The first thing to clarify regarding RABIES, the debut feature film from Israeli writer-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, is that this is not a viral outbreak film, nor in any way related to that particularly nasty contagion forever associated with vagrant dogs foaming at the mouth. At least, not in any literal sense. Rather, the film's title is a metaphorical allusion to the capacity within human beings for evil and violence that lies dormant in most of us for the vast majority of our lives, but which can rise up, almost without provocation and cause us to commit startling and horrific acts. Harking from a nation seemingly in a perpetual state of conflict not known for its horror films or its comedies, RABIES is consistently violent and shocking, whilst simultaneously ripping the horror movie playbook to shreads. It laughs in the face of audience expectations and soon enough has viewers gleefully creasing up thanks to its devilish sense of humour and meticulously crafted script.
The film opens on a girl, Tali (Liat Har Lev) trapped in a box. Through a thin skylight her brother Ofer (Henry David), reassures her that he will return soon with help. We see that they are deep in a forest and learn that Tali has been caught in a trap while fleeing from a vicious killer (Yaron Motola). Ofer emerges from the forest, only to be knocked down by a car of youngsters on their way to a sports camp. Mikey (Ran Danker) is the handsome one, and Pini (Ofer Shechter) his obnoxious best friend, but both have eyes for the gorgeous Shir (Yael Grobglas). However, they may have to compete with their other female companion, Adi (Ania Bukstein), who also has a secret crush on the beautiful blonde. When they accidentally collide with Ofer the boys head into the forest, while the girls remain with the car and call the police, only to catch patrolmen Yuval (Danny Geva) and Danny (Lior Ashkenazi) on a particularly bad day. Elsewhere in the reserve, rangers Menashe (Menashe Noy) and Rona (Efrat Boimold) are going through a rocky stage of their relationship, only for their lives to also become entwined in the increasingly bizarre goings-on.
Keshales and Papushado's script sets up an assortment of horror movie stereotypes - the irritating, sexually charged teenagers, the unlikable, power-happy cops, the sinister, boiler suit-sporting killer, there's even a dog! - and then spends valuable time developing their relationships and myriad first world problems. Whether it be an unplanned pregnancy, unrequited love, a volatile relationship with an overbearing parent or jealousy between friends, all these characters have more than enough drama in their lives before they cross paths with a homicidal maniac. The writers throw an assortment of weapons into the mix for good measure - guns, knives, cars, bear traps and minefields - and push their characters way out of their comfort zone, while scratching away at their pre-existing problems and conflicts. While the film is tense, violent and darkly humourous, it is the twists and turns of the narrative that keep the audience on the edge of their seats. It is made clear very early on that nobody is off-limits and no one's safety is guaranteed. The threat of violence and death lurks around every tree and when it comes, it's not from behind, but from right in front of you.
One particular shot remains with me days after watching the film. There is a moment when the killer has been rendered unconscious and lies flat on the forest floor. Shot inverted, from above his head, we see the killer awake and look down at the world around him in some confusion. This single shot encapsulates so much about what RABIES is about. We see the killer's skewed perspective on the world in which we inhabit, his almost Godlike position as he surveys what he has set in motion, and yet simultaneously the helplessness of finding himself rendered prostrate and disabled, his best-laid plans upturned by the chaotic nature of the world with which he struggles to connect. RABIES tells us that life is unpredictable and that violence and danger can come from anywhere, even those closest to us. Each person's perspective is unique and different, but if not understood and respected, can appear threatening or even prove hostile.
RABIES has quickly become one of my favourite films of 2011, a survival thriller unlike any I have seen. A horror film that plays out both as a brutal indictment of the latent rage within humanity and an extreme absurdist farce that sees a single potentially life-threatening situation quickly escalate into a rampaging bloodbath devoid of justifiable motive or reason. It's combination of brutality, humour and domestic drama singles RABIES out as an unmissable piece of work from two of the most exciting new talents, not just in Israeli Cinema, but in World Cinema.