‘Rabies’: Israel makes its slasher-film debut, to laughter and applause

Still image from Rabies. ()
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The Tribeca Film Festival, established by Robert De Niro in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center to revitalize the economy of Lower Manhattan, has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2011 festival goes from April 21-May 1, and over the next couple of weeks, Sheila will be reviewing as many of the screened films for Capital as she can possibly see in a two-week period. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Believe me, you don’t want to get trapped in this forest. It is full of unexploded mines, bear traps, and hidden holes in the earth. It is also, naturally, the home of a rampaging serial killer.

A brother and a sister with a dark secret are fleeing their past through the forest. Four nubile teens on their way to a tennis match (the girls in little white tennis skirts, the boys in white sweaters) go into the forest to pee, and get separated. A forest ranger does his rounds, accompanied by his friendly dog. None of these people are connected to one another, but they all are about to encounter the monster that lurks here. And this monster will infect them all, as the title, Rabies, suggests.

Rabies, directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, is Israel’s first slasher film, and the feature film debut of the two young directors. It is a stylish, funny movie, with a smart script (also by Keshales and Papushado) that revels in the tropes of the horror genre while also commenting on them and upending them.

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All of the familiar horror elements are here: horny teens, casual banter, jiggly hand-held-camera points of view, and lots and lots of blood.

While it doesn’t wink at the audience like the popular Scream movies do, it does contain all of the familiar horror film conventions, but here they are twisted and skewed. What American horror film has unexploded mines the characters need to worry about? The landscape itself is dangerous. Nature is not benign. It, too, is infected.

Two police officers (with an air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror with a Star of David on it) come to the edge of the forest where the two tennis girls stand by the car waiting for the boys, and while the expectation is obviously that the cops will try to help, things don’t go quite as planned. Messing with audience expectations is one of the joys of this film. The cops are distracted by their own rivalry, and by their complicated personal lives (one of them has left over 25 messages on his wife’s answering machine that day alone). They have to be the most incompetent officers of the law since the famous Keystone Cops. In many ways, the script is the real star of Rabies. The characters are recognizable to anyone who has seen a horror film, but the dialogue has its own flair and spark.

The buzz about Rabies on horror-film message boards is starting to get intense, and curiosity is high since very few people have seen it yet.

Israel has an energetic and important film industry, but it is mainly known for its gritty dramas and uncompromising war films that take on the complicated political issues of their country. In that context, Rabies represents a real departure, showing what happens when new filmmakers come up with new concerns and new passions.

Starring many of Israel’s hottest young actors (Lior Ashkenazi, Ania Bukstein, Danny Geva, Yael Grobglas, Ran Danker, Ofer Schecter), Rabies adopts a new approach to an old concept, and announces Israel as a real player in the slasher genre.

Read more reviews of Tribeca Film Festival selections by Sheila O'Malley.