Israel is tense and violent — perfect horror material

‘Rabies’ is Israeli cinema’s first ever slasher movie. The film’s co-director explains why it took so long


A killer is on the loose in  Rabies

A killer is on the loose in Rabies

'It's like an emotional roller-coaster. You're going to be scared, you're going to laugh and sometimes it's going to be dramatic," enthuses Israeli film director Navot Papushado, talking about the experience of watching a horror film.

Papushado is one half of the writer/director partnership (the other is Aharon Keshales) that has made Israel's first horror film, Rabies (Kalevet in Hebrew), which is showing at the UK Jewish Film Festival next month. It debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, with one critic describing it as "whip smart", and has continued to create waves of attention at subsequent festivals around the world. A few weeks ago it was awarded an Ophir, the Israeli equivalent of an Academy Award.

Frightening, funny, and surprising, with appropriate lashings of blood and gore, Rabies is the dramatic tale of a psychotic killer on the loose in the woods, who crosses paths with a couple, a ranger, a group of unsuspecting tennis players and two police officers. But all is not what it seems and the film plays on the viewer's expectations, culminating with an unpredictable, thrilling twist.

Horror films often serve as a commentary on issues within contemporary society and Rabies is no different. Papushado says that his film "makes a statement about human nature, and about living in Israel".

Directors Papushado (left) and Keshales, collectively known as “Papshales”

Directors Papushado (left) and Keshales, collectively known as “Papshales”

Aged 31, both he and Keshales grew up in Israel and went into the army. They met as student and professor - the 35-year-old Keshales is a lecturer and film critic - at Tel Aviv University Film and Television School. Rabies is their first feature film.

"We didn't want to make a horror film that was just violent; we wanted to make a film that would show a particular aspect of Israel," Papushado says. "It is a very tense country, people here have a short fuse and frequently situations escalate to violence. A normal situation, like driving here, can be scary. So we decided to take a different approach and make a film about violence as a disease, a dormant disease waiting to spread."

He says that he believes that each of us "has this button that you push and all of a sudden you can become violent. That is the reason why we chose the title". But as well as interpreting violence as an epidemic, he acknowledges that the title also reflects a form of madness - a group of outwardly ordinary people go crazy and behave in an utterly unexpected manner.

The film makes certain culturally specific references, such as the influence of the Israeli mentality in creating an incompetent slasher character. "Israelis are not lazy but they leave things for later on," he explains. "The expression, 'ye'hiyeh beseder' - "it'll be ok, everything will be fine" - sums that attitude up, so we thought what could be more Israeli than having a slasher who doesn't kill anyone!"

Until now the horror genre has not taken off in Israel. The general opinion, says Papushado, is that the country has suffered so much war and terror that people do not want to see more violence on the screen. But the director's response is that Israel is famous for its war films, which show realistic violence. "Watching an Israeli film can make you feel like you are being taught something. Often they are about an important issue or make an important statement," he says. "The violence in horror films is more of a catharsis. I think people are afraid of something that is pure entertainment." However, he feels that attitudes are changing - Rabies has been popular with Israeli audiences.

Both Papushado and Keshales grew up watching mainstream horror films made by John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Quentin Tarantino. Papushado says that these movies have a "second layer, a subtext, but first of all they are really entertaining, which is what we believe a film should be. It is maybe later, when you have thought about it, that you find other aspects to it. For us that was the film we wanted to make and watch."

He adds that he and Keshales have been hugely influenced by Korean cinema in recent years because of its ability to play with the tone of a film. "One moment there is action, in another it is drama, then it moves to comedy. You never feel safe as the tone is always changing. Much like the Coen brothers or 1970s exploitation films."

According to Papushado, a good horror film needs several components for it to work. Cinematography and editing are crucial, as is the soundtrack. He says that dramas depend on a solid storyline and acting, "whereas in horror it's not that simple. You have to know how to scare the crowd, how to make them laugh".

Rabies presented many challenges. They had to shoot in only 17 days, in winter when there is eight hours a day of light, rather than 10 in summer. They also insisted on doing all the special effects, shootings and explosions in one long take. However, having two directors on set was an asset. The pair are good friends who think alike - "sometimes people say we share one mind", says Papushado. In fact, in Israel they are called "Papshales", a playful combination of their surnames.

Perhaps a mark of the duo's credibility is that they managed to secure a number of Israel's leading actors, such as Lior Ashkenazi and Menashe Noy. It is unusual for the slasher genre to attract a strong cast and their involvement contributed to "a domino effect. Everyone heard about these two big actors playing in this small indie horror film and it became easier to cast; even minor roles went to well-known actors. They delivered something emotional to the film and I think it is one of the reasons that it has been so well received," he says.

Papushado and Keshales are currently writing another film together. It is, Papushado says, "a brutal twist on the kidnap genre". They have continued with the same approach, that of combining comedy and horror, but with more violence. Filming is due to start in the next few months.

They will have to wait and see if they can repeat their debut success, but what is certain is that, after watching Rabies, a walk in the woods will never feel the same again.

'Rabies' ('Kalevet') is screened at the Coronet cinema, London W11, on November 12 at 10pm, and at the PeckhamPlex, London SE15, on November 17 at 8.30pm. The UK Jewish Film Festival runs from November 1-20. Full details at www.ukjewishfilm.org

    Last updated: 11:50am, October 27 2011