Rabies/Kalevet - 27th April 2011 - The After Movie Diner goes to the Tribeca Film Festival!

Rabies, or in the original Hebrew, Kalevet is officially the first horror movie ever made in Israel. It's hardly surprising then, for anyone who knows even the tiniest amount about that countries birth and chequered history that it takes an American standard horror structure, complete with, initially stereotypical slasher horror characters and laces it liberally with political allegory and, apparently, according to the directors, a very Israeli sense of humour.

Basically, as far as I could figure it, the plot involved a brother trying to free his sister from a trap when she is kidnapped by a serial killer. At the same time a park ranger enters the woodland with his dog and I think, if I am remembering correctly, after his dog is killed by the psychopath, manages to tranquilise the killer and save the girl. Then the brother, not privy to all this information, is hit by a car containing your typical horror crew of four bickering, horny teenagers when he runs out in front of them in a blind panic trying to get help for his sister. Predictably enough the two boys follow him into the wood while the two girls stay behind until two policemen show up. It turns out that one of the policemen is having marital difficulties and is distracted leaving messages for his absent wife while the other is a sick, sexist crazy ready to feel up and possibly rape at least one of the girls while attacking the stronger, more mouthier one for being a lesbian. It is this second girl that grabs his gun, holds both cops at gun point before shooting off the sick ones fingers and running into the woods with the other girl, who is still, understandably, in shock. The sick cop then handcuffs the other cop to the steering wheel of the police car and follows into the woods behind them. Anyone who has now entered the woods, we find out, ends up coming to a creative but horrific end, mostly because they turn against each other in increasingly bizarre and violent ways.

It's at this point while it is treading, partly, a some-what well known path, albeit in a slightly odd and extreme fashion, that I suddenly began to question what I was watching.
For a start the threat of the serial killer, who you never really get to know or realise who he is, isn't there as he is asleep having been tranq'ed. Secondly the cops, who should be a force of good and safety turn out to be exactly the opposite, well one does at least. Thirdly, everyone starts dying in quick succession without much explanation or suspense and lastly no one has mentioned rabies or exhibited any of the symptoms during the whole damn film.
By this middle section I was quite confused by a lot of the random and drastic mood changes that I wasn't expecting, mainly because with a title like Rabies I thought it possibly could be a zombie film. So, I put my misreading of the film down to it being from a foreign culture I didn't understand or possibly that I had missed something in the quick passing, white subtitles, which very often were on a light or bleached out background and just sort of let it all wash over me thinking that I, at least, vaguely got what was going on (people were dying) and that would have to do.

Luckily I saw a screening of this at the Tribeca film festival, obviously, knowing little to nothing about it and so it was lovely, informative and entertaining to hear the directors speak afterwards. If anything it helped to add layers to the film that, for the reasons I explained, weren't always easy to read into it.
They talked a lot about the political significance of some of it, to them and how they were influenced greatly by the slasher and horror films from America in the late 70s and early 80s. It came as no surprise that one of the directors was a film student and the other a film studies lecturer because they delighted in pointing out both the cliches they had employed and then how they had subverted them. For example we are meant to realise and it's meant to be obvious that this is a slasher flick in which the killer doesn't murder anyone but a dog and that usually in these films no ones phone works and so they had everyone's phone work.
It left me thinking that I would give it another shot now that I understood it and see if it played better this time. What follows are merely my thoughts based on this initial viewing.

