Although Rabies was promoted as "Israel's first slasher", that description is as misleading as the title itself. "Rabies" in a literal sense has nothing to do with this film although I suppose it could be taken as a symbol for contagious violence that leads to death (or possibly it’s merely a poor Hebrew translation). There is indeed a cold blooded killer in the woods but any further comparisons to the slasher genre (which evokes Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers) are few and far between.
Several people from different walks of life wind up in the same spot of forest at the same time and their darkest sides emerge, with appallingly violent results. It feels as though this particular stretch of land is cursed, despite the fact that nothing supernatural is ever alluded to. The viewer is offered glimpses into the lives of several fleshed out characters, beginning with Tali and Ofer, a young woman who accidentally fell into an unused mineshaft and her protective older brother. We also meet two couples on their way to play tennis, a police officer who revels in abusing his power to harass and humiliate women, his partner with good intentions but poor decision making skills, and the mysterious killer. Most of these characters are already having a bad day and through misunderstandings, malice, jealousy or just plain rotten luck, they behave in uncharacteristically brutal ways.
I don’t want to reveal any additional plot points because I strongly recommend watching it knowing as little as possible. Several swerves push the narrative in unexpected directions. I will warn you that some of the violent images are shocking and continue to linger in my head days later. If you can stomach the gore then you’ll be rewarded with some incredibly moving scenes. The cleverly written script and impressive acting fuel some potently heartbreaking sequences. One of the recurring topics is that you never know what someone is going through on the other end of the phone line. One character receives a phone call from his father while he is slowly losing consciousness from a fatal injury. Not knowing that his son is dying, his father simply called to remind him how much of an asshole he is. It’s uncomfortably effective; the last words he ever hears are hostile and threatening ones from a loved one.
Rabies is very different and not just because it’s a rare horror film from Israel, though that does make it all the more fascinating. It is an example of how engaging horror movies can be and another reminder (not that we needed one) that current American horror suffers greatly from tired ideas and an inability or unwillingness to take chances.