Cinema is littered with films that have pitted man against some terrifying beast from the animal kingdom. Genre flicks have seen us hunted by wolves, sharks, snakes, bears and birds. Morgan Spurlock’s new film Rats puts a different spin on this familiar trope, however, because it’s not just some science-fiction about rodents preying on humans; it’s a documentary about it. “They will literally kill us,” explains a lecturer early on in what the filmmakers frame as a fully-fledged horror complete with all manner of squeamish moments.
It opens in a dark basement as a pest controller Ed Sheehan searches every nook ad cranny with his flashlight. It feels like something from a found footage shocker right up to the moment that sudden cut sees a screeching rat flying towards the screen with teeth bared. It’s followed by a title sequence of pulsing synth music overlaid with audio and video clips of the furry little terrors and all manner of newsreaders and scientist outlining the severity of the situation. It could be the titles from a contagion thriller like Outbreak. Although the film settles into slight more conventional documentary from there, a blend of observation and talking heads including Sheehan, it maintains its unsettling tone. The cinematography is often low-lit and the palette is composed of darker and muted tones. Pierre Takal’s score continues to emphasise the warnings.
Spurlock jumps around the globe, engaging with the infestation problem in New York before heading to the likes of New Orleans, Mumbai, Cheltenham, Cambodia and Vietnam to explore the types of threats that rats pose, and different ways of combatting the problem. Sheehan tells a story about locking some rats in an enclosure for several weeks feeding them and letting them breed until there were 52 of them in there. They had visible social hierarchies and cared for the young like a family. That was until he stopped feeding them; blood and cannibalism quickly followed. This is the message being delivered – one of disgusting and dangerous vermin. This mostly comes from experts cataloguing the myriad diseases they carry and the queasy sight of autopsies involving the removal of intestinal worms and a live fly larvae.
The fact that they are unstoppable is the other major fear factor, setting them up as the equivalent of a zombie virus as they show how they are becoming immune rodenticides. There are, of course, other ways of dealing with the problem and they’re captured in trips to India and the UK. Despite the overwhelming message of rats as a menace, Spurlock also presents these rat catchers to moody, chilling effect. One man in Mumbai snaps the spine of a rat on screen and beats the other against a rock, while the use of terriers at a UK farm are like some folk horror sacrifice with whooping and bloodlust. “It’s like with fox hunting,” says one man, tellingly. “It’s just an enjoyable thing to do.”
There are other complements pepper throughout about the species organisation, industry and intelligence but they tend to be backhanded. In something approaching an epilogue, they do manage to throw a little morsel onto the other side of the scales, visiting a Hindu temple in Rajasthan in which 35,000 rats lived with and worshipped as the reincarnations of deceased relatives before the reincarnate once again into human form. After what has come before it will hardly settles the nerves; murophobes would do best to steer clear.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson