Written by Charles H.Eglee, based on the novel The Rats by James Herbert and a screenplay by Lonon F. Smith
Directed by Robert Clouse
Sam Groom: Paul Harris
Sara Botsford: Kelly Leonard
Scatman Crothers: George Foskins
There are certain movies that become so successful that they become their own genre. Hollywood, after all, is a town where everyone is desperate to be the second one to do something original (as long as that originality breeds financial success--you can certainly call something like Greaser's Palace original, but without the crucial incentive of getting filthy rich by riding its coattails, nobody's going to go back to the well and get what they can out of an uncredited remake). Thus the mini-genre of Rampaging Thing on the Loose movies established by Jaws. The shark film is essentially the best monster movie it is even possible to make and it established Steven Spielberg as one of the premier film talents of the last half-century. It also made a shit ton of money, and green at the box office is like chum in the water as far as Hollywood is concerned.
Roger Corman jumped in as soon as possible, of course, with the genius idea that it could be lots of little fish instead of one big one. Other animals were plugged into the template as well, but a Jaws ripoff doesn't just need an animal (or, in one case, a devil car) working its way through the secondary cast. There should also be an event of some kind threatened by the animal(s) attacking it, a venal public official who wants the event to take place, a hero to stand up to the venal official and a few other details (like the False Shark, a reason for the protagonists to hope that the threat is over in the second act). It can, in the wrong hands, turn into a kind of screenplay Mad Libs:
In the peaceful town of (LOCATION), a problem-free community is attacked by (ANIMAL)--usually it's a lone victim before the opening credits to establish the threat, but further attacks continue as the story progresses. The big (FESTIVAL) is coming up soon, so (AUTHORITY FIGURE) wants it to happen whether or not it's safe. (PROTAGONIST) and (SCIENCE KNOWER PERSON) team up with (CRAZY HUNTER) to track down the monster after (FALSE SHARK) is thought to be the threat, but isn't. The good guys eventually prevail, although (CHARACTER) loses (HIS / HER) life during the struggle.
You can spin one of those out yourself without even trying. So can professional screenwriters. But when the obvious animals are taken (like, say, a sewer alligator, or the aforementioned little fish) there's still plenty left for the B movie filmmakers to pick from. In this case, everyone got together and played screenplay Mad Libs to give us the tale of Toronto threatened by steroid-crazed rats during a subway car dedication.
I think perhaps some of the people filling in those blanks were more serious than others. Graft a winningly loopy premise like that onto the directorial skills that gave us Enter the Dragon (and, uh, Gymkata) and it's a good time to be a B movie fan. Even more so because this sucker is available on Blu-Ray. I love companies like Shout! Factory, Blue Underground, Vinegar Syndrome and Kino Lorber. They're preserving the cultural artifacts that other people just openly don't care about. That's beautiful, and I mean that absolutely unironically. Criterion was never going to get around to this one, so someone else has to step up to the artistic-preservation plate if it's going to stick around in this brave new world.
As for the movie itself? Well, redundant and ridiculous are two terms that come to mind. But repetition and mockability never stopped me from commenting on a film before. Neither did repetition and mockability.
The film itself starts with a slide show of some rats and a science dude reciting rat facts. Apparently the human race is outnumbered 24 to 1 by rats; they contaminate and / or eat billions of dollars of food every year. This turns out to be a museum lecture--apparently on a college level--where the speaker gives the movie's moral in the first couple of minutes. Don't try to alter the balance of nature, because it's impossible to predict the effects of those changes. They spread like ripples in a pond, and before you know it you've got a Slithis infestation or giant carnivorous rabbits or ten-foot-long locusts; some goddamned thing for the Army to clear up, anyway.
The students trudge through the snow to get to a waiting school bus; I guess they're supposed to be high school students. Trudy, one of the girls in class, sits next to the recently divorced Mr. Harris, the biology teacher who chaperoned this field trip, after telling one of her friends she wanted to seduce him. Her risque talk is the kind of thing that potentially leads to police action (good thing she's saying it on a crowded school bus where everyone can hear), and the actress delivers it pretty badly, which in a way works for the performance--the character doesn't really know anything about seduction or adult sexuality, but is trying to put on a show anyway.
