Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror. For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: Rabies.
Films from other cultures can be so interesting because we’re seeing a story filtered through a completely different set of sensibilities from our own. Horror movies from other countries have the uniquely fascinating trait of showing us what other cultures are scared of. Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s film Rabies (Kalevet) was the first Israeli horror film and it seems to say that what they are most afraid of is themselves. A bunch of different people converges on a small patch of woodland. A killer is on the loose but he isn’t even the biggest threat. Everyone’s fears and insecurities are brought up by tense situations and they all become a threat to each other. People seem a step away from falling apart and in Rabies they all happen to fall apart at once.
Two lovers on the run, an older couple with a dog just hanging out, a carful of lost teens and one deranged killer find themselves in the same forest. One of the young lovers falls in some sort of trap so the other one sets off to get help. He comes upon the car of teens and ropes in a couple of them to lend a hand. Meanwhile the two girls left in the car call on the police. The man with the dog goes off without his wife and saves the trapped woman. The police arrive but are suspicious of the two girls and one of them may be a bit too creepy for his own good. Everything steadily escalates and actions become confused until everyone is on edge. They’re all strained and get to the point where they are ready to snap.
The initial set-up in Rabies is like three different clichés congregating in one place. What’s so brilliant about it is how quickly it diverts away from all expectations. It’s a somewhat simple thing that allows this to happen. The characters. In many horror films the characters are just terrible people as well as idiots. The story drags the characters through each obstacle; they’re just there to die in interesting ways. In Rabies every character is distinct and it is each of their unique personalities that makes the story play out the way it does. Most horror films have evidently planned out exactly what will happen first and then inserted generic characters. Rabies could have been written by just asking what would happen if these people were thrown into one place. For the most part the characters are really well fleshed out. They all have distinct personalities, some of them are very sympathetic but they all share one thing. All of them have a darkness bubbling under the surface. Some of them let that darkness come through more easily than others. There is a great villain who we love to hate and an unequivocal hero but amongst those two are a bunch of people who are not just simply good or evil. For the most part it’s the complex ones who screw everything up. Rather than have the story propel the characters forward it is the characters that propel the story forward. It’s a refreshing change from the multitude of horror films that are content with characters solely being murder fodder. Here the fear isn’t just “Oh no, that dude’s gonna get mangled!” it’s “Oh no, that character I love is about to get mangled!”.
One of the major strength’s of the film is how surprising it is and in turn this helps it be even tenser. There are certain situations in horror films that we are used to; we know how they play out. If a hero sees a killer in the woods with someone over their shoulder they’ll follow the killer. They’ll tail the killer to his lair and wait for him to disappear. The hero will then run in to save the captive but then the killer jumps out of nowhere and we all get a fright. In Rabies a character will be in the same situation but immediately shoot the killer with a tranquiliser gun and now the story is going in a completely new direction. At every turn we might see a scene we recognise but then the characters actions change it up completely. Very early on things start going in completely different directions than the beginning implies. It makes for a fun and suspenseful experience because we’re so aware that anything could happen. As well established as the characters are, we are reminded that there is much more to people than what they first appear to be. What every character is capable of is unknown. It gets to a point where anything could happen to anyone at the hands of any one of the characters. This place seems to bring out the worst in most of these people and everyone’s worst side is incredibly dark. People are at first responding in self-defence but they quickly take things too far. A killer is obviously scary but everyone else is as capable of doing evil as he is. All it takes is a push.
Rabies isn’t a perfect horror film in any way but it is a highly entertaining one. In a genre full of clichés and familiar set-ups it is so refreshing to be constantly surprised by a horror film. It’s also nice to see a modern horror film where I don’t hate every character to the point that I can’t wait for them to die. Keshales and Papushado show a lot of promise as horror directors. There are some laughs, shocks and the characters even emotionally engage us. It’s not quite as relentlessly intense as something like Inside but it has bursts of extreme tension. All in all it’s a very effectively thrilling horror movie. The woods are full of all manners of deadly things like mines and bear-traps, but the most threatening of the bunch is people in fear.
James M Macleod