelty and realistic shocks.
This is a nasty film, but all the actions are borne out of how the characters act when placed in the middle of a typical slasher narrative. Breaking with conventions allows such things as for the virgin of the group to be a guy; for mobile phones that work and allow for contact between them as well as out to people not on the site; for the police to be more sicko keystone cops than any use whatsoever; for threats to be from more than just the killer. To some degree, the killer himself is the least of the problems for the various characters; the location they find themselves in, their attitudes to each other and those they meet, all of these add up to explosive, and ultimately lethal, consequences. Great performances all round make this approach work.
Tragedy is not a word one uses when discussing examples of the American Slasher Flick, but Rabies makes you respond and feel for characters who have done terrible things. Comedy and intensity jostle besides each other, increasing the shocks themselves, but also few die quickly or easily. Death is realistic, messy, and you learn things about people that humanise them at the point where it is too late for them to do anything but finish dying. It is unnerving, having more in common with Korean and Japanese films than anything else. All in all, this approach is successful but is not for those looking to see gory kills happening to people they can afford not to care about.
This transfer from Soda does its best with a low-budget film, almost completely shot in natural daylight. The audio is very effective, and the subtitles keep up. The extras are first class: an Israeli making-of and trailer, a UK trailer and interview from website Chris And Phil Present, and a terrific commentary. These guys knew exactly what they wanted to do, went in and achieved everything they wanted. They have created a film that is scary, horrible and funny, that acts as a commentary on the genre as well as an allegory for those living in the modern state of Israel, and which sets the bar very high indeed for whichever Israeli director dares to enter the genre next.