The Judean desert. Scorching sun. A breathtaking view of a completely desolate landscape. Soldiers from the Givati brigade are preparing to navigate an area where no Israeli soldier has set foot for 40 years. A noncombat soldier from the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson Unit is there with a video camera to accompany two of the soldiers and film their trek. But soon the three have lost their way in the desert and are no longer smiling. As the trek stretches into the night, the water in their canteens runs out, the radio stops working and a strange series of events takes their mission from routine to terrifying.
Culture Minister Miri Regev may or may not like it, but horror films are known to be an effective cinematic tool for exposing a society’s collective anxieties, and “Cursed” (Mekulalim), which premiered this month, goes to show once again that Israeli cinema has adopted the military as its preferred and inexhaustible source of local horror stories.
It was Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s 2010 film “Rabies” (Kalevet) that really opened the gates for this hitherto rare genre in Israeli film. A good number of horror films have been made here since then, with various subgenres – including zombie films, slasher films, and romantic comedy horror films – making their local debuts, too. Granted, to date, the number of Hebrew-language horror films isn’t all that high. But still, a certain common denominator can already be seen. Six of the 11 horror films produced here in the past decade are set in the military.
“Army service, especially combat service, supplies most Israelis with a lot of experiences and makes a serious impact on them,” says “Cursed” director Evgeny Ruman, who describes his film as “very Israeli.” "Horror films are one way of airing and coping with the fears and anxieties that army service stirs up. These are powerful experiences that stay with people who served in the IDF for many years afterwards. It has to do with local history, for one thing, and of course the soldiers and the IDF are something that really sets this country apart. And because they are soldiers, it’s also possible to talk about the violence that exists in a military environment, and this is a significant element in a film that’s about young kids doing their compulsory army service who get caught up in a situation they have no idea how to deal with.”
Director Eitan Gafny also gave the IDF pride of place in the two horror movies he made in the last few years. With the first, “Cannon Fodder” (Basar Totahim), about combat soldiers sent on a mission in Lebanon where they encounter an army of zombies, this was primarily a commercial calculation, he admits. Since the IDF is known all around the world, Gafny chose to put it at the center of his film so audiences could easily relate. Beyond that, he says, “for a local filmmaker, the IDF is such fertile ground for clichés and stereotypes, which is just what you need for a zombie movie – you need clichés to play with, along with the possibility of getting into social messages. These are some of the norms of the genre.”
Furthermore, "it was natural for the IDF to be part of the microcosm of Israeli society. There’s no escaping the fact that the army is a huge part of our life here,” says Gafny. “One big thing that happens with army service is the shock that hits you right after your enlistment when you suddenly encounter an Israel you didn’t know before, all the people you never met before because until age 18 you were living in your own little bubble. This shock to the system, which for me was a positive experience, suddenly enables you to experience your country in its crudest and rawest form. It’s part of the DNA of the Israeli experience. So it makes obvious sense that filmmakers would use it.”
Boaz Armoni’s “Freak Out” (Mesuvag Harig), a comedic horror film from 2015 about a noncombat soldier assigned to join three unfriendly combat soldiers for a week of guard duty in the Palestinian territories, also makes use of material provided by the military experience. “I grew up on the Freddy Krueger movies and ‘Jaws’ and so on, and I was always searching for the Israeli angle," says the director. "I wanted to turn these movies into something local. As soon as I knew I wanted to do a comedic horror film, setting it in the IDF seemed like the best idea. My own army experience was funny and awful at the same time. You’ve got the humor that’s unique to the time in the army mixed with the fear.” The army setting also suited his desire for the film to have a critical side as well and not just focus on the heroic dimension. “The setting was a perfect fit for me in every way.”
Another film, “Poisoned” (Muralim), tells the story of a young conscript who has to spend Passover night working on a base and is thrust into a bloody battle for survival when he discovers that most of the elite troops there have been turned into zombies. Didi Lubetzky, the director of this romantic comedy horror film, says he took bits and pieces from his own experiences in the army, combined that with the outsider-ness he felt when he was dispatched to a distant army base, shook it all together with some of the genre conventions of American horror films – and was on his way.
“I like to take a genre that’s very American, with its own rules and conventions, plant it here and see how Israelis respond to the situation,” says Lubetzky. “A lot of American horror films are set in college, where the formative experience for many Americans takes place. So for me it was an obvious move to take this style and transfer it to the IDF. My movie – like a lot of zombie movies – talks about conformity and breaking out of conformity, and about what shapes masculinity in society. Of course, in Israel there is no better setting for these topics than the IDF.”
The army has a key role in shaping Israeli society, says Lutbetzky. In the army, there is both violence and resistance to violence. There is the loneliness of soldiers from all parts of society, so it’s a logical setting for an Israeli action or horror movie. And contrary to the idea coming from the Culture Ministry and supporters of the "loyalty in culture bill," he says that just because the army is used as the setting for a film is no reason to oppose it: “A movie of this kind will always be critical of the army, of the arbitrary way that things are done there.”
We’ve never seen anything like it
Could the Israeli horror films of the last decade be connected somehow to the “Lebanon trilogy” – “Beautfort,” “Lebanon” and “Waltz with Bashir”? Film scholar Ido Rosen says yes. “The films of the trilogy were quite successful and praised, but they were also the target of a lot of criticism, in the style of the ‘shooting and crying’ cliché,” he says. “I think the creators of the local horror films are continuing processes that began in the military genre and trying to resolve problems that the creators of the war films weren’t able to deal with in a satisfying way.”
Rosen adds, “The cover of deal with ‘science-fiction’ and supposedly ‘escapist’ genres allowed them to fully bring out the sense of fear, to deal with dying and getting hurt. The criticism inherent in the Israeli horror cinema is very scathing. It says that what’s really the scariest of all isn’t monsters and demons, but the face looking back at us in the mirror. The genre guise was necessary in order to poke around in this open wound.”
While the IDF is used as a setting in Israeli horror films for commercial reason, it’s also part of an attempt to stretch the boundaries and push Israeli film into new territory, Rosen says. “In trying to convert a foreign genre for the local audience, one strategy adopted by filmmakers is to promise viewers that ‘you’ve never seen anything like this.’ The IDF, with its bases and atmosphere and slang, allows filmmakers to insert a lot of symbolic things that immediately make the audience feel like the film was made here and not in a foreign country.”
The army experience also comprises many elements that fuel horror movies, says Rosen: the sense of being besieged, the readiness for violent confrontation, access to weapons. “Israeli horror films have certain characteristics that distinguish them from their counterparts abroad, mostly in the way that for the young Israeli soldier, army service is a rite of passage, a test of masculinity, a ritual of admission into Israeli society. The makers of these horror films portray this experience as a nightmare. By the way, one film that expressed this very explicitly was made back in 1984 – Dan Wolman’s ‘Soldier of the Night,’ about a guy who isn’t drafted due to medical reasons and in his frustration becomes a serial killer of soldiers.”