RABIES made its North American premiere at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival being hailed as the first slasher film to come out of Israel. Spoken in Hebrew, subtitled in English, it walks the well-treaded premise of four people who take a wrong turn and find themselves lost, in the wrong place at the wrong time – wandering about the woods as a killer stalks in the shadows. If you think you can predict the rest of what happens, well, you’re going to be wrong. RABIES takes its own approach to this scenario. Although an unpredictable and original take on what American films have driven into the ground with monotony, the plethora of plot angles goes so far off the beaten path that this becomes the film’s primary strength, and demise.
Directors Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales have if nothing else added another facet to over-familiar territory. But RABIES is a curveball, with a lot of movement. So much so that it confuses the average viewer on a few levels that Ill explain below. If you’re sensitive to spoilers (none of them honestly film-breaking) I’d stop here, but in all honesty, you should know a bit of what you’re getting yourself into.
An EVIL DEAD-like car full of travelers, two men and two women, all dripping with their own separate sexual hormones, take a road trip only to find themselves misplaced and navigationally confused on a remote fox reserve – a barren woodland where trouble is already brewing within. As the film opens, a woman finds herself imprisoned at the bottom of an underground animal trap of some sort. Its dark, and wet, and her boyfriend (brother!?) can not get her out. He takes off to find help, and from the darkness, this woman hears him attacked by her sub doer. Enter title credits: RABIES. Injured only, he makes it to the road, only to be struck by our traveling foursome who pulls over to help as he cries for assistance in pulling his mate from the snares of a psycho’s trap in the woods. Cautious, and immediately attempting to avoid slasher film redundancies, the boys go off to help, and the girls stay back at the car to call the police. This is where familiar territory ends, and the madness begins.
Becoming a MAGNOLIA of horror, RABIES’ plot now branches off in several directions like an uncontrolled sun – rays here and there – focusing on many different subplots: one, of this couple in the woods, another of the boys who head off to help them, another of the girls who stay behind to wait for help, another two, of the policemen who arrive (to add completely unrelated plot-points of a failing relationship at home, and an abusive sexually rude pig), as well as a park ranger hunting in the woods with his dog (and his dispatcher mate on the other end) – am I missing anything? and oh yeah, the killer we were introduced to at the start of the film. Each of them linked by crossing paths at some point in the forest.
Minor spoilers here, but what would you think, if I divulged to you, that this “slasher” character only manages to kill one thing – the dog. Yes, the dog. Not one single person. Different? Not what I expected. OK. Now – does anyone planning to see this know the Hebrew language? I don’t, and you probably don’t either. So now, what if I told you that there’s not one sign of rabies the entire 90 minutes? No frothing at the mouth, no disease – and that if rabies was the cause of all that goes down, there is absolutely no reference to it whatsoever. Feeling misled? As was I. No stranger to foreign films of the genre, I take it with a grain of salt that a lot of engrained inferences that can be lost in translation. Perhaps “rabies” means “crazy” in Hebrew, and its our own error to presume a disease is at work here. I didn’t have a book of translations to study during the movie. Sadly, if you come to this assumed revelation, as did I, its on your own accord. Aside from the crazy look in everyone’s eyes as the shit hits the fan, you’re left mind numbingly perplexed as to what rabies has to do with the story you’re watching.
All of that aside, there are enough positive factors to drive this truck and keep it on the road of interest from beginning to (its anticlimactic and mild fade of an) end. There is ample blood and violence (even if the special effects of injury are limited mostly to a pleasingly horrific mallet-broken jaw), filmed with some unique and fresh cinematography by Guy Raz (giving some non-insulting, broad points of view that your eyes can sink into), accompanied by some above-par acting that is cast-wide (Lior Ashkenazi, Ania Bukstein, Danny Geva, Yael Grobglas, Ran Danker, Ofer Shecter), wit, and a surprisingly emotional depth to some of the characters. Most unexpectedly from the more balanced/entertaining policeman who’s primary mission is to fix his relationship back home over a cell phone from his car, and to get back home to erase some messages he left in anger to his apologetic, almost-lost love. But even as his plot climaxes in a bloodbath that shockingly tickles at your merciful side of emotions, once again, you’re checking the clock – wondering what the hell happened to the “killer” (who spends most of his time sleeping in the woods tranquilized) and when rabies is actually going to have something to do with what you’re watching.
Final analysis: have you ever gone to take a drink of soda, only to swallow some orange juice instead? I like both, but when I’m expecting one, and get the other, it kind of knocks you for a slight loop. RABIES is a tug of war of a horror film, pulling you back and forth between expectation and originality, plot discourse and unpredictability, reason and randomness. Inaccurately billed as a slasher film, it’s more of a BATTLE ROYALE free for all without apparent cause or logic, battling above all to identify itself. Deaths are a plenty – you will get those – but you’ll never guess how or when – demises ranging from knife wounds, car accidents, gun shots, accidental impalements, forgotten land mines from a war before, wounds that take an hour to bleed out – most of them at the hands of fragmented mania, rather than a personified killer or disease. In itself, RABIES is a promising foreshadow of Israeli horror to come. Even as unorthodox as it is, it is an entertaining watch, border lining both familiarity and confusion at the same time, professionally pulled off by skilled cast and crew – but feel free to apply any title you want – all the while trying to release yourself from that moniker – keeping in mind that old saying, that a rose by any other name, is still a rose.