Tuesday 26 November 2013

Big Bad Wolves and Rabies - Israeli Cinema Does Horror

Tzahi Grad contemplates revenge in Big Bad Wolves

When Quentin Tarantino proclaims a film as the best of 2013, its time to pay attention. The filmmaker is famously reserved in his praise, so when he shared his opinion of new Israeli horror Big Bad Wolves, interest in the picture skyrocketed. The film had already closed the London Film 4 Frightfest this summer and with co-writers and directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado currently on a global promotion tour before the movie comes back to London’s West End next month, I caught up with Papushado in LA, who told me about the development both of the film and of his creative partnership with Aharon Keshales.

Both in their 30s, they met when Papushado was studying film theory at Tel Aviv University under Professor (in fact only a few years older) Keshales. The two men quickly realised they shared a passion for wanting to create exciting escapist movies, away from the typically worthy docu-drama style of film, long associated with Israeli cinema. In a country whose very existence is continually threatened, that is governed by a parliament that whilst often chaotic is still a rare democracy for the region and whose territorial policies spark fiercely divisive opinions, it has always seemed far more appropriate for Israeli cinema to reflect upon the country's history, or to seek to challenge the country’s current policies or social trends. With so many serious challenges to contemplate, few filmmakers dared venture into seriously frivolous fantasy. No Israeli was making popcorn-style thrill-ride movies that gave an audience a chance to sit back in the dark and enjoy good old fashioned (albeit horrific) fairy tales. Until now that is.

Keshales and Papushado's first picture Rabies made in 2010 and screened in the 2011 Tribeca Festival, was an offbeat horror. A story that is quirky but engaging, reminding one of Arthur Schnitlzler’s 1890’s play La Ronde that follows a sexual chain of relationships between ten individiuals, each sleeping with the next,  Rabies takes a (slightly) similar theme but explores how ten people, from different walks of life, end up in the same woods on the same day and through a circuitous series of events, end up killing or being killed by, each other. The film is profoundly imaginative, unconventional and at times shocking (both in its plotline and in some viscerally gruesome images) yet with an occasional hint of deliciously ironic humour. And all made, as is so often the way with some of the most innovative of modern horror, on a shoestring budget. It's suspense is sublime. When a character wanders off to take a pee in the woods and the camera pulls back to reveal she has strayed into a minefield, the anguished anticipation as she takes each carefree step is almost unbearable. As Rabies neared the end of its post-production, it caught the attention of an Israeli Cultural Ministry official. Liking what she saw, funds were put into the film’s distribution, creating early international recognition for the writer/directors and paving the way for Big Bad Wolves. 

Released in 2013 and reviewed here, the pair's second feature is a bravely made story that tackles the darkest criminal taboos, paedophilia and child murder. Making for uncomfortable yet compelling viewing, Navot and Papushado create moments of the starkest irony, intent on making their audience chuckle at some of the human frailities to which their adult characters are exposed, particularly those traits that bear a particularly Jewish association. Nagging elderly parents forever on the phone, seeking to evoke a reaction of guilt from their children, is one of the many comedic seams that have been gleefully mined since Woody Allen first discovered the comedic potential of the inadequate guilt-burdened "nebbisch" Jew some 50 years ago. Keshales and Papushado rudely exploit that theme, but thrust it squarely into a horror scenario. It is a bold move even to consider mixing comedy with evil and Papushado speaks of the painstaking labour that accompanied their script-writing process as the pair sought to push the parameters of acceptability, whilst remaining within decent conventions. Rabies had also briefly explored the “nagging Jewish parent/guilt” thing and Papushado comments that as writers they wish to explore further the Jewish angle on horror. It’s a brave path to take, as the pair tred carefully, anxious to avoid the double edged swords of cliché and offense. 

Big Bad Wolves comes with a budget considerably in excess of its rabid predecessor, though still modest and Papushado is proud that with one exception, all the movie's visual and special make up effects were physically created and photographed rather created by CGI. He admits that digital imagery was used to portray the effects of someone being blowtorched, but is happy (as are a wincing audience) that the particular sequence only lasts a few seconds! The understanding of the all round finished image of their movies is critical to these film-makers, with sound design and music key to their tales. Papushado praises Frank Ilfman’s scores for both pictures that suggest suspense and darkness that brilliantly complement the on-screen action.

The duo have a busy time ahead. Slated to direct one of the chapters of “The ABCs Of Death 2”, an anthology movie in which respected horror directors from across the globe, are invited to create a 5-minute horror themed around a specific letter of the alphabet (and where Papushado speaks praisingly in particular of the works of Xavier Gens and Lee Harcastle in ABC of D 1), they remain as committed to expanding the Israeli movie industry. Intriguingly and mixing popcorn with politics, their next feature will be a spaghetti western styled movie, Once Upon A Time In Palestine. Theirs will be a story of pre-Israel Palestine, when the territory was ruled by British Mandate and many of those who were to go on to become Israeli statesmen were guerrillas, freedom fighters and in the eyes of some, terrorists. 

Big Bad Wolves opens in London on December 6. It’s a funny, dark and ultimately profoundly troubling tale, brilliantly told. If you like your horror modern and uncompromising, don’t miss it.

Big Bad Wolves screens at the Prince Charles Cinema, London from 6th December

Rabies receives a UK broadcast premiere on The Horror Channel on 28th December

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