*/**** Image C Sound C Extras C+
starring Vincent Spano, Mädchen Amick, Shawn Michael Howard, Daveigh Chase
screenplay by Frank Deasy
directed by John J. Lafia
by Walter Chaw In a peculiar case of "how much do I cop to," I admit that I felt a surge of excitement upon first beholding the cover for the DVD release of The Rats, largely because it resembles a great deal the artwork for an edition of English horror author James Herbert's Rats from many moons ago. After searching the credits diligently (and futilely) for any mention of the hale Brit's stamp of approval, it was with considerably less excitement that I beheld proper the latest from poor Vincent Spano and Mädchen "Didn't you used to be on 'Twin Peaks'?" Amick. The Rats is fairly typical monster-/Seventies disaster-movie fare, also following in the faded footsteps of Willard and Ray Milland's perverse cult classic Frogs. The main difference being that in our post-modern amusement park (Entropy! Get your tickets now!), the picture isn't so much about even something so banal as eco-paranoia, but about itself and the genre that it simultaneously lampoons and aspires to.
Far be it for me to wonder why we see a comely young lass topless in the first five minutes of this film, The Rats follows the strictest progression of this kind of schlock: naked girl gets bitten, dirty loner gets eaten (to be discovered later in an unsuccessful moment of pathos), little kids get threatened, and the expert hero (Spano) and wilting femme (Amick) join forces to fight the scourge. Always good for seasoning is the doomed black sidekick, the evil establishment that obfuscates the problem until it's just too late, and the impossibly dim-witted little girl constantly imperilled. It's an endlessly self-replicating plot cycle as fertile as a rat pack, as it were: just replace rats with snakes--ants, spiders, fish, flows of magma, Japanese people--and you've got yourself direct-to-video magic.
Opening with a title card informing that rats killed off half the population of Europe in the Middle Ages (slightly misleading, since the fleas on the rats did most of the dirty work), the film goes on to supply helpful little tidbits like, "There are nine rats for every one New Yorker." All this passes for filler for what we know will be a climax involving running, probably explosions, possibly inappropriately-timed sex, all of it followed fast by a "sting" ending where one lone evil rat throws the hairy eyeball at the already-complacent, no-longer-interested audience. The Rats is celluloid narcosis: a sleepwalk through genre conventions so familiar and, in their way, depressing that watching it is more an act of pity than pleasure.
The two highlights come in director John Lafia's strange dedication to sad shots of rats getting killed by flailing victims, and a ludicrous swimming pool scene that doesn't even give us the satisfaction of seeing how a thousand rats might consume a water-winged youngster. The film is without imagination and courage cheerfully so, telegraphing its jump scares with violin flutters and betting the house that anyone who rents this film isn't familiar with James Herbert, or for that matter Michael Jackson, whose love theme to a rat for Willard's sequel Ben is several degrees creepier than anything The Rats musters.
Released by Fox in a DVD transfer that can only be described as low-rent and murky (excuses for this are perhaps provided by The Rats' origin as a telefilm), shadow detail within the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is incredibly soft and undefined. Watch this with the lights off, or better yet, don't watch much of it at all. Equally mediocre is a Dolby 5.0 audio mix that squanders several opportunities for rustling atmospheric madness while giving over most of its fidelity to a recreation of the stock score; it's the kind of spooky music bullstuff one can probably find at the local Paper Warehouse round about this time of year. Dialogue, for what it's worth, is clear.
Special features specific to The Rats begin and end with the full-frame Animal Planet program "Wild on the Set," which profiles animal trainer Brian Gibbs's sort of adorable enthusiasm for the project. Interesting in the care taken not to actually damaging the little beasties and the similarity between how the rats and the actors are herded from mark to mark, I would have appreciated hearing animal wrangler and avowed rat lover Gibbs's feelings on putting a film out there that demonizes his favourite vermin. Still and all, it's a cheerful bit of nothing that is at least no more disinteresting than the film itself. Full frame trailers for Ice-T's Ablaze, From Hell Director's Edition DVD, The Fury, The Omen, and Phantom of the Paradise round out the disc. Originally published: October 24, 2002.