Billed as the first Israeli slasher film, “Rabies” wields a tart wit, several innovative twists on genre conventions and a heaping helping of bloody mayhem. Hebrew dialogue will limit exposure for the pic, a local B.O. hit on its December release, but good word of mouth will have horror fans hunting it down as if it were a gaggle of teenagers driving through the woods.
That’s the situation the characters in “Rabies” find themselves in: The acerbic Adi (Ania Bukstein) and the slightly dopey but beautiful Shir (Yael Grobglas) are being driven to a tennis match by Mike and Pini (Ran Danker and Ofer Shechter). Pini makes idiotic small talk, while Mike makes the inevitable wrong turn that takes the four off their proper course and down the dirt road to murderous evil.
Meanwhile, in an old mine shaft nearby, Ofer (David Henry) frantically tries to free his imprisoned sister Tali (Liat Har Lev) before they’re discovered by the local psychotic killer. Or their parents: Tali and Ofer have been engaged in one of those loves that dare not speak its name. Thus, “Rabies” starts off with some unsavory first steps, and things only get worse.
Meanwhile, Menashe (Menashe Noy), a park ranger running with his dog through the woods, gets the sense that all is not well. Pini and Mike, having left the girls back at the car, are out in the woods now, too, and so is the killer — probably.
Helmers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado do a wonderful job of exploiting all these wandering bodies for maximum anxiety. No party knows what the others are doing, or that they even exist, setting nerves increasingly on edge. Back at the car, two cops have stopped, supposedly to help: the relatively gentle Dani (Lior Ashkenazi) and Yuval (Danny Geva) who, it becomes clear, has trouble controlling his sexually predatory instincts. Who needs a psycho killer when all these nuts are running around?
Which is exactly the point. “Rabies” makes great use of collective expectations of where a homicidal-maniac movie is supposed to go, and doesn’t go there; the changes in strategy induce laughs, but they also lend the film an unusual edginess, precisely because the normal genre rules are being kicked to the curb. The violence can be excruciating — in that, the pic adheres to the horror blueprint. But where that violence is going to come from, and with how much velocity, is never certain.
Production values are good, with some rather agile camerawork by Guy Raz.
In addition to its Tribeca screening, pic is among the films that will be streamed for free as part of the Tribeca Online Film Festival.