Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Killer Mutant Mammal Week: The Rats (2002)

The threat of government censorship has been an enduring thorn in the side of the film industry. During the golden age of the studio system, the Hays Code (or Breen Office, yuk yuk) was developed as self censorship to appease the clucking moralists in Washington. Early cinema, having germinated in the soil of vaudeville, was quite racy compared to the studio era, and as it grew in popularity, the threat of government intervention increased.

One of the more informal rules of the code was that filmmakers could show as much criminality and immoral behavior as they wanted, as long as the characters partaking received their just deserts by the final reel. Normally I'm against all such forms of censorship, but 2002 TV movie The Rats made me wonder if perhaps a variation of this rule should be implemented with regard to stupidity in fictional characters.

If you are a parent, never ever let your kids watch The Rats; it could profoundly retard their intellectual development. They won't become violent, start killing rodents in their spare time, or develop any other signs of being a serial killer, but they will spend the rest of their days thinking that it is okay to be a total chowderhead in life threatening situations. Natural selection should have weeded out this movie's entire cast before their tenth birthdays, let alone the movie's opening titles. By the climax, they have come up with the single worst plan to defeat a swarm of killer mutant rats I have ever had the misfortune to have explained to me in great, clunky detail by dead-eyed leading man, Vincent Spano. I am completely serious; this is the worst plan developed by genre movie characters since Tom and Judy tried to get gasoline in Night of the Living Dead. Of course, T&J became a hot ghoul meal for their trouble; the vapid CHUDs running around The Rats all manage to survive to the end credits. Every last one of them.

Much of this can be traced back to the feature's TV-movie origins. The Hays Code has got nothing on television executives. Not a single main or supporting character bites the big one and even the red-shirts are in low supply. Even the black guy survives! He doesn't even have to nobly sacrifice himself to save the happy white couple. (Leviathan and pretty much every other Sci-Fi horror film ever made.) The first guy to die is a seedy landlord who, in a possible nod to the Willard films, has pet mice that forsake him when the rat army approaches. His death was gruesome enough to pass my "15 minute" litmus test (if an "iffy" movie doesn't intrigue me within 15 minutes I call it a night) but I guess the filmmaker's were planning on viewers like me, because it takes until the final act for anyone else to get eaten.

The story opens with another one of the movie's highlights, care of the attractive girl who gets accidentally chainsawed in the Dawn of the Dead remake.

A rat hides in her unused drawers while she tries on clothes at an upscale apartment store and when she reaches inside, it gives her a little nibble, requiring the attention of supermom and middle manager extrodinare, Susan Costello (the smoking hot
Mädchen Amick). A few scenes later, the girl is in a coma and covered with sores. The doctors happily explain things to Susan in great detail, despite her not being friends or family with the girl (and wanting to keep the source of her illness under wraps for the sake of the store).

To get to the bottom of the infestation, Susan brings in a chiseled exterminator (the above mentioned Mr. Spano) with a penchant for constantly spouting rat factoids. In between their creakingly inevitable romance, they make attempts to convince recalcitrant business owners and city officials of the dangers posed by the increasingly numerous diseased rats spreading through the neighborhood. Apparently all the actors playing authority figures lost their copies of the script and just read from a copy of Jaws.

I sure hope that this is rat pee.

Then nothing happens for a solid half hour.

Eventually our heroes discover that the rats are romping around behind the department store's false walls that Susan probably should have told the exterminators about right away. A couple commercial breaks and one random scene from CSI: Rodent later, it turns out that the rats have been genetically engineered for enhanced speed and strength, and were abandoned by their creators when the lab (which is now their home base) was shuttered by budget cuts. Why the lab was making the rats strong and fast instead of using them to cure cancer, is beyond me.

Also, the department store's signature perfume is made from the same flower that... um.... had something or other to do with the rats creation, and when you drop a bottle of it on the subway, they go fucking nuts and eat the conductor. (At least they finally ate someone.)

