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Rabies
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by Jay Seaver

"Could develop a following... even a rabid one."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The title of "Rabies", billed as Israel's first horror movie, may be a bit deceptive; the movie is not a take on the zombie-virus genre at all (in Hebrew, the word is apparently closer to the original Latin root's meaning of "rage"). In another perhaps-unexpected turn, filmmakers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado have opted to skip over simply handling the basics of the genre and go straight for subversion. The movie still has plenty of blood, guts, and suspense, but it's in the service of black, satiric comedy more than formula.

It starts out looking conventional before the credits - Tali (Liat Harley) and Ofer (Henry David) have run away from home, and Tali has fallen into a trap of some sort in the woods, only able to hear screaming when her brother runs for help. Then the rest of the potential body count shows up: Rona (Erfat Boimold) and her boyfriend Menashe (Menashe Noy) are forest rangers, patrolling a national park with Menache's dog Buba. Mikey (Ran Danker) has gotten lost driving his obnoxious friend Pini (Ofer Shechter), Pini's crush Shir (Yael Grobglas), and Shir's friend Adi (Ania Bukstein) to a tennis match. Police officers Yuval (Danny Geva) and Danny (Lior Ashkenazi) are also in the area, and will naturally be called in, although Yuval's bad attitude and Danny's reluctance to stand up to it are not going to be a great help.

The tone of a horror-comedy like Rabies can be incredibly difficult to get right; it's extremely easy for the jokes to seem out of place or for the danger to be undercut. Keshales and Papushado avoid this pitfall by having the comedy get darker as it goes along. What starts as somewhat tired material gets edgier and more surprising as the film continues. Sometimes the comedy is the result of broad absurdity (of course running from one thing leads characters into a minefield); other times the movie takes on the form of a slapstick farce, except that blows to the head lead to horrible death rather than comic unconsciousness. And then, moments that could be funny in a way that engages the audience's mean streak become tragic.

The movie has a particularly nasty streak of its own, with nobody in the cast safe and their ends coming in bloody fashion. The gore effects may not be particularly elaborate, but they're grisly enough to get the point across. It's not just the amount of blood spilled that's impressive, but the way it happens: There's a cynical, angry core to this movie that leads the filmmakers to spread the dysfunction around and not reserve it just for the mysterious outsider.

That requires a bit more acting from the cast than just screaming on cue, but that's covered; according to the directors during the Q&A, the ensemble cast includes a fair number of local stars, frequently playing against type. For instance, Danny Geva is apparently best known in Israel as a pure-hearted romantic lead, but it turns out that "scummy cop" is also well within his repertoire; it's a performance to make one's skin crawl. Other standouts include Yael Grobglas, who does both a fun take on the scatterbrained blonde and a believable case of shock; Ania Bukstein as a somewhat overzealous take-charge type; and Ofer Shechter, who winds up fairly valuable despite starting as not-funny comic relief.

Of course, if there's to be a Rabies 2, it would take a new all-star cast; the filmmakers are not messing around here. For first-timers, the writer/director/editors do an excellent job of riding herd on a large cast, jumping between multiple threads and not tipping their hands as to which characters are going to be important later and which ones are mainly there to increase the body count. Having met in film school as professor (Keshales) and student (Papushado), they've got a strong grasp of the fundamentals, and have both the ambition to deviate from formula and the instincts to know when not to.

So don't expect a standard serial-killer movie from them; they've got surprises as well as shocks in store. There's shocks aplenty, though, making "Rabies" a nifty example of the genre even as it goes in different directions.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=22375&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/11/11 02:03:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2011 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 28-Feb-2012

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