Mercifully, the film cuts away. Now it's time to hang out with Kelly Leonard, a health inspector who's at a port telling a dock official that she's going to condemn all the loose corn stored out in the open, because it's infested with rats and mice. Sounds legit. The port authority figure tries to tell her that the corn is earmarked for African famine relief and then threatens legal action when tugging on Ms. Leonard's heartstrings doesn't work. She says that it's animal feed, not grain fit for human consumption, and also says the corn is full of steroids (how they got there, I do not know and the movie does not explain). The last thing the harbor master tries is bribery; that goes over like a lead balloon. A health inspector played by Scatman Crothers puts a cat down so that it can wander off into a stack of pallets and get stalked and killed by a pack of giant rats played by dachsunds in rat costumes; this movie kinda breaks with the direct Jaws template by not leading off with a death. Also, just in case you missed it: Wiener dogs dressed as giant rats! WIENER DOGS DRESSED AS GIANT RATS!
The tainted grain is destroyed by flamethrowers (they don't fuck around in Canada) and Scatman Crothers is onscreen during the credit saying there's a special appearance by him in the movie. Then it's time for the narrative to resume. Sort of. There's a lingering tracking shot of dimly lit rooms in a suburban house and a brief glimpse of a big rat tail; then a grumpy middle-aged man complains to a "teenaged" next door neighbor that his stereo is too loud. It's a really tepid house party--one guy and two girls in the living room with some forgettable Canadian-content R&R on the gigantic hi-fi console. Also, a guy and a girl making out in a bedroom. Trudy's one of the girls at the party; she calls Mr. Harris' answering machine so she can hear his voice and leave a message that consists of kissing noises before hanging up. Gotta say, the mutilated girl in Eyes Without a Face had more class with her phone stalking.
Trudy makes a cash bet with her friend that she'll be able to seduce Mr. Harris (they don't set a time frame, and I didn't catch her friend's name); meanwhile, a crying baby in another room means the girl in the necking section gets up to go check on her baby sister Caroline. The poor kid turns out to be the first human casualty in the film when her big sister leaves the room; everyone else at the party is out on a burger run. I did not expect an infant to get eaten by rats in a Canadian-shot monster movie--it's so impolite. The poor kid's in her high chair when the rat colony takes her out; it's all over but the squeaking in seconds. That repeatedly referenced loud record player is why her sister doesn't hear the screams, by the way. Remember, kids: If you suspect you're in the first act of a horror movie, turn your stereo down. The older sister gets wiped out by a rat attack immediately after finding Caroline's shredded and blood-soaked baby clothes in the basement, so the human body count is now up to two.
The next morning, Kelly Leonard is being chewed out by her boss for being too mean to the job creator who wanted to sell rat-infested, steroid-contaminated animal feed. Apparently the mayor's breathing down his neck because businesses want to do business, and having their hideously unsafe grain destroyed isn't doing anyone any favors. Ms. Leonard doesn't want to do anything but her job, while her boss says she needs to learn enough politics that she'll go along to get along. Just before he leaves on a fishing vacation, Kelly's boss tells her that she can apologize to the mayor in person at the subway line dedication in a few days. I hope he gets eaten by catfish that ate the ratfish that ate the contaminated grain. There's your free 40-years-later sequel idea, filmmakers.
In a scene that was either supposed to take place the previous night or perhaps later, two high school students on the street are non-fatally accosted by a giant rat and escape. Then there's a basketball practice, notable only because Trudy's there also having cheerleader practice and Mr. Harris is also Coach Harris. One of the bitten teens comes in to show off his nasty hand wound, which disrupts things quite easily--some people haul the guy off for some socialized medicine and practice is cancelled. Trudy's dipshit boyfriend Matt figures out that she doesn't like him that much any more. After the argument / breakup, Trudy changes back into her street clothes and accosts Mr. Harris when he's coming out of the shower room to tell him she's falling in love with him. Since Harris isn't a complete asshole, he tries to let her down gently. She moves in for a kiss and he still says to call him in a decade or so.
