'Big Bad Wolves': A Horror Flick That Redefines Israeli Masculinity

Israeli filmmakers explore horror rooted in the Israeli experience, using violence and irony.

After their debut "Rabies" became a smash hit at the 2011 FILM4 FrightFest, the organizers of this British international fantasy and horror film festival asked Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado to top that feat. "Big Bad Wolves," which will be the closing film at this year's FrightFest when it screens on August 26, delivers.

The two films share common story lines. Both of them are horror thrillers with comic undertones, which point to the genre's origins in children's fairy tales. Both of them intend to explore the sources of horror in the Israeli experience. In "Rabies," it is the beloved Israeli landscape that turns out to be a trap. In their new movie, Keshales and Papushado expand the discussion, shifting it from the location of horror to the ones who wield it.

The source of horror in "Big Bad Wolves" is the Israeli man. Therefore, beyond its entertaining cinematic qualities, the film is a milestone in the development of Israeli cinema, which from the start has been dealing with Israeli masculinity. The manner in which Israeli film deals with the Israeli man's heroic side and the torment that accompany has undergone many changes and reaches a new stage in Keshales and Papushado's film, which wanders between horror and irony. (This is not the only current Israeli film that signifies this tendency. "The Youth," a film by Tom Shoval, which is also good and will soon debut, marks a significant and loaded change in the annals of masculinity in Israeli film.)

The central victim in Kehsales and Papushado's film is a girl who was sexually abused and decapitated. But the heros in the film are men, all of whom are perverted in one way or another. The film starts with a scene in which policemen try to violently extract a confession from the main murder suspect, Dror (Rotem Keinan), a Bible teacher with a delicate appearance (a brilliant professional choice because of its ties with the mythical, the violent and the vengeful). If he does turn out to be guilty, his appearance would prove that the most monstrous murderer can look like a good neighbor – the kind of man who, after being exposed, would be described as the quiet, pleasant man next door.

The torture scene is documented by a youth who sneaks into the warehouse in which the incident occurred, and uploads it to the Web. Because of this, Micky (Lior Ashkenazi), the policeman who was put in charge of the investigation, is taken off the case. He nevertheless continues with the probe independently, as fallen cops have been inclined to do ever since Dirty Harry. He continues to follow Dror – who maintains his innocence but gets fired anyway – and even abuses his little dog.

Meanwhile, another male character enters the mix. This is Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the father of the murdered girl, who rents a house with a cellar in a secluded location. He plans to kidnap Dror and take him there to extract a confession and information about the whereabouts of his daughter's severed head.

Micky, who is following Dror, comes to the house and intends to help him with the task. Midway through the story another male character appears – Yoram (Dov Glickman), Gidi's father. Yoram comes to the isolated house (the Israeli landscape also plays a central role in "Big Bad Wolves") with a pot of chicken soup, after being told his son is sick.

I won't get into any more details regarding the plot, whose main part transpires in that same secluded spot, because tracking its vicissitudes and surprises is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film.

The screenplay of "Big Bad Wolf" is tighter and better organized than that of "Rabies" and is written with a skill that doesn't stop generating tension. Some scenes are difficult to watch; anyone who is sensitive to the color red – which the film, with the assistance of cinematographer Giora Bejach, makes sophisticated use of – and to violence is likely to flinch. But the creators use color in such an exaggerated and farcical way that the result both amuses and makes one tremble, mirroring the sadistic undertones that characterize the behavior of the male leads.

Because this is an Israeli film, it's impossible to disconnect the sadism from the place in which the abuse takes place; the depicted horrors have social, cultural and mainly political repercussions, which are not referenced directly but do reverberate and empower the film's ironic depth.

This type of male distortion touches on its increasingly more twisted surroundings. The film makes an ironic use of an Arab character on a horse (Kais Nashif), who emerges into the night twice in all his arrogant male splendor, which diminishes the rest of the men. The symbolism enriches the film in a surprising, witty and wise way.

"Big Bad Wolves" is an expert cinematic work that shakes and amuses simultaneously. Kehsales and Papushado are a pair of filmmakers who know what they are doing and how to do it. Through their emergent cinematic work they situate horror in the heart of the modern Israeli experience, and do it perhaps in the most direct, aggressive and sophisticated manner of any modern Israeli filmmaker.

I am already curious about their next film, which will have to perpetuate the promise and its fulfillment. The entire cast, who were directed in the right combination of naturalistic restraint and exaggeration of the genre, which characterizes the entire film, contributed to its success.

"Big Bad Wolves." Directors and screenplay writers: Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado; photography: Giora Bejach; music: Frank Haim Ilfman; cinematography: Giora Bejach; film editing: Asaf Korman; cast: Rotem Keinan, Tzahi Grad, Lior Ashkenazi, Dov Glickman, Menashe Noy, Dvir Benedek, Ami Weinberg, Nati Kluger, Guy Adler, Kais Nashif, Gur Bentwich