Over the edge

Two films about madness at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

A wayward youth has one hell of a bloody bad day in a still from the movie Rabies.


SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL The 2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival program touts Rabies as Israel's first horror movie. I suppose I agree that the gloriously trashy filmography of producers Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus doesn't technically count, though the cousins were Israeli and can be thanked/blamed for flicks like 1985's Lifeforce and 1980's New Year's Evil. Anyway, Rabies is the first shot-in-Israel horror movie, made by Israeli directors Aharon Keshales and Naot Papushado, with a cast of comely Israeli stars Americans probably won't recognize. Not knowing anything about the actors is actually an advantage — Rabies is the kind of movie that builds its tension around absolutely anything happening at any given moment, viewer expectations be damned.

See, there's this fox preserve. It's supposed to be deserted, but is actually overrun with humans whose nightmarish plights keep intersecting. Just when you think you have things figured out — ah, yes, it's another movie about a coveralls-wearing psychopath who builds traps to ensnare lost girls who happen to stumble near his rural lair — yeah, you don't. Not even the presence of a dog (see: title) is a reliable indicator of what's to come. Here's a hint without giving anything away: Rabies redefines "mean-spirited;" it's also squirm-inducing on many, many levels.

Writer-directors Keshales and Papushado are lifelong horror fans, and their influences (early Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Eli Roth) are obvious. But there's something different afoot, which is explained in the directors' statement and is worth keeping in mind while watching: "Rabies is a satirical horror film about the intense and harsh difficulties of living in Israel." The (satirical) end result turns out to be total madness. If Rabies finds an audience, expect more genre movies (there's at least one Israeli-made zombie flick underway) from a region uniquely suited to exploit horror's way of commenting on social unease.

Another kind of insanity takes hold in Bobby Fischer Against the World, the new documentary by Liz Garbus (1998's The Farm: Angola U.S.A.) This is, of course, the story of the Brooklyn chess champion's sad spiral from prodigy to famous eccentric to tin-foil crazy; at the end of his life, his controversial post-9/11 rants and raging anti-Semitism (despite coming from a Jewish family) saw him exiled to the only country that would have him: Iceland, where he'd won the 1972 World Chess Championship.

Bobby Fischer Against the World will no doubt stand as the definitive Fischer bio-doc; Garbus compiles vintage footage, photographs, and letters, plus a huge array of interviews — people who knew Fischer intimately, chess experts, sportscasters, Henry Kissinger. That last one's not so surprising once you realize the Cold War-era significance of Fischer's high-profile 1972 battle with Soviet opponent Boris Spassky. Think quick — when's the last time a chess match enthralled the world? Maybe we cared for half a minute about Garry Kasparov versus that computer? In the Fischer era, the stakes were so high that matches were shown on live TV, results were broadcast in Times Square, and, according to one interviewee here, "there were chess groupies" (cut to the unlikely sight of the Charlie's Angels cast posing seductively behind a game board).

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