A cursory glance of the search term ‘rats’ under any news collation service will show you that most people’s adulation for animals doesn’t stretch as far as the dark eyed, pink eared, gutter crawling rodent category. News items about these critters chewing on cables, human ears and landmines alike can be found amidst shock stories about oversized, poison-resistant mutant variations and mass scale extermination operations - but rarely will anything positive be reported. Rats have always had a bad rap, finding themselves considered, in turn: invasive species, plague carrier, exterminator’s nightmare, research subject and meal option. Indeed, even their name has various negative connotations. In the popular consciousness, the rat breaks picket lines, sells out his friends, squeals to police, and folds on promises. He lives in bins, gutters and sewers, eats trash and falls for traps. No creature, great or small, is lower down the chain. No other species has been the subject of such abuse.
In cinema, the humble rat hasn’t fared much better, cropping up as vilified protagonist in distinct cycles through recent film history. Willard (1971), based on the novel ‘Ratman’s Notebooks’, features a lonely misfit with an affinity for the four legged friends who trains his pets to kill. In the Michael Jackson soundtracked sequel Ben (1972), another boy befriends the feral colony, facing off violently against human society in a battle for the sewers. Similarly, The Food of the Gods (1973), based on a H.G. Wells novel and once awarded the dubious honour of ‘Worst Rodent Movie of All Time’, surrounds an island overtaken by hungry, oversized rodents, its human residents struggling to regain primacy. Deadly Eyes (1982) features a giant rat army taking over the city; Of Unknown Origin (1983) contains a rat versus man battle inside the home; and post-apocalyptic feature Rats: Night of Terror (1984) sees a society of survivors battling a throng of vicious mutant rodents. Rat-Man (1988) unsurprisingly, features a foe that is half critter, half human, and Stephen King adaptation Graveyard Shift (1990) has an oversized rat-bat hybrid as its star. Most peculiar of all, in Burial of the Rats (1995) a young Bram Stoker finds himself up against a troupe of bikini clad lesbians who command killer rats to avenge the men who have wronged them.
Out of favour for while, rat revival features Altered Species (2001), The Rats (2002) and Killer Rats (2003) all feature a population of genetically or chemically altered ravenous rats born out of failed scientific experiments. Parallel to this, Willard (2003) reinterpreted the source text of the original film, and Rat Scratch Fever (2011) takes the 70/80s B-Movies feral rodent format and blends it with Sci-Fi, featuring genuine killer rats from outer space. Yet, every rat must have its day, and in more recent years rats have had warmer welcomes on screen. Rat (2000) sees Pete Postlethwaite transform into one, experiencing first hand the persecution that these “vermin” receive. Aardman’s Flushed Away (2006) has stars such as Hugh Jackman, Bill Nighy and Ian McKellen stoop low to play rat characters; and Pixar’s rival rat flick Ratatouille (2008) may be the most positive representation of the creature of all time, with a lead rodent with a rare gift who, despite raised noses, cooks dishes not to be sniffed at and rises to become one of the city’s leading chefs.
Then, all quiet on the rodent front for a while. Until in 2016 two more rat pictures appeared, not horror films by most estimations but certainly films that provoked a reaction. The first, Morgan Spurlocks’ Rats (2016), a skin crawling, exploitative exposé about rat infestations in major cities around the world disappeared almost as soon as it appeared. The second, Theo Anthony’s Rat Film (2016)- an informative, impressive feature that uses Baltimore's rodent problem as a leaping-off point for an investigation into wider related issues in the city and beyond - has lingered longer, for good reason. In the film, the rat population, estimated to be as large in number as the human residents, is used by journalist/photographer Anthony to examine the root historic and contemporary causes of a wide array of social problems in the city. Switching styles and techniques wilfully, Anthony jumps between explorations of Baltimore's social housing policies; a 1950s experiment that used rats to explore the psychological impact of overcrowded living spaces; 3D-generated explorations of a speculative "New Baltimore"; and sequences that feature the city's rat hunters—both licensed and vigilante—taking viewers on the tour of the city and its gutters. These disparate approaches create an ambitious, associative map of the city that ultimately ties rat extermination with racial and social exclusion. Utilising a distinctive, multidisciplinary approach, Anthony makes a compelling, intelligent and frequently mordantly humorous case that the city's governance problem is not a rodent one as much as a human one. After a long and malignant history of vilification of the rat on screen, it’s nice to see some perspective.
This article originally appeared in Deptford Cinema's October 2017 Zine.