I have mixed feelings about rats. On the one hand, it’s a smart animal that makes for pretty a cool pet (better than mice or hamsters, in my opinion). On the other, they’re an animal who is pretty infamous for spreading disease (The Black Plague, anyone?), can be quite destructive, and damned near impossible to eradicate completely. And because of that infamy, they’re also ripe for the horror genre (as shown by films like Willard and Deadly Eyes). Fresh from its premiere at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Morgan Spurlock’s latest documentary, Rats, looks to get your skin crawling from the outset with its discussion about these voracious yet persistent vermin. And it doesn’t take long.
Inspired by the book by Robert Sullivan, documentarian Morgan Spurlock dives into the topic of the animal that has invaded our cities and lives with us (whether we know it or not). Travelling to specific places around the world where people are affected by rats, Spurlock explores how rats have infiltrated our lives, the problems they present, and how humans combat/learn from them.
At the start of the documentary, we meet Ed Sheehan, a cigar-chomping resident of Brooklyn who worked as an exterminator for 48 years. Ed pops up in between segments to enlighten viewers with his stories of dealing with rats (including a rather insidious experiment that began with four of the furry pests). At first it was amusing to hear this guy talk in his Brooklyn accent, but then once the talk starts the detailing of rat behaviours, you lose that smile. Beginning in New York, Spurlock’s crew follows a group of exterminators who learn about and scout out areas where rats find food and nests. It’s scary to think that these rat nests are quite common in the city, yet people don’t realize that the rats are there. Punctuating the segment is a nighttime stroll that culminates in a pile of garbage bags, that when jostled, out pop the rats that scurry back into the sewers. Lots of them.
In case you were wondering, it gets worse. In addition to city officials running down the diseases that rats carry (spliced with quick cuts of images of people afflicted by said diseases), Spurlock’s crew travel to New Orleans, where the post-Hurricane Katrina city grapples with the diseases being spread by the rats. A group of Tulane researchers dissect rat specimens captured around the city, pulling out various parasites from the rats (including a botfly larva), and explaining how these parasites can affect humans. This is all accentuated by Pierre Takal’s score, which expertly pervades the entire documentary, creating great unease throughout the film. There are also some stinger notes that hit at the moments of shock, which completes the effect of revulsion. Spurlock also sees fit to travel to places like Mumbai, India and Cheltenham, England, where exterminators go about the ways to combat and kill the rats in that country’s specific way. Spurlock even goes to Cambodia, where people will round up the rats for a local seller, who takes them to the border of Vietnam. There, the rats are sold for a local delicacy. According to the one woman who prepares the rats, the meat “tastes like chicken, but sweeter”.
As an educational documentary, the film does well to inform. Some of the stuff that’s relayed to the audience, such as how rats are evolving to become resistant to the poisons we throw at them and are getting larger, is pretty scary. The footage showing the DNA mutations of the poison-resistant rats is a frightening revelation. However, given that this documentary is meant to be more accessible to less-scientific types, there’s an obvious air of playing things up for the audience. The Sheehan character is there to drop basic wisdom, but nothing scientific. There are obvious gasps, groans and yelps from the New York exterminators (as if they’ve never seen rats before), and the Tulane students act in disgust at what they’re pulling out of their specimens. Comments throughout the documentary portray and play up rats as an unstoppable boogeyman and merciless killer that deserves to be eradicated, but barely acknowledges the rat’s necessity to the food chain and nature. As much as I love scientific documentaries, it’s not on the level of, say, the Desmond Morris BBC documentaries. But on the other hand, Rats is definitely not as dry. Case in point: the gore. Apart from the dissections, we’re treated to the rats in India having their necks snapped (with the audible cracking), rats being drowned and prepared for food, skinned and stuffed for research, and (the most violent of them) being hunted in England. Terriers weren’t bred to be ratters for nothing. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. For those who are far more sensitive, the documentary ends in Rajasthan, where there’s a 600-year-old Karni Mata Hindu temple that’s home to 35,000 rats. On purpose. Followers flock to the temple, where they eat and drink with the rats. One man even drinks from the same milk bowl as a group of rats. If you can’t beat ’em, as they say.
Creepy, disgusting, and informative. That about sums up Rats. Spurlock has crafted a documentary that is certainly entertaining. Wonderfully shot, with a score that emphasizes the unnerving scenes, this is one film that is perfect for Halloween. And while there are scenes that will upset some people, and the fact that it’s more “commercialized” to appeal to a broader audience, Rats is still a fascinating look at there pests, who we obviously underestimate. Definitely recommended, just don’t eat anything while watching it.
Rats premieres on The Discovery Channel October 22nd.