The next morning, Harris is at the local hospital following up on the bite victim. The doctors can't really determine what bit him based on the impossible size of the rodent-shaped bite marks, so he's getting a rabies prophylaxis shot as a precaution. Kelly Leonard from the health department is already there, also trying to find out what bit the victim (whose name is revealed to be "David Hoserman"). That's going to lead to some great "How did you two meet, anyway?" answers in the future. Hoserman's got Kelly's number in case he thinks of anything relevant, but the scene ends before Harris can try to get it from his student.
Another night scene, another person getting stalked by a POV camera while the Rat Attack Theme plays; it's very close to the shower-scene violins in Psycho, of course, but at least this means the movie is ripping off more than one thing at a time. This time it's an older man who gets mobbed and falls down a flight of cement stairs, pursued by a small swarm of giant rats.
The next morning, George Foskins gets sent out to a sewer line to inspect it; there were numerous complaints from Torontonians living along it of "rodent damage". I have decided to interpret this as giant rats stealing their cars, spray-painting anti-cat slogans on all the mailboxes and stealing their newspapers in the morning before they can read them. And since he's the black guy in a horror movie, you can pretty well guarantee he's not going to be in the film a heck of a lot longer.
The next scene is the second meet-cute between Kelly Leonard and Paul Harris; Paul's out playing with his five-year-old son Tim in a park while Kelly runs by (literally). They get to talking about the young Harris lad and Paul says his son is in that "I'm going to be a railroad engineer" phase of his career development path. Harris says he gets his son on weekends, but shots of his Tim playing hide-and-seek are intercut with a sequence where Foskins is inspecting the sewer line. I'm just not sure how the timeline works out here. Possibly, neither did anyone making the film. The scene mostly exists to see if Tim is going to get eaten by rats as he explores a sewer pipe outlet during his hide & seek game (which won't happen this early in the film), and also so that Kelly has a reason to talk to Paul again--if she's got to go to that subway line dedication and make nice with the mayor, she'll undoubtedly feel better if she can get Paul and Tim Harris to come along also as well.
Foskins gets attacked by one rat, and mobbed when he turns to run. Unfortunately the lighting in the sewer tunnels is so low that there's only one or two shots where you can tell the giant deadly rats are really dachshunds in costumes. Also, for some reason, the animal attack noises are dubbed in bobcat noies and occasional pig squeals. Alas, poor Crothers. You lasted about as long in this movie as you did in Black Belt Jones. And since you were grumbling about wanting to wipe out all the rats, I think this means the movie killed off its Quint figure before establishing the threat or having the "those beaches stay open!" speech from the Mammon-worshipping authority figures.
Then there's filler scenes of Harris cooking a TV dinner, and since I had to watch this, you have to read about it. He gets interrupted by Kelly calling him up with some romantic-comedy fumbling dialogue and they decide to go out together, having dinner and a walk in the park, then going back to Kelly's place for drinks and hot Canadian loving in front of a fireplace. Nothing against either actor, but I was promised giant rats and I'd really rather be seeing them. The morning-after languor gets demolished when Kelly gets the call about Foskins' body being discovered in the sewers (on-site authority figure: "We won't have a positive ID until the autopsy, but it's definitely Foskins." Uh, okay...). We also find out that the enough of the body was eaten by rats that the coroner might not be able to determine an exact cause of death, which has implications far more gruesome than most movies are comfortable with.
After such a gruesome discovery, it's time for coffee! I hope nobody's sitting near Paul and Kelly's diner booth, because overhearing what happened to Foskins would be enough to put anyone off their eggs and toast. Kelly turns out to be the vermin expert in the Toronto health department, but says she's out of her depth on this one. Paul sets up a meeting with the rat expert from the opening lecture, who provides some exposition about the steroid-tainted feed and rat colony behavior. Rats are creatures of habit, according to the professor, and like to take the same route from their nests to their food supply. Since the location of the "runway" is known, it'll be a fairly easy matter to seal the relevant portions of the tunnel, pump in poison gas, and then hope that someone sparks a trend for mutant-rat-skin gloves among the cream of Ontario while the supply's been cornered. Every cloud has a silver lining, after all.