Now that the characters have gathered up the puzzle pieces that the screenwriter keeps shoving in their faces, it is time to drive a certain race of genetically engineered super rats to extinction and give poor Knarf an aneurysm with the awful plan I mentioned earlier:

Step 1: Fill public pool with macguffin strength rat attractant. Note: Do not safely pour out the perfume like a sane person; there is a reason those bottles look like little grenades. Huck 'em.

Step 2: Crawl around in broken glass and rat attracting perfume in order to open the grates at the bottom of the pool.

Step 3: Do nothing. Wait until pool fills with rats to the point of Rat Geysers!

Step 4: Begin attaching explosives to the edges of the pool. Don't worry about the rats at the center and bottom of the pool, they will die of grief for their comrades and families.

Step 5: Survive somehow. Blow up rats.

Jumping Jesus on a Pogo Stick! Did the script pages get stapled together backwards or something? Why on God's Green Earth would you wait until after the pool is coated in broken glass and liquid rat bait to climb in and start letting the rats in? Then you fucking wait until the pool is swarming with highly infectious rats before setting them up the bomb? (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Before they execute what I have come to call "Plan R" (try and guess what the 'R' stands for), their black guy red-shirt fellow survivor burst onto the scene with a waterfall of rats, knocking our heroine into the swarming pool. In one of the film's best (non rat geyser) shots, the exterminator reaches into the multitude to pull his lady love out by the arm. Meanwhile, I'm sitting in a pile of empty beer cans, crossing my fingers and praying to the lords of crap cinema that he only retrieves the arm, or at least an arm attached to a gnawed skeleton.

No dice. She is pulled to safety and the "incendiary devices" go off, creating some nifty ratsplosions, but somehow not producing any fire. Oh well, at least everyone has been bitten by now and will succumb to the incurable rat disease that the movie occasionally cuts back to the hospital to remind us exists.

Again, no dice. The next scene shows our heroes walking through the park, sans rat bite super infections. No indication is given on how much time has passed, so I think it is safe to assume the screenwriter has forgotten about that little plot element by now. There is even a final shot of a garbage can swarming with rats; the monster movie equivalent of putting a question mark after "the end."

If I had to think of a name for the genre that The Rats falls into, I would call it "Lifetime Horror." (Sorry ladies) It's ostensibly a horror film, with a pair of boobs and a mildly gruesome kill grafted onto the first act to keep people like me from switching back to a rousing game of Dead Space, but it constantly undermines any tension that it delusionally believes itself to be building with scenes devoted to "character" and "relationships." Not that such scenes are necessarily bad in a horror film, but when they are as lifelessly written, acted, and shot as these, while being sprinkled willy-nilly throughout the third act, they are poison to the suspense.

The entire film repeatedly grinds to a halt so that the leads can sit back and eat Chinese food while falling in love.... in the third act! Beyond mind numbing boredom, this gives the unshakable impression that these characters are never in any real danger, and that this is a jolly fun adventure to spice up their upper-class existence. Not that they ever are in any real danger. The movie has a total body count of two; both tertiary characters at best.

To sum up, The Rats is a bait-&-switch of epic proportions, that has no knowledge of logic, science, or proper pacing, and is a total waste of its incredible rat geysers.

Also, it could have really used a Rat King or two.

You let her out?!?!?!

Tune in later this week for more Killer Mutant Mammal Video Updates, including an infinitely superior film by the director of The Rats,
John Lafia, who might be familiar to horror hounds as one of the minds behind the Child's Play francise.


  1. Rat-bite fever refers to an infection which usually develops after having been bitten or scratched by an infected rat. Other rodents (such as mice and gerbils) may also spread the infection to humans.

  2. Are you trying to be a helpful spambot, or are you genuinely concerned about America's dangerous lack of knowledge about rat bit fever?

    Either way, you're mad. Mad I tells ya!

  3. Muscles called sphincters squeeze shut the tubes from the bladder to help keep urine from leaking. The sphincter muscles close tightly like a rubber band around the opening of the bladder, which leads into the urethra.

  4. How did you know I was bald and what the hell does that have to do with sphincters?

    Unless my knowledge of human anatomy is disturbingly misguided.