Rabies is the first good old-fashioned teen slasher flick to come out of Israel and be done entirely in Hebrew, a witty, darkly comic, and yet sometimes oddly sentimental recalculation of well-entrenched Western genre conventions. While it’s clear that the duo have done their homework on slasher horror, and pay appropriate tribute to their forebears (Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), there’s a fresh vision of fright as well, a nuanced social and political commentary, and a rather puzzling moral framework, that adds a welcome dimension to this sometimes one dimensional subject.
The film opens with a trio of familiar tropes inseparable from the horror canon: the girl trapped in a hole by a homicidal maniac as her brother tries to save her; the group of good-looking teens, two guys and two girls, on their way to a tennis match (tennis skirts and all for the girls, obviously) who take a wrong turn into the woods and get lost; and the well-meaning campground inspector with the playful wife and loyal dog who ventures into the woods alone to make his rounds. The stage seems almost overtly set for a mash-up of every slasher flick to garner mention on Fangoria to date. But the similarities to Western horror conventions begin to peter off and eventually disappear completely as young Israeli filmmakers Aharon Keshales and Navot Paushado begin to explore unfamiliar ground even as they work within the traditional horror framework. Though we do see the maniac kill the loyal dog, his spree ends there, as the camp inspector, Menashe (Menashe Noy), hits the would-be antagonist with a tranquilizer dart and knocks him out cold for the remainder of the film. And yet, nearly the entire cast still dies.
In Latin the word rabies translates literally to “madness”; in ancient Sanskrit the word rabhas, which most likely influenced the Latin rendering, translates in the active sense to “to do violence.” There are no rabid animals in Rabies, only humans who have gone mad (or just gotten really angry) for whatever reason and resort to violence in their agitated states. The homicidal maniac sits this one out and let’s the natural violence of human nature take its course. The filmmakers seem to be saying something like this: In this day and age of war and death, there’s no need for a malevolent force to kill the good guys, because given enough time, the good guys will take care of themselves.
Of the four lost teens, the two males end up fighting over one of the girls’ affection, and Pini (Ofer Schecter) hits Mikey (Ran Danker) with a big rock in the back of the head, killing him. Menashe, the camp inspector, saves Tali (Liat Harlev), the girl trapped in the hole, only to be mistaken for the homicidal maniac by her enraged brother, Ofer (Henry David), who smashes Menashe’s head with a five-pound sledge. The cops who show up on the scene meet similar fates at the hands of “regular” people, but may deserve their rewards just a little bit more.
For a film that comes from a country such as Israel, where war is constantly on the horizon because of religious conflict, the political commentary is unmistakable in Rabies but never takes over the plot, adopting instead a rather adept yet covert role in its dissent. The government presence in the film manifests itself as Danny (Lior Ashkenazi) and Yuval (Danny Geva), two corrupt police officers who arrive at the scene, called by the female tennis players—Adi (Ania Bukstein) and Shir (Yael Grobglas)—after their male companions have gone off into the woods to kill each other. Officer Yuval, a microcosm of the Israeli patriarchy, proceeds to demonstrate a candid misogyny and disregard for propriety as his frisking of Shir turns into a forced finger-bang, and Adi is forced to take his gun and shoot off those fingers to stop the illicit proceedings. The authoritative figures that should be keeping order only serve to disrupt it, and the moral code is left to the civilians to uphold. In another scene, Adi and Shir—dragging the still-warm body of the recently impaled Yuval—wander into an active minefield, which are common and so very dangerous in many war-torn countries, stumbling over the rusty sign which delineates the area. Suffice it to say that Adi takes a wrong step and meets her demise, furthering the idea that the reality of the human condition and terrible ills we face as a warring world are much more immediately dangerous than any one psychopath on the loose.
Another reading of this surprisingly deep film places the characters at strictly moral and religious odds, foregoing, or at least glossing over any political musings it may affect. Though violence, rage, and revenge permeate the film, and seem to occur logically as opposed to any divine sense of retribution, there are many curious instances that seem to belie a deeper resonance within the film for religious reference and allegory—most specifically to Dante’s Inferno and the sins and punishments in his nine circles of hell. Tali and Ofer, the brother and sister, are revealed to also be revelers in the incest, and end up dying in a forest fire, much like the those who “go against nature” in the inner ring of the seventh circle who are tormented by a flaking windy blaze. In lieu of a whole dissertation on the subject, suffice it to say that the theme of sinner meeting proportionate demise is fully rendered in the film.
But there are exceptions: The only potential “victim” who doesn’t die is Pini, who in the beginning of the film is established as the virgin, which at first seems logical and also keeps in line with American horror genre theory (i.e. the virginal teen cannot die, for that teen hasn’t committed the sin of sex). Pini also prominently wears a gold Star of David around his neck, constantly clutching at it, and asking God for help. Not only is he chaste, he’s also pious. It makes sense that he survives. Then again, Pini murders Mikey in cold blood with a rock. And Shir, whose only crime it seems is to be the subject of a rape (there’s a slight implication by Yuval, which she doesn’t refute, that she enjoys her violation, but this may be tough to prove), is run over by a car. Rabies seems to indicate, along with its ideas on politics, that there’s no rhyme or reason to morals as well; justice isn’t weighed out on the scale opposite violence, and rather, much like the randomness of death in war, its scattered in the winds of chance and isn’t moderated by anything or anyone. The only other person besides Pini who doesn’t die is the maniac; the last scene in the film shows the foiled murderer, standing by the side of the road, completely and utterly unscathed, save for the pinprick of the tranqu dart, trying to hitch a ride back to his nefarious lair. “Country full of shits…” he says, as he holds his thumb out to oncoming traffic with no success.
Rabies is shot well, and the special effects and gore are in perfect balance with the believability of the plot. There’s nothing over the top or outlandish about the way the film plays out, which is possibly the scariest part of all. But the overall visual composition of the print is unremarkable, with the saving aesthetic grace becoming the natural beauty of the Israeli landscape. It makes up for the bland angles—all head-on close-up shots and shaky handheld tracking shots (a la Blair Witch)—that the directors rely on. The sense of suspense in the film is derived more from the unexpected nature of the menace, the fact that there’s no true bad guy in the story, as apposed to any sense of impending doom at the hand of a monster. It’s an incredibly inventive conceit. But what’s most troubling (in a pleasant way) about the film is that the only person who survives and escapes without losing any blood is the original killer, portraying the enigmatic moral scaffolding and the subtle political mooring of the plot. It’s hard to say where the film’s loyalties lie, which will be hard for American audiences to accept, despite the invigorating treatment of the themes. Either way, if Rabies is any indicator of what we should expect from Israeli horror films in the coming years, there’s no doubt this film will be the first in a long line of cult genre classics.