Hey, a suiting up montage! Intercut with an ambulance going somewhere! Also, shouldn't someone have found the baby and teenager's bodies by now? Anyway, a couple of Devo-suited health department employees are down in the sewer tunnel spraying evil-looking opaque smog clouds from a giant hosepipe. I'm sure that will take care of all the giant roid-monster rats and the rest of the film will just be about Paul and Kelly getting to know each other. Which will be facilitated because Kelly mentions that she's going to that subway line dedication and extends an invitation to Paul and his son, since Tim is a train buff and subway cars are almost like trains. Paul accepts for both of them (a slight faux pas; what if his six-year-old son had something else already planned for that day?).
Back at Ms. Leonard's office it's time for the official Stupid Chief to chew out his dedicated employee who's actually fighting the menace. Apparently fumigating the sewer to kill rats has got the business community all up in arms, and the mayor is irritated because it's bringing bad publicity to the subway line opening. I'm not certain at all that both things are connected, but it's time for that scene to happen so it's happening. At least part of Kelly's boss's anger is because he got called away from his fishing trip to come back and be angry at his insubordinate employee. I know I'd hate to get summoned back from B-Fest to fix problems with the microfilm at work, so I can see where he's coming from. The last thing the health department bigwig says is that the mayor wants to personally yell at Ms. Leonard after the dedication ceremony.
Meanwhile, back at the science museum, the rat expert professor is walking through the sub basement for a little light filing and indexing when he spots a giant hole in the metal mesh over a pipeline that contains damage from a commensurately giant rat. This scene ends before he can get eaten, which I was expecting. And right after that it's time for Harris to get ready for his big subway-dedication-ceremony date, but it turns out Trudy (remember Trudy?) is waiting in his bedroom, in her underwear, having socially engineered Paul's landlord into letting her in to his apartment. Paul's son gets a look at Trudy (so that it will cause zany complications with Kelly later), and Paul tries repeatedly to get his weird student to leave.
Paul, of course, winds up in a really great "this isn't what it looks like" shot with his recently re-clothed student while he's wearing only a towel. Kelly leaves with his son for the promised train ride and Paul winds up missing a phone call from his professor friend while trying to explain himself to Kelly from the outside walkway of his apartment building; she says she isn't mad, but doesn't have time to wait for him to get dressed so she'll be back with Tim after the subway dedication. (I think she's actually mad.)
All of that means that Paul misses the phone call from the rat expert professor, who wants to warn him about the infestation and says the rats have moved into the subway tunnels from the sewer (which sounds like an upgrade to me). In the world of giant mutated rats, it's widely held that snitches get stitches, and Paul's academician friend becomes the next casualty--and it's about time. I expected more rat attacks and less "Three's Company" style romantic embarrassment in my killer rat movie.
It is apparently the slowest news day imaginable, as the mayor of Toronto dedicates a shmancy new subway car to the applause of gathered press and assorted movers and shakers. He also notes that Kelly Leonard is there, and gives her a mild but noticeable hateface when she enters the first subway car to run on the new line (the big party will be in the station where Hizzonner arrives; lots of other people are there along with champagne and balloons. Those Torontonians really know how to party). At roughly the same time, Trudy and her friend are at a Bruce Lee film festival (okay, unironically, they know how to have a good time in Toronto) where Trudy pays up on their bet and winds up seeing her newly minted ex-boyfriend, who is willing to take her back after all.
