Those itching to pay a visit to 10 Cloverfield Lane could do worse than take a pit stop at this … well, “Cloverfeld”: an Israeli-produced first-person horror film in which the Days of Awe take on a rather literal meaning for two party-ready American tourists. Shot in Jerusalem’s Old City, the largely English-language genre offering makes clever and unsettling use of a p.o.v. gimmick — most of the action is seen from the vantage point of a character’s Google Glass–like eyewear — until the second half falls back on apocalypse- and zombie-movie conventions about as ancient as the scenery.
“JeruZalem” opens with an ostensible Talmud quote saying that there are three gates to hell: one in the sea, one the desert, and one in Jerusalem. A reel of faux found footage, identified as being from 1972, gives us our first glimpse of the latter gate. The clip shows clerics from several religions uniting to perform an exorcism of some sort in the Old City, where a dead woman has miraculously returned to life, not quite herself. She’s on the verge of sprouting wings, for one thing.
After the 8mm-style prologue, the movie abruptly turns high-tech. Sarah Pullman (Danielle Jadelyn), a 24-year-old in Los Angeles, is about to leave for Israel with her friend Rachel (Yael Grobglas, “Jane the Virgin”). Sarah’s dad (Howard Rypp) has given his daughter a present of WiFi-enabled “Smart Glass” specs that allow her to video-chat, snap photos and look at maps.
On the plane, Sarah finds herself attracted to an ancient-history buff, Kevin (Yon Tumarkin). Following the flight’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, he invites Sarah and Rachel to join him in Jerusalem instead of adhering to their plan to hit the clubs of Tel Aviv. A Muslim hostel proprietor, Omar (Tom Graziani), acts as their guide to Jerusalem’s nightlife. As Yom Kippur approaches, there are vaguely supernatural portents that this isn’t an ordinary High Holiday period in Jerusalem.
Most of these events are seen through Sarah’s smart glasses, whose on-screen text the film uses to both expository and comic effect. (Apparently, the facial-recognition feature is so good that it even works on the undead.) More than at least some found-footage horror films, the movie attempts to justify its conceit: Early on, Sarah’s ordinary prescription eyeglasses are stolen in a purse-snatching. To avoid having Jadelyn give an exclusively vocal performance, there are occasional moments when someone else will try on the glasses, or they’ll be cast aside to make viewers voyeurs to a sex scene.
In any case, lenser Rotem Yaron creates a reasonable facsimile of a tourist bobbing and weaving through the quarters of the Old City. The press notes variously cite the use of documentary-crew permitting and guerrilla-style tactics to film at such sites as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall, where Sarah makes a profanity-peppered wish for the return of her dead brother. However achieved, the footage is most impressive in scenes depicting the Old City’s deserted alleys after the army has cleared most of the area in a quarantine. Among the characters who remain: mental patients suffering from “Jerusalem syndrome,” a psychosis attributed to visits to holy sites.
At one point, one of the Israeli soldiers charged with the evacuation suggests that his army has prepared for every scenario except the apocalypse. Despite moments like that one, the movie’s occasional stabs at political commentary never quite pay off. Nor can the writer-directors, brothers Yoav and Doron Paz, fully sustain the film’s novelty into the second half, when the script reverts to timeless, tired monster-movie tropes. Memo to any actor who may one day share the screen with the undead: A zombie-inflicted wound is never “just a scratch.”