The good points first.
It had a really good look which very much harked back to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it looked like it was intentionally made on 16 millimeter with very bleached out colours and bright hazy whites. This gave it a very interesting and grainy look, so that artistically, at least, it was pleasing to the eye.
The death scenes were spectacularly realised and very gruesome. There was definitely no skimping on the claret.
The scene, amongst all this confusion, that worked very well and was very violent was when the stabbed and run over brother stumbles upon who he thinks is the killer outside a trailer and smacks him extremely hard and repeatedly with a large mallet around the jaw, only to discover later that it was the park warden and he was just getting some water for his sister who is just waking up inside. It's a scene that a horror audience loves because they know what is about to happen but are unsure if the protagonist is going to realise in time and when he doesn't you are left feeling really bad for all concerned but in a good way, if that makes sense, because it's how you're meant to feel.
It's mostly well acted too with the characters, at least, well written and defined so, despite the language barrier, I felt I understood who everyone was and their initial motivations even if my understanding of their actions later became muddied and confused.
The whole thing reminded me a great deal of the french film 'Haute Tension' (High Tension or Switchblade Romance if you live in the UK) in the sense that it looked great, there was some excellent bloodletting but overall, even with the explanations from the directors, it didn't make a whole lick of sense. Where High Tension succeeds over Rabies is that it has an excellent eerie and tense feel to it that is genuinely scary and that I was able to really get into, where as Rabies failed to grab me with anything more than a relentless series of grizzly deaths and a vague numbing confusion by the end.

The downside:
I was lucky enough to see the film with a fairly satisfying explanation, sort of, given by the two directors (even if they did make a very tenuous leap in saying that the dog they chose to get killed was intentionally a German shepherd because, well you know right? because of the war, you know, it's an in-joke because the dog is German) but I presume, unless you listen to the possible commentary on the DVD first, most western viewers will not see it like that. As much as I applaud them for attempting to make something that has some cultural and political implications, some art, humour, traditional entertainment and shock value, if it's all lost because no one has the first clue what they are watching and why anything is happening then what good is it?
Firstly they could've picked a better English language title. They called it Rabies apparently because it's a disease that attacks the nervous system or something but it was never really clear. Secondly they need to re-edit it with dark black lines around the subtitles and slow them down a bit, I am not stupid and I can read but if I am busy reading acres of text (the script is quite wordy) and trying to fathom out what they all mean rather than becoming embroiled in the mood and action of the piece then the point is somewhat lost in a horror movie.

It's all very well to subvert genre traits and do something a bit clever but make sure you are doing it for a reason that is relevant to the plot and not so that you can try and look clever in front of the class. By getting rid of the killer in the first act and establishing that anyone can attack and kill anyone for any reason, where is the tension? Like I said, the best scene in it is where we, the audience, know he's about to get the wrong person and hope he realises in time but the rest of the kills happen so quickly and with little to no reason that apart from being a spectacle there seems to be little to no point, no matter how well you film it and execute it.

Lastly, as great as it is that they have attempted to give the characters depth and a back story (again bucking the genre convention of simplistic stereotypes), for the short running time it is a lot to take in and as there are so many characters it is almost like too much is going on all at once. There is a reason why horror, especially, is simple and focussed more on mood, style and sometimes plot than it is on in-depth character studies. It doesn't help the development of the scare if you're thinking about who is sleeping with who, who is related to who and what all their dilemmas are that have to be resolved.

I liked that it was challenging and I am not dismissing that aspect, I just think there is a thin line between challenging an audience and confusing the hell out of them, to the point where they become a little turned off by it all.

All that said however I don't want to be too critical of what was not only a first attempt but what was clearly a well thought about film that tried to do something not only new to it's country of origin but to the genre as a whole.
I generally did enjoy it and now that I think I have it straight what exactly is going on, I would watch it again to get more involved in the emotion and to see if they also managed to create a mood and a cohesive film.
I am just not sure that most audiences would do the same, it is, I think, one of the few films I have ever watched where there were some obvious walk outs and before the house lights could even raise on the credits, half the audience up and left.
Had they stayed they would've seen two directors who were funny, humble and polite and who have, at least, done the clever thing and didn't wait around to see why nobody had made a horror film in Israel before, they just went ahead and did it. Ensuring that Rabies will always be first at something.

6 out of 10 nicely tenderised but slightly unfocussed, face meat steaks
Points from the Wife - 5.5 out of 10

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