But enough of that shit, Paul is driving mildly fast to get to the subway station so he can warn people about the giant rats. He's too late to stop the mayor's train from taking its inaugural route. And Skip, one of the teens from the earlier party (who apparently never noticed the two rat casualties when he came back from his snack run), misses out on the Bruce Lee festival when he goes to check the automatic pin-setting machines at his bowling alley job and becomes another rattack victim. Meanwhile, at the movie theater, Trudy learns that her reinstated boyfriend can't make out, chew gum and watch the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fight scene from Game of Death at the same time. Robert Clouse was trying to reference his glory days with this scene, since he was the director hired to piece together the existing footage from the film with shots of doubles and stand-ins so that there could be one more Bruce Lee movie after the icon's untimely death. That's glory, I guess. And I'm betting the Enter the Dragon footage was too expensive to lease.
One of the giant rats almost misses his cue, but chews through an electrical wire just in time to kill the power to the mayor's subway car. There are too many people around for the mayor to pitch a complete tirade at the hapless transit employee who explains that they'll be moving as soon as possible, but the mayor does say to get that car moving again (which the driver won't really have any control over). The movie theater gets swarmed by rats--giving the audience the first really good look at the wiener dog costumes, which is quite a treat--and in a rare display of un-Canadian bad form, everyone panics and charges out of the theater instead of exiting quietly. Also, some lucky fool wound up being the stagehand who had to gently toss Dachshunds in rat costumes at the fatalities in this scene, and that's a great thing to put on your resume. Trudy gets trampled in the exodus; her boyfriend gets bitten to death and her fifth-wheel friend who won the bet apparently dies getting shoved through a window during the panic. The budget-conscious method of showing ambulances and cop cars speeding through the Canadian night while dispatch voiceovers describe what's going on at the bowling alley and a couple other locations let the audience know that there's a series of dire rat attacks.
And, worst of all, the booze is starting to run out at the reception for the mayor's train. The driver tells everyone that they're going to have to walk to an exit; as one can expect, the mayor isn't having any of that (most likely with visions of newspaper headlines castigating him for wasting taxpayer money on a non-functional subway line extension dancing in his head). The VIPs on the train car exit into the tunnel just as Paul gets to the reception and waylaid by a security guard. In lieu of explaining what's going on, Paul punches the guy out and steals his gun, then charges into the tunnel (after shooting the giant rat that was going to attack the guard, which at least lets the security guy know that he's not a dangerous lunatic).
Paul and Kelly tell everyone to get back to the train since it's not safe in the tunnel; second later there's a rat swarm and the dim lighting in the tunnel means that the goofy-ass wiener dog costumes don't show up all that well. Paul, Kelly and Tim make it to a side tunnel, while the mayor escapes to the train, who shuts the door in one of his constituents' faces to save his own useless ass. Unfortunately, Paul and company escaped from the frying pan into the fire; the side tunnel they ran down terminates in the Skaven nest. Paul runs out of bullets and starts laying into the rats with a convenient shovel. Kelly pitches in as well and the trio of survivors make a last stand while Paul repurposes a propane tank into a flamethrower to hold the rats back while the important characters escape. One fifty-five gallon drum of gasoline turned into an IED later, the rats are taken out of the picture and the three protagonists get to the subway train to wait for service to be restored.
Paul gets the train moving (I guess the power went back on when the rats blew up?) and the brand new subway train gets to the station so that the assembled partygoes can see a couple dozen giant rats feasting on the mayor's corpse. Freeze frame on a bloody rat face, and roll credits.
I'm not going to go back and count how many times I used "obligatory" in this review, but I'm willing to bet it's a lot. That's because so much of the film is just treading a well-worn path blazed by movies like Alligator, Barracuda, The Car, Crocodile, Grizzly, Orca, Piranha, The Swarm, Tentacles, Tintorera: Killer Shark, Up From the Depths, The White Buffalo and scads of other coattail-riding productions using the same template as their inspiration. There are a couple innovations here--I don't know of any other entries in this genre where the Brody and Hooper characters fall in love, and the steroids in the grain recall a Fifties creature-feature that has to explain the monster rather than just making the monster's existence a foregone conclusion--but overall that really isn't enough to recommend this one as anything but a passable time-waster. On a home system the wiener dog giant rats just look sorta goofy, but in the theater I imagine they looked absoludicrous. But what are the chances of there ever being a Robert Clouse retrospective anywhere?
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