When Israeli filmmakers Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales told friends and associates they were making the country's first horror film, they kept hearing the same question.
"Why make a horror movie?" Papushado recalls people saying. "Haven't we suffered enough?"
But after the two met at Tel Aviv University's film school - where Keshales was Papushado's professor - they bonded over their shared love of genre movies, especially horror.
In particular, they loved the strong characters in some of the early, intensely violent works of Wes Craven, like The Last House on the Left (1972), in which parents enact a grisly revenge for their daughter's brutal rape and murder.
"We felt like horror films of the last decade have taken a wrong turn," says Papushado. "The torture-porn films are really about little more than gore. We wanted to get back to character-driven horror movies."
The result is Rabies, which is being screened this week as part of Montreal's Fantasia International Film Festival. It's a network narrative that involves several disparate characters, all of whom are lost in the same forest. There is a serial killer we see early on, but the screenplay - written by Papushado and Keshales - takes several surprising turns, sidestepping the killer and having the other characters turn on each other due to panic and miscommunication.
True to many of the best horror movies, there's a good deal of dark humour involved. Rabies also boasts a killer cast, with some names that will be familiar to fans of Israeli cinema, including Lior Ashkenazi, Ania Bukstein and Ran Danker.
Papushado concedes that Rabies is out of step with the main currents of Israel's national cinema. "There are two major types of movies made in Israel: the political war movie, or the political drama. Issues like war, memory, the Holocaust, terror, are explored in sad and dramatic ways. In a sense, the country is full of violence in many ways."
Onscreen violence, Papushado says, "is often a kind of catharsis. In a slasher film, there's often one source of the violence, and in a sense that's very easy because there's one source to blame. There's nothing easy about the Israeli situation. It's about touchy, sensitive debates in our collective history. It's extremely complex."
Papushado also surmises that the lack of Israeli horror movies might have something to do with Israeli crime. "Israel doesn't have a lot of serial killers," he points out. American cinema, by comparison, has a lot to draw on, from Ed Gein (on whom the villains in Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs were all loosely based) to Manson, Bundy, Gacy and Dahmer. "We decided to start with a serial killer, and then remove him for most of the film, to see what happens."
But while those outside Israel may be looking for underlying themes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Papushado says they weren't commenting on that situation. "We wanted to deal with the humanity of the characters. The way Israelis treat each other is bad enough. Have you ever driven a car in Israel? There's a lot of intolerance, and often a lack of communication between Israelis. We are often very short-tempered - it seems everyone is on a very short fuse."
Mitch Davis, a programmer at Fantasia for 14 years, confirms that there are certain "geographic hot spots" for horror cinema. "Many countries in Asia - Japan, South Korea and Thailand - produce a lot of horror films," he says.
But he's quick to add that why certain national cinemas produce more horror movies than others remains mysterious. "The obvious answer is, when you're coming from a place where real-life horrors are ever-present, the need to have a cathartic release in a cinema just isn't as great as it might be here."
The studios have certainly been sensitive to the relationship between on- and off-screen violence. After the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan earlier this year, for example, the release of the apocalyptic alien invasion movie Battle Los Angeles was put off for several months in that country, for fear of offending filmgoers.
But Davis warns against simple theories about what creates national cultures that are horror-friendly. The strong Canadian tradition of horror may have less to do with a tortured collective psyche than the means of production afforded Canadian filmmakers. Horror films don't need big budgets - in fact, they can benefit from rock-bottom budgets - and these movies often work well with unknown actors.
The tax-shelter years of the 1970s, when film producers were offered massive tax incentives to create low-budget movies, led to a Canadian wave of exploitation genre movies. Fantasia has been celebrating these films this year, screening Death Weekend (1976) and David Cronenberg's Shivers (1975) as part of a special retrospective.
As the example of Rabies proves, even when horror movies are aimed at a specific culture, they travel well. "We made this film with the people of Israel in mind," Papushado says.
"We insisted on making the film in Hebrew. We released it in Israel first, then took it on the international festival circuit, where the response has amazed us. Horror seems to be a kind of international language. Everyone feels at home when they're scared."
Filmmakers Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales will present Rabies at Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival on Friday at 9:20 p.m. at Concordia's Hall Building ( fantasiafestival.com).
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