A brother and sister, in their twenties, run away from home after their dark secret is discovered. They find temporary refuge in a deserted nature reserve. When the sister falls into a hunting trap, set by a psychotic killer, the brother sets out in a race against time to rescue her.

3.5
Smart slasher film cuts deep into local lore.

ISRAELI FILM FESTIVAL: The conventions of the 'deserted woodlands serial killer’ flick are established and then subverted, deliciously so, in Rabies, a hard-core horror effort that delivers on the gore and the giggles in equal measure. Co-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado have crafted Israel’s first mainstream slasher movie with an astonishing degree of filmic confidence and genre understanding; their film is thoroughly deserving of comparisons to Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), still the high-water mark for self-referential genre deconstruction.

Populated by what initially appears to be a collection of teen-shocker stereotypes, the directors’ self-penned script morphs into something far more complex, both in characterisation and mystery-thriller plotting. Keshales’ and Papushado’s sublime cross-cutting of the film’s chronology builds a terrific tension and amplifies every unexpected twist for maximum impact.

We meet Tali (Liat Har Lev) as she pleads for rescue from within a pitch-black deserted mine shaft. Her loving brother Ofer (David Henry), whose comforting dialogue suggests their relationship is a little too close, finds her and goes for help, only to be dealt an (offscreen) blow by some unknown assailant. The directors then introduce the other members of the troupe, all of whom will seem instantly familiar to horror buffs: smart-mouth yuppie-types Mike (Ran Dankar) and Pini (Ofer Shechter), who think they are onto a sure thing with new dates Adi (Ania Bukstein) and Shir (Yael Grobglas); two cops, the fatherly Dani (Lior Ashkenazi) and slightly unhinged Yuval (Danny Geva), who are rather unrealistically patrolling the bushland dirt roads; and a park ranger, Menashe (Menashe Noy), on a field trip with his German shepherd, Bula (though, as with most animal cast-members in films of this ilk, it’s best not to get too attached...). Oh, and a serial killer (a fleetingly-glimpsed Yaron Motola), yet, frankly, he is the least important character in this film...

To divulge the complexities of the plotting would spoil some wonderful surprises inherent to the directors’ self-penned script (and take far too long to piece together in the space provided here). It would suffice to say that several of the characters’ own inner demons surface to ensure compelling drama, shocking violence and knowing satirical barbs at the expense of the genre. Keshales and Papushado’s greatest skill lie in the means by which they conjure audience expectation with prosaic flourishes, only to spin the giddy interaction of their characters into wholly unexpected directions.

Also, though most splatter films adhere to a recognisable template regardless of the country of origin, it is worth noting the influence of Israeli history and society upon the film. Strong family ties are evoked in several of the characters’ final moments, particularly the culturally-significant father-son relationship; the spectre of war surfaces when a field of unexploded landmines plays a terrifying part in one of the subplots; and the final, determinedly un-cathartic scene, symbolically hints at the pointlessness of the bloodshed that has gone before. There are some smart minds at play behind Rabies and its international film festival praise (Critics Award honours at Fantasporto 2011 and Official Selection at the Tribeca, Edinburgh and New York’s Israel Film Festivals) is completely justified.